This Ida Cox Thing Has Made My Whole Day

So, there’s a moment in the novel where the narrator is talking about the importance of Led Zeppelin’s “Traveling Riverside Blues,” even though she was not allowed to listen to Led Zeppelin growing up because they were somehow beyond evil. Sure, there was Dio and Slayer and Black Sabbath and all these bands whose records were going to get burned whenever there were record burnings to be had. But Led Zeppelin was even beyond them. Like, those other bands were just Satanic, but something about Led Zeppelin was insidious.

And then she goes on to discover that this isn’t a Led Zeppelin song at all, but is actually a reworking of an old Robert Johnson song, “Traveling Riverside Blues” (head’s-up: it’s very different, but stick with it for a minute and you’ll start to hear familiar stuff). And she talks then about her love for finding these old bases for current songs. So, she brings up the whole Alan Jackson thing, which I regaled you with last night. She’s completely committed to and finding great meaning in the whole “Up from the Delta” myth of popular music.

And then, the first time she’s in Clarksdale, she stops to get gas, and the attendant, seeing that she’s a woman, assumes she might be interested in knowing that Bessie Smith died north of town before she was scheduled to perform. And she doesn’t even know who Bessie Smith is. So, you know I just spent a good twenty minutes crafting the sentences that would let me drop that tidbit about Ida Cox singing that verse a decade before Skip James.

I’m really fascinated by the ways in which the narratives we use to make sense of things can be so detailed and work so well and also not be true or not be the whole truth.

And that “up from the Delta” myth does work so well. And it pretty much completely sleight-of-hands away the enormous influence that these wildly famous blues women had on the men who have now become legends.

And there’s a lot going on here because it sits at an intersection of race and gender that we, as a culture, don’t navigate well at all. I’m just trying to imagine what it would be like to move black women to the center of the history of popular American music, to rightly say, “If not for them, we don’t have Robert Johnson the way we know him, which means we don’t have Led Zeppelin the way we know them (or any other variation on the story).”

And I honestly don’t know. It seems strange, even to me, because I’m so used to the story that goes “influential women on rock are influential because of their great pussies, which they graciously provide to the men in the bands, who then write songs about them.” Woman as muse, not woman as musician, you know?

But it’s hard, once you realize something’s been glossed over, moved aside, to not want to go back and hear what it is you were kept from and to ask yourself what it means that it was kept from you. This is the part about racism and sexism that are hardest to get across–the people who bear the brunt of it are not the only people getting screwed. We are all losing from this arrangement. If you are a white person in a society premised upon white supremacy, you are, every day, being lied to about things, given a distorted truth about history and your place in the world. You are missing out and you won’t often know what it is you’re even missing out on. Same with sexism. If you are a man in a society premised upon male supremacy, you are being lied to everyday and missing out on stuff you don’t even know you’re missing out on.

How do you not know about Ida Cox or Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey if you are a fan of pop music?

That’s a real loss, and not for Cox or Smith or Rainey. They had good careers and are dead.

That’s our loss. And we don’t even know it.

6 thoughts on “This Ida Cox Thing Has Made My Whole Day

  1. You are missing out and you won’t often know what it is you’re even missing out on.

    So, my Mom was born in 1940 in Northeast Mississippi and has lived there her whole life save for stints in Memphis for college and a few years in Meridian, MS. Anyway, she now lives in her hometown, literally 2 blocks from the building in which she was born.

    The Mississippi Delta is 3 hours away.

    A few years ago – whenever it was that “O Brother Where Art Thou” hit video or was first aired on television she and I were watching it. The part where they meet up with Robert Johnson came up and she had absolutely no idea who he was and I had to either pause the film or wait for commercial to explain the whole “he sold his soul to the Devil at the Crossroads” story followed by “You’ve lived in Mississippi your whole life and you’ve NEVER heard this?”

    Secondly, “Traveling Riverside Blues” — what a great song… the bottleneck guitar thing on there or whatever that sound is — it’s magical. And I used to run around with this guy from Marks, MS – which isn’t terribly far from the Delta – Marks kind of straddles the line of being on or in the Delta but isn’t really. Anyway, in or around ’97 he and I were riding backroads, drinking beer and listening to that song and he related the story of Page and Plant being in the Delta. (This was around the time they had recorded “No Quarter”). The two of them went to visit the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale and the people working there had no idea who they were.

  2. And I honestly don’t know. It seems strange, even to me, because I’m so used to the story that goes “influential women on rock are influential because of their great pussies, which they graciously provide to the men in the bands, who then write songs about them.” Woman as muse, not woman as musician, you know?

    This cuts across so many genres and media, not just music, that I can’t see how someone could deny it anymore. I had a fairly well-known writer leave a mansplain-y comment on my site, basically schooling me that there were no (or few) women in 80s alternative rock, the topic of his book, or else he would have included them. Um, there were several, and I’m a nobody blogger with no chance of a book deal, and I can point that out.

  3. Beth–in O Bro they meet up with TOMMY Johnson, not Robert, and Tommy was the one the devil myth was attached to first, btw.

    See the comment I just posted on the “nerd” thread as to the relative underestimation of the jazzy blues women. Yes it has to do with gender, and maybe a about race but more around the corner, because it’s black MEN who played guitars that came to be favored–because that’s who young white men, years later, preferred.

    A rockist preference for raw developed, and for rural, and playing guitar, and Deep Confessional lyrics–to make the world safe for Keith Richards–when for a lot of the original black audience, blues was a social dance music, played by less sophisticated piano players , wwho-um you might hear in whore houses because they came cheaper than more adept jazz bands.

  4. Barry – thanks – I forgot it was Tommy, rather than Robert… it’s been a while.

    Still, my mother missed the whole Robert Johnson Crossroad legend. Of course, this is the same woman who referred to early Elvis Presley as “oh, just some hillbilly singer that’s playing the VFW over in Houston”

  5. Listen, Beth, when the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show my teenage reaction, was “OK; they’re singing Elvis music with harmonies, sort of like the Beach Boys. So?” Of course, that was partly true..

  6. I know I only go to brothels for the untalented piano players, myself!

    Barry, I love that even as a teenager, you were slow to impress.

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