Passing Down Blues Music Through the Ages

Passing Down Blues Music Through the Ages
November 11, 2010
Carolyn Presutti

Blues music has its roots in America - largely in the Delta regions of the Mississippi River. The music is alive and well for the moment, with many blues festivals and a flourishing museum in the music's home region. But many Mississippi Delta Blues stars are in their 80s, even their 90s. And those who love the music feel it's important to pass it down to a younger generation.

Musician Bill "Howlin Mad" Perry sings sings the Blues and has lived a life of it. He sings "damn right I got the blues" as other lyrics explain why. Perry never had an indoor toilet as a kid, and he never graduated from high school. "Ain't got nothing to win, sure ain't got a damn thing to lose," he growls in another part of the chorus.

Daily troubles are at the heart of the Blues. But Perry finds joy playing the music and passing it down to the next generation. Four days a week, he drives an hour-and-a-half to the Delta Blues Museum to teach. It's not like a traditional class at school, but more like a jam session. He teaches how to play the music - with a musician's attitude.

He laughed as he worked, then said, "Ok, look. Let's try it again ... and ... let's watch the volume this time."

Two of his star pupils are Kylen and Keydrous Thomas. He calls them "The Blues Brothers." Kylen, who is 12, said, "I want to be just like him, playing and going all around the world, playing everywhere."

11-year-old Christone Ingram started playing bass just a year ago. He sees himself as a famous bluesman one day. "Music producer, song writer, musician, and a whole lot more stuff that I can't name. And I list them."

"It don't surprise me at all," said Perry of Ingram. "He's just constantly practicing. I told him if you want to get great at what you are doing, that's what you got to do."

And Perry teaches the kids what they "got to do" - in ways that go far beyond the music. "Imagine what it's going to be like when they get 10 or 15 years older. I just want them to have something positive that they can count on."

The blues draw thousands here in Mississippi. This crowd is mainly African-American. Older. Just like the men with the blues, who started it all.

David "Honey Boy" Edwards is 95. He knew blues legend Robert Johnson - who supposedly sold his soul to the devil, right here at the Crossroads of Highways 49 and 61. In exchange, legend says Johnson mastered the blues guitar.

Blues lyrics recount the hardships of blacks in the South.

The format of the music gives musicians freedom to improvise - freedom the original writers, slaves and sharecroppers, never had.

The father of the blues, W.C. Handy, got his inspiration waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi. The sound evolved into the slide guitar technique.

James Johnson is another blues musician. They call him "Super Chikan" because of his signature line, "Somebody, shoot that thing" and and his unique way to, well, cluck.
He crowed like a rooster, then said, "That means I love you."

As a kid, Super Chikan sneaked under the porch to hear his grandfather play the blues. He learned there and in the fields, picking cotton. He sings, "Hey old water boy, bring that water around." And then, "Sleeping four to a bed, you all, we eat whenever we can."

His daughter plays the drums in his band. Super Chikan said his generation must continue playing the older style, after the legends are gone and the music goes with them.

In the early days of the blues, blacks sang and danced in small bars called juke joints. Nine years ago, actor Morgan Freeman started Ground Zero Blues Club on Blues Alley in Clarksdale, Mississippi, to commemorate the tradition - and help to keep it going strong.

Tonight, Perry's band will play, with a few guest musicians - some of his young blues pupils. Perry said on stage that night, "One of the things that we've been talking about, how important it is that blues shall never die.These guys are proof of that every time."

Each gets a solo.

Perry said to his drummer, "Sticks, are you ready to give us some?"

To his guitar player: "Let me hear you make that thing talk. Son, I want you to know that I'm going to look you right in the eyes and tell you, you done passed me."

But for now, Perry wants them in bed on time. "You can't be hanging out with us older dogs here because you got to go to school."

The fame will have to wait until later.

Parry said to the audience, "Give it up for them one more time, you all, for the young folks."

The now and the future of the Delta Blues.
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