Saturday, June 29, 2019

Two men are trying to find Robert Johnson's crossroads.

Where did blues legend make deal with devil? 
1991 By Steve Walton 

Bradley Seidman and Jeff Twiss say their research will end the decades-old debate in blues folklore about where 1930s musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to Satan. 

Johnson, according to legend, met the devil at a desolate crossroads somewhere in the Delta and traded his soul for blues greatness. Johnson left the meeting able to play the acoustic guitar better than anybody, but the devil had rights to his soul, says the story.

"Robert Johnson has become such a mythological person, it's getting harder to separate fact from fiction. I know the deal went down, I just want to find out where," said Seidman, 36, who lives in Chicago and uses Bradley Lastname as the signature for his surrealist paintings. 

Columbia Pictures used the Johnson myth as the basis for its 1986 movie Crossroads. The $10 million motion picture was filmed at several Delta locations and used an intersection on a plantation east of Beulah in Bolivar County as the legendary crossroads. 

Several crossroads have been called the site of the devil's deal, but none has been confirmed and many people doubt the story's truth. 

"I don't think it was a particular crossroads. That's sort of a mythical place," said Malcolm White of Hal and Mal's restaurant and nightclub in Jackson. Tourists often ask White about the crossroads' location. "I get a couple a month," White said. 

"I don't know about the crossroads' credibility. It's kind of a joke," said Jim O'Neal. founding editor of Living Blues magazine and owner of Rooster Blues Records and Stackhouse Record Shop in Clarksdale.

"I guess it depends on your beliefs, whether such a deal could be made at all."

"Thing is, he sold his soul to the devil, he got paid off pretty late. His songs are on the charts now, 52 years after his death," O'Neal said, laughing.

Johnson's songs include Crossroad Blues, Me and The Devil Blues and Hellhound on Aly Trail.

Johnson died Aug. 16, 1938, 27 years after his birth in Hazlehurst. Some say he was poisoned by a jealous husband, while others say he was stabbed to death in a juke-joint scuffle. 

"What I'm doing could easily be passed off as flippant or nonsense," Seidman said. 

Indeed, the pair's "research" is less than scientific A lot less. They plan to dig dirt from tour Delta crossroad sites this weekend and have a 1-ounce sample of the dirt weighed film time in January. The four sites were chosen from Living Blues magazine, which had an article on the crossroads debate in its November-December issue. 

Seidman could not explain where he got the hypothesis. 

The location where his soul was sold. that soil is going to weigh differently," Seidman said of the 1- ounce dirt samples. "It Will just make the scales go wild. It will be like the needle of a magnetic compass at the North Pole. That's a good comparison." They base their hypothesis on parapsychological research which claims the soul has weight, Seidman said. Parapsychology is the branch of psychology that studies psychic phenomena, such as Telepathy and telekinesis. Seidman claims to have no special powers.

 Twiss, 36, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Morton, laughed at a couple of Seidman's remarks. "I guess it was just a laugh of joy," Twiss said after Seid-man said his research will benefit everyone. 

Can I go back and change something. I think the correct word is delight — joy inaccurate," he said later. 

Twiss also speculated about why the dirt would weigh differently where .Johnson dealt with the devil. 

"When you buy something, you want to examine it, so when Johnson handed his soul over, some probably spilled," Twiss said. "And there might be some soil erosion." 

Seidman said skeptics would be people irritated at themselves for not thinking of doing this research first. Even skeptics would demand to know the results of their work, he said. 

"This is a research project," Seid-man said with a little irritation in his voice. "There's no ulterior mo-tive. I'm not selling anything. This isn't a publicity stunt. Its research." 

