All new work relating to this project and other ethnographic work on music by Ali Colleen Neff has been moved to:
Brian and I spent the day reviewing and logging the footage we’ve taken so far, including some of Brian’s excellent “b-roll” (video shots of surroundings to be used for cutaways or expository material). We’ve come up with a logging system as we collect clips in FinalCut Pro; after all, we are planning to collect 50 hours of tape for our half-hour documentary and expect to be working with 500 or so clips. Tom Davenport, Steve Knoblock and Rob Roberts at Folkstreams.net suggested this method: we organize the tapes by date (07.05.06) and by tape number (07.06.06.01) and then, under each tape number heading, we number our clips chronologically, titling the as we go: (07.05.06.01: B-Roll Wet dirt road and cloudy sky short). Below the title, we rate the clipon a scale of 1-10 for Content, Video and Audio qualities and transcribe or further explain the clip (10, 10, n/a, Short B-Roll of wet dirty road and cloudy sky at Hopson). We then match this text entry to our FinalCut logging using number and title and arrange the clips in folders according to tape number. We expect this to help greatly in the editing process. Click below to view our complete clip log,from which we will make our documentary.
The work can be exhausting, but we’ve got a built-in pressure valve right in our backyard:
Later that night, a crowd is gathered at Red’s to see Big T and Wesley Jefferson (above), another Clarksdale bluesman, alternate as leaders of a loose group of local musicians. A number of Jefferson’s family members are in attendance, and many of them pick up an instrument or sing a song as the players rotate throughout the evening. The set list is improvised as one member of the group begins a song and the others jump in, and the songs range from the deep, dirty blues to southern soul songs that vary just the tiniest bit from the local gospel sound.
Wesley Jefferson also happens to be the best shade-tree mechanic in this part of the Delta; with a pinch of the fingers under the hood and a sniff of their contents, he can diagnose an engine problem in seconds. He impeccably fixed up our ’69 Ford Econoline van (dubbed: The Shack on Wheels) that Tim and I brought—after13 serious breakdowns—from San Francisco to Clarksdale for a dime. He’s married to Miss Sara Carr, daughter of legendary Jelly Roll King drummer Sam Carr and the father of a number of talented children, all of whom are musical, and one of whom is serving in the War on Iraq.
Wesley’s version of the blues is good and dirty, with his wah-wah voice and stomping cadence. He’s also willing to let another player step into the spotlight while he takes a beer break. There’s a certain lack of boundary between audience and performer in the Delta that gives the music such electricity; in this room, whooping and dancing with the rest, my hand tight around a Bud tall boy, I feel like I am as much a part of the music as anything.
I encountered a group of blues tourists-cum-entrepreneurs today as I bought a soda in the local gardening shop. As “The Delta Blues” gains cache with middle America and blues tourism increases, a number of investment bankers and real estate moguls have been buying chunks of Clarksdale for tourism development. One heavy investor from California has reportedly expressed interest in transforming Clarksdale into “the Branson of the blues.” What worries me is that these wealthy people are functioning on and perpetuating ideas of Blues authenticity that do not reflect the Afrocentric identity of the expressive form. This results in a fetishization of the poor, old bluesman in the cotton field and the disenfranchisement of those who fall outside of this romantic definition; namely the young black cultural practitioners, such as Top Notch and his friends, who are the creative lifeblood of the Mississippi Delta.
These investors asked me what I was doing here in town, unaware that I have been living and working here for two and a half years. I gave them one of many short answers I have tailored to escape such situations: I am working on a documentary about local hip-hop artists.
“Oh!” said the shaggy white-haired Floridian. “You won’t find any hip-hop here.” His shirt was covered in patches from commercial blues festivals across the South and Midwest.
“That’s right,” said his wife, her swingy ponytail bouncing. “Not one i-ota. This is a blues town.”
“People are blues-oriented in this town,” he reiterated, slightly hurt, almost as if I had slapped him in the face.
