Although this has been called the age of anxiety, it might better be termed the century of the blues, after the moody song style that was born sometime around 1900 in the Mississippi Delta. The blues has always been a state of being as well as a way of singing. Leadbelly once told me, “When you lie down at night, turning from side to side, and you can’t be satisfied o way you do, Old Man Blues got you.” A hundred years ago only blacks in the Deep South were seized by the blues. Now the whole world begins to know them.
In order to hear the blues, when I was very young, my girlfriend and I slipped into the black ghetto of my Southern hometown under the cover of darkness. If we’d been caught there, we would probably have been expelled from the university. Nowadays everyone sings and dances to bluesy music, and the mighty river of the blues uncoils in the ear of the planet. Indeed, the blues may have become the best-known tune humans have ever sung. At the same time, all of us are beginning to experience the melancholy dissatisfaction that weighed upon the hearts of the black people of the Mississippi Delta, the land where the blues began. Feelings of anomie and alienation, of orphaning and rootlessness-the sense of being a commodity rather than a person; the loss of love and of family and of place-this modern syndrome was the norm for the cotton farmers and the transient laborers of the Deep South a hundred years ago.
I’m a poor boy and long old ways from home…
This song arose in a period much like our own. Our species has never been more powerful and wealthy, nor more ill at ease. Homeless and desperate people in America and all over the world live in the shadow of undreamed of productivity and luxury. So it was in the Mississippi Delta in the early years of this century. Boom times in cotton gave a handful of planters easy riches, while the black majority who produced the cotton lived in sordid shanties or roamed from job to job. Some blacks attempted to become free enterprisers, but were so hemmed in by caste barriers that very few succeeded in rising in the world. The rebellious were kept in heir place by gun and lynch laws, ruthlessly administered by the propertied.
Our times today are similarly out of joint, similarly terrorized. Technology has made the species rich and resourceful as never before, but the wealth and the resources rest with a few individuals, corporations, and favored nations. Most earthlings, most nations, are distanced from technological luxury, and that imbalance is presided over by armed forces capable of destroying the planet itself. Rage and anxiety pervade the emotions and the actions of both the haves and the have-nots. And the sound of the worried blues of the old Delta is heard in back alleys and palaces, alike.
In such threatening situations most people grow careful about speaking out. The fate of whistle blowers and nonconformists is well known. Those most favored by fortune become the most reticent about the inequities that profit them. The poor eat humble pie and only smile-when their masters are present. Everyone learns to remain silent in the face of monstrous ironies. In the South I grew up in, for example, almost everyone had convinced themselves that blacks were happy. In fact, they were excluded from public facilities, were poorly paid, badly housed, constantly insulted and bullied, and were without equal rights before the law. Nevertheless, everybody, especially the oppressed and disenfranchised, kept quiet. Working-class blacks who talked ran the risk of losing their jobs, if not their lives. Blacks who hobnobbed with strangers might also land in serious trouble. Whites who protested were stigmatized as “nigger lovers” and faced social exclusion or worse.
This was the way things were when my father, John A. Lomax, and I began recording Southern black fold songs in the field in the 1930s. I realize now that during a summer I spent in the field in 1935 with the brilliant black folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, she never elicited any accounts of oppression from anyone, nor did she discuss such matters. I presume that she considered this too risky, and I am sure she was right. This book is a long-delayed account of my personal attempts to penetrate this zone of silence, and how I managed, finally, to record the way the black laborers of the Delta saw their situation.
The portable recording machine, which my father and I were the first to use, provided the first breakthrough. It was heavy (five hundred pounds) and it engraved a rather noisy sound groove on aluminum discs. Even so, by making it possible to record and play back music in remote areas, away from electrical sources, it gave a voice to the voiceless. It documented music, such as the complex polyphony of the blacks, which notation could not represent. Thus the portable recorder put neglected cultures and silenced people into the communication chain. The performers were heartened when they heard their own music and often spoke into the microphone as if the machine were a telephone, connected directly to the centers of power. One black sharecropper began, “Now listen here, Mr. President, I want you to know they’re not treatin us right down here…” The poignant songs he and others recorded for us stirred New Deal Washington and won support for our activity. In a few short years the image of a remarkable African-American indigenous culture had been put on permanent record-a black Texas, a black Alabama, a black Virginia…
Bit by bit, I learned to use these early machines to probe into the singers’ feelings. You had to be quick because the first discs held only three or four minutes per side. It was important to keep the machine out of the picture, so I generally sat between it and the singer and flipped the discs with my back to the turntable. Soon conversations about songs lengthened into life histories. By the time of the Delta trips I was using big acetate discs. Acetate was harder to engineer than aluminum, because you had not only to keep the mike focused and monitor the volume, but also to prevent the acetate chip from piling up under the recording needle. However, the tracks were much quieter, and best of all, every side could hold fifteen minutes of sound. This meant long events-church services, games, storytelling, work scenes, extended reminiscences-could be documented.
