Memphis And The Country Blues
Memphis And The Country Blues
By Harper Barnes - St. Louis Dispatch - May 31, 1970
|Sid Selvidge & Furry Lewis|
The blues did not come from Memphis, but they arrived there early and have not left. There is no city with a place in the history of the blues comparable to that of New Orleans in the history of jazz. However, Memphis is, quite probably, the most important city in the development of the blues and its offspring. The tradition is still alive in Memphis, whether in the country blues of 107-year-old guitarist Nathan Beauregard or in the best-selling soul music of young singer-composer Isaac Hayes.
Memphis is a few miles north of the Mississippi state line. The city, which sits on bluffs on the east bank of the Mississippi River, is the northern limit and major urban center of the Mississippi Delta, a 200-mile-long area of rich lowland lying between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. The cotton plantations and farming towns of the Delta were a major source—perhaps the source—of the country blues, a music with its roots in the work songs and field hollers of the slaves but with a variety of other influences. W. C. Handy first heard the blues in 1903, in the Delta.
After the Civil War, freed slaves began moving north to Memphis. The city, like other river towns, became a free-wheeling center of entertainment and there was work for musicians along Beale Street, the center of the black district, and in the outlying roadhouses.
In 1912, Handy, living in Memphis, published "The Memphis Blues," the first of 60-odd blues credited to the well-educated bandleader. By then, Memphis was the focus of a rich strain of music growing from the cross-fertilization of the primitive country-blues men and the trained band musicians.
Bukka White said, "There's a lot of guys stuck behind these bushes you don't know about." He was talking to Bill Barth, a 27-year-old former New Yorker who came to Memphis five years ago. Barth had just told White that he was going to Brownsville, Tenn., to talk to an old country blues man a friend had told him about. Barth is a musician and blues scholar, one of a very small number of enthusiasts who spend their time poking into bushes to see if there are any blues musicians behind them. A lot of good ones made one record in the 1920s, and have not been heard from since.
White, 60, was himself recorded by the pioneer blues scholars John and Alan Lomax. They traveled through the south in the 1930s and early 1940s, lugging several hundred pounds of recording equipment with them. In the last decade, after 15 or 20 years of being pretty much ignored, blues men such as White and his neighbor, Furry Lewis, have come in contact with a new generation of blues enthusiasts. Among them is Barth, who in 1966 got White, Lewis and a bunch of other musicians together for the first annual Memphis Country Blues Festival. The fourth festival was held last year. Although the reviews have been good, and National Educational Television sent a crew down last year to film it, the festival is in wobbly financial condition. Barth is going to hold it again this summer, but he is not quite sure when. He is looking for backers.
|Bill Barth & John Fahey|
Brownsville is about an hour's drive east of Memphis. It is the home territory of John Estes, one of the best-known of the remaining country blues men. Barth stopped just outside of town to pick up a friend, a girl who had heard a man named John Jones play guitar and asked Barth to come down and listen to him. They found Jones in a weathered, three-room house west of town. At first, he was reticent about playing, but Barth, who is an excellent guitarist, did some traditional finger-picking for him, and Jones warmed up. He was rusty but good and Barth asked him to practice and to come play in the festival.
Bill Barth came to Brownsville, Tenn., to hear John Jones play blues guitar, and record him. Jones, who had a small tape recorder, decided he wanted a tape of Barth's playing (above). At left, the musical hub of old Memphis, Fourth and Beale Streets. The old Midway club is a liquor store now and the vacant building across Beale used to be Joe Lafunzo's bar, a gathering place for musicians.
Most records today are assembled from bits and pieces — a horn here, a vocal there — recorded at different times, but at Stax, the song generally is recorded as it would be performed. In these photos, singer Rufus Thomas, whose daughter Carla is a well-known soul singer also, works on his latest single, "All About Mary." The band is the Bar-trays, with Rufus's son, Marvell, added on piano, and engineer, Bobby Manuel.
In the early 1950s, after a long lull, the music started pouring out of Memphis again. This time, white boys such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins took the urban blues and its commercial cousin, rhythm and blues, added a hillbilly twang and ended up with Memphis rock 'n' roll. The city began to grow again as a music center. Lately, the Chamber of Commerce has begun, in a small way, to promote the Memphis sound. It claims that Memphis studios and performers do about $100,000,000 worth of business a year. The Memphis music industry ranks fourth, behind New York, Los Angeles and Nashville. Presley still comes to Memphis to record and so does Johnny Cash, but recently the strongest force has been soul music.
Memphis soul music is the standard mix of rhythm, blues and gospel, but the city's studio musicians add an easy, natural country feeling.
The most successful record company in Memphis is Stax/Volt, founded about 10 years ago by a Tennessee farm boy, Jim Stewart. There is racial integration throughout the company, from the front office to the recording studio, where the house band, Booker T and the MGs, has two white and two black members.
Until he died in an airplane crash in 1967, young Otis Redding was the major figure at Stax. The singer's records still sell steadily, along with those of other Stax performers such as Albert King, Johnnie Taylor and the Staple Singers. Recently, a young song writer named Isaac Hayes cut his first album at Stax, called "Hot Buttered Soul," and it was a best seller. If there is to be a successor to Redding at Stax, it probably will be Hayes.