The amount of blood pooled up on the Deep Ellum street that evening in March 1931 shocked even those city folk who labored with pig stickers and hooks at the Dallas stockyards. A drunk man bleeds faster, more voluminously, than a sober one, and the heat radiating from the earth that Saturday would have hurried along the lifeblood—an unfortunate confluence of factors.
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.
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.
Right after my ninth birthday, Daddy had a tantrum that made him punch a hole in the wall, his right hand break, and his secretary walk out. That made him punch the wall with his left hand and break that one too, and that was how I ended up Daddy's secretary summer before fourth grade. We worked from home, in an office that Little Steve the Child Molester built in exchange for services rendered. The office window looked out into dry yellow field, and on the far side of the field was our cow pond and Daddy's burn pile.
The year before Paul MacLeod, the owner of Graceland Too, died of natural causes on his porch just two days after he shot and killed a local house painter, I drove my partner, Mesha, down South so that she could experience Paul’s museum firsthand.
Tara’s confession to Charlie Rich, a major country star that year, was among forty-two others I discovered in the home of a woman who produced Rich in the 1960s. Unread for nearly forty years, mixed in with yellowing newspaper clips and old drink coasters from a Las Vegas revue, they were the last known remnants of the Charlie Rich Fan Club. Variously handwritten, typed up, set on stationery and notebook paper, the stash contained the intimate pleas and declarations of fans who sought communion with the star known as “The Silver Fox.”
“I should have put a stop to that craftsman shit a long time ago,” Guy Clark says. “It makes my skin crawl. It’s nobody’s fault but mine because I didn’t step up and say, ‘No, that’s not right.’ I consider what I do poetry. I don’t need to prove I’m a poet in every line and I’m not afraid to speak plainly in my songs. Not everything needs to be a metaphor and I don’t need lofty words. But it is my obligation as a poet to be faithful to the verse. I write what I know. I write what I see.”