Sunday, December 31, 2017

Burning More Than a Few with the Blues

Mose Vinson & Arne Brogger
Written by Arne Brogger 
Original Title - "Ghost Story"

Business took me to Nashville for three days and I decided to take a long weekend and visit Memphis. I hadn’t been there in almost twenty years, not since the funeral of my old friend and co-conspirator, Walter “Furry” Lewis. Furry was a charter member of the Memphis Blues Caravan (MBC), a group of geriatric bluesmen whom I had the pleasure of booking and managing in the Seventies.

On a Friday morning I headed southwest out of Nashville on I-40 (The Music Highway, as the sign said) across the Tennessee River, through the rolling Cumberlands, on down to the brown and wide Mississippi. I had promised myself this trip for years. I had fantasized about it. Obsessed over it. It was like a reverse Vision Quest. I wanted to go back, to recapture scenes that had been an important part of my life, but knowing all the while that was not possible. Most of the folks I had known were now gone. But they had stayed with me – and I thought…who knows what I thought. I knew it was a trip I had to take.

Capitol Loans
Capital Loans
I arrived early afternoon. The first stop was the Cozy Corner CafĂ©, BBQ ribs and chicken (with a side of beans), just to get in the right frame of mind. Then up Poplar Avenue to the intersection of Mannassas, where sat the global headquarters of Capitol Loans. Capitol was the pawnshop where Furry would hock his guitar every time he came off the road. When it was time to go back out again, it was up to me to “un-hock” it so that he could play the dates.

Turning on Mannassas I drove one short block to Mosby Street where Furry had once lived at number 811. The house is gone, having burned down a month before he died of complications from the fire. But standing next door was its duplicate. A four-room shotgun style house. Six or eight folks were sitting on the front porch. I asked if any of them knew Furry Lewis who used to live next door. An old woman volunteered, “the gittar picker?” I nodded. “You know he gone. Passed some time ago.” Yes, I know.

I looked over at the empty lot and remembered walking up on the porch, through the front door, into the main room where Furry sat on his bed. A whiskey glass stood on the table next to him covered by a saucer. “Spiders” he said, “can’t see too good. Don’t want no surprises.” That was in 1973.

Big Daddy’s Office

Bukka White’s “office” consisted of a chair leaned against a brick wall. Next to the chair was a wooden crate. Both sat on the shady side of the street beside Triune Sundry. This is where I first met him, having been told earlier by his wife that “Big Daddy ain’t home. He’s at his office.” Cruising the streets near Mosby, I knew it was around the area somewhere. Suddenly something told me to turn right at the corner of Leath. There it was.
Triune Sundry
Triune Sundry

Triune Sundry

It was a hot day in 1973 when I had first stood on that corner and shook hands with a legend. He was B. B. King’s big cousin and had given B. B. his first guitar, a Stella. Muddy Waters would later tell me that there were licks Bukka did that he (Muddy) was still trying to figure out. And Bukka was the man who literally sang his way out of Parchman Farm Prison. I stood on the corner for a while. I took a few pictures. I could hear the rolling thunder of Aberdeen Blues and see his hands, hopping back on forth on the guitar. I got in the car and headed for Beale.

Daddy’s Dogma

Land Where the Blues Began

By Carl McIntyre
Jackson, MS Clarion Ledger
Sep 30, 1979

To the accompaniment of the diddley bow and a cane fife, the blues was born in the Mississippi Delta.

A musical form all its own, growing more popular the world over. the blues "was transplanted from Africa, reformulated and given English words," according to Alan Lomax, probably the world's foremost folklorist.

To prove his point, and to preserve the fading vestiges of the original blues singers for all time, Lomax has been in the Delta this year filming and recording.

"THE LAND WHERE THE BLUES BEGAN" is ready as a special for Mississippi Educational Television. It is being delayed for a time in order to see if it can be scheduled for a national audience on the Public Broadcasting System.

An hour long program, it just hits the high spots of Lomax' latest venture into American folklore. He re-corded and filmed more than 40 hours of the Delta blues, using as his "stars" some of the old timers who still remember the original verses as well as the tunes.

