One of the foremost challenges for the blues today concerns how to make the music relevant for young people. This is of particular concern in the Mississippi Delta, where the blues is both our cultural heritage and a driver of the economy. Pursuing awareness of these issues and developing effective strategies is a central goal of the International Delta Blues Project’s Blues Leadership Incubator program, which is housed in The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University. This series of free public workshops, lectures, and events inspire Mississippi Delta residents, particularly youth, to consider how Blues tourism, arts, culture, and creativity can lead to economic opportunity.
A major impediment is simply that blues is, to a large degree, a historical music. The blues is thought to have emerged around 1900, and achieved commercial popularity soon thereafter. It remained a dominant form of African American popular music until the early 1960s, when it was largely surpassed by soul music.
While the blues remains popular today among certain discrete audiences—notably, a largely white one for traditional blues, and a largely African American one for “soul blues” or “southern soul”—it’s generally not a music with which young people are actively engaged, either negatively or positively.
This “problem” isn’t particular to the blues, as older people often lament the tastes of youth. But if we hope to get young people to engage with the music for purposes of economic growth and in developing a deeper sense of place, what strategies might we employ?
Take Me to the River
An interesting case of attempting to bridge the musical gap between generations is depicted in the documentary “Take Me to the River,” which pairs hip-hop artists together with soul and blues veterans for unique takes on soul classics. It was filmed in Memphis’ historic Royal Studios, where Al Green cut his biggest records for the late producer Willie Mitchell. The intergenerational theme is heightened by the fact that Mitchell’s son, Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, now runs the studio, and was awarded the 2016 GRAMMY Record of the Year for his production of the Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars hit “Uptown Funk.”
An educational program associated with the film is currently touring the country, and on October 12 stopped in Cleveland at the GRAMMY Museum Mississippi. The evening began with presentations by students from the Rosedale Freedom Project and Delta Hands for Hope of Shaw who are engaged with oral history and photography projects funded by grants from the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area.
Following an abbreviated screening of the film was a live performance featuring Stax Records soul veteran William Bell, 77 and still in full possession of his powers, and Memphis rappers Al Kapone and Frayser Boy; all three are featured in the film. The backing band likewise reflected a cross-generational theme, with the young members of the Stax Music Academy Alumni Band paired with soul veterans Leroy and Charles Hodges of the Hi Rhythm Section, the studio group behind Al Green’s hits
Reclaiming soul heritage
The intent of the film and its associated educational program is to introduce young people to the legacy—and continuing relevancy—of Memphis’ grand soul heritage of the ‘60s and early ‘70s on the Hi and Stax labels (Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, the Bar-Kays, Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, and many more). The film evokes the heyday of Stax and Hi via performances by label veterans including Mavis Staples and Otis Clay (soul stars Bobby Rush and Bobby “Blue” Bland, who recorded for other labels, also appear).
The film also emphasizes the idea that Stax was a relative oasis of racial tolerance during the Civil Rights Movement—most notably, house band Booker T and the MGs was integrated. This latter idea was popularized in Peter Guralnick’s influential 1986 book Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, which addressed the potential for music to transcend racial boundaries.
In his recent book Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South, historian Charles Hughes takes a more cautious view, arguing, for instance, that while soul music can be seen as illustrating the potential for biracial cooperation it was simultaneously serving as a political symbol of Black Pride and a sign of “blackness.” Nonetheless, a lesson from the era is that music can serve as an avenue for bridging social gaps.
Hip-Hop and Soul
Memphis has been a hotbed for rap since the 1990s, when new Southern hip-hop sounds challenged the predominance of music from both coasts. The regional style received its greatest attention via the 2005 Craig Brewer-directed film “Hustle and Flow.” The soundtrack featured multiple songs by Kapone, and the track “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” by Three 6 Mafia (including Frayser Boy) received an Academy Award, a cultural milestone for the genre.
During the filmed collaborations the younger artists—including Kapone, Frayser Boy, Snoop Dog and Lil’ P-Nut (b. 2002)—reveal their great respect for their elders, who in turn sometimes seem somewhat bemused with the collaborations. The most striking scene in the film, though, is of Bland, seemingly oblivious to the camera, giving voice lessons to Lil’ P-Nut.
In these collaborations the connections between the musics are made clear, something that is likewise well known to hip-hop artists who regularly sample vintage soul sounds. It’s usually not the case, though, that fans of contemporary hip-hop are aware of the origin of the samples that they are hearing. In addition to samples often being buried in the mix, contemporary recording artists usually don’t recognize their presence except in the credits of CDs, a delivery platform that most young people don’t use.
