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Take Me to the River - a deeper insight

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. 

CELEBRATING INDEPENDENCE WITH THE BLUES

I want to tell you a story from 'way back:

Truck on down and gig me, jack,

In eighteen hundred and sixty-five, 

A hep cat started some jive, 

He said, "Come on, gates, and jump with me

At the Juneteenth Jamboree."

 

The rhythm was swinging at the picnic ground,

Fried chicken floating all around;

Everybody there was full of glee,

Trumpets blaring in the air,

Mellow barbecue everywhere,

Clarinets moaning in the hall;

All the gates was having a ball,

They didn't know how to cut no rug,

But all the cats had a gal and jug,

Everybody happy as they could be,

At the Juneteenth Jamboree!

The 4th of July holidays are upon us, which provides a good occasion to think about blues and celebration of political holidays. Blues artists are often booked at municipal events celebrating the 4th, but the topic of Independence Day doesn’t seem to figure too much in blues lyrics. This may have something to do with the fact that most blues are ostensibly about romantic relationships.  But it’s also the case that celebrating the Declaration of Independence from United Kingdom rule in 1776 might not resonate too much with people whose descendants were enslaved at the time. 

For many African Americans “independence day” is known as Juneteenth, and more precisely June 19th, 1865, when Union soldiers announced to African Americans in Galveston, Texas that the Civil War was over, and that they were free. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln, had theoretically been in effect since January 1, 1863, but that was little comfort to those still under bondage. 

This photo, taken in Austin in 1900, is from a Smithsonian magazine article on early celebrations of Juneteenth.  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/juneteenth-a-new-birth-of-freedom-9572263/?no-ist

This photo, taken in Austin in 1900, is from a Smithsonian magazine article on early celebrations of Juneteenth. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/juneteenth-a-new-birth-of-freedom-9572263/?no-ist

This photo from an early Houston celebration is featured in this article -  http://www.ultimatehistoryproject.com/juneteenth-a-day-of-jubilation.html

This photo from an early Houston celebration is featured in this article - http://www.ultimatehistoryproject.com/juneteenth-a-day-of-jubilation.html

Early celebrations of Juneteenth were multi-faceted, including education, encouragement of self-improvement, fun and games, barbecuing, and, quite simply, a celebration of the ability to freely gather, a basic right deprived during the slavery era. Churches were often the site of Juneteenth celebrations, but eventually many sites were purchased or acquired that were dedicated to the holiday. 

Recognition from local officials varied—in many areas the holiday was ignored, while in others it was a part of broader celebrations. For instance, between 1936 and 1951 the Texas State Fair included a Juneteenth celebration, with the initial one drawing between 150,000 and 200,000 celebrants for events including a “cabaret show” featuring top entertainers.

The Civil Rights movement, with its emphasis on independence and self-pride, rejuvenated Juneteenth Celebrations, and today they’re regularly celebrated by local municipalities around the country, sometimes officially, as in Texas, where it became a state holiday in 1980. 

Which takes us back to the blues. It’s certainly not the case that blues is essential to Juneteenth—the celebration predates the emergence of the music—but for many decades blues has been central to Juneteenth Celebrations, which nowadays often take place on the Saturday nearest to the 19th.  The 1940 song above by Arkansas native Louis Jordan, the most popular blues performer during that decade, is one of the few blues songs that address Juneteenth, but its celebration of downhome pleasures suggest that blues was long welcome at the get-togethers.

 

Unsurprisingly, Juneteenth events are particularly popular in Texas, with blues-themed gatherings held in many smaller locales as well as in Dallas, Austin, and Houston, where the Juneteenth Festival, established in 1977 by jazz activist Lanny Steele’s SumArts Organization, was for many years one of the largest free outdoor blues events in the country. The Houston celebrationserved as a public forum for honoring the city’s rich, if under recognized blues history, with different artists or individuals celebrated each year.

Here in Mississippi the most long-lasting blues-themed event is the Juneteenth Festival in Columbus’ historic 7th Avenue District, which has been held for more than twenty years, A Google search reveals many Juneteenth Celebrations across that country that are advertised as blues, R&B and jazz. And just like July 4, Juneteenth is likewise associated with downhome food, as hinted at in the the “Juneteenth Rhythm and Ribs” festival in Round Rock, Texas, and, in Pompano Beach, Florida, “Juneteenth: A Celebration of Emancipation and Freedom at the Blues and Sweet Potato Pie Festival.”

The pleasures celebrated in Louis Jordan's "Juneteenth Jamboree" still resonate today, as expressed in this 2014 take of the song by jazz singer Catherine Russell. 

For more information on Juneteenth visithttp://www.juneteenth.com

And on Juneteenth in Texas, visit - https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/lkj01

Angola Bound Revisited: Prison Music of Louisiana

On June 10 the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum in Angola will host the symposium “Angola Bound Revisited: Prison Music of Louisiana,” which addresses the history of music at the infamous prison, which is bordered by the Mississippi River. In addition to talks by scholars, there will be performances by current prison bands and an appearance by Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers, who spent time in Angola as a resident.

The musical heritage of Angola Penitentiary is best known due to work of father and son folklorists John A. and Alan Lomax, who discovered the musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter there during a 1933 visit. Following his release, Ledbetter traveled with the Lomaxes, and became an influential performer in folk music circles.

