Hard time here and everywhere you go.
Times is harder than ever been before.
Two natural disasters form the historical banks of the Mississippi Delta blues. One is the Flood of 1927, which served as subject matter for so many artists and marks the beginning of record labels’ interest in the area. The other is the stock market Crash of 1929, which brought all recording activity to an end. Between these two events, reports Ted Gioia in Delta Blues (Norton 2008), the major record companies launched no fewer than seventeen talent searches to Atlanta alone, and they canvassed many cities even closer to the Delta proper, such as Jackson and Clarksdale, looking for African-American artists. A sound was arising from plantation shacks and juke joints that would change music as we know it, yet this sound itself evades knowing. Even its contents suggest deeper levels of experience and conception than the surface narrative is willing to commit to. As Gioia so memorably puts it, “the familiar ‘I woke up this morning’—the opening phrase of so many blues songs—is never just ‘I woke up this morning.’” This “submerged region” of emotion and meaning is “the true psychological terrain of the blues.”
Gioia’s enjoyable book acknowledges the many volumes of blues scholarship, advocacy, biography, and discography that have tried to make sense of this sound. He is in the fortunate position of being able to weave together three marvelous epics of talent and tenacity: the mysterious origins of pre-war Delta blues and its brief ascendancy, the musical lives of those practitioners who made it out of the Delta, and the emergence of the “folk blues revival” of the 1960s that reinstated many of these careers and established new ones. This means his cast of characters is large; the names of such researchers, writers, record collectors, and promoters as Dick Waterman, Peter Guralnick, and Dave Evans become as important as those of the musicians whose art they preserved and protected. There are so many adventures, in fact, unfolding simultaneously that it is a wonder Gioia holds it all together in one very readable narrative.
The book is not without its oversights. Gioia takes care throughout to mention trajectories of influence with each major blues artist, often reminding us which rock band covered what Delta classic, but he completely misses the Fleetwood Mac connection when discussing Elmore James. Thanks to guitarist/vocalist Jeremy Spencer, “Shake Your Money Maker,” “The Sun is Shining,” and other blues number became late-1960s concert faves in England. The fanatical Spencer even wrote a few Elmore James songs himself!
Gioia’s use of backtracking and repetition also hangs him up, such as when he reminds readers of the Muddy Waters-Johnny Winter partnership, saying it originated “around the same time” as B. B. King’s breakthrough to young white audiences at the Fillmore in 1967. However, the author already had established in an earlier chapter that these events occurred nine years apart. 1976 is a stretch for “around the same time.”
And Gioia errs on the side of literality when it comes to one of John Lee Hooker’s greatest hits: “Boom Boom” is not the man’s contribution to “the distinguished Delta tradition of songs about firearms” but his best use of the shoot-down-as-sexual-conquest metaphor, as the lyrics make clear:
Boom, boom, boom,
Gonna shoot you right down
Take you in my arms
I’m in love with you
I need you right now
I don’t mean tomorrow
I mean right now.
But these are minor oversights in a fine book filled with panoramic storytelling. Of particular interest is Gioia’s focus on how the story of the Delta Blues was driven by a tension between the “sacred” and the “secular.” This dichotomy was potent for many of the Delta’s finest songwriters, many of whom engaged in a real-life struggle between vocations, one to the pulpit, the other to the stage. Son House is Gioia’s favorite expression of this turmoil, and indeed the story of this “fallen preacher” is strong stuff. But many other players along the way questioned whether they should pursue a career path perceived as sinful. For a few, even touching a guitar or allowing one in their home was a major offence to their family or religious community. During the blues revival of the 1960s, the same quandary arose. Some, like the reverends Ishmon Bracey and Robert Wilkins, were satisfied; they agreed to help the young researchers, but declined to play the blues. Any efforts at reviving their careers would be in the realm of gospel music or not at all. Others, such as the great Skip James, continued to struggle, so much so that when the cancer-seared James went home to die in 1969 after his “second career,” he wondered if it had been that very return to the blues that condemned him. “James promised,” Gioia relates, “that if the Lord favored him with a return to health, he would restrict his performances to religious songs.”