He features Sam Chatmon, Bud Spears, Jack Owens, Beatrice Maxwell, Lonnie Pitchford, Othar Turner, Clyde Maxwell, Lucius Smith and others. They range in age up into their 90s.

If listeners are able to understand all the words that some performers sing, there may be a hullabloo over the airing, for the blues had down to earth lyrics.

THAT'S WHAT MADE IT the blues, Lomax declares.

"It was music that gave vent to the emotions of people who expressed their frustrations, their ill treatment, their lack of hope in their singing," Lomax points out.

Shunted into a narrow world of their own, they knew mostly poverty. However, even their menial work they turned into a dance and the rhythmic motions were keyed to a melody. The words gave expression to their thoughts.

Life's basics were their themes. This can be under-stood by those who study the lyrics. One can see how they could almost rejoice in a love of living — or perhaps that is a living of loving.

From that, "Make me a pallet on your floor so your man will never know" or "Shakin' in the bed with me" came to be among the most popular of the ballads.

LOMAX BELIEVES the blues was born in the Del-ta because of the isolation of the big groups of former Africans on large plantations. In their work and play they used music as a link to their past.

They had brought the "beat" as well as the body movements of the dance when they were uprooted from their homeland. In a new environment they applied their innermost emotions in a natural adjustment to a completely new way of living.

Even the dull. tiring, sweating task of hoeing a cot-ton patch became a dance and the hoes sounded a beat as they, almost in unison, were swung to the ground in a musical cadence. The words just came naturally. They expressed their resentments as well as their desires.

IT WAS THE SAME if they were choppin' down trees. There was a beat to the striking of the axes. When called upon to carry heavy loads, their labor became lighter as they virtually danced in step to a home grown ballad.

Those songs have lingered, but today the old words are giving way to new ones, and the younger generation is learning different verses while the melody lingers on.

Lomax had decided, from more than 40 years of study, that the blues had come from the cotton fields along the Mississippi River. He had recorded some of the music, as his Mississippi-born father had before him, but they had not filmed it, and they had missed some of the original lyrics.

NOW, WITH 40 HOURS of filmed music, the Archives of American Folklore, which Lomax' father, John A. Lomax, founded at the Library of Congress, is richer. It already had dozens of tapes and records made by the Lomax team since the 1930s.

Alan Lomax can hardly remember when he was not interested in folklore.

His father made it his life's work, beginning with the cowboys along the Chisholm Trail. Later, he brought a young Alan with him to Mississippi and other Southern states to record the folk music of prisoners in several penitentiaries.

That was in 1933.

Since then, Alan has combed the world for its folk-lore and has recorded more than 4,000 songs in 400 cultures.

He spent years in England, Ireland and Scotland, and found that this music had been continued in America by the people of Appalachia.

THEN HE TRAVERSED Spain, Italy and on to the Near East, Far East, Central and South America, tracing patterns of music from varied sources, but finding each had its tendrils deep into another area.

From this, Lomax "invented" cantometrics and choremetrics, which today are the world's lone systems for classifying songs (canto) and dance (choreo). From his home base as a member of the faculty at Columbia University in New York City, he teaches these systems and continues the research that the family has pioneered. He shows how the music and dance of one people jumped thousands of miles to be found in a new environment, enjoyed by a foreign populace.

Musical instruments for the blues, Lomax has found, were home made. Most often they copied those that had been made by the Africa natives and used hundreds, even thousands, of years earlier.

The drum, of course, is recognizable anywhere. So is the pan (cane) pipe, which is universal.

THE DIDDLEY BOW is perhaps the unique instrument for American music although it is copied, after a manner, from a one stringed instrument used in Africa.

The Delta diddley bow had these parts: a piece of broom wire, a snuff box (the round one, not the flat one, about an inch in diameter and one and a half inches long) and the broken neck of a glass bottle.

To make one, the wire was nailed to a wall and the snuff box was placed under the wire. Then, running a finger up from the bottom, one flicked the wire until the proper pitch was found. At this point the wire was cut to that length, fastened to a board, the snuff box used as a bridge.

To play it, the strummer put the neck of the bottle around a finger on his left hand and used it to slide up and down the wire to change pitch. The right hand was the "twanger." With both hands in motion, each moving about as speedily as the other, the music burst forth.

