Having read the brilliant review of Mat Callahan’s ‘Songs of Slavery and Emancipation’ from Rick Bayles and Paul Kerr recently, it seemed like a good idea to look at one of the most vivid pictures of the life of African Americans in the south and the causes and effects of their migration north.
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, covering the Abolition of Slavery, was ratified at the end of 1865. This did not mean the end to oppression for African Americans. The Black Codes enacted in many Southern States granted only restricted freedoms, and many ex Slaves and their descendants were forced into Sharecropping where they paid rent on land owned by former white slave owners by giving a portion of their crop to the landowner.
This was the economic and social background that led to the evolution of the Blues. The debate about where the Blues began, and its musical roots, we can leave for another time. For now, we can assume that one of the key places was the Mississippi Delta, a sliver of land that lies between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, bordering Arkansas and Louisiana, and the setting for this book.
Palmer was a noted writer for The New York Times and Rolling Stone as well as a historian of the Blues and record producer. He wrote ‘Deep Blues’ in the late seventies and it appeared in 1981. This meant he was in time to catch many of the key figures in the music and capture their memories of the early years of the Blues in and around the Delta and on its migration to Chicago from the first half of the twentieth century.
But this is so much more than a book about music. It is a snapshot of life from the perspective of the black population of towns like Helena, Clarksdale, and Memphis. Even the aspects which were current in 1979 are now historical, as the world they describe has also faded into the past.
The first two-thirds of the book follows three lives as guides for the world they inhabited. The first is Charley Patton, who takes the story from the late 1800s into the early 1930s. The bit players include Son House, and other early recording stars. Biographical information is limited to those who knew them 50 years earlier as children, but their recollections of life in the early part of the century are still compelling reading. The star of this part of the book is the Delta landscape, the trains that cross the plantations, the levees, the villages, and small towns that were growing up, and the subsistence lifestyle of the people.
The second key name is Muddy Waters, one of the best known Electric Bluesmen, who Palmer interviewed for the book in 1978. Contrasting his comfortable Chicago suburban home with the sharecropper’s shack he grew up in, Palmer follows Waters’ journey from his time as a farmer and rural juke Joint owner through migration to Chicago and a job driving trucks to his career as a respected elder statesman of the Blues. The detailed explanation of the migration process and the conditions in the Chicago of the forties that Waters found are fascinating. Even more so are the descriptions of the Chicago bars that people like Otis Rush and Buddy Guy were playing before the eighties Blues revival whisked them away. Waters’ reminiscences are clearly coloured by his relatively affluent life in Chicago, although still nowhere near the level of wealth that the white guitarists who appropriated his music enjoy, as Palmer is quick to point out. However, a vivid picture of African American life in Chicago from the fifties to the seventies emerges.
The last aspect to examine is what happened with those who stayed in the Delta when the migration north was in full swing during the forties and fifties. To illustrate this Palmer uses Robert Lockwood, the stepson of Robert Johnson, along with Rice Miller, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson II. Lockwood was a significant figure in making the blues popular, playing on King Biscuit Time, a radio show using Blues to advertise flour. Johnson himself is a fairly peripheral presence in the book. His story as it had been uncovered at the time is told, but one of the most telling comments in the whole narrative is when Lockwood is happy to be telling his own story rather than endorsing the Johnson legend, as it seems he was so often asked to. Lockwood and Miller’s exploits playing and recording in the Delta from around 1943 to 1952 are detailed. The music is so clearly a product of its environment. Shorter songs for radio and record, long jams at house parties and Juke Joints, run-ins with patronising businessmen, and racist police and glimpses of other lives, drawn from interviews with the people who lived them. Lockwood was one of the main figures in developing electric blues lead guitar and taught BB King and is painted here as a player who has not had his due credit.
Later chapters bring the story up to date in 1979. Covering in a rush figures like King, John Lee Hooker, and others. The featured artist in this section is however Ike Turner. Long before he met Tina and buried his reputation as a blues guitarist and producer, Turner was a talent scout for Sun, Modern, and other labels. The story of the creation of Rocket 88, widely seen as the first Rock & Roll record is covered, as is the fact that 10 years after Lockwood and Miller fell foul of the law, nothing showed any sign of changing.
Other than Palmer himself one of the few white voices in ‘Deep Blues’ is plantation owner Joe Dockery, whose land was the melting pot in which much of the Blues was born. Charley Patton and Muddy Waters were just two of his prominent tenants. Inevitably Dockery does not emerge well from Palmer’s description, with his comments only going to show how close to slavery sharecropping remained. But it’s that dominance of black voices, famous and less well known, that makes Deep Blues a critical text in understanding how and why mass migration to the industrial cities happened. As a history of the music and its evolution, it is a safer place than earlier books, such as Paul Oliver’s, because it immerses itself in the world rather than taking an external scholarly view of the music and its players as an anthropological study. ‘Deep Blues’ is a book I have read many times in order to understand the music and the people who created it. I don’t claim any great insights, but I have learned to appreciate the extraordinary musicians who paved the way for so much of the music created in the last hundred years.
In 1991 Palmer cooperated with filmmaker Robert Mugge and David Stewart of Eurythmics fame on a film that looked at the state of the Blues in the Delta at the time. Featuring some great performances, it and the CD soundtrack that goes with it are worth investigating as codas to the book. Here is the trailer for a new release coming to a streaming platform near you.
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