Patton Biopic Trailer #1

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Nelson Street: Behind the Catfish & Cotton

By T. DeWayne Moore
Filling in the Silences: Part 2

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the black schools in Greenville schools were the best in the state. While most state politicians virulently opposed the education of blacks and some districts spent as little as sixty-eight cents a year per black student, the Queen City allocated an annual seventeen dollars for the education of each black child enrolled in public school, which offered not only reading, writing and arithmetic, but also courses in foreign languages. Senator Leroy Percy and his allies may have allocated the funds that made it possible, but the principal of Greenville’s main black school, Lizzie Williams Coleman, provided the vision, determination, and hard hand required to shape a curriculum that endowed young blacks with pride, self-respect, and intelligence under the racial stigma of Jim Crow.[1] Possessing great pride in herself and her own black heritage, she was known to exclaim, “I don’t believe in the melting pot.”[2]

The staging at Heathman Plantation for Southern Living magazine invokes a bubolic fascination with the South, a mythic version of a bygone era. Notice the silences, and how space is filled with nostalgia and longing. What don't you see?

An African American family of sharecroppers
in the Delta circa 1935
Born to “pure negro parentage”[3] in Yazoo County around the end of the Civil War, she had moved to Greenville, married the formerly enslaved Jerry Coleman, and started her career as a teacher in the 1890s.[4] Lizzie Coleman possessed an excellent memory and command of mathematics that served her well in teaching elementary students, but over the years she realized the need for a broader educational agenda, which required a deeper commitment to teaching standards and fundraising. After becoming principle of the Number Two School in the 1920s, she required that aspiring teachers attend summer instruction programs, pass the state examination, and observe experienced instructors for a period of time before setting them loose on their own. She taught them to push students to excel in their studies, and she made it mandatory that each teacher raise over one hundred dollars for the school each year, which, along with the city funding, ensured that black youths got the best education in the state. 

By maintaining good relationships with local whites and welcoming the support of the city fathers, she also established a pragmatic program to make the most of their generous patronage. Indeed, she learned how to not only survive but thrive under the city’s more paternalist system of Jim Crow, providing her students and others the ideological tools to wage psychological war against white supremacy. Coleman certainly possessed an intense passion for the literature and poetry of Harlem Renaissance writers such as black radical Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, who celebrated black beauty and deplored racism, and Langston Hughes, whose work attempted to depict the “low-life,” or the essential truth of black life at the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Coleman delivered lectures from memory on the works of black intellectuals who highlighted the beauty of black life, even among the poorest sharecroppers, which served to counter the negative racial stereotypes that buttressed the myth of white supremacy.

Lizzie Coleman was one of three women who founded the Mississippi Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (MFCWC) in 1903.[5] Following a regional meeting of the Southeastern Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (SACW), women’s club work swelled in Mississippi and prompted the three women to recruit several of the state’s black women’s clubs to work with the MFCWC. In line with the NACW motto—“Lifting as We Climb”—the MFCWC organized for the “binding together” of women for “social, moral, religious, industrial, and educational betterment, with the fundamental object of raising to the highest plane, home, moral, and civil life.”[6] Coleman, indeed, inspired many Mississippi clubwomen to work on a variety of fronts—“improving home and family life, combatting illiteracy, education and protection of our youth, providing for cultural, recreational, religious, economic and social needs”—to improve African Americans’ quality of life. Though such endeavors in social activism were perhaps typical of middle-class clubwomen, their work was also intrinsically political considering the socioeconomic context of Jim Crow. Coleman and other respectable clubwomen launched notable campaigns to redress the separate, yet wholly inferior resources, available to blacks. In the main, however, she supported and nurtured the black community through the building of quality educational institutions, which taught students to question racial stereotypes and oppose the state’s racist political structure. Her students would grow up and help start the Delta Council of Negro Leadership and enjoy significantly greater access to the franchise in the Queen City.