WITH A PAN PIPE fife and a drum or two, it was an orchestra. Othar Turner's fife and drum band has played at many places over the states.

Later, of course, the guitar and the banjo were added, but these were not originals.

In the era between 1905 and the 1930s, Lomax believes the blues had not only their heyday but also their introduction to others outside the Delta.

Rivermen, as they were known, were without families. Homeless, they moved about freely looking for work. They carried their dancing patterns to their new jobs, and sang as they labored. In the evenings, they looked for the love and other emotions that had escaped them in the drudgery of their daytime tasks.

Their journeys took the blues to the outside world and opened the way for its acceptance as a new form. From there on it was the birth of the blues for all America — and the world.

BACK IN THE DELTA. however, where it had all begun, it was still the home grown, completely unique musical form that had come into being a hundred years before. The environmental changes had altered it only slightly, reformed it into a new vehicle for a people's message.

As Lomax' film proves it now, the blues is still a North Mississippi phenomena — and one he enjoys. Watching the anthropologist with the fringed beard as he played back the tapes of his show, we wondered how he had ever stopped recording. He gets so wrapped up in the beat, so hip with the tunes it is with obvious difficulty that he sits quietly to edit the material. We fully expected him to jump up, imitating the dance and joining in the choruses.

His father, born near Clarksdale, was one of 21 children in the family which moved to Texas when he was but two years old.

THEIR TEXAS HOME WAS ON the Chisholm Trail and the cowboys passed by regularity. John Lomax was fascinated by their songs. By the time he was ten he had written down the words to dozens.

When he finally was able to enter Texas U. at the age of 32, he was so ready for an education that he graduated in two years. From there he went to Harvard and found a grant awaiting that let him tour the West with one of the early recording cylinders.

When he had all the cowboy music he felt necessary, he started with the blues. And this is when and where Alan came into the picture.

Now, 40 years later. Alan has no peer, at home or abroad, in the field of folklore.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Really the Blues - Mezz Mezzrow (1946)

If you get the chance and you either have or have not read Really the Blues (1946) by Mezz Mezzrow with Bernard Wolfe, pick it up! Mezzrow, in his life-affirming story, is a man who followed his passions no matter what. While the title may confuse, the book is not about the country blues or what you may consider blues. Born in 1900, Mezz Mezzrow was a white Chicago musician, who plays New Orleans-style jazz, which includes some blues songs. He discusses how white musicians were “out of the gallion” when it came to playing the blues, but it is of no great consequence to him.

He runs around with--and plays with and even mentors—several of great musicians. He performs in speakeasies for gangsters, and he immerses himself in underground African American culture. Along the way he almost single-handedly turns Americans on to cannabis, which remained legal in the states. Speaking in the pre-Beatnik slang of the day, this book marked the beginning of counterculture in American literature. Some examples of slang from the 20s and 30s, were terms like 'wig-trig': idea; 'tall': intoxicated on marijuana; 'knock a fade': go away, leave; and the 'Head Knock': God.

In the Introduction to the book, Ben Ratliff takes some air out of the image that Mezz gave himself. But you can't help but not care if Mezzrow was tootin' his own horn a bit.  The book is a great description of the first few decades of the 20th century in Chicago and New York, and a great book to read in the context of the current inabilities to understand the polyvalent concept of race in America.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Nature isn't on a Rampage, but We Are

By Cynthia Barnett--a journalist in residence at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications and the author of three books on the water including "Rain: A Natural and Cultural History." She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times. 

In 1927, as the muddy waters of the Mississippi River began to recede from what was then the deadliest storm-related flood in American history, blues musicians wailed their sorrow and rage. Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded his "Rising High Water Blues" that May: 

Children stand there screamin'
Mama we ain't got no home
Awww, Mama we ain't got no home
Papa says to the children, "Backwater left us all alone

The gut-wrenching disaster and others that swept through the Mississippi's fast-populating basin in the early 20th century led to more blues devoted to rain and flood than any other natural event. But Papa was wrong. It wasn't the water that left families homeless and alone. 

