March 10, 2007

Got 'em old civil rights blues

In Greenwood, Mississippi, I get a sense of two great currents in 20th Century history. The civil rights struggle. The blues. And what's more, they seem linked in odd ways I might never have guessed at.

Of course, one aspect of that is that both are about the black experience; and in a sense about the disturbing aspects of the black experience. While you'll hear plenty of rocking, foot-stomping, high-spirited blues, in truth the music grew out of the hardships of black life, from the depression born of oppression. The lyrics are often about these hardships. And of course the great civil rights struggles of a generation ago were about securing rights for black folk.

In Greenville, I spent half a day visiting with 90-plus year-old Lou Emma Allen. Lou Emma had offered her home to volunteers of 1964's "Freedom Summer", when young people streamed into the south from across the country to help with black voter registration drives. This was the core of the civil rights movement, this campaign to force the state machinery to recognize blacks as equal by simply giving them the vote.

Also visiting Lou Emma this day is a state senator, David Jordan. He traces his political roots to his activism during Freedom Summer, and he spoke at great length about those days and their legacy.

Then he turned to the blues. "So many white bands now taking to the blues," he said, shaking his head with a chuckle. "But that don't make no sense, 'cause that's music that comes from the miseries of black folk. It's our music." He was amused, if also slightly irritated, by this trend he has noticed. Something not quite authentic about it.

Later, I get talking to Lou Emma's son, A.J. A couple of observations he makes: one, young folks in the community are just not interested in the blues. Hip-hop, yes; rap, yes. Blues, no. And that's reflected in the crowd you'll find at juke joints: it's largely middle-aged or older. Two, young folks in the community are not interested in the civil rights movement either. "That's like ancient history to them," says A.J. "That's why I don' like talking about civil rights," he says to me, his voice dropping to a whisper perhaps because he thinks it will be a betrayal of what his mother fought for. But: "The youth? Man, they not innerested AT ALL."

And finally, there's one unwitting link that I think about during a walk through Greenwood.

Grand Boulevard in Greenwood takes you to the river, then the town vanishes. Indeed, and rather astonishing. Maybe because of a slight slope in the bridge across the river, or maybe something else: as you near the bridge, there's no clue that you're at the edge of town. But cross it and it's like a curtain's come down. Fields as far as you can see, a lone mansion in the distance, not even a car on the road as it winds to the horizon.

It's so abruptly desolate that I actually feel a small frisson of fear, completely unwarranted. But it was somewhere out in this direction, out in these fields, that Emmett Till was killed half a century ago. It was also omewhere out here that Robert Johnson, the father of the blues to those who know, was buried in 1931.

Emmett Till, of course, was the catalyst that set the civil rights movement in motion in these parts. Just 14 years old, he supposedly whistled at a white woman in 1955, for which "crime" he was murdered. The two white men accused, one the woman's husband, were acquitted by an all-white jury and have since died. And just about the time I stand on that bridge and think of Till, an effort to reopen his case founders: a Leflore County grand jury decided not to indict the woman.

And Johnson's death? Some curious parallels. He had been playing in the area for some weeks. By some accounts, he had been secretly carrying on with a married woman. Her husband found out. Bent on revenge, he offered Johnson poisoned whiskey one day in August 1938. Johnson was dead soon after, just 27 years old, just 29 songs old. But so influential; his gravestone says he is "Resting in the Blues."

Ghosts in these fields. Links I think about.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

The blues may have originated with the blacks, but I can't agree that whites have no right to play it. B B King has called Eric Clapton one of the greatest blues musicians ever. (I think he also had high praise for Stevie Ray Vaughan.)

Also, Robert Johnson certainly didn't father the blues. It was there for decades before him. Some of the earliest surviving songs, like "St Louis blues", are credited to W C Handy, who is sometimes called the father of the blues, but he didn't so much father it as mentor it.

Unknown said...

Lou Emma Allen of Greenwood Miss. passed away today at age 97.

Anonymous said...

Just a slight correction to Mark. She was 96 years old.