Chuck Stewart’s photography provided by Fireball Entertainment Group, courtesy of Chuck Stewart Photographs of John Coltrane, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
I was halfway through college in South Florida when somebody burned me a copy of Luck of the Draw, Bonnie Raitt's album released in 1991, by then a decade old. Trying not to disturb my roommates, I lay in bed listening through headphones, taken with how appealing this artist made adulthood sound like she was sure on her feet, felt comfortable in her skin, and actually found it freeing, even fun, to act her age.
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.
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.
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.
A feature from our 18th Southern Music Issue: Visions of the Blues.
The place I was raised in and where occurred the events that most shaped and damaged me as a human being was called Silver Hills. It’s a “knob,” as they deem the low hills in that part of the country. This one had used to be Cane or Caney Knob, so named because when the whites arrived it was covered in tall river cane. The cane is gone but the knob remains, and the people rechristened it Silver Hills, claiming as always that this had been the Indian name.
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.