Under pressure to allow development of the Mississippi's natural floodplain that once absorbed nearly half the nation's rainfall, Congress had ignored Progressive Era wisdom that flood control required a mix of reservoirs, levees and preserved wetlands and forests. Instead, lawmakers caved to a levees-only strategy that ushered in what the flood-law scholar Christine A. Klein calls "a century of un-natural disaster." 

We've long sung our blues, conjured our demons and imagined our enemies in deluges and sky-darkening storms. Even today we imbue the atmosphere with evil intention, like how we once saw swamps as villainous forces. This way of thinking about storms leaves us feeling helpless and also off the hook. The problem is the weather, rather than human decisions that impede safety and drainage or deny the climate science we need to better understand the atmosphere, including record-breaking tropical storms. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma did not surprise climate scientists, who have grown hoarse warning that the warming seas and atmosphere will amplify hurricanes and other natural disasters. And yet, media and meteorologists dubbed the exceptional cyclones "monsters," as if they were spun from a fairy tale rather than hotter-than-usual ocean waters. We have cried "beast" and "zombie storm," watching Irma break global wind speed records and Harvey the U.S. record for greatest rainfall in a single storm.

Fear, perhaps, returns us to the ancient superstitions that named these storms after Huracan, the ancient Mayan god of the storm. In his new film on the climate change crisis, "An Inconvenient Sequel," Al Gore describes the extremes that have drowned cities from Baton Rouge to Bangladesh as "rain bombs," suggesting an angry god throwing down torrential rains and ruinous floods. 

Last year, when Stu Ostro, a meteorologist with the Weather Channel, saw a smiling skull in Hurricane Matthew on infrared satellite imagery, its creepy eye over Haiti, he posted the "sinister-looking face" to Twitter. The skull went viral. The Weather Channel, CNN and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution all assigned reporters to the "story." Many TV broadcast meteorologists took precious air time to feature it. 

We writers are not immune. I was taken aback by this line in a favorite reporter's story: "The weather appears to be on an unprecedented climate-change-induced rampage." But the weather is not sinister. It is not on a rampage. It is not the bomb.

In the history of humans and their climate, such misplaced attribution has led to our most profound mistakes. In medieval times, people became convinced during the weather extremes of the Little Ice Age that witches were conjuring the storms. As frightening weather intensified, so did witch trials, torture and executions of thousands of innocent people accused of "weather magic." Two hundred years later, British parliament quashed pioneering storm forecasts under pressure from those who thought that the ability to foretell rain was black magic — a fear flamed by ship salvagers who worried predictions would cut into shipwrecks, and their profits. The brilliant Royal Navy vice-admiral who developed the advanced warnings, Robert Fitzroy, committed suicide in the wake of the merciless doubt. 

In mid-20th century America, from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the Everglades of Florida, federal engineers hyped up water as "the fierce, uncompromising enemy." The propaganda film "Waters of Destiny" breathlessly describes the Army Corps of Engineers' massive replumbing of the Everglades to save South Florida from "devastating, ruining, havoc-wreaking rains." In fact, it was the compulsion to vanquish an enemy rather than live in water's balance that put future generations in grave danger. 

Soft rains, torrents, and even hurricanes are part of that balance. Hurricanes are essentially giant engines that transfer heat from sea to atmosphere. Scientists are working hard to understand the extent to which global warming may fuel them. Yet at this most crucial time, the Trump Administration has purged climate experts, research funding and even the science itself from public websites as if we were back in the witchcraft days. Lessening the blows of both storm disasters and climate change requires us to see the cycle rather than the Cyclops. Failure to do so will cause more of the same catastrophic destruction and human suffering now occurring in Texas, the Caribbean, and Florida. 

We are not powerless. Unlike hapless children in a blues song or a fairy tale, there is plenty we can do. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said that a hurricane emergency is not the time to talk about climate change. To the contrary, it is just the time to draw the nation into the conversation. In recovery mode, we can remake cities to better withstand storms — in ways that help us reduce the carbon emissions warming the planet. We can plan retreat from those parts of the coast becoming unsafe for people. And we can hike investment in the science of climate change so that we can understand, rather than fear. 

By putting the evil eye on nature, we take it off the humans who have science in their hands, but hold it behind their backs. The rain is not the bomb. The storms are not the monsters. The weather is not on a rampage. That would be us.