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In them hills out there, them old colored women’d slip off…You don’t catch nothin’ but them old half-white boys and half-white girls out there…There’s more of that in the hills than in the Delta.
(David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards)
The mythology of the ‘Delta blues’ requires that it sprang up more-or-less fully formed, a spontaneous, or at least prohibitively mysterious, distillation of blackness in that uttermost land of fertile black soil and desperate black folk. Among the less obvious problems with this fantasy is that the Delta itself was always far less a place of origin than a place of passage, a crossroads. The artists who assembled the blues brought its pieces there from elsewhere, as they chased opportunity onto the newly cleared alluvium during the first couple of decades of the twentieth century. Because that modest journey – the first leg, for many black Mississippians, of the Great Migration that would soon transplant millions of their kind much further up the Illinois Central – happened to coincide with the incursion of recorded music into the rural South, its story reads as a genesis. The Delta blues is the ‘deep’ blues only by virtue of historiographical convenience.
Behind it lurks, among other things, the older traditions of ‘them hills’ of central Mississippi – traditions that spawned Charley Patton (from Bolton), Tommy Johnson (Crystal Springs), and Robert Johnson (Hazlehurst), and that carried on as those anointed ones traveled north to do their residencies at places like Dockery Farms. If there has been a certain reluctance to do so, the problem is no doubt that for mythological purposes, these traditions are considerably more complicated and more awkward. Up in the Delta the archetypal figure is that of Johnson, obdurate loner genius wailing from a heart of darkness; down here, center stage goes to figures like the Chatmons, a sprawling Hinds County family of white, black, and Indian heritage who played opportunistic blends of blues, country, ragtime, and Tin Pan Alley for audiences of all colors. (The Chatmons both cashed in on their betweenness – naming their hugely popular string band the “Mississippi Sheiks” in the wake of Rudolph Valentino’s ad-hoc Arab – and problematized it, in songs like the unissued ‘The Yellow Coon Has No Race.’) Celebrating the former, in his liberally reconstructed post-revival guise, has always offered to certain white listeners a tantalizing dose of racial absolution; with the Sheiks we are on stickier ground.
But to Johnson or the Chatmons themselves, that supposed divide would likely have seemed nonsensical. The Sheiks were arguably the biggest act in the Delta as Johnson was coming into his own, and he would later brilliantly refashion their ubiquitous hit ‘Sittin’ on Top of the World’ into his own devastating blues ‘Come On in My Kitchen.’ More importantly, to make too much of the divide is to underappreciate the key figure in bridging it. Charley (or was it ‘Charlie’?) Patton – born in 1891 (or was it 1887?), and rumored to be the Chatmons’ illegitimate half-brother – was a light-skinned, wavy-haired enigma, a masterful musician who played with a calculated unkemptness, a powerful vocalist who sang with near-incomprehensibility, and an adept professional who presented himself so erratically that even his closest associates would never quite agree on just who or what he had been. Billed by Paramount as the ‘Masked Marvel,’ Patton transcended fault lines like a proto-Michael Jackson; yet if the latter was the King of Pop, the former was the ultimate pop trickster, forever resisting his assimilation into the cultural machine.
Though they traveled the same roads, the generation gap between Patton and Robert Johnson, born some twenty years later, was tellingly vast. Patton was first and foremost a live performer, his multifarious, unstable repertoire reflecting a career spent shapeshifting for a deceptively complex Mississippi audience. Johnson, who came of age just as ‘race records’ were rapidly catching on around the nation, was among the first to very consciously craft a persona as a recording artist. And while both men left behind considerable personal mystery, Johnson’s music ultimately lent itself far better to a simplified white construction of ‘the blues,’ and it was Johnson, rather than his protean forerunner, who was explicitly enthroned as King.
Though he credited the Devil, Robert Johnson apparently got his chops from an obscure mentor named Ike Zimmerman who lived south of Hazlehurst, one of countless local ‘songsters’ populating the towns of central Mississippi. (Zimmerman’s surviving family remembers a couple of RJ’s songs, including ‘Walkin’ Blues,’ as first belonging to Ike.) Yet he was in the end a product of the Delta, or rather of its mythological image. Patton, on the other hand, though he honed his skills and made his name in Drew and Lula and Mound Bayou, forever embodied the more fluid milieu of ‘them hills’ in which he was immersed as a child – a tradition that left him with roguish hoedown tunes like ‘Hang It on the Wall’ and pre-blues slide rags like ‘Spoonful,’ in addition to the proto-blues that he would later refurbish into masterpieces like ‘Down the Dirt Road.’
