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.
Hebrews 12:1 reads: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” Coleman's project A Cloud of Witness, asks how much pain has this land born witness to? What scars—and what joys—do these buildings still hold?
In spite of his genius and success, Ed Townsend hit a roadblock in the late sixties, when his studio in Englewood, New Jersey, went up in flames. He had just offered it as a refuge for the Isley Brothers to record “It’s Your Thing” in violation of their contract with Motown. Nearly forty years old, he was watching his life’s work burn when a man named Earl Lucas appeared.
Kevin Curtis lowers his sunglasses and scans the crowd. He’s just finished performing “Folsom Prison Blues” at the Lamar Lounge in Oxford, Mississippi. The audience applauds, but the mood is strange—genuine enthusiasm, curiosity, an undercurrent of discomfort. During one of the choruses, he swayed with a very supportive, very drunk woman from the front row. For the solo, he strummed a tiny guitar pin stuck on his dress coat lapel. I lift my beer toward him from the second row. He notices, raises an eyebrow, nods. “This is the first show since my”—he pauses, presses the sunglasses back up to his eyes—“incarceration.”
A memorial from the Summer 2012 issue.
At the house party of Southern fiction, full of death-dealers, drinkers, and unshaven folks behaving badly, Lewis Nordan stands alone in the yard, like a boy in a bright-blue suit his mother picked out for him.