I’m hoping that my work will open a discourse about ideas of blues authenticity and contemporary expressive culture in the Mississippi Delta. Some writers and researchers are starting to take notice:
Hillary Rhodes’ excellent recent AP article about misguided ideas of authenticity and blues tourism in Clarksdale, and
Stephen A.King’s survey on the impact of tourism in the Mississippi Delta.
We roll into Top Notch’s neighborhood in the early afternoon to film our first interview for our documentary about his community and his work. It’s the day after the Fourth of July and a trio of boys around the age of 11 are shooting off bottle rockets while walking down the street. They watch as we pull into Top Notch’s driveway in the all-black neighborhood. Older neighbors watch from their porches as well, curious. I’ve noticed during my two years of ethnography in the tight-knit neighborhoods of the Delta that watchful eyes abound, and that community members often know about my project before I arrive on site. I enjoy inviting curious onlookers to watch us work and often show them the equipment we are using. I am often rewarded when community members agree to be interviewed on camera.
We decide to shoot outside today—it’s a sunny and rather quiet afternoon, and little traffic noise filters through the thick Delta air. Top Notch does not have air conditioning or furniture—he’s just moved into this rented house—so we set up a coffee table for seating in the shady backyard. The three boys with fireworks peek over the fence next door as we set up our lights and microphones, so we invite them to come take a look at what we’re doing. They know that Top Notch is a rapper, but have never heard him rap. I ask them if they’d like to stay in the backyard while we film our interview and they reply that they would. We set up a fill light and lavalier mics for the interview.
Top Notch’s cousin, Taurus Metcalf, visits from next door, and we ask him if he’d like to speak to us about his cousin’s work. He agrees and we film him Top Notch and Taurus conversing about how they lived together as teenagers in a small two-bedroom apartment filled with 18 people. The entire extended family was supported by the disability checks of Top Notch’s uncle (and Taurus’ father). The kids were only able to eat one meal a day and remember going to bed hungry, their heads aching. They also recall chopping cotton on a Coahoma County plantation, where they became sick with exhaustion and thirst.
The three boys, who were standing behind Taurus and Top Notch during their interview, were excited when we asked if they’d like to speak on camera. They introduced themselves as Derrick Jurden, age 12; Mario Hagen, age 11; and Kevon Jurden, age 11. The depth of their insight into the alarming socioeconomic situation in the Delta was well beyond their years, as was their ability to rap about their experiences.
George Hines discusses Early Wright’s legacy
“This is Hines in the mornin’ times at WROX, the station that Early Wright built. George Hines, Hines, Hines on your radi-yi-yo. NO! There is nothing wrong with your radi-yi-yo. We are simply…jammin’!” –George Hines, WROX Station Manager
Rumor had it that WROX, the famous old Clarksdale radio station, was to close its doors in then upcoming weeks, so I stop by the station to see if we might conduct an interview with the station manager, George Hines, about what oral culture means in the Mississippi Delta. I walk in the front door of the little building on Highway 49 to a somber-looking group of listeners gathered around Hines, who is tearing up as he speaks on the air. This is his last hour on WROX, he’s telling his listeners, and the power to the station will be cut in a few days. Teary fans are stopping by the studio to say goodbye as Hines explains that the media company that bought the station last year has chosen to close the station due to lack of revenue.
Hines has carried on an oral tradition native to the Mississippi Delta: the blues radio rap, which was pioneered by Clarksdale’s Early Wright. Wright, the first African American deejay in the South, was hired to manage WROX in 1947, where he stayed until1992. Wright was a master of rhyme, rhythm and rap whose quick wit made him the toast of Delta society—white and black. He was best known for his commercial breaks, in which he used the advertising format to promote himself as well as the product in question. “Just tell ‘em Early Wright sent ya. They have a full-figured dry goods store specializing in large sizes, with stockings up to size 200. Wow! Under the same roof is Miss Louise’s Typing Service. She can do letterheads, obituaries, funeral directories, term papers. She’s a wonderful person. Go tell her you heard about her on the radio.”