Lizzie Coleman may have also been influenced by the messages of emigrationism, racial pride and self-defense espoused by African Methodist Episcopal (AME) bishop Henry McNeal Turner, who enjoyed a good deal of popularity among African Americans in late nineteenth century Greenville. In April 1894, he delivered a lecture at St. Matthews AME Church on Nelson Street on the subject of “The Dark Continent,” according to the Times of Greenville, one of which he could speak with some authority, having recently returned from a long sojourn in Liberia and Sierra Leone.[7] Africa was “one of the more paradisiacal portions of earth” that he had ever seen, and upon his return, he got serious about promoting his vision of emigration. In light of the hardening of social Darwinist-infused white supremacy, Turner concluded that the situation of blacks would never get better in the United States. “I have said, and say yet,” he asserted in a letter to the editor of the Indianapolis Freeman, “that there is no more hope for the black man in this country to become a civil and political factor, than there is for a frog in a snake den. And any man who is too idiotic to see it ought to go and hang himself.”[8] According to historian Mary G. Rolinson, some blacks in Greenville tried to become agents for the African Colonization Society, believing that many blacks would emigrate if given applications and a contact.[9] John Chapple, pious member of Mt. Horeb Missionary Baptist (MB) Church and editor of the upstart weekly newspaper Delta Lighthouse, mentioned an African American convention “to consider plans for emigrating” to Liberia. In his opinion, emigration was a “very wise step,” considering the decrepit state of race relations in the Magnolia State.[10]

Though two ships with a total of five hundred or more emigrants sailed to Liberia in the mid-1890s, many returned to America with complaints about disease and poor economic prospects. Bishop Turner nevertheless continued to promote his back-to-Africa program, but other church and secular leaders had begun speaking and writing against emigration. One journalist considered it “out of the question.”[11] Most black folks did not want to emigrate to Africa, and no durable power existed to compel them. Having been born in the United States, blacks folks had the right to stay and exercised that right despite the utter disregard for their human and civil rights. The powerful myths associated with Africa---the unbearable heat and swampy land made it rife with disease and death—also dissuaded scores of African Americans.[12] “If, as Bishop Turner says,” one Mississippi newspaper commented, “the social, political and civil status of the negro is declining, the improvement of that status rests with the negro himself…and he can do it a good deal better in the United States than in Liberia.”[13]

Having resolved themselves to casting down their buckets in the Delta, many African Americans in Washington County embraced the message of self-reliance and economic nationalism espoused by Booker T. Washington, who visited Greenville on his first educational tour through the South. Six thousand people met the Tuskegee Wizard at the train station, and he delivered speeches to throngs of people both inside and outside the courthouse.[14] Washington and his entourage attended a banquet that evening at the Pythian Temple, an event which John Strauther considered “the most successful affair of the kind ever given in Greenville.” As later noted by Washington, the symbols of black economic power in Greenville and Mound Bayou provided strong evidence against the “white supremacist arguments of black retrogression.”[15]

It was most evident on his tour of the black homes and businesses. Washington visited the large bookstore at 209 Washington Avenue operated by Granville Carter, who had outlasted other bookstores, expanded his sales opportunities into other counties, and become one of the most prosperous African Americans in Greenville.[16] He opened Carter’s Book Store in the early 1880s, and over the next decade it grew into the city’s “headquarters for holiday goods…in every line,” including glass and china ware, fireworks, dolls, and other toys.[17], and it remained a fixture in the local community until his retirement in 1927. In 1930, Granville Carter owned a $1,500 home in Greenville.[18] The Times affirmed that “he was always trusted” in his business of selling books, stationary and children’s toys to both blacks and whites. Though many blacks were “beaten up and given no chance” in Mississippi, the success of Carter demonstrated that the people of Greenville were “always ready to acknowledge service whether from black skin or white skin.”[19] Carter had filed bankruptcy in 1898, but he reopened at the same location and, according to the Times, operated an “A1 Book and Periodical” store at 207 Washington Street, and “he always kept on hand a large and complete assortment of school books, slates, pens, pencil, rulers, ink, and in fact all school supplies.”[20]

The New York Times, June 12, 1910.
The most prosperous and affluent African Americans in Greenville were high ranking church officials, prominent members of the first five churches, and leaders of the three powerful state fraternal organizations headquartered in the Delta, which flourished alongside black businesses in the early years of the twentieth century. Bishop E. W. Lampton was Grand Master of the M.W. Stringer Grand Lodge of Masons; H. B. Brown was the Grand Chancellor of the Knights of Pythias of Mississippi, and John C. Chapple was the Supreme Commander of the Knights and Ladies of Honor Temple of America. Thousands of black dollars flowed into the city through the fraternal organizations and provided black businesses with easy access to capital. Carter was among the most prosperous blacks with his book store, but other black entrepreneurs operated livery stables, blacksmith shops; ice cream shops, funeral parlors, burial associations, and specialized in heavy hauling and house moving. Several black businessmen organized a local chapter of the Negro Business League (NBL), which Booker T. Washington founded in 1900 to promote commercial, agricultural, educational, and industrial advancement” as well as “the commercial and financial development of the Negro.”[21] Eschewing a more radical campaign for political and social equality, the six hundred branches of the NBL across the South encouraged blacks to purchase farmland and get into the businesses of banking, insurance, manufacturing, and the mercantile enterprise.[22]

