A Points South essay from our 18th Southern Music Issue: Visions of the Blues.
The spirit of Southern outsider music has taken partial possession of many artists through the years—Charlie Feathers comes to mind, as do Link Wray, Hasil Adkins, and the train-obsessed 1920s banjo player Willard Hodgins. But as a fully realized manifestation—eccentricity expressed as bizarre and beautiful words and sounds—that spirit was at least thrice incarnate in the twentieth century: in the persons of Tennessee ballad singer Hamper McBee, Georgia banjo player Abner Jay, and Guitar Shorty of Elm City, North Carolina.
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.
No person living today knows exactly what an 1850s minstrel banjo sounded like; the music that was made on such instruments predates the invention of recorded sound. But we know that the banjo was brought to America by Africans, and that white players, including Thomas F. Briggs—author of the first banjo instruction book, an invaluable resource for historians and musicians—learned from black banjoists. When Giddens composes for or performs on her banjo, she channels both the history and the mystery of early American banjo music: what has been passed down as well as what has been lost.
Think of these women, coming out of the South and up to Milwaukee, arriving finally in tiny, all-white Grafton by either streetcar or automobile and feeling their way in a studio for the first time. As they fought the forces of shell-shocked alienation, disorientation, and possibly stage fright, the musical conversations between these two gifted artists created other worlds for them to fleetingly inhabit. Their duet yielded a recorded history of blueswomen’s subversive interstitial lives forged outside of both the jail cell and the sphere of domestic abuse, conditions which hovered close to each of them.
Around two thousand years ago a woman died in Greek-speaking Asia Minor, near the ancient city of Aydin, in what is now Turkey. Her name was Euterpe, after the muse of music. Her husband or son, Seikilos—his relationship to Euterpe depends on how you read a gap in the dedication line—commissioned a stele, a stone memorial, which bore the following words, etched in Greek: “I am a tombstone, an image. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance.”
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.
A story from our 18th Southern Music Issue: Visions of the Blues.
All day long the song has kept him thinking, a few clumsy lines scribbled on hotel stationery like black rivers rushing across the page. What imposters his words are. Music pays him to be. Music plays him to be. He sets the pen down on the table and tears off another chunk of hash. Having spent the better part of the day doing just this. See, the beautiful dried hashish in his hand. He puts it in the tall dazzling bong and lights it. Those sharing the table with him inside the café take turns, lips pressed against the long tilted rim of the pipe, then an intake of smoke, causing the bowl to start gurgling. Lazy smoke hovering about the room like gray birds. Four of them sitting at a round table with a mosaic top and heavy iron legs. His skull is filled with feathers, little sleep last night, but he swears that when he finishes this song, this moment will be in it. All of Tangier.
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.