Patton’s repertoire hints at the astonishing variety of that stratum of black popular music that spanned the emergence of the blues, and it was arguably in the Jackson area, rather than the Delta, that that variety was best preserved into the recording era. The window of opportunity to capture it on wax was vanishingly short, as the Depression and the jukebox would conspire to put the average Mississippi performer out of work by the late ‘30s. That recording here began as early as it did – 1927 – owes almost entirely to the vision of the extraordinary Henry Speir. An uncommonly intrepid white entrepreneur from rural Newton County, Speir opened a music store on Farish Street – the main artery of black Jackson – and soon realized from the popularity of ‘race records’ like Blind Lemon Jefferson’s that a greater opportunity was afoot. Installing a recording machine upstairs to cut acetate demos (and charging the public $5 a pop to use what was an extreme novelty in the 1920s South), he set out to explore the area in search of talent.
For a prospector of sound like Speir, the street corners, honky tonks, and backwoods jukes of central Mississippi represented a gold mine: he could stroll down two blocks to Mill Street and discover Ishmon Bracey fooling around on a guitar (Bracey: ‘I thought he was the law’), drag him back to the store and cut a demo, ship it off to Victor Records, put Bracey on a train to Memphis for a hastily arranged session, and end up with a modest hit single like ‘Saturday Blues’ – all within the span of six months. A slightly more ambitious trip – just across the Pearl River two miles distant – would have landed Speir in the outlaw utopia known as the ‘Gold Coast,’ where some of the South’s finest performers stopped in to play amidst knife fights, blackjack tables, and a sea of bootleg whiskey. Here and elsewhere, he quickly built a word-of-mouth network and soon enough crossed paths with Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton, Skip James, the Mississippi Sheiks, Geeshie Wiley, and a host of other local artists who would become, to varying degrees and over varying timeframes, legends of that great ecosystem of music known for convenience as the ‘country blues.’
Though these figures in fact covered a tremendous range of styles and social positions, at one time or another they shared Jackson as a center of cultural gravity: a place ideally situated for cross-pollination, with jazz drifting upriver from New Orleans, country filtering in over the Piney Woods railroads, and blues innovations wafting down from the Delta, all acting upon a vibrant culture of idiosyncratic black artistry that dated back for generations. There are any number of anecdotes that illustrate the resultant frenzy of exchange. Among them we have Jimmie Rodgers – the brakeman from Meridian who borrowed from blues to found country – buttonholing Bracey and Tommy Johnson outside the King Edward Hotel in downtown Jackson, expressing his admiration, and inviting them straightaway to the rooftop to play for his select white audience. The latter may not even have been especially startled. Rodgers’ yodel, itself a hybrid of black and white elements, had readily found its way back into black music through the cross-cultural popularity of his late-twenties records. It can be heard in several guises on this compilation, as just one among many drifting scraps that attest to a culture of collective authorship amidst a riot of individual creativity.
To say that Mississippi had a rich creative culture is a banality, but one with a depth that may be hard for us now to fully appreciate. Could a Skip James exist today? James, who spent much of his life in minuscule Bentonia, fashioned himself into a sort of dark prophet, a part-time pimp and bootlegger and a full-time twisted, misanthropic genius. He spoke with a bizarrely refined vocabulary, wrote in an elaborate reversed script to confuse his ‘enemies,’ and may or may not have murdered a man in a lumber camp; he also left behind a body of recorded work that stands among the most hauntingly original of all American creations. Skip James’ music has the wildness of a great mind working in a depth of isolation that perhaps no longer exists. When Speir set up shop in the mid-‘20s, ‘schools’ or ‘genres’ of black music were still so diverse and dynamic as to render any labels virtually meaningless (and to forever frustrate searchers for the ‘origins’ of the blues); by the time he hung up his acetates in the late ‘30s, individual artistry was entering a dark age, and most everyone was listening to the latest record – swing, jump, boogie-woogie – out of Chicago.
In evolutionary terms, these discs span from the archaic grotesquerie of minstrel songs like ‘Mysterious Coon’ to the citified proto-rock of the Harlem Hamfats. That the same people were involved in both is a striking tribute to the adaptive forces at work. Whether or not ‘Alec Johnson’ was in fact an older Chatmon brother, as has been surmised, he certainly used Chatmons as accompanists – as well as the ubiquitous McCoy brothers, ‘Kansas Joe’ and ‘Papa Charlie,’ Hinds County neighbors of the Chatmons who went on to find success in Chicago as the Hamfats. The Chatmon-McCoy circle shows up on record in a bewildering array of guises and names, including the Mississippi Blacksnakes and the Mississippi Mud Steppers in addition to those already mentioned. Joe McCoy alone recorded as the Mississippi Mudder, Mud Dauber Joe, Hallelujah Joe, Hamfoot Ham, and the Hillbilly Plowboy, while Armenter Chatmon established one of the most successful solo careers of the ‘30s under the pseudonym ‘Bo Carter.’ Though they are rarely given much retrospective attention, the popularity, versatility, and influence of these two families was virtually unmatched for a decade-plus.
