A Points South essay from the North Carolina Music Issue.
Even with all the influences on his style and songs—Fred Miller, Blind Boy Fuller, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee, to name some—Henry had a large collection of originals, could improvise effortlessly (and endlessly) with his talking blues, and never seemed to tire of stories connecting the dots of his life as a fisherman, preacher, musician, and observer of the world. He could glide easily from a voice of defiance to a lonesome wail of abandonment and isolation, fusing the occupational calls of menhaden singers with the eternal sacred pleas for help and ease of pain.
The story Bassekou Kouyaté wants to tell is simply this: it was cotton that brought the blues from Mali to America, and it was the ngoni—the West African lute that is a predecessor to the banjo—that brought the songs. Kouyaté would like to make a film about this story—one told, for a change, from an African perspective.
“Segu Blue,” the title track from Ngoni Ba’s debut album, is Kouyaté’s interpretation of an ancient and distinctly bluesy Bamana song, “Poyi,” and it offers a clear example of how easily he is able to interweave his inherited tradition with borrowings from American blues.
I don’t know when I first heard the music in my head. I don’t remember not hearing it. Sometimes in the morning it would be the first thing I heard, shutting out the sounds of reality—the traffic outside the window and the people moving around. My mother would sit at the upright piano, playing and singing song after song off old pieces of sheet music from her past. I searched these songs for meaning. Like the cowboy songs of Gene Autry and Red River Dave, each song told a story of a remote place and time.
This song is a new model—built on a standard frame, maybe, but showing an understanding of how the blues legacy both enables the expression of chaotic emotions and streamlines them, tuning them up for maximum performance within a structure that demands precision as much as openness.
When CeDell Davis was a boy, his mother told him he would go to hell if he kept on playing the guitar and messing around with the devil’s music. Davis was born in the Delta town of Helena in 1926, and there was no shortage of devilment. A bustling cotton port on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River, Helena was like a Chicago or Memphis in miniature, home to scores of white saloons and black juke joints where bootleggers, gamblers, and hustlers gathered. It was violent and wild and music was everywhere, from the clubs downtown to the street corners by the docks. “Back then, Helena was wide open,” Davis told me. “If you had the money, you could get whatever you want.”
When Prince sang “Soft and Wet” from a 45 on my record player, the lyrics were hidden beneath the funky beat. My grandparents never knew what I was listening to. Prince and his doe eyes and big Afro and glistening lean body stared back at me from the pages of Right On! magazine. We lived far out into the woods, on a gravel road. My grandparents were farmers. Books and magazines and television told me that normal black girls did not live like this. But I did. Prince was the sex I knew nothing about. Prince sealed my fantasies about a larger world.