While black doctors and dentists, a black printer, and several black funeral home operators setup shop in buildings on Nelson Street or the fringes of downtown, and a black-owned newsstand and black shoe shiners regularly served whites along the business district on Main Street and Washington Street, the majority of black women worked as cooks and maids, bringing the streets to life in the mornings as they made their way to white homes. In 1906, the Delta Savings Bank opened its doors on Walnut Street with the help of several black business leaders, particularly landowner and undertaker John Strauther, who opened the city’s “first modern scientific funeral establishment” and, “by his thrift and industry,” amassed a small fortune in land holdings.[23] As grand master of exchequer in the Grand Lodge of Colored Pythians, Strauther had brought the fraternal organization out of a large deficit to a surplus of $30,000.[24] The bank thrived for several years under his leadership, but it suffered after his passing a few years later as well as the forced exile of Bishop Edward Lampton, who had allegedly requested that the white telephone operator use courtesy titles when addressing his daughters. The bank, in fact, survived largely through the patronage of black prostitutes who serviced an exclusive white clientele and cajoled them to make deposits.[25] The brothels on Blanton Street (changed to North Street after 1910 at the request of the Blanton family[26]) conducted a brisk business in the notorious red light district of Greenville, where all prostitutes had to get a health certificate each week.[27] The bawdy houses were supplied with alcohol from surrounding saloons, and on some nights each of the brothels might entertain more than one hundred randy clients. “On Sundays,” one local complained, “these places fairly run over with the men and boys of our town, drinking and carousing.” Though absent from the thoroughfares leading to the depots and steamboat landings, “where decent people are compelled to pass at all hours,” the “houses of prostitution” served as much more than a place where men could quench their sexual appetites.[28]

The Blue Front was the place to go in Hollandale.

The red light district also allowed its white patrons to propagate lies about black women’s inherent sexual inclinations and indiscriminate tastes. The relatively-hedonistic stereotype of the “Jezebel,” a sexually-insatiable temptress, had its roots in the antebellum South, when slave owners auctioned off and bred black women, who had no control over their own bodies, to maximize profits. “Emancipation did not end the social and political usefulness of this stereotype,” argues historian Melissa Harris-Perry, who succinctly points out that “access to black women’s bodies was an assumption supported both by their history as legal property and by the myth of their sexual promiscuity.”[29] The sexual temptress, indeed, was not the only negative stereotype attached to black women, but it served as a powerful promotional device for Greenville’s brothels—savage, wild animals of lust, ready to go anyplace, anytime, with anyone.[30] The hardening of racial stereotypes at the end of the nineteenth century projected clear messages about black women to white men—telling them, since they are all prostitutes, “it is all right to solicit black women and girls for sex.” It also sent unambiguous messages to black women—saying “this is how it is,” white men can rape you; “this is who you are,” a whore; “this is what you’re for,” satiating the sexual desires of white men.[31] Danielle McGuire has recently examined sexualized violence and the defense of black womanhood in the South and found it served as a catalyst in the black freedom struggle. The unpunished rape of black women—in many ways similar to lynching—functioned as both a psychological and physical tool of intimidation, which buttressed male domination as well as white supremacy. And yet, sexualized violence has yet to be included in the history of the black freedom struggle. McGuire’s recent study “At the Dark End of the Street” argues that white males used sex as a weapon of terror to not only undermine the black freedom struggle, but also to maintain both white privilege and the power to control access to black and white women’s bodies.[32]

The old red light district along Blanton Street ran into Nelson Street, the black business section where African Americans “made their way until segregation ended,” or what Wilmoth Carter called “Negro Main Street,” which some locals once referred to as “the black wall street of Greenville, Mississippi.”[33]


[1] John Barry, Rising Tide, 134.

