Notes on the songs from our 18th Southern Music Issue CD: Visions of the Blues.
As we conceived of this issue, we sought a model for our task. (Metaphor, after all, is a hallmark of great blues.) The natural impulse behind this work, music writing—blues music writing, no less—points to the image of the lantern: illuminator, bringing light to darkened places. But a more appropriate one here is the prism: refractor, dispersing pure light to reveal the color spectrum.
Gospel belongs to God and the blues is the Devil’s business, and here the blues takes the form of Son Thomas, whose spare bottleneck slide strips the tradition down to its roots. Son’s been sculpting figures and heads and skulls from clay gathered in the nearby hills for just about as long as he’s been playing the blues, which is to say: all his life.
I was halfway through college in South Florida when somebody burned me a copy of Luck of the Draw, Bonnie Raitt's album released in 1991, by then a decade old. Trying not to disturb my roommates, I lay in bed listening through headphones, taken with how appealing this artist made adulthood sound like she was sure on her feet, felt comfortable in her skin, and actually found it freeing, even fun, to act her age.
Travels with Robert Palmer: photographs from the Delta.
What became clear as we began our journey together, searching for the roots of the blues, was that the music is part of the Delta landscape and the people we encountered were carrying on an important tradition that spanned many decades. My goal was to visually depict their lives and their love of the musical tradition in which they lived.
A Points South essay from the North Carolina Music Issue.
Growing up, Taj encountered a music that sounded like it was “disappearing.” “It was black music, but it was also country music. It turned out to be this fingerpicking that gave me a feeling of being connected to an older style of music that I assumed was African, though I didn’t know.” I said that might be the truest definition of the Piedmont blues I’d ever heard. “It was that little . . . somethin’-somethin’,” Taj said. “I didn’t have no ‘ethnomusicological’ term for it. My name for it was stumblepicking.” Stumblepicking? “Meaning,” he said, “you’re kinda stumbling over the notes to make them. That chord of Etta Baker’s on ‘Railroad Bill,’ it was like an E7 going into an F but it doesn’t stay there. It moves. It jars you. I found something close to it by accident once, and I could probably spend my whole life trying to find it again.”
After breakfast on Saturday, my mama would turn on the WDIA program All Blues Saturday and the blues would growl out of the cream-and-gold GE radio on the kitchen counter, eclipsing my cartoons. Sometimes, she would call to my daddy that one of his songs was on and they would share a low, private chuckle about old times. Grown-up times. Mississippi times.
The most familiar Mississippi blues story starts in the Delta, where African-rooted field hollers evolved into haunted guitar masterpieces that traveled to Chicago and became the electric core of rock & roll. But there are lots of other stories, and this one is blue in another way. It is about the songs of the lowdown characters who ruled the lumber and levee camps, the honky-tonks and jukes, from the Gulf Coast to Memphis. And about the dozens, which has carried their tradition into the twenty-first century.
One of my tasks as curator of the Alan Lomax Archive is to manage its YouTube channel. Several years ago, I noticed a particular strain of commentary recurring on the five clips that compose the recorded output of an utterly obscure and equally affecting singer-guitarist named Belton Sutherland, whom Lomax met in rural Madison County, Mississippi, in 1978.