But why were the Lomaxes at Angola to begin with?  Folklorists are often interested in older cultural expressions that are fading out due to the passage of time and people’s adoption of newer cultural trends, and the Lomaxes—as well as other folklorists—sought out prisons because of their relative isolation from modern media and pop culture. 

For many decades Angola, like the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, was run as a working plantation, and inmates toiled at farm work and tasks including clearing ground and chopping timber using simple technology. Likewise, they were largely shut off from popular culture in the form of radio and records, and had to entertain themselves, sometimes via songs that stemmed back to the 1800s.

 

Ledbetter, with his enormous repertoire of blues, ballads and children’s songs, was a relative exception, and the more common recordings made by the Lomaxes and others were of the songs prisoners sang to accompany work. The following film, made by Pete and Toshi Seeger at a Texas penitentiary in the 1960s, demonstrated how workers used song to coordinate tasks as well as to pass the time.

 

In 1933 John A. and Alan Lomax also visited Parchman, John Lomax recorded blues pioneer Booker White there in 194,  and Alan would return there in the late 1940s and in 1959. The Lomaxes captured powerful recordings of prisoners performing blues, group work songs and “field hollers” – unaccompanied work songs – such as this “levee camp holler” by Johnny Lee Moore

Dust-to-Digital's box set of Alan Lomax recordings from Parchman can be found here.

To find out more about this history of music at Parchman, you can visit the webpage [ http://msbluestrail.org/blues-trail-markers/parchman-farm ] for the Mississippi Blues Trail marker that’s placed on Highway 49 across the main gate from Parchman, which is about 25 miles away from Delta State. 

Last year the Dust-to-Digital label also issued a beautifully packaged boxed set of Lomax’ late ‘40s and 1959 recordings at Parchman, featuring essays and many photos from inside the infamous penitentiary.

Facebook link to symposium - To find out more about the conference, visit their Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1299718390056944/  

BB King Homecoming

Welcome to the “Blues Notes” where we’ll be highlighting events, activities and people that illuminate the richness of culture in the Delta region.  We’ll touch on both general topics as well as specific events, such as the annual B.B. King Homecoming celebration in Indianola, which takes place this Saturday.

King died last May at 89 years old, but the event is continuing as a celebration of his life, singular career and commitment to his home state. The free event takes place on the grounds of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Cultural Center, which opened in 1998 and is now also the site of King’s final resting place. 

The festival starts at 10:00 a.m., and there’s music on two stages through about 8:00 p.m. This year’s headliner is Keb Mo’, and also featured are Teeny Tucker, the B.B. King Museum Allstars, the Big Time Rhythm and Blues Band, Steve Azar & the King’s Men, and Jake & the Pearl Street Jumpers.

After the festival King traditionally played a private show at the historic Club Ebony, and this year the show, which begins at 8:00 p.m.,, will feature guitarist/vocalist Lil Ray Neal with former King band members Reggie Richards (bass), Herman Jackson (drums) and Walter King (sax), with a special appearance by Steve Azar. Tickets are $50/$100.

King’s death was heartbreaking for his many fans around the world, and it hit particularly hard in Indianola, his proclaimed “hometown.”  King was born in 1925 in tiny Berclair, about twenty miles to the east, but he moved to Indianola in his teens, and it was there that he played in a gospel group, found a job driving a tractor, got married, and, most importantly, took up the blues. 

He left Indianola for Memphis in the late ‘40s, and by the early ‘50s King was a national star. He would return home to Indianola to perform on occasion – his second wife, Sue Evans, was the daughter of the owner of the Club Ebony! – but his annual “homecomings” wouldn't become regular until the 1980s.

King first began returning to Mississippi on a regular basis in 1973 with the creation of the Medgar Evers Homecoming celebration, which paid tribute to the life of the Civil Rights martyr, and King would remain the celebration’s main attraction into the 2000s. He was more ambivalent about returning to Indianola, though, because of his perceived notion that his mostly African American band wasn’t getting a full welcome by the community.

Local fans organized the first homecoming event in the late ‘70s, and it took on a regular structure in 1986, when the Chamber of Commerce took over the event and King’s return was celebrated in tandem with Indianola’s centennial. Held on a Friday in early June, the daytime event concluded with a performance by King, whose lighthearted approach to the show was epitomized by a dance contest featuring local kids. 

King would spend the early part of the evening having dinner with old friends, and often would hit the stage at Club Ebony at midnight or later. After the show King would generously give his time to admirers. By the early morning he was on his bus southbound to participate in several days of events associated with the Medgar Evers celebration. 

In his last years King cut back on the time he committed to his annual return, and in 2014 the Indianola Homecoming was billed as his “last time.” It was a bittersweet performance, and while his advanced age was evident there were moments where he demonstrated clearly why he was dubbed the king of the blues. 

 During the 2015 International Conference on the Blues, in partnership with The Delta Center for Culture and Learning and the International Delta Blues Project, the Mississippi Blues Commission proclaimed B.B. King as “Mississippi’s Secretary of the State of the Blues.” The Commission gave a framed proclamation signed by all of the living governors of the state of Mississippi to representatives from the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. For more info, see http://www.internationaldeltabluesproject.com/news1/2016/5/5/mississippi-blues-commission-names-bb-king-secretary-of-state-of-the-blues.