Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Jessie's Mae Backyard Babydoll Blues (1996)

Leon Morris - Sydney Morning Herald, The (Australia) - October 12, 1996 
Jessie Mae Hemphill being the essence of the hill country in 1996
Down in the Delta, there's a whole lotta weepin' and wailin' going on as the sounds of the Deep South enjoy a home-grown resurgence.

Earlier this year, the remnants of the wooden shack in which bluesman Muddy Waters once lived were removed, log by log, from the Stovall Plantation in Coahoma County, Mississippi. The spot is just a short drive from the crossroads of highways 49 and 61, where legend has it Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his blues guitar skills.

After careful restoration, the shack will begin a five-year promotional tour around the fast-growing American chain of music theme clubs The House of Blues, before being returned to its original site.

The crossroads of highways 49 and 61 mark the entrance to the town of Clarksdale, signposting the town's reputation as the home of the blues. But Clarksdale itself has been slow to cotton on. About 18 months ago, the head of Clarksdale's local tourism authority snarled at a northern interloper with plans to turn Clarksdale's disused railway station into a blues tourism attraction, "What makes you think that people are going to pay to see a black man play the guitar?"

Now, however, the county tourism authority has received a Federal government grant to renovate the station and the interloper holds the exclusive liquor licence for a performance, tourism and shopping theme complex to be called Bluesland. The blues, it seems, has come a long way.

The small number of (mostly) men who brought Mississippi blues from its Deep South origins were the descendants of African slaves whose freedom was illusory.

Their musical response to the hardship and alienation of exploitative share-

cropping and overt, institutional racism had largely been ignored, until a resurgence of interest in the blues was triggered by the British invasion of rock musicians, notably the Rolling Stones, in the '60s.

In hindsight it is difficult to exaggerate the impact the blues has had on contemporary culture. Quite simply, without the blues there would be no rock'n'roll.

Jim Dickinson, a white, Memphis-based musician who participated in what he calls the "cultural collision" between black and white music-makers in the '50s and '60s that created what we now know as rockabilly, soul and rock, challenges us to "imagine the world without rock'n'roll".

One of Clarksdale's leading contemporary blues musicians, Arthneice Jones, simply says, "The blues had a baby and they called it rock'n'roll." Or in the words of Robert Gordon, a writer and filmmaker on Memphis music, rock'n'roll is simply "the failed attempt of white people with a country background trying to play the blues".

Dickinson traces a neat musical history back to the African origins of slavery. "An African work song is not a complaint - it is a celebration of life. Add to that slavery, the four beat of Anglo Saxon ballad form, and it becomes a complaint of the human condition - it's the blues. You take that back across the line to a teenage white kid who puts a four beat at the bottom of it, and its rock'n'roll."

Clarksdale, Mississippi is an obvious starting point in trying to understand the blues - where it came from and what it means today.  Clarksdale is in the heartland of what is known as the Mississippi Delta. Not a delta at all, it is, in fact, the floodplains of the mighty Mississippi River - the richest farming land in the United States.

The Delta is said to run from the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis south to Vicksburg, where the American Civil War was won and lost. It is about 320 km long and 110 km wide, bounded to the east by the hill country around Greenwood and to the west by the Yazoo River, which snakes south to Vicksburg.

Driving into the Delta from any direction is like stepping backwards into a world strangely familiar from the documentary and news footage of the American civil rights movement. The grey and dusty furrows of the cotton fields that stretch in every direction speak of the desolation and despair of rural poverty - a reminder of slavery and share-cropping in the not too distant past.

The promise of cotton abloom on these same fields speaks of the life of plenty on the "other side of the tracks", where suburban and rural mansions boast their wealth - seemingly oblivious to the neighboring poverty. Tragically, rural hardship now meets the symptoms of urban-style disaffection: crime, crack and teenage pregnancy are on the rise.

Arthneice Jones knows what it is like to live on the wrong side of the tracks. He lives on a Clarksdale street that is broken by a now derelict railway line. To drive from the town side of the street to the side on which Jones lives requires a detour of at least six blocks.

The railway line that marks this separation is the same railway line that carried Muddy Waters north to Chicago in 1943. lt is the same railway line that carried hundreds of thousands of southern blacks north after World War I - a desperate bid to escape the racism of the Deep South - in the single largest internal migration of people in American history.

Jones represents a generation of blues-men indebted to their blues ancestors but doing what blues has always done - moved with the times.

He is just as likely to be cooking up

a party with driving soul music as reaching down into the depths of the blues tradition to experiment with links to jazz and rap.

This is how he describes the origin of the blues: "The black people brought forth the blues through being suppressed; through hard times and denial; through being hated not loved; through being misunderstood as another race in another world where you once were bought and sold. And the same act went on and on for hundreds of years past the time of slavery. They still took advantage of people. We was just a denied people as we are today."

