As Much Legend as It is Music

Sarcastro sent me this article from Reason about how the rise of the Delta Blues was heavily influenced by the rise of the ubiquity of affordable guitars. In his email, he says only, “Seeds of a good article…”

That is probably all that needs to be said. But since Sarcastro doesn’t have a blog anymore and I like to blather, let me make two points, one minor and one major.

The minor point:

Chris Kjorness ends his piece by saying

Even as the blues was attaining nationwide prominence through the first Delta artists being recorded in the late 1920s, the Delta itself was in turmoil. Scholars looking back have found a depressed region decimated by cotton crop failures, boll weevil infestations, and the great flood of 1927. Racial tensions boiled over as more whites moved into the area. The revived KKK gained popularity in the region, terrorizing blacks. Once-numerous black-owned businesses were squeezed out of existence by institutionalized racism. Many descendants of Delta pioneers pulled up their stakes and moved north, to places like Chicago and Detroit, once again determined to find a better life.

It was during this time that the Delta bluesmen began to be seen as naive folk artists: trapped in the worst of situations, resentful of the modern world, using music as a coping mechanism and almost stumbling onto brilliance. But a closer study of musical biography and commercial history reveal a very different picture. Bluesmen were clever, ambitious, and quick to adapt to changing conditions. And their conditions were changed forever by a mail-order catalog.

And I want to say in response, “Yes, but no.” If you’re writing an article that is supposed to be debunking legends, not just rewriting them, you need to account for the fact that we know folklorists who went to the Delta and tried to capture evidence of a fading way of life in 1941-42. And while they recorded some blues songs, we can read in John Work, Lewis Jones, and Samuel Adams’ own words their impressions of McKinley Morganfield aka Muddy Waters. Morganfield could not fit more cleanly into Kjorness’s story. He was a plantation musician. He played both black and white music adeptly. And he played country blues on a shitty guitar in his sharecropper’s shack.

And each of the men who talks about him remarks about how extraordinary what he’s doing is and how they all love it, but that they aren’t sure it fits their survey because it doesn’t sound old-fashioned at all.

I think that the “naive folk artist” construct is best understood not as a misunderstanding of white folks (though it was also that), because, let’s be honest, it was in part a misunderstanding of very young white folks who, when they were in their skiffle bands before becoming the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or the Yardbirds and then Led Zeppelin, didn’t realize what a short time twenty or thirty years ago actually is. But instead, probably should be understood as a marketing construct by many of those very same artists once they got to Chicago and got electric guitars. “Don’t listen to that old-fashioned stuff (that I will neglect to mention I used to make and love) made by those hicks (of which I was one). Listen to this new stuff, made by me here now.”

My major point:

Bessie Smith died along Highway 61 between Memphis and Clarksdale in 1937. She obviously would not have been in the Delta to perform if she didn’t have an audience there. That’s just self-apparent. Bessie Smith died in the Delta because she had reason to be in the Delta.

It’s too late for Kjorness and for Reason now, obviously, since the article is written. But this will carry a date on it of May 2012. That’s almost seventy-five years since Smith, a blues singer, died in the Delta, and we still cannot get even one woman into the short version of the myth of the Delta blues.

How hard would it be to just say, in the section where Kjorness is talking about the monetary opportunities for black musicians, specifically for black blues musicians, that the Delta bluesmen would have been very aware of the kinds of money and opportunities that blues singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were able to realize?

Women don’t actually have cooties. You can tell a story about the blues that includes us, that shows that men would have been aware of us and wanted the kinds of success we had, and no one’s dick will be cut off.

It’s not a history that’s segregated by gender. Why must the legend always be?

When can the Empress sit on her throne and be recognized in all her territory? Seventy-five years later, her blood on that ground, and she still doesn’t get to be a part of the story of the Delta blues.

Here’s Geeshie Wiley, from Natchez. I guess we have to pretend she doesn’t exist, either, but let’s listen to her sing once before we do so. Try to ignore Elvie Thomas with her spooky guitar accompaniment, since that’s also not worthy of being included in the great story of the Delta bluesmen.

Oops, apparently no one told the folks over at Third Man Records that the blueswomen aren’t really a part of the story. Hopefully, someone will send them this article from Reason so they’ll know.

