By DANIEL COYLE.
THE COLOR OF distance and desire, loss and longing, heartbreak and heartache. Photographers call twilight the blue hour, a time for moody shots and long exposures when blue light from an unseen source sates the air, washes over everything softly enough to pull you in, cool enough to push you away, like the one who seemed to pursue you years ago, only to refuse you.
It is the only color word for both a mood, a band and a music—those moody blues.
Like so much of American popular culture, the blues came out of African-American experiences, specifically the hardships of Black tenant farmers and day laborers in the Jim Crow South. As the music took root in Black communities, regional differences developed. In Texas lumber camps and barrelhouses, boogie-woogie prevailed, a hard driving dance rhythm on piano. In the Piedmont, it was melodic finger-picking on guitar; in the Mississippi Delta, an eerie blending of guitar and voice, the result of sliding a bottleneck or blade along the strings.
To give a tune emotional resonance, blues musicians of all types departed at key moments from the twelve-tone Western scale to bend or stretch a “blue note,” a semi-tone between one of the twelve. The bending is what makes blues music blue.
Syncopated rhythm, virtuoso playing, and vocal playfulness (melisma, hollers, grunts, moans) work together to counter the heartache expressed in the lyrics of a blues song. People don’t listen to the blues to wallow in misery, but to find the way out. That was true a century ago at the Saturday night frolics in the quarters and true today at the hundreds of blues festivals held around the country each year. The method meliorates the message. However briefly, the blues guitar changes things as they are.
NO MATTER HOW deeply they dig, musicologists cannot find the taproot of America’s roots music. They cannot say with any certainty how the music began and evolved. They hear its effects on jazz, gospel, traditional country, and rock, but do not know how the blues came about. No recordings made before 1920 have survived.
Did it begin in 1903 in a Tutwiler, Mississippi train station, when W.C. Handy heard a “lean, loose-jointed Negro” singing a mournful song expressing the “sadness of the ages” while sliding a blade up and down the neck of his guitar, the voice and instrument combining to make the “weirdest music” the popular bandleader ever heard?
Or was it in the 1890s when guitars began to replace fiddles and banjos at Saturday night gatherings in the quarters?
Did it evolve from the call and response songs of slaves working the fields:
O Graveyard / o graveyard. I’m walkin troo de graveyard/ lay dis body down?
From the griot singers of West Africa? From the lamentations of 20 million naked Africans shackled together in the cargo holds of slave ships making the two-month journey to the Indies?
The blues began for me in the middle of the 1960s during the so-called Blues Revival. That’s when record collectors and talent scouts drove the Southern backroads asking locals about musicians once known to live in those parts. Among the “rediscoveries”— Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Sleepy John Estes. After watching a John Hurt performance on television, I was hooked. This was music more genuinely folky than the mainstream folk music then taking hold in America.
I began shopping in secondhand stores for the Okeh and Paramount “race records” of the ‘20s and ‘30s. As a sophomoric college sophomore, I would crank up the volume of a Lemon Jefferson recording to drown out the derivative rock music in the dorm room next door. Music snobbery often infects a blues fan. I hope I’m over it by now.
Ten years ago, two college chums and I spent a week in Memphis, taking day-trips into northern Mississippi. We visited the Faulkner sites in Oxford, toured the surrounding hill country and the flatlands of the Delta to the west. Faulkner’s fictional county of Yoknapatawpha is equal parts hills and alluvial plain.
Cotton is still king in the Delta, though the “stoop labor” of harvesting by hand is a thing of the past. Machines now run up and down the fields harvesting 6-10 rows at a clip.
We drove through the Delta in mid-September after the cotton blossoms had popped from their bolls. On an overcast day, earth and sky were a blurry white as if the clouds had fallen down onto the fields.
I’ve recently made two trips to the Delta to attend blues festivals, only to discover that most attendees and performers were retired White boomers like myself. Most Black folk have moved on it seems.
The Delta Song.
“We never heard those people sing. . . .I wish we had realized these people were so important.”
–Keith Dockery, co-owner of Dockery Farms, quoted in Palmer.1
Come down from hill country onto black
bottomland so flat all you see is sky, soil
richer than them that owns it, layered loam
from northern plains washed over southern flats
over centuries, laid on thick, gumbo mud going
deep down, blent right for cotton growing.
Come onto Dockery’s for fairness in weights
and measures. Spend a season in cotton
from cutting to harvest, beholden to a whiteness
cased in a boll cut you like a blade for coming
on it before blossoming out for picking.
A fair share never a sure thing, even here.
Go listen to the bluesman on the porch
picking the strings; he knows how it goes.