The blues, according to Jones, was "the feeling of expression, to be able to talk back, to speak in another way in a language on our side of town. To blow off steam when you [white people] weren't there. You wasn't going to listen to that nigger music - no way. But it was a form of art being developed right around you for years and years and years that controlled the basic front part of the beat of modern music."

African slaves were first brought to America in 1619. It wasn't until 1862 that the first of a series of constitutional amendments began the process of abolishing slavery. By 1870, slavery was unconstitutional but the misery of southern blacks continued through a cruel and exploitative share-cropping system. Black labourers would farm land and "share" profits with the landowner. The landowner would deduct expenses from the sharecroppers' half so that most black workers earned a pittance or, worse, built up debts to landlords who built plantation houses of overwhelming grandeur.

For the black workers and their families, the enduring "shot-gun" shack - so named because a bullet fired from the front door would pass straight through the simple two-room shack and out the back door - has come to represent their life of hardship and violent oppression.

These days, the ubiquitous trailer home is slowly replacing the shotgun shack as the main housing for the rural poor.

It is in one of these leaking and rickety trailer homes in a desolate trailer park that Jessie Mae Hemphill, one of the great women blues musicians, now languishes.

Jessie Mae Hemphill is the last of the Hemphill blues family. Taught by her grandfather, Sid - one of the legendary greats from the hill country marking the eastern border of the Delta - she came to blues performance late in life but has won three major blues awards for the one album she recorded, She-Wolf.

She recently suffered a stroke at the age of 60 and is partly paralyzed. Most of her possessions were stolen when she was hospitalized with the stroke.

Her single album and the occasional song on an anthology is all that is left of her legacy to the blues. "I'm staying on God's side now," she says. If Hemphill records or performs again it will be in the gospel tradition.

The tension between the blues and the church is a continuing theme in the Deep South. These days the description of the blues as the Devil's music is more directed towards the lifestyle associated with it than the music itself.

The Reverend Willie Morganfield is an accomplished gospel singer with 13 records to his name. He fondly remembers his cousin, Mckinley Morganfield (the legendary Muddy Waters), playing blues on a keg of nails. "There's a thin line between love and hate, same thing with blues and gospel," he says.

Of the Mississippi musicians I spoke to, all of the older musicians and many of the younger ones spoke of their faith in the church as their spiritual guide in the face of hardship and oppression. Of the four old-timers I tracked down, each had stories of physical torment in the cotton fields, and all spoke of the stringent discipline - "whippings" - that characterized parental and penal discipline in their younger years.

In 1900, W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the early leaders of the black civil rights movement talked of the color line in southern America. "A line drawn in black and white and the blood red of violence." Between 1900 and 1930, the 17 counties of the Mississippi Delta averaged a lynching every five-and-a-half months. Of the 539 recorded lynchings in the US between 1882 and 1964, more than one-third occurred in Mississippi.

Willie Foster grew up through these times. At 75, he is the living embodiment of the original blues man. Still playing the warm and soulful harmonica that made him one of Muddy Waters's favorite side-men, he is now almost blind and is confined to a wheelchair. Foster explains the origins of the blues like this: "I wasn't a slave, my parents weren't, but my fore-fore-parents were. We were writing the same book that the slaves were; they just didn't name it slavery. The only thing was you was not bought. I saw enough of it to know."

Foster certainly does know. As he puts it, "I was born in the blues and raised in the blues. I've had all kind of blues from the broke-toenail blues to the last-strand-of-hair-in-my-head blues. As low as I am and tall as I am. In other words, I've had the hungry blues, the hurtin' blues, the hard-workin' blues, the couldn't-go-to-school blues."

Despite a tragic personal history, he maintains a warmth and joy that defies his life story. He personifies the words that introduce the Civil Rights Museum, built around the hotel in Memphis where Martin Luther King was assassinated. "The history of African-Americans in this country is one of tragedy and violence, but it is also one of courage and strength, filled with determination and hope."

In 1921, Foster was born while his mother was working in a cotton field. Tears flow from this blind man's eyes as he recollects the memory of his childhood nearly 70 years before.

"I knew what the blues was when I was seven years old. I didn't have anyone to play with and I decided to ask my Mama why don't she get me a sister or brother? That's when I realized what the blues was all about. She said enough to let me know that I was the causing of it. I was born out across the field and they didn't have time to rush me in and cut my navel string, so it kind of mortified. About six months later, my mother's health began to get bad and she couldn't have any more children ..."

Foster, like most of the old-timers still alive today, knows what it was to work from sun-up to sun-down ploughing rock-hard ground with mule teams that would be worked to death in the stinking heat of the cotton fields.

"Music," he says, "is a thing beginning from a hoe. You chop the grass and it goes ching ching. A man be cutting wood and he go ting ting as he hit the wood and his axe is saying pop pop pop. That's a musical sound."

"The name blues," he explains, "is from 'I'm blue'. We put the "ues" to it when you feelin' down and out. You feel sad and blue and hurting. That puts a burden on your mind and makes you feel blue. The blues is an inspiration to keep you from crying because you're tired."

