MUSIC: Delta Dawn?

MUSIC: Delta Dawn?
August 2, 2010
by: Jeff Konkel
The Specatator Arts Blog

A couple of weeks ago, the American news network CNN ran a story about the growing number of tourists from around the globe who are making their way to Mississippi to celebrate the state’s greatest export. No, they weren’t referring to cotton or catfish or even Oprah Winfrey. They were talking about blues music – the foundation for everything from rock & roll and jazz to soul and hip-hop.

It was in Mississippi that the famed bandleader W.C. Handy first reported hearing blues music in the early years of the 20th century. And it was in Mississippi that Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, B.B. King and legions of other famed bluesmen were born.

In recent decades, local and state governments in Mississippi have been waking up to the region’s rich musical legacy (and its equally rich potential for profit). Despite Mississippi’s long history of racial discord, this uniquely black music, forged in the wake of America’s slavery era, has become a unifying force across the state.

Municipalities and private businesses across Mississippi have spent hefty sums of money to attract music lovers to the Delta, and today virtually every town worth its salt hosts at least one blues festival each year. In late 2008, the multi-million dollar B.B. King Museum & Delta Interpretive Center opened in Indianola, Mississippi, joining other long-established blues museums in the region, including the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale and the Highway 61 Blues Museum in Leland.

Another major initiative is the Mississippi Blues Trail, an ongoing project that aims to connect the state’s major blues sites through a series of interpretive markers. To date, more than a hundred markers have been erected with dozens more yet to come.

So what is the net result of all of this effort and outreach? Is this American art form truly experiencing a late renaissance in the land of its birth?

In truth, the prognosis is mixed.

There are, indeed, some positive signs, particularly on the tourism front. According to the aforementioned CNN news story, the town of Clarksdale alone brought in $54 million through tourism in 2009.

And the music of the Delta continues to inspire musicians around the globe. A half-century ago, young upstarts like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton were drawn to the music of Robert Johnson. Today, acts like the Black Keys and the White Stripes continue to draw from the same deep well of Mississippi blues.

Yet there are some troubling trends in the Mississippi blues scene. While tourists are flooding to the area to celebrate the music’s past, the state’s musical future looks more uncertain than ever. Over the past couple of decades, traditional blues artists in the Delta have been vanishing at an alarming rate. Most of the musicians have died never having known fame – yet alone fortune – during their lifetimes. In the past, these losses have been absorbed by younger generations of blues musicians eager to take the place of their forebears. Today, however, there are perilously few young men in the Delta interested in playing blues of any kind, yet alone the traditional styles of generations past.

Just as troubling is the rapid decline of viable music venues in the Delta. Not long ago, dozens of down-at-the-heels juke joints offered live music on a regular basis. Today that number has dwindled to a handful, such as Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale. Fortunately, a few bigger and better-financed clubs like Ground Zero Blues Club – also in Clarksdale – have picked up some of the slack. Nevertheless for many of the region’s more traditional performers, paying gigs are increasingly hard to find.

Whether or not these trends can be reversed remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: If we are to have any chance of encouraging a future generation of African-American blues artists in the Delta, we’d better start honouring the current one. After all, what self-respecting young man would look to older musicians who are ignored and impoverished and then choose that life for himself?

Since forming Broke & Hungry Records, a music label dedicated to recording traditional blues artists in Mississippi, I have experienced firsthand the scarcity of young black blues musicians in the Delta. Over the past five years, I’ve been traversing the state’s dusty highways and byways in search of unknown rural musicians who still embrace the blues styles of years past. I have been fortunate to meet and record some amazing talents, like Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, a guitarist from the tiny town of Bentonia; Pat Thomas, the offspring of the late James “Son” Thomas, a revered bluesman from last century; and harp wizard Terry “Harmonica” Bean. By the standards of Delta bluesmen, these guys are young pups. They are 62, 50 and 49 years old, respectively.

In 2008, I partnered with Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, a renowned music store and record label in Clarksdale, to make a film celebrating Mississippi’s current blues scene. We brought in Kari Jones of Mudpuppy Recordings as a co-producer, Damien Blaylock as cinematographer and co-director along with Bill Abel as sound engineer. During the course of a week, our tiny crew of five traveled the state, visiting more than a dozen traditional blues artists in their homes, in cotton fields and in down-home juke joints. In addition to the aforementioned artists, we met with musicians like James “T-Model” Ford, L.C. Ulmer and Cadillac John Nolden. All were in their eighties at the time.

The resulting film, M For Mississippi, shines a light on these artists and the traditions they represent. As a result of the movie, several of these men have been invited to play major music festivals at home and abroad, exposing them to a whole new audience.

But the movie also accomplished something else: during a segment featuring Wesley “Junebug” Jefferson – who has since passed away – viewers were treated to a brief glimpse of Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, a dazzling young guitar player, still in his twenties. Although his musical style is decidedly more modern than that of the other musicians in the film, it’s still deeply felt and unabashedly Delta in nature. Sherrod may not have grown up during the difficult sharecropping era that men like Jefferson experienced, but his music is still informed by the same landscape and history that inspired his predecessors, and he has taken the time to learn directly from those who came before him.

Might Sherrod represent a growing trend of new blues artists in the Delta? Only time will tell. But it’s a start.
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