Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Motor City Ain't Burnin No More

By Laurel Hughes - Clarion-Ledger - 1986 

Mississippi has, of all 50 states, been one of the half dozen leading contributors to the main currents of American music. The blues of African Americans "embraces several side streams boogie-woogie, stomps, ragtime, gospel, spirituals, rock and roll, and barrelhouse, but it may be broadly categorized as blues."  The music depicts black America, and most masters of the rhythm are blacks or are devotees of the "black sound," a powerful channel of musical expression. The "rhythm and blues" label for years applied to a musical underground that was spoken of, scornfully by some, as "race music," but its insistent beat broke out in the late 40s and early 50s, taking the air waves by storm.


The public as a whole curiously enough, became aware of the blues about the same time that country music surged into the national consciousness: and both have deeply influenced the popular music of the last two decades. In the mid-50s, they met and produced a hybrid called rock and roll which charged American music with an electricity it had not previously known. While Elvis Presley represented the white side of the fashion, two Mississippi natives named Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker embodied the black side. Other names prominent in the advance of the blues are such Mississippi born or reared artists as Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson, Joe Turner, Bill Walter Horton, Mississippi Joe Callicott, Johnny Young, Furry Lewis, Booker T. Washington White (who performed as Bukka White), Son House, Skip James, Ike Turner, and still more.


Several of the artists came from the Mississippi Delta which has led to the claim by some blues buffs that within a 50-mile radius of Cleveland came more blues stars than from the remainder of the United States. While this has not been specifically reunited, the record does show that a number came from other sections of the state. A most prominent artist, John Lee Hooker came from the Delta. John Lee Hooker was the son of' sharecroppers, an occupation that prized children as an economic boon in unpaid labor.  There were 13 children in Hooker's family. Hooker's stepfather was William Moore. a blues guitarist himself and widely known in the Delta region. It was from him that John Lee learned the guitar.


Hooker's personal history is blurred by the legends and stories that grow around noted individuals, particularly those with a past that lends itself to romanticism. Hooker's first attempts at music were characterized by two stories — one concerns Hooker's grandfather teaching him to pick melodies on strips of inner tube nailed to the barn door at various tensions and one about his own homemade instrument made under the direction of his father. Whatever were his first encounters with music, Hooker developed his own rhythmic complexity countered by simple harmony.

At 14, John Lee began playing for country suppers and fish fries. Hooker ran away to Memphis and the famous Beale Street where he obtained a job selling candy at a theatre. His concerned parents soon found him and took him home; Hooker made frequent escapes, however, and was soon allowed to reside in Memphis.


Coming from a religious background. he sang gospel with a Baptist group in Memphis and worked in a factory. From the time he left Memphis to escape the deeply engrained and resilient forms of racism prevalent in the Jim Crow South, Hooker was a drifter, working in various factories during World War II. The new friends he found in Detroit encouraged him to pursue his musical career again and soon local clubs began featuring him at after-hours sessions. Some clubs gave him work on a regular basis, which opened the door for him to make his first recordings.

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