There are also historical reasons why the connections between soul and rap typically aren’t made. A subtext of the film is that the potential personal ties that might have existed in the Memphis music scene over the last half century were severed with the collapse of Stax Records in the mid-‘70s. With its departure, and a change of ownership at Hi, Memphis ceased to be a major center for hit recordings, and it has yet to reclaim its earlier glory.
Stax’s rise and fall and revival
Both Hi and Stax were founded in the 1950s, and helped define the emergent “Memphis sound” in the 1960s. A veteran of the rich West Memphis R&B scene, Willie Mitchell recorded many instrumental hits on Hi in the 1960s, and at the end of the decade took the helm of Royal Studios, where he produced hits for Hi by Green, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles and others.
Stax’s history goes back to 1959, when siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton founded Satellite Records in an old movie theater in south Memphis. The Stax label was introduced in 1961, and produced dozens of hits over the next decade and half. During the early to mid ‘60s it was best known for artists including Rufus Thomas, Otis Redding, and Sam and Dave—their hits, along with those of their peers at Motown, remain as the most popular signifiers for ‘60s soul.
The tragic death in 1967 of Redding, the label’s star, the assassination in 1968 of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, and the discovery around the same time that the label’s longtime partner Atlantic Records owned Stax’s back catalog—the wealth of any established label—contributed to a dramatic reorientation under the leadership of co-owner, and later owner, Al Bell.
A commitment to Civil Rights and black pride was expressed through events such as the 1972 Wattstax festival and uplifting anthems such as the Staple Singers “Respect Yourself.” The label also expanded dramatically through moving into other genres, and broke ground in the production of thematic album-length projects (instead of just singles), most dramatically through the work of Isaac Hayes.
The label achieved many successes in the 1970s via artists such as Hayes, the Staple Singers and Johnnie Taylor, but in 1975 the label was forced to go into bankruptcy, and multiple fraud charges were also brought against Bell, who was later acquitted of all of them. In the film commentators explain the label’s demise in terms of discriminatory behavior by the Union Planters bank, suggesting that the city’s establishment didn’t act to shore up a black-owned business.
A more nuanced take of the situation is found in Robert Gordon’s book Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion. While Gordon acknowledges that race likely affected the tone of the bankruptcy proceedings, he also argues that the downfall of Stax can be seen in terms of its business practices—growth that was too fast, a bloated staff with a payroll it couldn’t maintain, cash inflow strangulated by distribution problems, and a collapse of Union Planters, whose biggest loan client was Stax.
In any case, the departure of Stax was both an economic and cultural disaster, and no other label stepped in to take its place. In the late ‘80s the iconic Stax headquarters at 926 East McLemore was demolished. Willie Mitchell continued to run Royal Studios around the corner, but was often overlooked in discussions about Memphis’ economic potential.
A decade later Memphis was at the beginning of a wave of cultural tourism that built upon its musical legacy—Beale Street, the blues, Elvis and soul—and grand plans were laid out for a revival of Stax. Many people were reasonably skeptical, but in May of 2003 the Stax Museum of American Soul Music was established in the same location as the label, replete with facsimiles of the original sign and marquee as well as a reproduction of the studio’s signature sloped floor, a legacy of the building’s past as a theater.
Adjacent to the museum today is the Stax Music Academy, which provides music education, and the associated Soulsville Charter School, which has a heavy dose of music history—American history!—in its curriculum. Today, music instruction is sadly lacking in many schools, and the Academy and its associated programs demonstrate a way that music can be taught not just as technique but as a way of teaching the hip-hop generation about their history.
Lessons for us?
The tale of Stax —its early glory, its decline in contentious times, and its current role as a both centerpiece for cultural revival—provides both inspiration and a note of caution about the potential difficulties in drawing upon older music to inspire contemporary young people. How do we frame blues in a way that makes it relevant or not relegated to “old people’s music”? How do we explain the story of its historical rise and fall and its contemporary renewal in the form of cultural tourism? How do we insure that transparency and authenticity is the development of this tourism?
Blues Leadership Incubator events such as "Take Me to the River" invites us to engage the beauty of creative brilliance while gaining a richer understanding of the social and cultural forces that fostered such creativity in the past and how it all relates to opportunity today.