Every time I took one of those big, black, glass-based platters out of its box, I felt that a magical moment was opening up in time. Never before had the black people, kept almost incommunicado in the Deep South, had a chance to tell their story in their own way. For me the black discs spinning in the Mississippi night, spitting the chip centripetally toward the center of the table, also heralded a new age of writing human history-and so it proved. The recorded prose, when transcribed, curled and capered beautifully in print. It was a good as the best of Shakespeare’s “vulgar” scenes, of Dickens’s-writers who I suspect had recording machines in their heads. So in the 1930s and 40s, I set down the first oral histories-singing biographies of Leadbelly, of Jelly Roll Morton, of Big Bill, or Vera Hall, and many more.
However, I still remained unsatisfied about the candor of my Southern interviews. It was clear the Southern blacks would not readily confide in a white folklorist. Therefore, I approached Fisk University, the Princeton of black colleges, with the idea of doing a joint field study with my department at the Library of Congress. The aim was to establish a center for black folklore studies at Fisk. If prestigious Fisk became involved in folklore work, I reasoned, black intellectuals might overcome their prejudices against the oral traditions of the rural and unlettered blacks, prejudices expressed in searing language by Richard Wright in Black Boy. Moreover, I felt that I would learn much on a biracial trip into the Deep South.
Charles Johnson, head of sociology at Fisk, liked my notion of doing a study of an urbanizing cotton county as a way of accessing the continuing importance of traditions. For this reason we picked Coahoma County, the cotton capital of the Delta, as the site. The composer John Work agreed to do the musical analyses. Lewis Jones, Johnson’s highly skilled field assistant, headed a team to carry out a systematic social survey of folklore over four generations. My work, to record the field interviews, was made easy because Lewis and other black members of the team vouched for me. The story of my experiences in Coahoma County fill the first four chapters of this book.
World War II permanently interrupted Lewis Jones’s write-up of the Delta data. For my part, I came away from the study unsatisfied. I felt that although the Fisk survey placed the lore in its temporal social context, it had missed the creative and cultural forces bubbling in the cauldron of the Delta. Te penetrating studies of Delta life done in the same period by John Dollard and Hortense Powdermaker depicted the Delta black majority as passive victims of a complex and cruel system. But these characterizations gave no sense of the creative forces at work in the lower depths of the Delta society.
The Fisk study came closer to the people of the Delta but failed to show that the Mississippi working class whom Richard Wright so despised had a dynamic culture that constantly enriched their surroundings. Clearly, these underprivileged blacks had transformed every situation, every aspect of their environment-dance, orchestration, religion, work, speech-making them over in their own image. But the Fisk study had failed to locate the cultural wellsprings of this underprivileged majority and to describe the dynamics of their constant creativity.
During the forties and later, I continued to interview Delta musicians and returned to Mississippi several times to make tape, stereo, then video recordings. Year by year I learned how to ask better questions. The further the recording session was from the Delta, the more openly the blacks spike about their lives. I took my Delta material overseas with me and puzzled over it as I worked on a world anthropology of folk and primitive music. Gradually, I began to see Delta culture as the product of the reaction of a powerful African tradition to a new and often harsher social environment. On my return to America I carried this insight further. Together with a team of specialists I spent a umber of years on a global study of the relation of performance style to culture in twin surveys of the treasures of ethnographic recordings and film. This work put the African-American drama in perspective, as one of many encounter between African and Eurasian performance styles. Out of this study came ideas that illumined the Delta research.
