Blues Today: A Living Blues Symposium

Blues Today: A Living Blues Symposium

By James VanDrisse - 15 November 2006

On February 16 to 20, 2005 Living Blues magazine presented its annual program for public discussion of Blues music and a Blues tour of Mississippi historical Blues sites as well as live bands. The first day was an option well worth taking; starting at the new Alluvian Hotel in downtown Greenwood, Mississippi. The Alluvian is a luxury boutique hotel too new to be rated, but should be rated in future by AAA as a 5 Diamond, its original art by Delta artists and a lively lobby scene make the Alluvian the epicenter of contemporary Delta culture.

The Delta X'Cursion: 

The Gospel Of The Blues hosted by Amy Evans of Viking Range and guitarist Jay Kirgus whisked us away on the trail of Robert Johnson in a new, ultra clean Viking Range Corp. motorcoach bus. Other luminaries on the bus included Blues historian Charles Reagan Wilson director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. He is author of many books "Judgement and Grace in Dixie", "Southern Faiths From Faulkner to Elvis", "Baptized in Blood: The Religion of The Lost Cause" and co-editor, with William Ferris, of "The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture". Bill McPherson of the board of directors of the states' newly appointed Blues Commission, Prentiss Eastland from Indiana Blues Society on his 3rd year of bus tour, and Leslie Linn who announced the planning of a new B.B.King Museum being built in Indianola, Mississippi asking to contact her for details. 

The mic on the bus worked fine and musician Jay Kirgis played and sang. We traveled to Quito, Morgan City and Money Road just outside of Greenwood to visit the "supposed" final resting places of Robert Johnson, according to myths, and pray for the soul of Robert Johnson in Purgatory. At the most recently dicovered Money Road site we were welcomed inside the Little Zion M. B. Church by Sylvester Hoover, grocer from Baptist Town, and Rev. McArthur McKinley on Piano along with two women singing black Gospel songs. Great!

"The Gospel of the Blues" lecture by Charles Reagan Wilson explained the deep roots and rivalries surrounding the church and Blues music. He told of the conjecture of this being the possible Robert Johnson grave because of a written letter found in a shack near by, where Robert supposedly was moved to shortly before he died, and his asking Jesus for mercy. This letter is redone in stone on the grave marker. My personal opinion is that the most likely site is the oldest marked grave { different colored stone now, however } located at the Payne Baptist Church in Quito where Johnny Shines sang with tears in his eyes when visiting the site, remember Johnny ran with Robert at times. But nobody really knows where. 

Later that evening we enjoyed a soul food supper at Hoover's Grocery, and joined the community in an outdoor Blues concert by The Givens Brothers with Willie Gatewood on electric bass and vocals in the same neighborhood that Robert Johnson stayed during his time in Greenwood. The nights activity concluded with a bus round trip to B.B. King's hometown of Indianola, Mississippi where Leslie Linn can be contacted regarding the new B. B. King Museum project. Shaking a leg at Club Ebony in Indianola, Mississippi and more live Blues with David Durham and the Ladies Choice Band. 

Day two of the tour started in front of the Alluvian and was hosted by Dr. Luther Brown the founding director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning and he serves on the states' Blues Commission, he was helped by Dr. Henry Outlaw of Delta State University. We visited the site of the Emmitt Till "supposed" whistling at a white women in Money, Mississippi before his famous racist brutal murder later that night. We visited Jimmy Rogers birthplace Ruleville, Mississippi and the Fanny Lou Hamer gravesite there.

We stopped at Dockery Farms, the plantation were many Bluesmen once lived and stopped at "the crossroads" one of a few left that existed near there in Robert Johnson's day, according to Jim O'Neal, the most likely spot that Robert Johnson would have been, it is the Old Dockery Road and Ruleville Road crossroads. The Peavine Railroad of the Charley Patton song fame ran nearby parallel to Old Dockery Road a few miles before the crossroads. 

We then stopped at "Po Monkeys" in Merigold, Mississippi an operating rural juke joint. Then at Mound Bayou,Mississippi the old [black only] experimental town that worked out, and the free hospital [ no longer operating] ,however, St. Gabriels Catholic Convent sisters are still helping the poor blacks in the town financially and spiritually. We cruised down Highway 61 and then past Parchman Farms prison, where Prentiss Eastland mentioned that Elvis Presley's father had done time as well as many a Bluesman.

A party was waiting at Drew, Mississippi for us [ birthplace of Howlin' Wolf ] as the mayor and other dignitaries rolled out the red carpet for the "Blues Fan" visitors with free food and refreshments by the People's Choice Diner at the Farmers Market, an invocation by Rev. Jesse Gresham, and a concert by Terry " Big T " Williams a guitarist from Clarksdale, Mississippi who has performed with Big Jack Johnson and the Jelly Roll Kings. 