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10 thoughts on “As Much Legend as It is Music

  1. One comment about the Chicago end, ma’am: There was already an ongoing, and pretty sophisticated pro blues scene in Chicago (“Melrose Blues”–Tampa Red, Big Bill, etc.) when Muddy and his generation up from the Delta just then showed up–and part of the attraction was loud and very now, sure–but it was also that it DID remind people of back home, and older styles, and Willie Dixon, etc made sure there were references like that in the lyrics being written. Compare, as has been done, Bill Monroe and the rise of bluegrass at just the same time–a very modern music, with very old sentimental references to place as well.

  2. So where would someone like Memphis Minnie fit in to all this? She was, even at the time, considered the equal to any blues dude…and now she sounds a hell of a lot better than some of them. She played the same venues…she was married to Charlie McCoy (so it wasn’t like she wasn’t a visible part of the blues circuit). Weird omissions, perhaps due to the sexist terminology “bluesman.” Minnie weren’t no man. (Love that Geechie Wiley track.)

  3. Barry, yes, exactly. That’s why I think the “naive folk singer” myth is so complicated. I don’t think anyone non-white and contemporary of these men actually thought that. They may have thought it was hick music, but the people who made it naive? No.

    Oh, but that also made me go back and read this sentence again, “Even as the blues was attaining nationwide prominence through the first Delta artists being recorded in the late 1920s, the Delta itself was in turmoil.”

    This is just utter bullshit. The blues did NOT attain nationwide prominence through the first Delta artists being recorded in the late 1920s. It attained nationwide prominence in the 1920s through the popularity of the blueswomen.

    Bridgett, I’m going to guess, based on Memphis Minnie’s history–didn’t she play with a circus for a while?–that mentioning her would skirt too close (pun not intended, but left because it’s fitting) to the whole discussion of the chitlin’ circuit and traveling performers and medicine shows and venues that featured women, which undermines the whole “lone men in the Delta did this.” myth.

  4. Thumbs up, Aunt B. The Delta origin story–and I’m almost ready to say “myth”– is just not taken that seriously but anybody who looks into this stuff any more. It’s every bit as likely that fairly sophisticated musicians from the Gulf–New Orleans and Texas, for instance–and vaudeville shows with the “classic” women blues singers, had played piano blues and vaudeville blues in MS and the rural guys, thanks to those cheap catalog guitars, adapted the stuff best they could.

    (Minnie’s husband–one of them anyway–was “Kansas” Joe McCoy. The McCoys, and Minnie too, were also among musicians from points Well South and earlier styles who managed to transition to big city music later.)

  5. The thing that’s weird to me about this is that you can see it, even in Kjorness’s article, leaking into public knowledge that much of the Delta was a swamp that had to be drained. Of all of Mississippi, that’s the youngest part (in terms of ages of cities and length of time of “old” families being there). Dockery Plantation wasn’t established, for instance, until 1895.

    The myth seems to take for granted that the Delta is populated by people who were stuck there and had been for generations, who did little moving themselves and who had little contact with the outside world.

    But that’s just not the case. People moved there. They moved away. They moved back.

    That seems to almost be on the tip of popular knowledge’s tongue, but not yet quite there.

  6. I thought that this was why “Geeshie” was called Geeshie, because she was Gullah. (As in, moved to the Delta from the Lowcountry SC or her folks did, one rice cultivating spot to another…I mean, Clarksdale is smack in the middle of rice country, right?) Maybe I’m assuming too much.

    Thanks, Barry. Were Charlie and Joe brothers or have I got that wrong too?

  7. Charlie and Joe were remarkable brothers. Between them, under various names, (they were also the Mississippi Mudsteppers, The Mississippi Blacksnakes, the Georgia Pine Boy, Halleluyah Joe, and the Mississippi Hot Footers) they recorrded with Tommy Johnson in the 20s, with the Chatmon Brothers of the Sheiks, then Memphis Minnie (in Joe’s case), and went on to join the modern, multi-instrumental Harlem Hamfats in Chicago, where Charlie wrote “Why Don’t You Do Right?”–as recorded by Lil Green, then Peggy Lee, and ultimately, of course, Jessica Rabbit.

  8. That’s a mother fuck of a record. The Geeshie Wiley I mean. B, I assume you have American Primitive Volume 2? Never mind that the title calls up the “naive folk artist” myth you just debunked, it’s filled with mother fucker records–it’s essential.

  9. I don’t, but I will have to figure out how to get my hands on a copy. I was looking at the track list and I think I’ve heard less than half of those, maybe only a third, so that would be an excellent treat!

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