The rest of the compilation touches on ragtime, jazz, gospel, and hokum, while demonstrating the considerable structural and thematic variety within even the strictest construal of ‘the blues.’ If any one song epitomizes the futility of classification it is surely the transcendent ‘Last Kind Words Blues’ of Geeshie Wiley, the inscrutable provenance of both the work and its performer only accentuating its singularity.1 Included as well are a few later recordings by relatively isolated artists: Scott Dunbar of Lake Mary (south of Natchez), Mott Willis of Crystal Springs, and Jack Owens of Bentonia. These men belonged to the same generation as those who made it onto wax in the Golden Age, and their highly idiomatic blues underscores the variety from which that era drew, while helping to undermine the contrived folk/pop distinction that has so often muddled blues scholarship.
This was an age more of endings than of beginnings, and few of them were happy ones. Patton’s, in 1934, and Johnson’s, in 1938, were perhaps comparatively merciful. Bo Carter vanished by the end of the decade and was found by chance years later, blind and destitute, in a shared shotgun house behind Beale Street in Memphis. Charlie McCoy slowly lost his mind to neurosyphilis and died in an institution in Chicago, unable (like Scott Joplin before him) to play or even fathom his own music. As for Jackson itself, the city closed a chapter in the summer of 1939 when 150 National Guardsmen were trucked in with machine guns, bayonets, and axes to all but demolish the thirty-odd nightclubs lining the Gold Coast. They would eventually be back, but the music that would return with them would no longer be Jackson’s.
When Tommy Johnson and Ishmon Bracey ran into each other on Jackson’s South Street circa 1956, their days spent playing and recording together must have seemed like an antediluvian past. Bracey had long since hung up his guitar in favor of preaching and painting houses; when at last tracked down for an interview, he wouldn’t so much as put on a blues record until his wife was safely out of earshot. As for Johnson, decades of whiskey had slowly consumed his mind and body, to say nothing of the leg-crippling Jamaica ginger (of Bracey’s ‘Jake Liquor Blues’) and the poisonous Sterno cooking fuel (of his own ‘Canned Heat Blues’) that he and others had so often turned to in desperation. On South Street, an abject Johnson shared his longing to get right, to escape the demons, but both knew it’d never happen; Bracey promised helplessly to pray for his friend, and they parted in tears. The next news of Johnson was that he was dead.
Skip James, meanwhile, would survive long enough to be hunted down by sixties revivalists in a Tunica hospital and awkwardly feted in coffeehouses across the Northeast. Somewhat miraculously, Sam Chatmon would hang on into the 1980s, the light-skinned son of an ex-slave fiddler and last face of a complicated tradition, still compelling guests onto his Hollandale front porch to hear ‘the old-fashioned music that first was handed down’ (along with a few more provocative numbers like ‘I Have to Paint My Face’). But the subtleties of Chatmon’s role had long since been flattened by a corporatized culture industry that needed its recruits to play definable parts. It was a pattern both new and old: his father the fiddler, who had once masterfully navigated the interstices of the plantation economy, had failed to satisfy the image of the moaning negro ‘more plaintive than the lay of the whippoorwill or the call of the sorrowing dove’2; likewise, Sam and other central Mississippi bluesmen proved too slippery to conform to the modern archetypes, and thus found themselves stuck in the footnotes as the blues narrative emerged.
In many ways the Golden Age had been given its aptest conclusion of all back in December 1938, when John Hammond lugged a phonograph onstage at Carnegie Hall to play a couple of Robert Johnson records for a rapt audience. He’d had Johnson himself lined up as the ‘big surprise’ to close out his big retrospective of black music in America, but the bluesman had of course run afoul of some poisoned whiskey in the meantime. Embellishing the story was already irresistible: in Hammond’s version, Johnson had perished ‘at the precise moment’ he had learned from scouts of the New York booking. His facts already giving way to legend, Johnson was collapsed into an iota, the black speaker-hole that would forever emit his abstracted sound and absorb the projected desires of his listeners. A deal with the devil, indeed.
We are told of a research student who took a seat on a fence to listen to the singing of a negro work gang on a railroad. When he finally detected their words he found they were singing lines that sounded like, ‘See dat white man…sittin’ on a fence…sittin’ on a fence…wastin’ his time…wastin’ his time.’
(Carl Sandburg, The American Songbag)
1 See John Jeremiah Sullivan’s riveting essay ‘The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie’ for more on Wiley.
2 From a description of spiritual tunes in John Wesley Work’s Folk Song of the American Negro.