A LOT OF blues history happened in and around Clarksdale, Mississippi. Muddy Waters was born there, Bessie Smith died there, and according to the myth, Robert Johnson obtained his musical gifts there. Clarksdale hosts a dozen blues festivals each year, the largest being April’s Juke Joint Festival.
“Juke” comes from a Congolese word meaning “evil, disorderly, wicked”— the words Baptist preachers routinely used when condemning juke joints and the “devil’s music.” Many preachers even looked on guitars as licentious instruments and banned them from their services until the 1950s.
Juke joints were rough-and-tumble places where sharecroppers and field hands gathered on Saturday nights to let off steam and forget their troubles. They would drink whiskey, throw dice, pursue women, slow drag to the blues—plenty of opportunities to bring on new kinds of troubles. Red Paden, the proprietor of Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale, said, “There used to be lots of cuttin’ and shootin’. Now? It’s like going to church” 2.
Ma Rainey and Memphis Minnie sometimes played juke joints, but most female blues vocalists avoided them, preferring to perform with small jazz bands in urban clubs and country tent shows.
Robert Johnson Blues.
shine on three
said to house them bones,
devil blues keeping
a nightshirt nightly
long skinny fingers
slide ‘long Stella’s
neck, mojo hand
fluttering her frets
like a trapped bird,
that moony voice
like a Pea Vine train.
and all round him
lady bones swivel
to his smooth ways.
Here there everywhere
rumbles & rolls
shimmies & shakes
every night Mount Zion
goes juke joint.
The Showman of Shout.
Locals in Holly Springs say
Charley Patton marker spotted wrong,
his bones lying under the cotton gin nearby.
Twenty years he brought the wild inside him
into the jukes and frolics—
he’d toss & catch his guitar
drum on the box
play behind his back
range his voice over a whole song body—
speak some lines . . . holler out . . .
garble a phrase . . . stretch a word . . .
make up verses for the self-pleasing of doing so.
His griot growl came from deep down
where everybody’s been, high water
deepening as it comes. His holler’d overtake
a room. Crowd loved a banty rooster
crowed like him. They’d shake their hips,
tap their toes to troubles, whiskey
and women troubles, sheriff and bossman
troubles, the troubling life of a bluesman.
BLINDNESS AND THE BLUESMAN.
SO MANY BLIND bluesmen. Why? And why did they make their disability part of their moniker—Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind John Davis, Blind Willie Johnson? Jazz musician Ben Sidran believes the Black community bestowed a kind of spiritual authority on blind musicians. Their blindness and “otherness,” their resilient response to hardship, served as “a physical metaphor of Black life in America”3. We can only imagine how witnessing a blind bluesman in performance magnified the pathos and power of a blues song.
After Gloucester has been blinded, Lear asks him how he sees the world having “no eyes in your head.” Gloucester replies, “I see it feelingly.”
To demonstrate that humans are “feeling creatures,” Carl Sagan chose Blind Willie Johnson’s moving lament “Dark Was the Night” as a concluding piece on the Golden Record aboard the Voyager I spacecraft, now 15 billion miles from earth.
How much that lost sound worth?
Blues lovers put down two hundred
or more for a scratchy sound on Paramount.
Pullman porters stashed platter stacks
in baggage cars for selling to regulars
on Chicago lines—prideful fathers
bringing a race record home.
Lemon Jefferson never wanted a guide,
walked city streets, country roads
by listening deep. Could hear the wind
pick a wire fence like a six-string.
Ten years he played Deep Ellum street corners
and Texas barrelhouses until called north
in ’26 to a recording session.
Flush with cash from two sessions,
Lemon found under a Chicago snowbank
in ’29, having lost his way in the storm—
the first blizzard he ever heard.
Bodies rise up
from shallow graves
in blanchette cemetery
when heavy rains fall
on beaumont texas
some see bones
and parts unknown
travel down church street
to neches river
and street singer
of gospel blues—
so passed from
his unmarked grave
to the great gulf
moving in blue
fisher of men
“Dark was the night”
willie’s wordless hymn
the voice and slide guitar
in duet moaning humming
crying out agony
in the garden—etched
on the golden record
on Voyager moving
through the interstellar
dark still traveling.
RACIAL VIOLENCE, SEGREGATION, extreme poverty, and the mechanization of agriculture gave Blacks sufficient reason to leave the Jim Crow South in the first half of the 20th century. As they migrated to northern cities, they left country blues behind, wanting no reminders of past hardships and mistreatment. Muddy Waters left the Delta for Chicago in ’43, bought his first electric guitar a year later. Once citified and amplified, the blues got bold, lost its mournful tones.
