The Rebirth of the Blues

Mississippi blues musicians revive an old art form through festivals and recordings. 
by Phyllis Lehmann - Jan 1980 - The Cultural Post

Hammie Nixon, blues singer, harmonica player, and jug virtuoso from Brownsville, Tennessee, was clearly enjoying himself, even though a free concert at the Smithsonian Institution was small potatoes for the former partner of legendary blues man Sleepy John Estes. "You know, when I go to Tokyo, 2,500 people meet me at the airport," he mused, recalling the heyday of his 58-year career with Estes. "It's a funny thing how you have to go 'cross the water to be a star."

Nixon's experience is not unique. For most blues musicians in recent decades, fame has been found in faraway places. Here at home, ironically, this truly American musical form has been largely ignored. 

Musical Expression of Black life

Often considered the roots of jazz, the blues in fact have their own parallel history. Certainly a major ingredient of jazz, they have also had a profound impact on rock-and-roll, on gospel music, and on country-and-western music. What we know today as the blues evolved around the turn of the century from the work songs, love songs, slow drags, and spirituals that were the musical expression of black life and culture along the southern Mississippi River. The rural folk sound was quickly popularized by black musicians. By World War I, the blues were a commercial success. During the 1920s and '30s, with the rise of composer and band leader W.C. Handy and such singers as Bessie Smith, the music was the heart of a flourishing club scene and a recording industry centered in Chicago and the mid-South. Boisterous Beale Street in Memphis was to blues what Bourbon Street was to jazz. 

Blues remained strong through the mid- to late-'50s, when jazz, rhythm-and-blues, and later soul music began to make inroads with black audiences. With the growth of the civil rights movement, the blues came to represent old ways and hard times that upwardly mobile, urban blacks sought to put behind them. "Soul music expressed the values of young people who wanted to get ahead, whereas blues seemed to express a down-and-out mentality, a view of life that says things might get better but they might just as easily get worse," explains David Evans, an ethnomusicologist at Memphis State University, who is working to preserve the blues. "Soul music says, 'We're going to make things better.' " 

Once-popular blues performers are now getting on in years, and there is no promising future to entice the young. The recordings are chiefly of established stars, such as B.B. King, or limited editions aimed at collectors. The club scene has virtually vanished, except in certain parts of Chicago and the San Francisco Bay area. In Memphis, "Birthplace of the Blues," Beale Street is a ghost town of burned-out, boarded-up shells. Be-cause the street's raunchy reputation lives on, the citizenry is reluctant to rebuild.

"Blues are associated with poverty, low-class living, back alleys, hard drinking, and rough places," says David Evans. "This is true also of other music, like country-and-western, but because that industry is well-organized, it can present a clean image through TV shows. The blues don't have that advantage." 

As though to play it safe, many blues singers inject some gospel music into their repertoires. "These blues are something the Devil told us to get out and do," says singer and guitarist Jessie Mae Hemphill, introducing a spiritual, "but we don't want to leave God out.

Blues singers Jessie Mae Hemphill and
Compton Jones perform with David Evans (right),
an ethnomusicologist at Memphis State University. 
Though their commercial popularity has waned, the blues remain strong in the rural backwaters of Mississippi. There they meld with other folk music, such as that of the fife-and-drum bands, a legacy of blacks who served in the militia during the Civil War and who later added syncopation to the march rhythms to create a dance beat. Important to the folk art of the region are the homemade instruments—hand-whittled drum sticks and fifes made of cane hollowed out with a hot poker—and such household items as can be pressed into musical service. Bottles, jugs, wash-boards, hatboxes—virtually anything can be blown, thumped, or clanked to provide some musical accompaniment. "When I was a little girl." recalls Jessie Mae Hemphill, "I used to get me the flavor bottle to make a drink, and the bottle tasted so good, I just started blowing on it. Then I found out if I filled it part way with water, it sounded different." One of the most intriguing inventions of down-home musicians is the "diddly bow," a piece of baling wire or broom wire strung between two bottles that are usually attached to the side of a house or barn. The bow is played by plucking the wire and by sliding a bottle along it in the manner of a steel guitar. 

