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.
I’ve spent a lot of time recently listening to Bob Dylan’s second album. Not Freewheelin’, the LP with him and Suze Rotolo on the cover and “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the grooves. That’s the one we know, because a couple of songs off it were picked up by the Chad Mitchell Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary—and then by everyone from Bobby Darin to Marlene Dietrich—and Dylan was hailed as a poet and the voice of a generation. But before that happened, he’d spent a year working on a follow-up to his first LP that displayed very different skills and inclinations.
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.
Daddy’s truck was one of those places—like a grandmother’s house, a real and actual soul food restaurant, or a barbershop owned by an older black man who guards the radio by silent threat of the revolver in his drawer next to the good clippers—where one could reliably expect to hear either (and only) 1070 WDIA or 1340 WLOK. It was the other side of sound, the other side of Southern blackness, a steady if muffled undercurrent that persisted and quietly buoyed new generations.
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.
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.
With eight kids to feed, and making everything from scratch, Mamie McCrary didn’t have time to negotiate supper. So to anything her picky eaters might refuse—pinto beans, black-eyed peas, lima beans—she added a spoonful or two of sugar. Almost fifty years later, whenever her four daughters sit down to eat, sugar bowls come out, adding some sweetness to lives that have seen more than enough hard times.
The sisters—Ann, Regina, Alfreda, and Deborah—continue an even sweeter McCrary tradition, blending their voices in the sanctified harmony that’s their birthright as daughters of Rev. Sam McCrary, one of the key members of Nashville gospel greats the Fairfield Four.
On the afternoon of April 9, 1987, a man stood outside the United States penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. He had been convicted of one count of willful failure to file an income tax return and sentenced to a year in prison. His orders from the court were to surrender himself to the institution before April 10. While an accomplice rolled videotape, the man outside the prison, who was both a literalist and something of a showman, held up the day’s newspaper and announced: “I surrender to the institution!”