Blues in the Mississippi Night

There’s a sentimental 1920s show tune called ”The Birth of the Blues” which, if you believe its lyrics, would have you think the blues arose from ”the breeze in the trees.” Blues in the Mississippi Night tells a different story.

In 1946, folklorist Alan Lomax sat down in a New York recording studio with three bluesmen from the Mississippi delta, Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sonny Boy Williamson. ”Listen,” he said. ”You all have lived with the blues all your life, but nobody here understands them. Tell me what the blues are all about.”

The answer came in a conversation so intense that, as Lomax writes in notes to Blues in the Mississippi Night, the three musicians ”really forgot that I was there as they talked, played, and sang together.” The blues, they agreed, came from trouble. And the source of that trouble, as they quietly set it forth, was the domination of black people by white. For these three men, white supremacy was not a theoretical proposition. Every black person they knew in the South lived with it daily. White people worked them till they dropped, cheated them in stores, and killed them outright on the rare occasions when they complained. ”The fact of the business,” Broonzy sums up on the recording, is that ”back in those days a Negro didn’t mean no more to a white man than a mule.”

There’s music on the album: elegant piano boogie from Memphis Slim, wise guitar blues from Broonzy, and quirky harmonica from Williamson, plus chants and songs Lomax recorded in black churches and prisons and inserted into the conversation as examples of the folk music from which blues emerged. Early on there are an extraordinary few minutes when Slim plays piano while the three men converse, creating an interplay so fluid it’s hard not to hear the talk as part of the music, and the music as part of the talk.

But above all this recording is a devastating social document (though inextricably linked to the history of music). It surfaced for the first time only in the late ’50s — and then with the musicians’ names removed. ”If these records came out on us,” the bluesmen told Lomax after the interview, ”they’d take it out on our folks down home; they’d burn them out and Lord knows what else.” Now the album is available with all its participants identified.

Unforgettable vignettes include Memphis Slim’s description of men reading copies of a forbidden Chicago black newspaper in the back room of a restaurant, while a lookout kept watch through a peephole. There are abrupt, chilling parallels with stories that surface in current rap music. Memphis Slim recalls that black farm workers were free to kill anyone they liked, ”so long as he’s colored”; rapper Ice-T has repeatedly said that gang members in Los Angeles black communities are in practice given much the same freedom. Broonzy tells stories of poor blacks shot during crap games; rapper Ice Cube tells remarkably similar stories in a song on his hit album AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Any rapper who heard Blues in the Mississippi Night could be forgiven for thinking that, even after 50 years, life in poor black communities in some ways hasn’t changed.

Rykodisc has packaged this album with simple dignity. Included is a 72-page booklet containing the full text of the conversation and illustrated with photographs of poor Southern blacks living the kind of life the three bluesmen describe. There’s no picture on the cover; instead, there’s a brief paragraph describing the once-suppressed history of the blues that the three men’s conversation recounts. ”No black before them had ever dared to tell this story,” the paragraph concludes, ”and no one since has told it with more eloquence.”

That’s the simple truth. A+

Blues in the Mississippi Night
  • Music