A few miles away, in the centre of Greenville, lives Eugene Powell, one of the last of the great blues guitar pickers. "The blues," he says, "comes from colored people. Colored peoples wasn't counted with white folk. Nobody seemed to like colored people - do them bad, beat 'em up. The blues is playing your feelings." In his song Suitcase Full of Trouble, Powell sings: I've got a suitcase full of trouble and a trunk full of worries.

Blues ain't nothin' but a worry on my mind.

You be bothered all the time.

Foster, Powell and a handful of other old-timers are all that is left of today's advertising stereotype. The old man playing guitar or harmonica on the front porch is not the same as today's blues men and women because the problems are not the same.

As Arthneice Jones explains: "B.B. King can go in through the front door now. When he first started travelling he had to go in the back door. He can drink out of any water fountain now. You'd have had a colored water fountain and a white water fountain. Music has to be about what goes on in your life. New blues is just new problems."

Jones the poet and songwriter takes over:

All the cotton been picked and the mules been ploughed,

The story been told and laid to the side.

A lot of folks have written about the blues but most of them have lied.

In order to know the truth you must have lived the life and damn near died.

John Ruskey is curator at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi. A musician himself with the Wesley Jefferson Blues Band, he greets thousands of visitors from all parts of the globe coming to Clarksdale to learn and pay their respects to the greats and the music they love.

Ruskey argues that the only way to understand the blues is through its performance. "People dance and actively participate in the making of the music. There's a lot of call back and forth between the musicians and audience. It's kind of a communal moving on - that's the hope of the music."

Ruskey says, "Music is a way of telling your story, of talking to people, telling your feelings. Music is an integral part of life here and is as important as talking is to an English teacher or a computer to a Wall Street banker. Music is found at all weddings, family reunions, community gatherings and the juke joints, in the church with gospel music, riding around in your car, in your home."

Live music performance in the Delta is usually confined to Friday or Saturday nights, with the juke joint tradition living on. The juke joint is usually a run-down building that comes alive as a bar and music venue on weekends.

The most regular juke joints are in Clarksdale and nearby Shelby. The musicians of this region are a close-knit family

and play together at clubs, juke joints and on special occasions.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to a number of blues gigs and a description of just two may help to explain what the blues means as a living, rather than a recorded, tradition.

The opening night of a new club in Clarksdale attracted most local musicians to perform and jam together. Special guest was Terry "Youngblood" Williams, who had been released from the local jail for the evening to play for the first time in three months.

Williams had been jailed for failing to make fine payments on a minor drug charge. He had been arrested by his parole officer when he came off stage from the 1995 Annual Sunflower Festival in Clarksdale. The last time he had picked up a guitar was in February 1996 when he was released to play at a benefit concert.

Referring to his time in jail, Williams told me, "Since I've been in here I've been divorced, I've been spit on, slapped on. Well, I know what the blues is all about now."

Williams plays with a sweetness of sound and deftness of touch that belies his recent experience and underscores the talent of real blues men. When he was joined by his two young sons, the soul of the blues man was poignant. His skill lies in a confidence in his own ability and musical heritage not to show off with the loud and showy licks that characterise many white blues players.

Just as jazz music is largely about knowing when not to play, real blues is all about feeling and expression, and fine blues musicians can create more feeling and sensitivity with one bent note than the flashy affectations of rock musicians and their desperate attempts to demonstrate their arsenal of guitar skills.

Later that same night, 50 km away in the town of Shelby, Robert Walker was playing at the region's most active juke joint, the Do Drop Inn. A cotton grower from Mississippi now growing cotton in California, Walker had returned to Shelby for a family funeral. The Do Drop Inn is a crumbling facade on a run-down corner. On weekends the streets are alive with people and cars. A couple of dollars at the door gains entrance to a long rectangular room lined with large sheets of chipboard covering the floors, walls and low ceiling. In the front half of the room is a bar and pool table, while there is a seating, dance and performance area in the back half of the room.

Walker plays with an intensity that can only be compared to Chuck Berry at his dirtiest. Backed by the irrepressible James "Super Chickan" Johnson on drums and a languid bass player holding down the beat, Walker's playing inspired extraordinary audience reaction from licentious dancing through to respectful homage and interplay. That the blues tradition can live on in places like Shelby and Clarksdale, so very far away from the commercial interpretations that now pass for blues, is a tribute to the continuing creativity and musical talent of Delta musicians.

The endurance and popularity of this musical form which developed as a response to the hardship and deprivations of share-cropping around the turn of the last century owes much to the blues' universal message of joy and sorrow - a message that cuts across racial, cultural and language barriers. Willie Foster simply says, "What's from the heart reaches the heart."

At a time when the blues is being targeted as a mainstream musical product, one wonders whether the Delta's place in blues history will at last be recognised. In the words of Arthneice Jones:

The blues is nothing but a lifestyle,

I'm telling you as simple as it can be.

I didn't choose the blues,

The blues chose me.

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