When I was young, two events had an oversized effect on me: first, the album “Robert Johnson King of the Delta Blues Singers” (released in 1961), and second, the 1964 murder in Philadelphia, Mississippi of three civil rights activists: James Chaney (a local black man) and two Jewish Yankees, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. The South had it’s creepy, swampy, sinister hooks in me. So in April I did something I’ve wanted to do since I was a teenager. I went to Mississippi and Alabama. Reaction to our vacation plans was wide-ranging. Here are some highlights:
“I hope you brought your MAGA hats and “The South Will Rise Again” t-shirts, just to stay safe.”
“The South? I liked Kitty Hawk,”
“My brother moved to South Carolina last year and I told him we wish them the best, but we’ll have to visit in neutral territory.”
“Who’s Robert Johnson?”
(from my 95-year old Mom): “Go and see what you want to see and get out of there!”
So, into the belly of the beast we went. South to America, as Imani Perry said. Mississippi and Alabama (Albania?) here we come.
Robert Johnson’s impact on my generation’s popular music cannot be understated. I thought everyone knew this, but I also thought everyone knew about the Marx Brothers, so quick recap: Johnson was an itinerant but by no means illiterate black blues musician from the Mississippi Delta. Through two lo-fi recording sessions in 1936 and 1937 in two Texas hotel rooms, Johnson recorded a grand total of 29 songs. These songs inspired and influenced the young British musicians who went on to form the rock and roll bands that ruled the 1960s airwaves. The album is the Ur-text of essential folk blues. It is evocative. It is music to listen to while being chased through the swamps by bloodhounds. I was suckled on these songs: Love in Vain (recorded by The Rolling Stones on Let it Bleed), Ramblin’ on my Mind (John Mayall Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton), Kind Hearted Women Blues (early Johnny Winter), From Four Until Late (Cream (Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker), Fresh Cream), Dust My Broom (Elmore James, although that slide riff is instantly recognizable in countless other songs), and Sweet Home Chicago (Freddie King, who in turn inspired Clapton and Peter Green and others). Last but not least, there is Crossroads, Cream’s version of which remains THE definitive declaration of allegiance to The Blues by rock and roll’s New Guard of the time. Oh, and there’s Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant lifting the famous “squeeze my lemon” line from Johnson’s Travelin’ Roadside Blues.
Cream’s Crossroads in particular helped popularize the enduring, archetypal myth of selling one’s soul to the devil in exchange for greater guitar playing prowess. It was the Faustian bargain set at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 near Clarksdale, Mississippi. In reality, it may have been something a little more prosaic, like Johnson doing some midnight jamming with his friend Willie Brown in a cemetery outside his birth town of Hazlehurst. Regardless, the mythology surrounding Johnson is enduring and came from a generously interpreted comment by bluesman Son House, a contemporary of his who had simply marveled at Johnson’s rapid improvement in guitar playing over a short period of time. That said, it is true that the tradition of making a pact at the crossroads with the devil or “a Big Black Man” to attain supernatural prowess originated in Africa and is a ritual of Voodoo worship (according to blues scholar Julio Finn, as cited in Bruce Conforth’s excellent book “Up Jumped the Devil” about Johnson).
Anyway, after Robert Johnson it just was a matter of time before I - like all the other white Brit-blues worshippers of the 1960s - was exposed to the other key bluesmen, and so the dominoes began to fall: Freddie King, Albert King, BB King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Charlie Patton, etc. There are too many for a complete list. Not all of them were the most savory of characters, but nonetheless to me they were super heroes. The blues became my passion. Was this cultural appropriation? Sure. Is it a little bit of hyperbole to say the blues “saved me”? Maybe. But as Popeye once said, I yam what I yam; I know what got my blood flowing. I will say, however, there are two songs that to this day keep me honest.
The first is The Bonzo Dog Band’s (1968) “Can blue men sing the whites, Or are they hypocrites for singing, woo, woo, wooh?”
The second is from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee (1973):
You bought you a six string Gibson
You bought you a great big house
You try to sing like Muddy Waters
And play like Lightnin' sounds
But since I blowed my harp
You feelin' mean and confused.
It got you chained to your earphones,
You just a white boy, lost in the blues.
One image of the South was seared into my brain as a teenager: the Life Magazine photo of the smirking Neshoba County, Mississippi Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and his deputy at their arraignment on charges of killing three civil rights workers in 1964 (Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman). Red Man chewing tobacco and cigars and no remorse. It made my skin crawl. This was a window into a dark world of bad seed and white rage. There was no Federal murder statute at the time (!), so he and others were charged with “violation of the three men’s civil rights." Spoiler alert: Rainey was acquitted (six others, though, were convicted). Indeed, while there were other violent events around that time - bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, the murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson, the fire hoses and dogs set on protesters in a park in Birmingham - that photo of those two lawmen really hit home. Emmett Till was killed when I was less than two, but today I can’t watch more than the first 10 minutes of the movie Till. The film starts out so normal, but there is an immediate sense of foreboding that is worse than any horror film. In fact, it is the very mundane, normality of all the victims of racial violence that make it horrifying. Normal except for one key feature: they took the step to make a stand, go out and march, go out and register voters.
I have high hopes yet for the South but there’s still a long way to go. The Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, for example, is still named for a leader of the Alabama KKK. While there is a reckoning of sorts, with civil rights plaques and memorials and parks, the legacy of Jim Crow is still very much there in the difference between poor (black) and middle class (white) neighborhoods. You won’t see pickup trucks with rednecks and confederate flags, but they’re lurking out there, just like they are in Orange County in LA. Not as brazen as yesteryear, except when given permission to come out, like that one time in Charlottesville in 2017 or when far-right nationalists show off their swastika tattoos. It’s really no different in the South than in the big Northern or Western cities; it’s just that the economic inequity is more visible and stark. Gerrymandering and a history of voter suppression has resulted in vast areas with overwhelmingly Black and poor populations being ruled over by a Republican, white ruling class, with policies that include rejecting Federal money for Medicaid expansion or increasing sales tax while lowering income tax. All of this hurts poor people. Big cities are able to hide behind redlining or other “legal” methods to keep the classes and colors separate. It’s not good in the South, just more honest. Today in the South black and white people mix much more freely in eating establishments or public spaces than the early 1960s. The result is you see the dividing lines more clearly as socioeconomic, but since there are more poor black people these are still racial dividing lines as well. As Historian Carol Anderson writes (cited in a Daedalus article about jazz musician Dave Brubeck cancelling concerts in the South 1960): “White rage is not about visible violence, but rather it works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies. . . . White rage doesn’t have to wear sheets, burn crosses, or take to the streets. Working the halls of power, it can achieve its ends far more effectively, far more destructively.” This white rage, Anderson argues, is often triggered by black advancement: “It is not the mere presence of black people that is the problem; rather, it is blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship.” Case in point, there’s a ferry you can take from Camden to Boykin, Alabama, where the (now well-known) Gee’s Bend quilting community resides. In retaliation for local efforts to register black people to vote, the ferry service was shut down FROM 1962 TO 2006(!), preventing people from ferrying to Camden to vote and thereby isolating the community. The official responsible for closing the ferry was quoted as saying that he didn’t take that action BECAUSE the people registering to vote were black but rather because they FORGOT they were black. That kind of recent history reminds me that, well, it was recent.
Next: Part II: The Actual Vacation
Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama
Gee's Bend Ferry, Camden, Alabama