Thanks to a recent revival of interest in the musical heritage of the Mississippi Delta, traditions like the diddly bow are being passed on to new generations. This renewed interest, along with a burgeon-ing festival scene in the mid-South and the promise of some local recording popularity, are slowly bringing the blues back into the limelight. 

Youngsters delight in the sounds of the Annual Music Heritage Festival in Memphis. 

One key to a blues revival, says David Evans, is a commercial outlet for the music on its home turf. And in music today that means a record—specifically a "single" that plays on the radio and the jukebox. "Blues singles are almost entirely devoted to a few established stars who have been around for 20 or 30 years and who all have their own fol-lowing," says Evans. "The record com-panies almost never try to break in a new blues singer. But I am convinced, and many of the singers are convinced, that if they could get a record out, it would sell."

Burgeoning Festival Scene

In a one-year pilot project funded by the Endowment's Folk Arts Program and designed to test the local blues market, Evans is producing singles by five northern Mississippi singers—Jessie Mae Hemphill of Como, Ranie Burnette of Senatobia, R.L. Burnside of Cold-water, and Raymond and Lillie Hill of Clarksdale—performing both traditional and original numbers that they are identified with locally. With titles like "Hungry Spell," "Bad Luck City," "Cotton Fields—Boss Man," and "Standing in My Doorway Crying," the songs, new and old, reflect the pain and hard times that gave birth to the blues. 

Starting with a thousand copies of each record, Evans is targeting distribution not just to radio stations, jukebox companies, and record stores in northern Mississippi but also to the general stores and Western Auto stores where the musicians and their friends trade. In Clarksdale, the public library, which has a blues museum, has scheduled a reception and autograph party for the town's new recording personalities, Raymond and Lillie Hill. Evans also plans to tap the national and international market through ads and reviews in blues and folklore journals, but he expects that "at least half the sales will be local. The mail-order distribution will be gravy that helps make the project feasible." 

The idea, Evans says, is to foster appreciation of the blues, especially among younger people, and to bring some prestige and income to the singers. "It should have a great impact in the community that a local person has a record out that is available locally and that can be heard on the radio or the jukebox," he says, "I hope the project will generate enough income for us to press more copies and to produce new records. I hope, too, that it will have enough success to stimulate some of the commercial companies to get more involved in the blues." 

Increasingly, popular music and arts festivals, such as the annual Beale Street Festival and Memphis Music Heritage Festival, are helping to boost the blues. The major showcase for local talent is the Delta Blues Festival in Greenville, Mississipppi, which started as a simple get-together for blues artists in 1978 and has grown to an annual event attracting more than 7,000 fans. Sponsored by Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE), a rural development organization, and funded by the Ford Foundation, the Endowment's Folk Arts Program, and the Mississippi Arts Commission, last year's festival featured 25 blues artists in a day-long program. An indoor club accommodated im-promptu performers. This year's event, scheduled for September 5-6, will include seminars and workshops and a Friday-night festival on Greenville's colorful Nelson Street before the main festival on Saturday. By 1981, MACE plans to take the Blues Festival on tour. Eventually, the organization hopes to make the project self-supporting through sales of a record album and rentals and sales of two video documentaries of Festival '79 that were produced with a grant from Mississippi Educational Television. 

New View of a Heritage

This increased visibility for local artists, along with changing times and changing attitudes, has rekindled an appreciation of the blues among many Southern blacks, according to David Evans. "Some of the struggles of the '60s and early '70s have been won in terms of political, social, and economic gains for blacks, so they can be a little more comfortable with this kind of music," he says. "And in the past two or three years, with the impact of programs like Roots, black people—and white people, too—are able to take a more objective view of their cultural heritage. They can see that the blues were a product of their time but that they also have a universal appeal beyond the black community." Much of that appeal stems from the fact that the blues, like any enduring folk music, reflect what happens in people's lives, says Vanessa Greene, director of MACE'S Delta Arts Project. "The blues speak to folks." 



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