In an oppressive, segregated cultural atmosphere, Wright used his position and style to create African American agency in powerful ways. Wright would often promise a free dozen eggs or cut of meat for the first listener to visit an advertiser’s business without the permission of the white business owner. When a handful of people showed up at the store, the owner would dismiss the promotion as a trick on Wright’s part while enjoying a boost in business, all the while shaking their heads. He also used a variety of poetic technique to garnish his style. “It’s the right time of nighttime, Early Wright time… Pleasant good evening, ladies and gentlemen, how do you do? This is the Soul Man, to be with you, until I get through. So stand by and don’t have no fear because the Soul Man is here.”
Here’s an audio clip I found of Early Wright announcing an advertisment at WROX in the early 1980s:Early Wright Radio announcement
Hines was joined in the studio by Southern Soul singer Wendell B. and his manager, Big Tim, as well as a number of local friends including Clarksdale resident King Richard, local advertisers and schoolkids. I called my film partner Brian Graves, who hurried over to the station with our lights, microphones and camera, which we managed to set up just in time to catch Hines final station sign-off. In this speech, Hines sends an explicit political message to his listeners in terms rarely used in the public arenas of the Mississippi Delta. I can feel the gravity of his words and know how generous it is of Hines to give me documentary access to this moment.
We’ve wandered into the high hill country that adjoins the Delta to the east to enjoy a music festival featuring hill country artists T-Model Ford, Bobby Rush, Robert Belfour, Kenny Brown and members of the renowned Kimbrough and Burnside families. The family of Othar Turner, the beloved hill country fife-and-drum musician, is also present today. Turner, featured in the work of Bill Ferris, David Evans and Alan Lomax, passed away three years ago. Today, the sounds of the fife are played by his 16-year-old granddaughter, Sharde Thomas, whose high notes echo through the crowd. A group of drummers encircle her as she recalls her grandfather’s favorite tunes. Here’s an excerpt of a piece I wrote about her playing at her family reunion last year:
“As the sun set, a young woman in thick corkscrew twists and a ‘76ers jersey walked to the center of the yard without fanfare, carrying a cane fife. It was Sharde, and she was calling her drummers to join her. As she began to play her grandfather’s signature song, “Shimmy She Wobble,” a circle of drummers, instruments hung loosely by their sides, jumped in at will, eventually building to a skipping cadence. Sharde pulled her notes from the air, molded them from air, and sent them back into the air as dancers pulled themselves up from their seats and got down close to the ground. The tempo quickened, and a young man from a black motorcycle brotherhood from Memphis (I read it on his jacket) literally backed into the ground, shoulders first, cavorting in time as if conducting the music himself. This process continued for two or three more songs, until the tempo wound down, and the music faded away—for the moment.”
The hill country blues sound is different from the Delta blues in a number of ways; it involves a droning, jangly sound, with a loose low string spronging along with the crunchy chords. The songs can last for over half an hour, with lyrics that reach back hundreds of years into the history of African American expressive culture.
Folkstreams hosts Bill Ferris’ film on Gravel Springs fife and drum music, featuring
Robert Belfour (pictured above), a hill country artist who is a favorite player at Red’s Juke Joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi, is famous for his long, heavy songs, wolfman voice and carved wooden amulet. Hear the NPR edition of All Songs Considered about his song, “Pushin’ my Luck” here.
Back in Red’s, only this time it’s for an actual blues party. Big Jack “Oilman” Johnson, the revered bluesman from Clarksdale whose secondary legacy was driving the town’s biggest fuel truck, has agreed to play a short, early set. The crowd swells to fifteen at around 8 p.m. when Big Jack begins to tune his guitar. This juke-joint gig offers him a chance to play for his hometown friends in between the closely-scheduled blues festival gigs that are his bread and butter. It also allows him to experiment and improvise in a way that the big stage does not allow.
Red’s “stage” is actually a worn oriental area rug, about twelve by ten feet, that takes up the bulk of the space in the room. The musician’s area is further delineated by a huge tin tip tub before the performers, a stack of old guitar amps and a p.a. on either side of the group, and a moat of dancers and revelers. The edges of the room are filled with little round tables and chairs, in which early-arriving locals sit in large groups, and the bar, at which an assortment of Red’s friends and nervous white tourists crowd in.