Day 3, February 18, 2005 in Oxford, Mississippi for the Blues Symposium at the campus of Ole Miss.. Adam Gussow of Satan and Adam duo fame { the first white guy ever to be on the cover of Living Blues } appropiately introduced Robert Stone for a film screening and remarks about Sacred Steel to the crowd of about 200. Sacred Steel musicians, The Campbell Brothers were there to promote their concert that evening at the Second Baptist Church in Oxford. An even better film screening and remarks followed about "The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins" by Les Blank, which included footage of Mance Libscomb and Cleveland Chenier. Kudos to Les Blank! 

After lunch a panel discussion with audience questions on early Blues research with Robert Johnson commenced. This was weak on anything new, with panelist Elijah Wald promoting his new book along with authors of a Robert Johnson book Patricia Schroeder and Barry Lee Pearson the moderator. The panel was fortunate to have co-founder of Living Blues, Paul Garon, also, who did give some incite with the fact that only two of Robert Johnsons' songs mention the word "devil" in the title. Then later that afternoon another Sacred Steel discussion "From Hula to Hallulia" with the Campbell Brothers demonstation of how the steel guitar is played. 

Day 4 started with the keynote address by Samuel Charters who has written 12 books on Blues and insists he is not a scholar but a music journalist. He made his first Blues film in 1952 and he said he began looking for Robert Johnson stuff in 1953. He presented the high point of the whole week, " The Blues ", an old filming he made of J.D. Short, Pink Anderson, Furry Lewis, and Baby Tate. Also, while this films' sound is mostly overdubbed it is a non-commercial gem which includes Gus Cannon playing guitar with Memphis Willie B. and by "hisself" Sleepy John Estes. Kudos to Sam Charters! 

After lunch Jim O'Neal another co-founder of Living Blues interviewed Sonny Payne of KFFA radio Helena, Arkansas "King Biscuit Time". Interestingly, Sonny Payne gives most credit for his sucess to Mr. Max Moore who wrote the script for KFFA radio. This was followed by a panel discussion of Blues Radio Today with William Ferris, local DJ Chip Mitchell, Rip Daniels from WAZD the pilot of American Blues Network the ultra commercial Blues, and the very pius Tommy Couch, Jr. the current head of Malaco Records. Moderated by Steve Hoffman who tryed, but this ended being pointless, in my humble opinion there is no such thing as true Blues radio.

This was followed by the coolest panel of the event, Historical Blues Research with Samuel Charters, Dr. David Evans, David Whiteis, and moderated by Paul Garon. David Whiteis was not as sarcastic as usual although his mordant laugh underlined his advice that a researcher "become a part of the community you are researching". Dr. Evans said it was "a back breaking effort into virgin territory" he contined "nowdays it would take 20 years to be an expert in Blues". 

Sam Charters is embarrassed by his effort in writing the historically acclaimed book from 1959 "The Country Blues" as it was a dissertation that just copied the idea and echoes the 1939 book Jazzman by William Russell along with Smith and Ramsey. He believes black scholars are angry and cites the 1988 Nelson George book and Albert Murray as great black scholars. Continuing he concluded "by and large contemporary 60's Blues and "contemporary Blues today" sound the same, and the study of Blues took place at the same 1960's time.

The stylistic issue, the definition was set in the 60's" However, Sam Charters maintains that the black music of the downtrodden that was once Blues is now Rap/Hip-Hop. He says " Every Blues singer started in the church" and he maintains that "from about 1925 on Blues was not the main force in music for blacks". He said that Choctaw Indians in Mississippi were the first to influence the field hands that started singing Blues, along with the African drumming. In exasperation this man who knows more about Blues than most anyone concludes " I'm having books rejected because I'm white". 

Black radio DJ Sylvester Oliver addressed this from the audience commenting " many black scholars are into other issues". B. B. King recently donated his archives and Prof. Oliver predicts " B.B.'s collection at U-Miss. will sit on the shelf collecting dust". In answer to Sam Charters asking if anyone knew "what is a Blues aesthetic"? " What Moves You" responded Brenda Dixon from the audience. She is the author of the book by that title soon to be released with a New Orleans perspective. 

This great panel concluded with the insouciance of Paul Garon saying " Bonnie Raitt doesn't need me", David Whiteis " It is harder and harder to place serious Blues criticism", Samuel Charters " Ragtime scholarship has been better, music sales in the 1950's to black people was 5% of the market, today its 60%". As hard as that would seem to top that panel, Jim O'Neal did a wonderful interview with David"Honey Boy"Edwards next. 

Asking Honey Boy about his time with Robert Johnson and good naturedly asking him about his {Edwards} telling people he was Robert Johnson and the gambling and drinking back then. " One time on Johnson Street in Greenwood, Mississippi I was walking with Robert Johnson in front and in about 5 or 10 minutes so many people, at Bugg's Cafe, in 1937 all fall played with him" Honey Boy also talked about Little Frank Haines and a man just known then as Wolf, who was a better guitar player than Big Joe Williams his cousin. 

Then in the evening we attended the concert out in the country in a barrelhouse juke joint near Abbeville. Honey Boy was better than usual with his "Mississippi timing" for the sardine like packed crowd along with Michael Frank on harp on some songs we heard "Boy Blue", Going Down Slow", and the Jimmy Rogers song "Thats Alright" done so well he had to repeat it again the second set.

by James VanDrisse

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