[2] L.C. Holmes, “Lizzie Coleman,” in History of Blacks in Greenville, Mississippi, from 1868 to 1975 (Greenville Travel Club, 1975), 8.

[3] “Lizzie Coleman Dies Suddenly at School Exercises,” DDT, May 28, 1931, p.8.

[4] “Jerry and Lizzie Coleman,” 1900 US Census, Greenville, Washington, Mississippi; Roll: 832; Page: 26A; Enumeration District:0082; FHL microfilm: 1240832.

[5] Ursula J. Wade Foster, a faculty member at Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (Alcorn A & M, now Alcorn State University) and Mattie F. Rowan, the first lady of Alcorn, were the other two women.

[6] Tiyi Morris, Politics and Culture in the Twentieth-Century South: Womanpower Unlimited and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2015), 9.

[7] The Greenville Times, April 14, 1894, p.3.

[8] Andre E. Johnson, The Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American Prophetic Tradition (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012), 76-77.

[9] Rolinson, Grassroots Garveyism, 33.

[10] BDH, Sep 24, 1899, p.2.

[11] BDH, Dec 1, 1898, p.4.

[12] Johnson, The Forgotten Prophet, 77.

[13] BDH, Dec 1, 1898, p.4.

[14] “Large Crowd Hears Speech of Booker T. Washington,” TDD, Oct 15, 1908, p.6.

[15] David H. Jackson, Jr., Booker T. Washington and the Struggle Against White Supremacy: The Southern Educational Tours, 1908-1912 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013): 71-72.

[16] Booker T. Washington, “Negro Disfranchisement and the Negro in Business,” Outlook 93:6 (Oct 9, 1909): 310.

[17] The city council had purchased some books for local schools from Carter in 1884; see, TGT, Mar 8, 1884, p.3; TGT, Dec 7, 1889, p.5.

[18] Granville was born in Tennessee in around 1952, but he had moved to Greenville by 1870. At the age of eighteen, he worked as a domestic servant in the homes of whites, where he gained an appreciation of literature and history; see, 1870; Census Place: Greenville, Washington, Mississippi; Roll: M593_752; Page: 9A; Image: 21; Family History Library Film: 552251; 1930; Census Place: Greenville, Washington, Mississippi; Roll: 1171; Page: 8B; Enumeration District: 0008; Image: 150.0; FHL microfilm: 2340906.

[19] John Barry, Rising Tide, 179.

[20] TGT, Apr 11, 1891, p.1; “Notice of Bankruptcy,” TGT, Nov 26, 1898, p.2.

[21] James Lawrence Nichols and William Henry Crogman, Progress of a Race: Or, The Remarkable Advancement of the American Negro, from the Bondage of Slavery, Ignorance, and Poverty of the Freedom of Citizenship, Intelligence, Affluence, Honor and Trust (Naperville, IL: J.L. Nichols & Company, 1920), 229.

[22] “National Negro Business League.,” DDT, Aug 10, 1905, p.1.

[23] “The Delta Savings Bank,” DDT, Mar 10, 1909, p.1; DDT, Oct 8, 1910, p.49; “Six Early Banks Had Fewer Debts,” DDT, Oct 31, 1951, p.60;

[24] “Grand Lodge of Colored Pythians,” The Greenville (MS) Times, July 13, 1907, p.9.

[25] Levye Chapple Sr. et al., History of Blacks in Greenville, Mississippi, 1868-1975 (Greenville, MS: Greenville Travel Club, 1975), p.2.

[26] Ben Wasson, “Crescent City Remembered,” DDT, May 29, 1977, p.13.

[27] Salvadore Signa, interview by Roberta Miller, December 1, 1976, Washington County Library System Oral History Project: Greenville and Vicinity.

[28] TGT, July 22, 1905, p.1.

