Just South across the border from Memphis, Tennessee, into Mississippi, amidst the cotton fields and blues ridden historical area of our country, lies the "killing fields" of a self-indulgent nation. It is amazingly sobering. Only over the past 10 years have I become a student of the Blues and its origins. It is fascinating. You can geographically trace it, to a great degree, straight out of the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta area.
While working in the cotton fields, slaves would sing a made-up melody, to break the boredom and to give a sense of cadence to the picking, so that some would not work faster than others, which would cause everyone to have to work harder. And, vice versa, to make sure they picked fast enough. It began to take the form of "statement and response". That is, one guy would call out a chant and the others would answer with the same routine, then he would continue on to the next phrase, similar to the military marching routine of, "SOUND OFF (sound off) SOUND OFF (sound off) 1-2-3-4, 1-2 ........ 3-4) STATEMENT and RESPONSE. Course, it wasn't so much up-tempo like marching, considering it was done in the cotton fields, with its high humidity and hot sun. Slower tempos prevailed and were more reflective of the mood of the endeavor. White folks stress that they were not mean to their slaves, (which everybody did not have, contrary to popular belief.) and that they protected them. A common rural perspective was that, "they were considered property like a good mule". (Hello! knock knock. McFly!!) Therein was the saving grace, AND ALSO the root of the problem? "Considered" is the operative word here, and human beings are what we're talking about. In great part, it was being done along old Highway 61, which stretches North and South, running parallel to the MS River, all the way from Minneapolis, MN. through Memphis, TN and on down to the Gulf of Mexico. There used to be a railroad out of Gulfport, MS that saw a lot of hobo-ing and a lot of cotton fields and levees. Consider the sound of that train whistle being heard by the cotton pickers. Factor in the loneliness of the sound of it. The Doppler effect. As the train approaches, there is a gradual increase in pitch and volume, then as it passes you, the pitch goes down rapidly. The nature of a bent note tends to mimic the moan of a human voice, when in sorrow or pain. (LORD KNOWS THIS IS HEAVY, BUT, BEAR WITH ME). The only really cheap instrument available that you could pack in your pocket, was the harmonica (harp). You will find that the structure of most blues tunes are based in "Statement and Response" with harp being the most commonly used instrument to immitate the bending, lonely cries of the train.
In the afternoons and evenings they used to sing the blues and, when they didn't have the rest of the working crew to do the "response", they would answer it themselves on the guitar or harp. On guitar, it would be done using a kitchen knife or a piece of broken bottleneck from some wine bottle, for example.Many different objects were used, thus slide guitar came to be.
Again, the routine was, sing a lick, then answer it with a slide or harp, that basically repeated the phrase, but with a little twist here and there. The sound of the train in the background and the Mississippi river levee behind you. The river and train both signifying boundaries, as well as potential escape or worse, attempted escape. I've been told that sometimes, those field songs, made of "Statement and Response" structure, were also used as a means of communicating plans for an escape, as well.
The blues migrated North, (as all good blues do) up the Mississippi river to Memphis, after the war was over and the slaves were freed. Memphis became a cultural and agricultural center of the mid South. It also became a center for music. Surprise, surprise. The next stop, a few years later, was St. Louis. Again, further on up the river, and then finally spreading to the bigger cities of Chicago and New York. During the 20's and 30's, Memphis's BEALE street, was largely a Jazz based environment, that was gradually infiltrated by blues musicians who made it their own. W.C. Handy, who wrote St. Louis Blues and many other great tunes, lived there. There is a square named after him, where, on any given day, you can find local musicians, still playing for tips. BEALE street is in the ongoing process of becoming commercialized, as time would have it. Still, it is a wonderful place that I frequent (hang out, if you will) on every visit I make to Memphis. Blues is the contemporary art form there now. It is the moneymaker and tourist agenda. Still, it is way worth spending a few hours down there, dreaming on it. Taking in some of the memorabilia, the buildings, the people and the history. And, of course, hearing the music. Yes, hearing the music. It is still there to be had. Some of the best, often dirt poor, musicians you can hear anywhere. Not to be looked at with condescension. Some wonderful players. Gospel music? Yes, some of the best Black Gospel music I've ever heard. The place I heard it in is gone now. It was called THE RITZ. A little corner knickknack store, on the corner of 4th and BEALE ST., that had an old upright piano and a handmade stage in the corner. A few years ago, I heard a reverend and 3 or 4 men and women from a black Memphis church, just doing their thing down there. No big fanfare, not even a sign in the window saying who they were. You could buy aspirin, a coke, maybe an Elvis T-shirt, some creme de butol, and listen to Black Gospel music, all at the same time. Now there's a combo for you! It was wonderful. A memory I cherish, but it's gone now, replaced with a new building and hip looking stuff to attract the tourist's money. I suppose that's a little "down the nose-ish" of me, when you think about it. B.B. King's club is down on the corner of 2nd and BEALE. I saw him play, and talked with him a little after the show, back about '93. I hadn't seen him since we did the "Grammy's" together in the early 70's. Riley King, a sweet man, who has given all us pickers some stuff to chew on. He's part of my interpretive side to this day. No apology. If I sound a little like B.B. now and then, it's because I love him, like so many others, and am proud of his influence.
