Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Blues: black, white... and red? (and III)

With today's text we reach the end of the excerpt first published on line by UTNE Reader from The Guitar and the New World, the new book by Joe Gioia. Once again, our thanks go to the author and the publisher, SUNY Press. If the earlier parts (the first and the second) sound interesting enough, the rest of the chapter “Hey-Hey” digs wider and deeper into some of the points made so far.

As it has happened with some of the books mentioned by Gioia in the second part (especially Hamilton's), his may be difficult to accept for its ground-breaking view of the origins of the blues, a unique genre about which people have been capable of keeping a straight face while talking of deals with the devil. On the other hand, Gioia's book may well go through the same heavy revisions as Charters's and Oliver's books in the future. Even in that case, the oversight Native Americans have suffered in this whole story of the music of North America is so enormous, that what's really important in Gioia's discourse is not so much whether his answers are correct, but the questions he asks; not what he's found, but the fact that he's pointing his torch in a different and hardly explored direction.

At "worst", the book can also be used as the author's guide to North-American music from the first half of the 20th century. Although some tracks may seem out of place without the book at hand, almost all the songs he mentions are included, in order of appearance, in this Spotify playlist (the links in the text lead to YouTube).

Back to the text: Having argued that there is sufficient reason to consider seriously the role of Native Americans in the origins of the blues and other musics from the US, the author keeps following that trail, and he begins to find some clues...

* * *

For 250 years, when the far west was still east of the Mississippi, three cultures clashed and combined in the great American interior. It might not be a coincidence that what is now considered the cradle of country music—east Tennessee, western Virginia and North Carolina, northern sections of Georgia and Alabama—covers exactly that land held by the Cherokee Nation at the end of the American Revolution.

History, of course, says that the Cherokee were forced out, rounded up by the Army and transported to the Oklahoma territory, a district set aside by the federal government in the early 1830s as a final homeland of the Native American nations of the East and Midwest. The South was cleared of its indigenous inhabitants in one decade. The Cherokee transit, in 1839, was the last and also one of the harshest, called now The Trail of Tears.

But history, it turns out, misses a lot; southerners were mostly interested in bottom land for cotton planting. Those Cherokee living far up mountain hollers in Virginia and North Carolina, some two thousand of them by one estimate, stayed where they were, either passing as white or protected by such white neighbors and kin they had.

Note too that the legendary Mississippi Delta is in fact a misnomer, being the broad alluvial plain of the Yazoo River, which joins the Mississippi between the bluffs of Memphis and Vicksburg two hundred miles downstream. Nearly all of the Yazoo delta was swamp until the 1880s. By then, the cotton land in the rest of the old Confederacy was exhausted from over-farming and infested with boll weevils. A syndicate of plantation owners began to drain and clear the Yazoo swamp with gangs of black workers. The work gradually revealed an immense level plain of black, wildly fertile soil that yielded astonishing harvests of cotton.

Much of the land remained wild into the twentieth century. “Even now,” reads a 1907 account, “deer, bears, panthers, wolves, and deadly snakes are not infrequent.” It was, in fact, the last untouched land east of the Mississippi.
The forests which still cover a large area are composed of a variety of trees—sycamore, ash, elm, hackberry, hickory, and more distinctively, the cypress, tupelo gum, the red and black gums, and the holly. The oaks, of which there are many species, are decorated with clusters of mistletoe; grapevines hang in myriad ropes and tangles; woodbines and other creepers clamber to the tops of the tallest trees, and palmettos give a semi-tropical aspect to the woods. 
High-water berms formed by regular flooding created natural levees, which the first inhabitants built upon. These high grounds were flood refuges, home sites, and burial places for successive waves of Native people, and were home to the Natchez, Choctaw, and others at the European arrival in the early sixteenth century. The Spanish did not bother the Indians much, but around 1730 the French cleared out the Natchez, with Choctaw help, who themselves were removed to Indian Territory slightly more than a hundred years later.

But removal mainly stands for the invisibility the young American republic granted the Indians. The Mississippi WPA guide states that the Tunica people, who earlier lived along the Mississippi, “emigrated to Louisiana [in 1817] where they intermarried with both the French and the Negro,” implying that somehow they stopped being Native Americans. The WPA guide also says that three thousand Choctaws, in spite of the 1830 treaty, “refused to leave Mississippi [and] still till the soil of their ancestors.” The number of Choctaws who stayed is by some estimates thought to have been as high as seven thousand, living in the deeper reaches of the Yazoo delta, too hard to reach on land too wet to plow. The Creeks, a people composed of the shattered clans of other tribes, were sent west from Alabama in 1836, though several hundred of them managed to stay right where they were.

Only slightly better known is that the southern Native nations were slave-owning societies, one more European custom adopted by affluent members of the so-called five civilized tribes. Consequently, hundreds of slaves were transported to Oklahoma as property. To recall a time when cruelty like this was given the cover of law is, in no small way, to criticize everything that followed upon. Better then that people forgot.

Indigenous people have never based tribal membership along racial lines. Though a child of a Native mother was automatically a member of the tribe, membership was also conferred by adoption, a practice that became more and more common as native populations collapsed after exposure to European diseases. Consequently a person may look Indian and lack tribal status, while others who resemble mainstream Americans are tribal members. It cannot be emphasized enough that culture defines kinship.

It is more interesting that, however McKinley Morganfield appeared to the song collector Alan Lomax (and Lomax was fond of reputing Chinese admixture among Delta blacks), Morganfield told Lomax his name was Muddy Water (adding the plural s when he got to Chicago)—a name, he explained later, his grandmother gave him for how much he liked playing in puddles when he was a boy.

Muddy’s near Mississippi neighbor, and chief professional rival in Chicago, Chester Arthur Burnett, was called Wolf by his grandfather, a Choctaw named John Jones, Wolf said, for the animal which still prowled the Delta when Chester was a boy. (He added Howlin’ when he turned pro.) These two names, drawn from early encounters with the natural world and kept by those men through life as formative signs of power and accomplishment, are, of course, Indigenous emblems and eventually came to be more real than their Christian names, now known to only devoted fans.


In his introduction to a 2000 edition of collected blues histories from the 1960s, Paul Oliver, the dean of blues historians, concedes that “as the twentieth century has drawn to a close, there has been an increasing awareness of the most intractable problem in the history of the blues: how it began.”

He was likely thinking about Bruce Cook’s admirably contrarian book, Listen to the Blues, written as a particular rebuttal to the theory, held by Oliver, that the blues held specific elements (retentions is the word used) of the music of Mali and the Senegambia. “And while there is no disputing that the blues is essentially Negro music,” Cook writes, “we can certainly question the implication that it was cut from whole cloth (or at least that the cloth was quite so black in color).” Cook had put to rest any myth of absolute and unilateral African transmission, quoting musicologist Richard A. Waterman:
There are no African retentions, as such, in the blues. But undoubtedly influence was great in determining the form the blues was to take. Just how we can go on specifying the extent of this influence is a question still open to debate.
 Cook also includes the expert testimony of Buddy Guy, who, after a trip to Africa, said he didn’t hear any relation between African music and the blues.
[D]on’t start me to lyin’, because I don’t. