[NOTE: Once upon a time, I hoped to write a book on the origins of the Blues in the Mississippi Delta, “the land where the Blues began” (Alan Lomax). And then I read this one.]
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In the eyes of Ted Gioia, the Mississippi Delta was “a Third World country . . . abandoned in the heart of the United States, left to fend for itself.” (2) And the results have not been pretty: Mississippi in general, and the Delta in particular, have been among the poorest, most backward areas in the country for more than a century.
And yet, by way of Africa, out of the Delta came the African American musical genre called the Blues, which has had a tremendous impact on the evolution of American musical culture, for reasons that, in some respects, still remain a mystery. In Gioia’s view, though, “Perhaps the outsider was best capable of giving expression to what was destined to become the mainstream reality, to the emotional landscape of a world in which no ties held fast, no ground remained firm underfoot, no certainties stood unquestioned.” (16)
Taming the land in the Delta required strenuous physical labor, aided by work songs, as well as songs sung during workers’ off times that eventually evolved into commercial performances—from minstrel and medicine shows to juke joints. By the late 1920s, this music had begun to produce performers like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Charley Patton, and Tommy Johnson, with Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters waiting in the wings.
The next step was to transfer the Blues to phonograph records, and to live performances “hyping” said records, which introduced the Delta and the rest of the nation to performers like Bessie Smith, Son House, Skip James, and Ishmon Bracey, thanks mainly to white promoters like Henry Speir. The most successful of these early Blues artists was probably Charley Patton, though he never really broke out of the Delta to greater stardom; that would be left to the likes of Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and Bessie Smith.
Blues performers were pulled between spiritual and secular forces, as is illustrated most clearly in the career of Son House. Though his records didn’t sell all that well before World War II, House had a tremendous influence as a sort of mentor to any number of other performers. Gioia argues that House “represents the single most important figure linking together the various strands of the Delta tradition,” despite the fact that he was “merely a part-time performer, who could put aside the guitar for months or years with few regrets.” (81)
Doing time in Mississippi’s awful Parchman Farm penitentiary, Son House, like Booker Washington (“Bukka”) White, eventually was able to capitalize on his incarceration, positioning himself, with the help of John and Alan Lomax, as a sort of prototypical Blues performer. And both House and White would be “rediscovered” during the Blues Revival of the 1960s that also helped link the legacy of the Blues to the birth of rock and roll.
Like Elijah Wald, in Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, Gioia emphasizes the versatility of Johnson’s generation of Blues players, who were willing—and able—to play any tunes audiences wanted to hear, Blues or not. Whatever their skill sets, Blues players of the 1920s and 1930s were adversely affected by the Great Depression, which killed off the “race record” industry and drove now unemployed black performers in various directions, looking for salvation wherever they could find it.
And yet—there was Skip James, he of the incredibly distinctive voice, who managed to hook up with promoter Henry Speir in 1931 and fulfilled the need, already perceived by Speir, for “a unique poet visionary who would take the next steps, and channel the energies and potentialities of the blues into true art song.” (136)
Like many Blues performers, Skip James was troubled by the negative views of the Blues prevalent in black religion; unlike more “flexible” Blues performers, though, James actually left the Blues altogether, joining his father’s religious ministry. According to Gioia, “James would hardly find a real calling, religious or secular, until he was rediscovered as a blues singer in the 1960s.” (147)
Any Blues fan realizes that a key figure in the early history of the Delta Blues was Robert Johnson, and Ted Gioia is certainly no exception. He distances himself from those scholars who claim to know a lot about Johnson, especially the famous story of Johnson’s meeting with the Devil at “the Crossroads.” Sure, some of Johnson’s songs suggest just such a meeting, but Gioia seems to agree with those Johnson biographers who conclude that “The historical evidence [for a meeting between Johnson and Satan] is tainted by hearsay, dubious research, compromised methodology, and questionable reporting.” (162)
According to Gioia and the sources he draws on, there is a good chance that Robert Johnson himself spread that story about the meeting at the Crossroads. Besides, the Johnson story takes us back to the split between the Blues and religion that was pervasive in the Delta. According to Ted Gioia, then, “before his twentieth birthday Johnson had embraced the musician’s life with a vengeance, had started on his ramblin’ ways, and had adopted an attitude that was, at best, devil-may-care and, at worst, hell-bent on self-destruction.” (169)
John Lomax’s son Alan played an important part in the transference of the Blues into the post-World War II world. Visiting the Delta in the early 1940s, he and scholar John Work of Fisk University “discovered” McKinley Morganfield (AKA Muddy Waters) and also came into contact with David “Honeyboy” Edwards, who would become one of the most frequently-cited “primary sources” on the Delta Blues during the 1960s Blues Revival.
And, of course, both Muddy and Honeyboy were caught up in the tumult of the “Great Migration,” between World War I and World War II, when African Americans fled the South in huge numbers, searching for economic and political opportunities.
Muddy Waters’ career in Chicago gave him the opportunity to succeed, but, according to Gioia, in the long run he had difficulty escaping the Delta: “Waters had spent three decades of his life in the paternalistic environment of the Southern plantation, and the Chess [record] label filled much the same role in his life for an almost identical length of time.” (228-229)
Another fugitive from the Mississippi Delta, John Lee Hooker, “lived long enough to be celebrated by ravenous electronic media.” (234) Perhaps the wisest thing Hooker ever said came in a 1964 interview: “I know why the best blues artists come from Mississippi. Because it’s the worst state. You have the blues all right if you’re down in Mississippi.” (238) Assessing Hooker’s legacy following his death on June 21, 2001, Gioia argues that “the sheer global breadth of Hooker’s lineage in unlikely to be matched by any future blues artist.” (270)
Chester Burnett, AKA Howlin’ Wolf, was another fugitive from the Delta who had a significant impact on the development of both the Blues and rock and roll. Mentored on guitar by Charley Patton and on the harmonica by Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller), Burnett traveled and performed with the likes of Robert Johnson, Son House, Honeyboy Edwards, Johnny Shines, and Jimmy Rogers.
By the time he moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, in the 1940s, Wolf had “surrounded himself with a cacophony of amplified sound that might well make the walls shake, but his voice cut through the clash and clang, in all its sinuous and abrasive beauty.” (284) Gioia contends that Wolf’s success probably reflected a reaction against the slickness of other forms of popular music. Like a lucky handful of his generation of Blues players, Wolf was “rediscovered” in the ‘60s.
By the middle of the 20th century, according to Gioia, there was a musical paradox: “[H]ow could a style of performance captivate one set of fans for its evocation of old-time ways, and impress another group as a blueprint for new sounds and attitudes never before seen?” (309)
A key figure here was B.B. King, a product of both the “Great Migration” and the move he made to Memphis, Tennessee, whose music scene “can stake a valid claim as the pathway by which this country-bred music was channeled into the wider streams of global pop music.” (322) Until the mid-1960s, though, King seemed destined to continue endless tours on the Chitlin’ Circuit. Eventually, however, came the move to the ABC record label, his appearance at the Fillmore in San Francisco in February 1967, and the crossover impact of his great tune, “The Thrill is Gone.” The rest, as they say, is Blues history. . . .
In his final chapter, Gioia examines the Blues Revival, a wonderful story that deserves–and now has–a book of its own. Gioia even likens that musical rebirth to “the great religious revivals of the past.” (350—the “Great Awakening,” anyone?) A lot of the books published in the ‘60s simply berated modern America for all the great music they’d missed over the previous generation. Yet, Gioia’s emphasis here is strongly on the “rediscovery” of “Bukka” White, Skip James, and, especially, Son House. The rest of his treatment of the post-1960s Blues scene is pretty downbeat, what with all the old Blues guys dying, yet Gioia refuses to abandon the possibility of a resurgence of fresh Blues talent from the modern Mississippi Delta.
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Ted Gioia’s study of the history, music, and culture of the Mississippi Delta is a work of lasting significance, beautifully written, well-illustrated, and rightly skeptical of some of the hoariest “received wisdom” about the history of the Blues. It belongs in the libraries of Blues fans in general and aficionados of the Delta Blues in particular.
I write about history at greater length in the following books:
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)