It became clear that black Africa had distinctive performance styles, quite as formal as those of Western Europe. Moreover, these expressive patterns clearly represented and reinforced the fundamental structures of African society. Their broad provenance throughout Africa south of the Sahara indicated that, even though they had been transmitted orally and nonverbally, these cultural traditions were both powerful and stable. Careful comparison showed that black African nonverbal performance traditions had survived virtually intact in African America, and had shaped all its distinctive rhythmic arts, during both the colonial and the post colonial periods. It was this unwritten but rich African tradition that empowered the creativity we had encountered in the lower depths of the Mississippi Delta. The error in African-American studies had been to look to print and to language for evidence of African survivals. For instance, musicologists discovered that American blacks performed many European-like melodies, but failed to notice that the whole performance context-voicing, rhythmic organization, orchestration-remained essentially African. Such scholarship turned university-trained black intellectuals and writers away from the heritage of their parents, who had a nonprint, nonverbal heritage that the educated falsely labeled “ignorant.” Nonetheless, it was because of this culturally biased “ignorance” that African culture had been largely passed on in America-that is, through nonverbal and oral channels, out of the reach of censorship.
Every one of the world-renowned black American genres from ragtime to rap bears the mark of this “folk” heritage. Clearly also it provided the resources employed by the Delta blacks in manifold adaptations to their harsh destiny as an uprooted and exploited people. Gradually, I saw how, through every trial, Delta blacks had been buoyed up and propelled forward by the nourishing river of black cultural practice, maintained in the isolation of the Southern ghetto. Like cunning Br’er Rabbit, the African-American creative tradition was “bred and born in the briar patch” created by Jim Crow.
A flood tide of supportive African sociability, eroticism, and life-giving laughter, welling up in black family and community life, endowed black life with a certain invulnerability in the face of sharp adversity. Our studies established solid connections between the modes of every day and the characteristics of song and dance styles. For example, these wider investigations showed that the ability to sing in good concert, and to dramatize strong feelings in dance, were present wherever cultural conditions constantly brought black people together for sociable activities. The large extended families, the neighborhood self-help groups, and the community-led religious services of the blacks provided such sociable occasions and fostered ease in morale-building group performances.
Therefore, it could be argued that the new song styles of the Delta symbolized the dynamic continuance of African social and creative process as a technique of adaptation. Moreover, the birth of the blues and the struggles of its progenitors could be seen as a creative deployment of African style in an American setting, the operation of African temperament in new surroundings. In a sense, African-American singers and dancers made an aesthetic conquest of their environment in the New World. Their productions transfixed audiences and white performers rushed to imitate and parody them in the minstrel show, buck dancing, ragtime, jazz, as nowadays in rock, rap, and the blues.
It is the gradual discovery of this river of black African tradition flowing through Delta life that gives form to the experiences chronicled in these pages. The field recordings, the life histories, the yellow pages of my field notebooks, the encounters and conversations often dimly recollected after fifty years-all revealed some bend of the big river where the blues were born. As the work went on, the eloquent people of the Delta spoke more openly, and it was a source of deep satisfaction to me that at last I, a white Southerner, could penetrate the Southern façade and learn something about what life was like o the other side of the Jim Crow line. The tales and songs return again and again to a few themes-to the grievous and laughable ironies in the lives of an outcaste people, who were unfairly denied the rewards of an economy they had helped to build. One black response to this ironic fact was to create the blues-the first satirical song form in the English language-mounted on cadences that have now seduced the world. It is heartening to realize that both the style and the inner content of this new genre are bold symbols of an independent and irrepressible culture.
The experience of Southern working-class blacks, who created the blues in the post slavery period, was in some ways more bitter than slavery itself. Promised equal rights and opportunities, blacks were, by and large, denied both. They put their hand to the plow, to the railroad hammer, to the lines of the mule team and, in effect, built the South-for subsistence wages. Faulkner’s decadent planter class knew how to exploit them and, when they felt it necessary, resorted to the most savage exemplary violence to keep these vigorous and ambitious people in line. As always, such cynical violence imposed from the top led to violence within the exploited group-a very ugly emotional safety valve.
These conditions-described in the following pages-continued, especially in the Deep South, with little change until World War II, and, even after the Johnson political reforms and the inspiring successes of the integration movement, have not entirely disappeared. Thus they form the immediate background for our present. The Delta scene was, perhaps, more savage than that in some parts of the South because it was a sort of industrial frontier. Yet it is fair to say that the grandparents, even the parents, of the majority of American blacks were painfully acquainted with the lifestyle described in these pages. Now that people everywhere begin to taste the bitterness of the postindustrial period, the Delta blues have found a world audience.
New York City
Lomax, Alan. The Land Where the Blues Began. New York: Delta, 1993.
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