[29] Karn Williams, review of Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, by Melissa V. Harris-Perry, (Washington, DC) Afro-American Red Star, Sep 24, 2011, p.C8. 

[30] Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1991), 21-30.

[31] Jessica Spector, Prostitution and Pornography: Philosophical Debate about the Sex Industry (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 20.

[32] Danielle L. McGuire, “At The Dark End of the Street: Sexualized Violence, Community Mobilization and the African-American Freedom Struggle,” PhD dissertation, Rutgers University, 2007.

[33] Dr. L. Jordan Jackson, Triggering The Memories (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Corporation, 2012), 52; Wilmoth A. Carter, “Negro Main Street as a Symbol of Discrimination,” Phylon (Fall 1960): 237.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Musician Rutledge Knows Hoboes

For the Commonwealth - The CheeseBoro

Contrary to rumor, Bobby Rutledge really did not walk from Washington state to Greenwood for last year's Balloon Fest. "It's not true that I walked," says Rutledge, who was not on the bill but was invited onstage at the last minute to play two songs. "I'm a lazy man by nature. Even lazier with 60 pounds of outdoor gear on my back." 

And that is really how he gets around — carrying a big pack and a guitar case. Rutledge, 32, a self described hobo, has never owned a car and only recently signed his first lease (on an apartment in Leland). He was born in Seattle and has lived most of his life on the road, hitchhiking and camping out. This year, he's listed on the Balloon Fest bill, one of the artists at Sunday's blues and gospel extravaganza. Rutledge ran away from home at 15, becoming a street kid in Seattle. He picked up a guitar to play pop and rock tunes for change. "Then someone taught me how to live out of a backpack and how to hitchhike," he says. Rutledge's world expanded. "I vagabonded around the West for about 10 years." 

When the Grateful Dead toured, Rutledge would join the horde of people who followed that rock band around, camping out and mingling and grooving to the music. Along the way, Rutledge says he "made a couple of failed attempts to settle down." When his dad offered to pay for him to go to college, Rut-ledge chose to study guitar repair. Afterward he returned to Seattle, hoping to land an apprenticeship, but found the town glutted with would-be guitar technicians. "I was going to have to wait two years just to get a minimum-wage job," he says. A few years later, he moved to Port Townsend, Wash., and tried to settle down again, with a girlfriend and her child. "I became a dad, took a job — and failed again," he says. The relationship ended, and Rut-ledge moved out to live in a school bus in the woods. But it was in Port Townsend that life.

Jenny Humphryes m Bobby Rutledge recently signed a lease on an apartment in Leland, but he has spent most of his life on the road, hitchhiking and camping out. He says he still has to "hobo from dig to gig" because he doesn't have a car. 

Rutledge picked up his first Robert Johnson song, "Kind Hearted Woman," after his dad bought him a CD by the great Delta bluesman of the 1930s. "I had been playing on the street, strumming chords, but I wasn't get-ting any better," Rutledge says. "Robert Johnson's music was the push that got me off that plateau. Keeping the beat with your thumb, playing a completely different melody with your fingers — I completely rethought my approach to the guitar." Rutledge immersed himself in the country blues. "I found out Robert Johnson had listened to Charley Patton, Skip James, Son House, Willie Brown." He sought out those recordings, and instructional books by Woody Mann and Stefan Grossman. It wasn't only the guitar-playing in those old songs that grabbed Rutledge's attention. "Mose old blues singers were singing about hobo-ing," he says. "I knew all about hoboing! They were singing to me. I could relate to those words." It was time for Rutledge to get on the road again. 

"I decided to leave Port Townsend. I didn't know where I was going. I had been all over the West. Then I thought about Dockery (the plantation near Cleveland where Charley Patton and other early blues musicians lived and played). "I should walk that property, I should visit Patton's grave, visit Robert Johnson's burial sites — which I still haven't done yet." So Rutledge hitchhiked down to the Delta. "Patton's grave was the first place I went to," he says. 

