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.
Ma Rene, my great-grandmother on Mama’s side, was a no-nonsense blueswoman. Wide-hipped, bowlegged, and solidly built, she stood barely five feet tall and had a wicked tongue. Her barbecue ribs—and the secret sauce she slow-simmered to go with them—made you want to hurt somebody.
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.
“No one can tell you why Memphis is as magical as it really is,” said artist and washboard player Jimmy Crosthwait when I interviewed him for The Blues Society, my documentary film-in-progress about the Memphis Country Blues Festivals of the late 1960s. He wasn’t talking only about the magic of a beautiful sunset, a joint, and the sound of the blues, all of which were in profound profusion at the festivals. He was remembering something more elemental, what one of the organizers, the irrepressible Randall Lyon, called the eroico furore, or poetic fury: “It was beautiful to be involved with people who had this heroic enthusiasm for what they were doing.” The Memphis Country Blues Festivals, held yearly from 1966 to 1969, changed the way Memphians—and Americans—think about the blues, and they couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
Because the house on Durwood Road did not have air-conditioning and because three seasons in Little Rock seem to be mostly summer, Bob Palmer was practicing with his bedroom window open. He sucked on the reed of his Army Band Selmer saxophone and wondered if he might someday sound like Stan Getz on the albums his dad played. No, he’d never sound like Getz, but he didn’t have to. He just had to sound like what he sounded like, and he was still figuring out what that was. He had time. He was only in junior high. His little sister, Dorothy, said he sometimes sounded “like an elephant with its trunk caught in the door. Scree! Scree!” He didn’t mind the comment. It didn’t necessarily sound good, but what did “good” mean? It was sound. And sound was interesting.
Willie Mae Thornton was one of the crucial donors in the transfusion of black Southern blues into two separate veins of white rock & roll in America. Born in southern Alabama in 1926, she was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame the same year she died, in 1984. Although she could not read music, she was a respected colleague of Robert “Junior” Parker, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Clifton Chenier, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, B. B. King, Gatemouth Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, James Cotton—everybody who was anybluesbody. But Big Mama’s name comes up today mostly in discussions of two songs that tethered her to white rock & roll history.
To Adia Victoria, Donald Trump is just the latest thing in the history of American oppression.
“The blues to me is personal music. The blues to me is political. And what’s happening politically right now requires artists to get up, pay attention, report about what’s going on.”
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.”