Terry “Big T” Williams, another accomplished Clarksdale bluesman, is playing bass with the group tonight. He’s told me that he’s excited to play with Johnson, whom he considers an elder and a mentor. The influence of Big Jack’s legendary guitar technique on Big T’s style is apparent, and although Big T tends to shine in the spotlight, he’s happy to back up the Oilman tonight. Lee, a 19-year-old graduate of the Delta Blues Education program, sits in on drums, which he plays with the combination of swing and precision that has always characterized the Delta blues. An anonymous white blues tourist in an iridescent blue shirt holds his own on rhythm guitar behind the group.
Top Notch, the Clarksdale hip-hop artist with whom we are working on our documentary, walks in halfway through Johnson’s set. After an extended round of hellos to what seems like the entirety of Red’s patronage, he grabs a seat at the bar and sips a bottled water, watching. He’s a little nervous: Big T has offered him a chance to perform tonight. Together we watch Big Jack improvise masterfully on his guitar.
As Johnson finished his set with a revved-up bluesymedley of traditional songs (“Will the Circle be Unbroken? Amazing Grace”), Big T takes the reins and begins to play a deepblues riff. After a song or two, he turns toward his band for a moment and then calls Top Notch up to the microphone. Top looks a little nervous as the band plays a swelling, funky blues dirge, but it doesn’t last long. He introduces himself to the crowd, and then begins to improvise a rap–a freestyle–about who he is and how he got to be where he is right now. He raps about how much he admires Big Jack and how hungry he is and how he’s loving his Tall Boy Budweiser. The paralells between his verbal riffing and Big Jack and Big T’s guitar improvisation are made explicit when he finally ends his 3-minute rhyme with the phrase, “It’s not blues or rap, it’s just music.” The band plays an outro and then the music stops. The mixed crowd at the little juke joint seems to pause for a second and then cheers wildly.
Although I wish I had a video of this performance, I am glad that we’re not filming yet; as an ethnographer, I’ve found that I value the experience first and the document second. I have no doubt that a moment like this will happen again during our time in the Delta and that next time, I’ll have a camera in my hand. It’s the same feeling I have when I think about taking video in church; I feel like I should understand what I am trying to record before I take out the camera. I also want to make sure that everyone involved in the filming knows what we’re doing and is comfortable with our presence.
I guess I’m feeling a little guilty as I step into church today. I push the tall boy Budweiser and red-lit posters from the night before to the edges of my mind as I cross the holy threshold of St. James Temple. Church of God in Christ, or COGIC, is a Pentecostal denomination that was a consolidated in the Mississippi Delta in the mid-twentieth century. Bill Ferris took a great deal of photographs and Super 8 footage of the old Clarksdale COGIC church in the 1960s, which he released in the form of a short documentary entitled “Black Delta Religion.”
The usher seats us front and center in the large white church, which is today about half-full with its congregation of 150 people. The choir is just beginning its selection for the service: a contemporary gospel piece, executed with intensity and careful precision. The harmony is complex, and the song resonates through the church without the aid of microphones. The choir is exceptionally bright and crisp, balancing practice and passion in its resonant sound. Christopher Coleman, a friend who works at the Delta Blues Museum, stands out in front with his ringing tenor.
The service turns to a healing ceremony. The choir and band continues to play a quiet spiritual dirge as the Deacon calls to troubled worshippers to approach the altar. The gathering group includes three pre-teen girls, the matron with whom they were sitting, a very pregnant woman, and an elderly Sister of the church dressed in her uniform of Pentecostal red skirt, white suitcoat and elaborate white headdress. The Deacon confers with each believer in hushed tones and then places his hand on her forehead, furrowing his own brow as he concentrates deeply. Over and over, he repeats his request for God to purify the blood, from the top of the head to the soles of the feet. He asks this of God in the word, he repeats, in the word, and in the blood, we are healed. The devil will no longer bother or try to confuse this woman. This woman will be healthy, and Jesus will purify the blood and the heart from the top of the head to the soles of the feet. In the name of Jesus and the word of God we are healed.
