The Land Where the Blues Began
The bluesmen were the bards of America’s last frontier, the rowdy Mississippi Delta, in the days of the cotton boom, of levee and railroad building. Alan Lomax takes us on an adventure into the “bad old days” of the Delta. Weaving together the tales of muleskinners and roustabouts, church matrons and convicts, children and blind street singers, Lomax gives us the rich, sorrow-ridden background of the blues. We meet Muddy Waters (the father of modern blues), learn how Robert Johnson met his end, and are introduced to Fred McDowell and Son House, who taught Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton how to play the blues. In pre-integration days, when Lomax, a Southerner, first began his research, custom forbade a white man to socialize or even shake hands with a black. Despite threats of jail and violence, Lomax broke through the veil of silence that up till the 1940s had concealed the life of blacks in the Deep South. For the first time the people in these lower depths told the story of their humiliation and exploitation—of the brutal work camps that wasted lives and of the monstrous state penitentiaries that devoured the rebellious. No blacks before them had dared to expose the cruelties of the post-Reconstruction Deep South, the time of broken promises and illegal repression. In 1941, Blind Sid Hemphill, drum major of the Hills, introduced Lomax to the African roots of the Mississippi music, whose performance style (in song, speech, music, dance) has survived virtually intact in American black folk communities. This powerful, joy-filled, nonverbal and oral tradition gave rise to spirituals, jazz, dance steps, humor, and other folkways that kept the hearts of blacks alive all through their time of travail. It is this river of African-American culture—swept along in a tide of bawdy tales, murder ballads, work songs, hollers, game songs, church shouts—that produced the blues, which now enchant the world.
Co-founder—with folklorist father John A. Lomax—of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, Alan Lomax traveled the South “from the Brazos bottoms of Texas to the tidewater country of Virginia” in search of the wellspring of American blues. Previously the author of Mister Jelly Roll, Lomax stalks the ghosts of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy and Charlie Patton, among many other blues pioneers. This winner of the 1993 National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction is more than just another profile of a musical genre. It’s an intimate diary of a purely American art form born of a powerful mix of despair and hope.