[Okay, I’m going to violate my “no blogging about work” policy one more time because I am so excited and the SuperGenius, the Shill, and the Professor are tired of getting minute-by-minute updates, and so I’m going to inflict myself on y’all. I’ll just say up-front that I think it’s a little dodgy to hawk my wares on my personal blog, so if you resent that type of thing, just skip down to more posts about my crazy family or awesome dog.]
Those of you who’ve been paying attention know that I’ve been feeling both anxious and excited about my dead men and their project, which I have been working on diligently for a couple of years.
Today, the book jackets arrived from the printer’s.
The books themselves should arrive next week or early the week after (fingers crossed that there are no problems).
One drawback to working on scholarly books is that you read this stuff that really affects you and changes how you see something (say, Gertrude Stein) and hardly anyone else gives a shit. Most people can barely get into Stein, let alone Stein scholarship.
But this book, though it’s very scholarly, ought to matter to a lot of music fans.
Here’s the skinny. When Alan Lomax went down to Coahoma County and “discovered” Muddy Waters, he wasn’t alone. He went as a part of a joint project between Fisk University here in town and the Library of Congress. There were a lot of folks from Fisk down there as well.
Two professors–Lewis Jones and John Work–were supposed to collaborate with the Library of Congress and produce a manuscript about the research they did down there. One graduate student, Samuel Adams, was going to use his research as the basis for his master’s thesis.
Anyway, for a long time no one was sure if this material had actually come into being and, if it had, whether it still existed. Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov did a lot of detective work and found it.
Some of the stuff in the book–like the 160 song transcriptions Work did of the music they recorded down there (including the Muddy Waters recordings)–was preserved only on microfilm in Fisk’s special collections. There was a span of about 6 months when I was pretty sure I knew where every paper copy made from that microfilm was, and was constantly worried about fire because at least half of those copies were here in my office.
But now, the book is about to roll off the press and I am relieved and excited and worried that no one else will find this as cool as I do. If you are a fan of Delta blues or Fisk University or rural African American culture, I don’t see how this book will fail to blow you away.
Of course you can read Alan Lomax’s The Land Where the Blues Began for his memories–fifty years later–of what the study was like. But these are accounts written shortly after the trips were taken, before anyone knew who Muddy Waters was. Hell, right before he was even Muddy Waters, and still calling himself Muddy Water. There’s also great stuff in the book on rural African American church culture, which I got a big kick out of because of my relation to the Reverend.
Marketing put excerpts up on the website and you can peruse them to get a feel for the wealth of material in the book. Don’t tell Marketing I told you this, but if you order it from Amazon, with their discount you can also get Muddy Waters’ Plantation Recordings (the actual recordings Work and Lomax made, including the interviews Work and Lomax did) and both together are the same as the list price for the book.
Anyway, I’ve worked on a lot of projects that I’ve loved (in fact, one luxury of my job is that I don’t work on things I don’t love), and I’ve worked on a lot of things that I’ve been very proud of, even if the rest of the world didn’t share my enthusiasm, but I’ve never been so honored to work on a project as I am to have worked on this one.
I feel honored and lucky. When I first opened the package from the editors and saw those hand written transcriptions and saw names like “McKinley Morganfield” and “Alec Robertson” at the tops of the pages, I felt like I’d stumbled on buried treasure.
The most amazing thing about this stuff is that it, of course, lacks all the nostalgia most writing about this period in the Delta’s history has. These men are genuinely excited to hear Morganfield perform, but they’re hearing him fresh, without the weight of his future fame shaping that experience. Work, for instance, spends more time talking about this crazy, blind preacher. And it’s not that Work guessed wrong–that the preacher would be more important than the blues singer–it’s that he’s trying to capture a world about to be lost, full of folks who distribute broadsides and preachers who sing to their congregations and women who teach their kids to play humpty-stump.
Morganfield is the future, and Work knows it.
It’s good to be reminded that the blues are not ancient. That once upon a time, not so long ago, a classically trained musician and arranger went down to the Delta and struggled with the language used to describe the guitar solos the blues players were performing, so new and innovative was the styling. That in 1941, Muddy Waters was the voice of young men, who moved off the plantation and into town and then into the city where they plugged in and exploded all over history.
I am so lucky to be involved in my tangential way. I’m going to cry when those books get here and all the pages are in order.