Mississippi Fred McDowell, perhaps the best known and most loved of those bluesmen who shot to stardom in the 1960s, carried this burden most gracefully. The idiosyncratic bottle-neck player with the somnolent vocal style (known for saying “I don’t care if it don’t sound good to you, it sounds good to me”) never recorded during the Delta’s glory days. His reputation as a guitarist, however, spread across northern Mississippi. Gioia recounts how McDowell’s mother, before she died, asked him to give up “the sinful instrument.” McDowell obliged and did not pick up a guitar for six years. “You see I got religion,” he would say, “and I quit playing.” By the time researcher Alan Lomax came upon McDowell in the late 1950s, the old bluesman had come to terms with his twofold talent, and was in prime condition to begin a career featuring both secular and spiritual material. With his wife Annie Mae testifying by his side, the man who gave us the pounding “Louise” and “Shake ‘Em On Down,” also spread such gospel numbers as “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burnin’,” “Jesus is On the Main Line,” “Amazing Grace,” and “When I Lay My Burden Down.” He contributed originals to this genre too, giving the Rolling Stones “You Gotta Move” (Sticky Fingers, 1971), and leaving us the lovely “Lord Have Mercy,” recorded for Lomax in Como, Mississippi, at the inception of his career.
The most famous story of existential gambling in the realm of Good and Evil is that of Robert Johnson, a tale that ends in total victory for Satan. Accepted legend has Johnson, a nominally talented young man enamored of the more mature playing of Son House and Willie Brown, standing as instructed at a crossroads, waiting for a mysterious black man to appear and tune his guitar. Once this encounter comes to pass, Robert finds himself endowed with blues power beyond that of his idols, elders, contemporaries, and seemingly anyone who has followed in his wayward footsteps. A Faustian bargain has taken place, of course, and after cutting twenty-nine of the most influential sides in music history, the rambling prodigal’s soul is repossessed when he dies at the hands of a killer whose identity remains unknown.
Gioia does a tremendous job of deciphering this tale. “Although the blues has been called ‘the Devil’s music,’” he writes, “it has always remained on speaking terms with the ministers of the Lord.” This essential tension is best displayed not in the work of those who played both sides, but in a tragic figure like Johnson, “whose life seemed to be lived in purely secular terms, yet whose music constantly returned to the most intense, soul-haunted themes, songs that have irrevocably shaped our image of him as a man at the crossroads between darkness and light.”
These country blues also have shaped our image of ourselves as men and women at that same crossroads. Gioia writes early in his book that “the whole spectrum of popular music betrays the fingerprints of the blues.” There are those who will claim they hate the blues, that it is full of clichés and self-pity. But “turn on the radio and listen,” Gioia suggests with a smile; the clichés and self-pity amidst which we comfortably live originate from a far more authentic source. The truth is that many people cannot handle the blues because it is too frank, too condemning, and tolerates no bull. Gioia’s book (or any of the many others he mentions in its course) can serve as a sonic solvent, stripping the veneer from our lives of complacency and self-delusion. Each musician in the book presents a model of adaptability and creative insistence, regardless of their bad habits. The songs they sing can give voice to those yearnings we know not how to articulate and render audible the howls, sighs, and screams we keep silent. The music on our radios today has made its own deal with the Devil. It appears to meet this need and convinces us of its communicative necessity, but unlike the blues it is a music of concealment, not disclosure. Cunningly, we have over several decades substituted for the artistry of self-expression the artifice of self-protection, a product Gioia’s subjects would not recognized as music. The fingerprint of the blues may still lie upon our comfort pop, but not so as to implicate anyone.
Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina provides an unlikely illustration. With his Christian wife in protracted labor, a house in patient upheaval all around him, the not-yet-believing Levin compares this mayhem to that which surrounded his brother’s deathbed.
Yet that grief and this joy were alike beyond the ordinary conditions of life; they were openings, as it were, in that ordinary life through which there came glimpses of something sublime.
Openings unto the sublime. That is what the rough and raucous songs of Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James, and so many others appreciated in Delta Blues can be for us. Not because they sing praises to our Lord and King but because they give voice to the joy and grief of ordinary life that bring him so near.
J. D. Buhl has written about popular music since 1973. He is a regular contributor to The Cresset and Prism, “America’s Alternative Evangelical Voice.”