Each believer shouts for joy as she falls backward and then recovers with the help of the Deacon and the female ushers in the nurses’ uniforms, who lead her back to her seat. The healed continue to shout and jump long after the event. The young girls sit in the front row and hug each other, each with her head on the shoulder of another. The Sister in the red is final receiver of the ceremony, and she prepares to receive the sacrament solemnly as her thick glasses fall far down her nose and her corkscrew braids bounce around her shoulders. As the Deacon implores the devil to leave the Sister’s mind from confusion in the name of Jesus, the woman begins to run in place, stomping her legs with absolute intensity. She faces the sky with her fists at her collarbones, pulling at the air in a kind of begging gesture. Her eyes are closed as the Deacon works his word and his hands, asking Jesus to purify the blood in the word made flesh.
As the Deacon finishes his work, the Sister in red falls sharply backward into the arms of the ushers. The choir sings louder as the stage clears for Bishop Scott’s mighty sermon. As the service comes to a close, we are asked to introduce ourselves and, after doing so, are given hugs and kisses by a number of the congregation.
Please see this film by my advisor, William Ferris, on the Clarksdale COGIC and other services entitled, “Black Delta Religion.”
I spend my first night back in the Delta within the close walls of Red’s juke joint just across the tracks—those ubiquitous railroad tracks–in black downtown Clarksdale dubbed “the New World District.” The club is situated, in the words of its proprietor, “with the river behind me and the graveyard in front of me,” and is guarded by the large marble tombstone angel featured in Tennessee Williams’ book…The angel looms, tinged darkly with fine Delta silt, at the corner of Clarksdale’s fenced-in old graveyard. This is where many of the town’s famous planter/founders are buried, their solemn white graves decorated with confederate flags every Fourth of July. “That’s my guardian angel,” says Red from his stool outside the club, a wry smile on his face. His eyes are hidden behind a pair of deep red shades despite the blackness of the night.
At Red’s, the beers are huge and cold and insulated with thick swaths of brown paper towels. The management prefers colored light bulbs, mostly red, that peek out from bends in the walls to give the room a surreal, warm glow. Glossy posters of sexy girls in hot pants are thumbtacked to the walls behind the oriental rug that delineates the stage. At the back of the room, just left of the cove that holds the old pool table, a two-foot-tall mirrored plaque decorates the wall. It reads, “BUDWEISER, King of Beers” and features a silkscreened photo of an African tribal King, complete with war paint and a spear, gazing down at the club’s patrons in a powerful antiphony to the crumbling white angel outside. This was one of a cynical series of advertisements the beer company made for black clubs during the Black Power movement of the 1970s, and they I have seen them frequently both in the juke joints of the Delta and in the little bars in my old neighborhoods in Oakland, California. Red doesn’t seem concerned about the politics of the object. “Don’t mess with me,” he often says, pointing toward the plaque, “Or my Uncle Shaka Zulu up there will get you.”
Just sitting and bullshitting with Red is an incredible experience. He has spent a lifetime developing his “talk,” a skill that he cultivates in others by challenging them regularly. This process involves Red jibing his trainee verbally, usually with a series of clever insults (clothing, intelligence, facial structure, or—in my case–race) meant to be answered with coolness and wit. Over the course of my two years of fieldwork in the Delta, I have enjoyed an increasingly difficult series of such challenges, and although Red often leaves me speechless, we are able to engage each other in this kind of conversation for a few minutes at a time. He has told me before that he likes me because, in his words, I “know how to talk,” but I have noticed that he will often let me get away with stumbling over a response—or staring at him blankly as my mind searches unsuccessfully for one. In this situation, he turns his head and laughs kindly, ending the session without making me too uncomfortable. Or he’ll turn his attention to a less vulnerable target: “You white people sure are actin’ funny these days,” he’ll say as a long-haired light-skinned drunk meanders his way back from the liquor store on a little girl’s pink bike. “Now, I can’t argue with that,” I respond.
