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.”
We were in the garden of refugees, Eh Kaw explained: what was his, as well as Semoeneh’s, was also mine. Their Baptist faith compelled them to share whatever bounty God bestowed. Eh Kaw felt blessed that he and dozens of family members and countrymen were planting yards in rural Georgia. Nothing in his past had predicted such fortune.
Ethnomusicologists have continued to do necessary and significant research, both in the field and beyond, but it’s difficult to muster up a modern analogue for Lomax. No other single figure is as invested in the American musical canon, or as influential. In part that’s the result of a global shift towards self-mythologizing: we all maniacally catalogue and broadcast our lives now, ensuring our legacies to both transcendent and humiliating ends. Who needs Lomax when we have YouTube?
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.
Algia Mae Hinton, the great blues guitarist and banjo picker, lives in Johnston County, North Carolina. It’s a short drive from Raleigh and Durham but feels rather far from those cities, with their food trucks and breweries and warehouses refitted as condos—the latest iteration of the New South, one might say, except one finds the same pattern in Brooklyn or the Bay Area. In Johnston County you drift back to an earlier era.
Thick with sludgy green water and mud, the pond was a rundown neighbor to the white bungalow next door. But Pastor Jerel Keene, whose Louisiana Church congregation uses the bungalow as an office, envisioned a mission for the land the pond occupied, so he hired someone to dump red clay into the water and waited four years for it to settle like cement. He planted grass to reclaim the earth it became.
A profile of Charlie Sexton, from the 2014 Texas Music Issue.
The circus had left town. Rolling toward the end of the Seventies, all the high-dollar distressed denim, heavy turquoise bracelets, soft and scuffed Lucchese boots, and even the brain-blowing snow-white cocaine weren’t quite as ominous in Austin’s nightclubs. It was starting to feel a little more like home again, back before the so-called redneck rock invasion. When the cosmic cowboys first started raiding the city, hijacking all the musical attention in our little Austin oasis, it was the mid-Seventies and the Lone Star state was slightly sedate. But that’s how we liked it, actually, because it let the city’s hippies and beatniks create their own fantasies and live on inexpensive fumes. Before the onslaught, the dozen or so honkytonks and nightclubs took care of their own. There were no record business people to promise what rarely got delivered, and the long days and nights spread before central Texas like the promise of a pot hit and a hot kiss.