One of the featured speakers at this year’s International Conference on the Blues is Dr. David Evans, an ethnomusicologist who is widely regarded as one of the top experts on the blues. He’s now retired from his longtime position at the University of Memphis.
Evans is best known for his book “Big Road Blues,” an exploration of the nature of traditional blues styles in Mississippi that’s based on the fieldwork he did largely in Mississippi in the 1960s while working on his PhD at UCLA.
Evans became interested in blues while studying at Harvard University in the early ‘60s. He initially encountered the music through the folk music scene and the recordings of Lead Belly and others, but he was also influenced by performances of older artists whose careers were revived in the ‘60s, including the Tennessee duo of Sleepy John Estes & Yank Rachell, and the Delta bluesman Son House.
Like many young fans interested in blues, Evans took up the music—he continues to record and perform today—and eventually decided to study it seriously through making extensive field trips to the South.
His fieldwork is collected in “Big Road Blues,” which investigated the nature of blues traditions in Drew, Mississippi, a town just to the northeast of Dockery Farms, the home in the early 1900s for artists including Charley Patton, Howlin’ Wolf, and Roebuck “Pops” Staples. He does so largely by focusing on the “folk processes” through which songs are learned, passed on, and reshaped.
In particular, he studies how the song “Big Road Blues,” originally by Tommy Johnson, was adopted by other artists. Johnson (1896-1956) grew up near Crystal Springs, south of Jackson, and ran away to the Delta in his early teens. In his early ‘20s he settled in Drew, and through the influence of artists including Patton and Willie Brown, developed a distinctive style that others would pick up.
Let’s take a listen to the original as well as versions by artists who were influenced by Johnson.
The Mississippi Sheiks were a string band from the area west of Jackson, though multiple members moved to the Delta in the 1920s. Listen here how the group uses the same melody, but different words and instrumentation.
Houston Stackhouse was from Wesson, Mississippi, about 45 miles south of Jackson, and later moved to Crystal Springs, not too far to the north, where Tommy Johnson lived for most of his last years. Some 14 years younger than Johnson, Stackhouse readily adapted to electric instruments after WWII, as evidenced in this version
As you can hear from these three examples, much can be learned about how music changes from artist to artist and across time by listening to different versions of the same song. While we unfortunately don’t have the opportunity to study the pioneering blues artists directly, as Dr. Evans was able to do in the 1960s, this comparative technique is still very useful in understanding the roots and routes of contemporary music.