While in Mississippi recently, I was feeling like Ernest Hemingway Allsup, while I was out chasing the ghost of Robert Johnson, supposed originator of the modern day blues. After a little trip to a cotton field on Highway 61, where I picked myself a few balls of cotton, I returned to the hotel and put down some notes. This is what occurred to me, as I stood there in the cotton field. Yes, this is the "Bleeding Heart Liberal Stuff" I was referring to. So be it.
...and as I stare over the huge, seemingly, never-ending cotton fields of Mississippi, the old words come to mind. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil ..." I ponder the geography and wonder what evils occurred here, that are only "book-tales" and "folklore" to me. How much pain and hatred were nurtured and grown here, midst the homespun virtue of oppressive intimidation?
As I stood there, feeling WAY OBVIOUS, as though some long-dead African/American souls were watching me and saying, "Don't indulge yourself by feeling bad, as though to make amends for your ancestor's transgressions. It won't be enough!! It's not enough to merely pause and feel some small bit of sorrow or remorse, so that you can be comfortable tomorrow. One pause in silence does not weigh in the balance of 200 years, and all that it begot". And as I stood there, it was as though there were living people, black people, watching me and thinking those same thoughts. I plucked a few balls of cotton ... and drove away. No better than before.
The night before, I had stood in front of a television monitor in a Blues Museum, located in Robinsonville, MS. I was listening to a video tape of an elderly black man, telling his story of being born in the late 1890's in Mississippi ...... IN THE COTTON FIELDS. Born there. His momma, after giving birth, put him in the cotton sack on her back and continued picking cotton. Maybe an embellishment, maybe not. He was a BLUES MAN. I heard him. WAY GOOD. Lots of pain, lots of train whistles in his playing and voice and it brought back stories I've heard of my own Grandma Nettie Allsup, picking cotton in the fields of Oklahoma, pregnant and carrying a kid on her back as she went. An embellishment? Maybe, but based in truth. Are there inconsistencies? Life is, at best, an oxymoron of conflicting feelings. I suppose we all have been an embarrassment to our families now and then, but hopefully have made them proud on occasion, too. As I have been to my parents, my ancestors are to me. Attitudes that harbor prejudice are shameful and bathed in denial, yet the very same family are a source of great pride to me as well. Hard working people, one and all. Of a different BREED, of a different TIME. STRONGER. I don't think I've ever worked a day in my life as hard as they did then. A term that comes to mind is "Prairie Stock". Kind of a "source gene" for America, is how I like to think of it. Inserting pride of family, to connect myself with those that made my life possible. I wonder what will be the defining attributes of our generation? What will those that come after us, LABEL US AND OUR TIMES? Will they have a perspective that will do us an injustice, because they are of a different time, or will they see it more clearly than we do? And what of our perspective of those that came before us? Are we capable of truly and clearly knowing the "gospel" truth? I wonder. And, oh by the way, this is why we call it "The Podium". When you just can't seem to wrap it up and finish whatever the hell your point is.
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