Before long, White folks appointed themselves arbiters of “authentic” country blues, taking charge of the narrative. First came the folklorists of the 1930s and 1940s, then the blues revivalists of the 1950s and ‘60s, then the blues tourism promoters of the past 30 years.
How does “authentic” blues sound to a White person? Folklorist John Lomax heard authenticity in the “uncontaminated” singing of Huddy Ledbetter (Lead Belly) and other long-term prisoners in Texas and Louisiana “who have not yet been influenced by jazz and radio.” 4 Record collector James McKune heard it in the hollers and growls of Charley Patton, the ethereal falsetto of Skip James, the haunting moans of Robert Johnson. The canonization of these iconic bluesmen took some time; their recordings posted only modest sales in the 1920s and ‘30s.5
Homage to Skip James.
Years ago you crazed a crowd,
raged at hardship in a high pitch,
dealt devil blues a hoodoo hand,
did a song right for a Delta night,
black and damp with danger.
Then boxes took over jukes,
Harvesters overtook fields,
and croppers took to the trains.
With cicada patience,
you stayed down home,
waiting to be raised up, revived.
In ’64 they brought you north,
talking Newport, Europe, top dollar.
The liver bad, hands arthritic,
you prized for being raw, authentic.
in country air
bent and shaken
to a low pitch
a mannish moan
or pitched high
to a widow wail
you sing out
as it grew
fly miles high as bird
dizzy on air
only to stop
on a chord
your way of saying
IRONY IS ABUNDANT along the Mississippi Blues Trail. A state that lynched more Black males than any other now celebrates and profits from the musical heritage of those it once oppressed. The Shack-Up Inn, located three miles outside Clarksdale, consists of two dozen sharecropper shacks “restored only enough to accommodate twenty-first-century expectations (indoor bathrooms, heat, air conditioning, coffee maker with condiments, refrigerators and microwave in all the units).” Prospective guests are assured the shacks
“provide comfort as well as authenticity.”6 You can’t make this stuff up.
Authenticity is the watchword on the Blues Trail. After all, authentic blues is what the fans want to see, hear, and feel. Can it be found? Is it there? Is it anywhere?
You might come upon an old-timer at Red’s Lounge singing what sounds like the real thing, whatever that means to you. A week in Mississippi might leave you feeling blue, like you just “Can’t Be Satisfied” — the song Muddy Waters sang for Alan Lomax on the Stovall Plantation in 1940. Not satisfied by Waters’ life-size wax figure in the Delta Blues Museum, nor by the reverential attentiveness of the White folks at Red’s, nor by an overnight stay in an air-conditioned sharecropper shack at the Shack-Up Inn.
In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes, “For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away.”7
Blue is the color of distance, the color of the blues tourist experience, the color of a bruise, the color of race relations in this country, a reminder of how distant we still feel when we try to come close. Just the right color for this music.
Keepin’ It Real
It’s a white thing
to sell what you sing
to port your words
from your curbs to the burbs,
a white thing
to pity the poor,
cheapen the pure
promote the myths
of ungodly gifts,
a white thing
to scrub away the stain
minimize the pain
maximize the gain.
Bit of the real
for the sense it gives
how the other half lives.
Oh, give us the feel
make it seem real
so we see with our eyes
so we empathize.
It did not end well for the Delta blues players.
Bad luck, bad whiskey took the wild ones early.
Their lives, manner of leaving, a blues song.
Big Bill played country blues in Chicago
like it was going out of style, and it was.
Said losing blues the bluest blue there was.
Bukka White found Memphis Minnie in the home,
said, “She fat as a butterball. Don’t do nothin’
but sit in a wheelchair and cry, cry, cry.”
DAN COYLE worked for LexisNexis and ProQuest designing and managing research databases for the academic library market. He earned a doctorate in English from the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill and has taught at UNC and American University. Now retired, he lives in Washington, DC. His last Fortnightly essay: ‘Yellow’.
- Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. Penguin Books, 1981, p. 55.
- Stolle, Roger. Mississippi Juke Joint Confidential: House Parties, Hustlers & the Blues Life. History Press Library Editions, 2019, p. 18.
- Sidran, Ben. Black Talk. Da Capo Press, 1983, pp. 83–84.
- John Avery Lomax (1867-1948) | Library of Congress.” The Library of Congress. Accessed 30 May 2022.
- Hamilton, Marybeth. In Search of the Blues. Basic Books, 2009, p. 11.
- The Ritz We Ain’t. The Shack-up Inn
- Solnit, Rebecca. A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Penguin Books, 2005, p. 29.