Antonio Coburn, Red’s bartender, is a friendly young man with a smiling round face. It’s the end of the night and everyone has a full drink, so he sits down at the little table closest to the end of the bar to join me, another UNC student, a young woman from the neighborhood and Top Notch for a drink. Red and Antonio exchanging verbal jibes in their usual uproarious way. Eventually, I ask the pair if they know any of the old toasts. They exchange a glance but don’t respond. I tell them I know what the toasts are and take a laughable stab at the first stanza of “The Signifyin’ Monkey”: a rhyme I learned from a Rudy Ray Moore film years ago. They laugh knowingly. After a little begging and a promise that I won’t get offended, the bartender gives in and begins “The Signifyin’ Monkey.” The three patrons of the bar pull their barstools up to the little table in the corner of the room as he continues his explicit version of the old rhyme about a shit-talking monkey and his victim, the powerful old lion. His performance is exceptional, rolling rhythmically with the repeated refrain, “This made the lion mad.” Eventually the patrons begin to repeat these words with him, and he continues after each chorus to describe the lion’s unwitting reaction to the monkey’s antics.
There are no clocks, but the performance seems to last around twenty minutes. The audience is attentive and titillated. His response is to launch into a rendition of “Shine and the Titanic” with matching aplomb. We’re not filming yet; I’ve decided to spend some time in our potential documentary sites before pulling out the equipment.
Alan Lomax filmed young men performing toasts in a similar way in his documentary, “The Land Where Blues Began”:
I’m heading from my home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina to Clarksdale, Mississippi to continue my fieldwork in the music and folklore of the Mississippi Delta. This time, I’m meeting Brian Graves, another UNC graduate student who has done extensive work on James Island, South Carolina, to produce a documentary on the relationship of hip-hop to the Delta blues.
When you’re headed deep south from Memphis on Highway 61, the world starts to fall away and the Mississippi Delta assumes its place. The hand-painted signs and overcrowded, two-story clapboards that define the brutal urban poverty of south Memphis crumble into rusting tin-roofed shacks set against huge knotted fields of belabored cotton. The border between these kin forms of southern adversity has been called the “Cotton Curtain” by Reverend Jesse Jackson, and the analogy fits: about 15 miles south of the Tennessee/Mississippi border, tv signals fade, cell phones cease to work, and hopes of socioeconomic equality struggle as if trapped under the thick cotton blankets the local industry produces.
In this part of the world, the radio auto-tuner swings almost completely around the dial before finding a weak signal to pull from the air. More than likely, it’s community radio you’re hearing from the closest small town—tiny stations with tiny transmitters whose signals manage to roll over the flat Delta landscape for 20 miles in any direction. From this ether, strong black voices emerge from the midnight; each singular, each exquisite.
The first of these to register on the dial is that of West Helena, Arkansas’ KAJK 104.9:
“This is DJ Pimp Min-is-ter here with your Friday night sookie, soookie, sooook-ayyy!”
“Hello, Helena. You’re listening to party blues and oldies for grown folks only. Be grown or be gone!”
“I’m givin’ a shout out tonight to my partner, Leroy White. Let me hear you say, Leee-roy! Leee-Roy! Party down, party down!”
Keep on south, and KAKJ fades out around the Lyon exit, with Clarksdale’s WROX phasing into the dial. DJ Lady Cherry is on the microphone, conducting the night with the coy but pointed demeanor of a master blues vocalist.
“Hello, Clarksda-yullll. You’re listening to WROX, the home of Southern Soul, and I am your host, Lady Cherr-ay. Cherishhhhhhhhhhh! Cherrycherrishhhhhh! Ain’t that somethin’? Ooo-wee!”
The sights and sounds of the Delta envelop me. Here is a series of video clips, shot by my documentary partner Brian Graves, illustrating the dramatic beauty of driving into the Mississippi Delta after a heavy rain.