"A rice fanner found me in Hollandale with my 60-pound backpack and guitar case and took me there. I met Billy Johnson (director of the Leland Blues Museum and Highway 61 Blues Festival), played the first half of `Cross Road Blues' for him; he said, `I want you to play at the first Leland festival."' Although Rutledge had been playing music for most of his life, it had only been on the street. The Highway 61 Festival in Leland was his first time playing on a stage. "I had never played in a club before, either," he says. Three years later, Rutledge is more settled than ever. "My first home is in the Delta," he says. "I'm just trying to keep my belly filled, make sure I don't owe anyone too much money." He works part-time as a guitar tech at Brim's Music in Greenville. He has a self-produced CD out, and a regular gig, Tuesdays at the Bourbon Mall. And he plays local festivals and Greenville clubs. "I want to expand the circuit," he says. "But it's tough, because I don't have a car. I still hobo from gig to gig."

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Rich in Song, But No Mojo: A Review of "The Resurrection of Son House"

Cleavant Derricks as Son House
In its world premiere at Geva Theatre Center, Revival: The Resurrection of Son House takes us through the blues legend’s life with some terrific acting, dazzling songs and an ambitious production. 

We follow half a century of Son House’s ups and downs (mostly downs) and, as the play’s program puts it, we make “frequent stops in the hereafter.” 

It’s a lot of motion that, unfortunately, is not very moving. Revival just can’t seem to transcend being a straightforward biography in which we get a lot of information, but too little story. Still, there is a good deal of entertainment here, especially in Cleavant Derricks’s portrayal of Son House and the performing of Son House’s songs. 

Before the play’s opening, Derricks had said he started out mimicking Son House “to get the flavor,” and then he reached a point where he had to “turn it loose” and be himself. 

Apparently, his process works. The play’s most pleasurable moments come in the music, especially when Derricks — without a microphone and at times with little accompaniment — fills the 516-seat Wilson Stage with his voice. And he does seem to accomplish what he described — embodying Son House without simply mimicking him. He’s fun to watch and one can’t wait to see what he does next. 

Those unfamiliar with Son House’s music would do well to listen to some Son House songs before going to the show. “Death Letter,” “Grinnin’ in Your Face,” “John the Revelator” and “Walkin’ Blues” are a few of the standout numbers. The music is delivered by a four-piece band, led by guitarist Billy Thompson, a journeyman bluesman in his own right. Both the Son House songs and the original music are well integrated. 

Fans of the blues, fans of musicals and maybe fans of the craft of live theater will likely enjoy this show. Despite some inconsequential opening-night glitches and a few instances where actor’s voices came in at too low of a level, Revival is a professional production top to bottom. 

The music is good, the cast is good and the show looks good. So what’s the problem? The show’s biggest flaw is in Keith Glover’s script — though even that is well-crafted. Glover has been nominated for a Pulitzer in the past and the script is a pleasure to listen to and at times eloquent. Though the show could certainly use some more laughs, the scenes are at least amusing and sometimes heart-warming. The problem is they reveal all too little. 

We see Son House toil in Jim Crow Mississippi. We see his disappointing relationships with women. We see his spiritual struggle — he was a preacher at first, rejecting the blues, juke joints and alcohol before he embraced all of it. We see him come to Rochester and get rediscovered. We see him outlive his friends. We learn a lot about his life, but we learn little about who he is. The scenes march along year after year, adding up to too little payoff. 

Glover attempts to inject some drama by bringing in a chorus of angels to debate Son House’s life and decide whether he is to be “delivered or damned by the almighty.” Here again, the script is amusing in how the mortal characters sound natural, while the heavenly characters sound, well, supernatural. But at the same time, this ambitious idea is simply too extraneous for this play and feels tacked on. We’ve got moonshine, juke joints, sin, scandal, betrayal and great music on the earthly plane. Why not stay right here? 

With biographies — Revival is based on Daniel Beaumont’s biography of Son House — come the inherent challenge of creating a drama and remaining true to history. But as we’ve seen with Hamilton and even The Royale, a riveting play based on boxer John Johnson that just finished a run at Geva, biography certainly shouldn’t negate a stirring story. But that appears to be the case here. Because despite having a lot going for it, Revival, to borrow a phrase popularized by a Son House protegĂ©, just can’t get its mojo workin’.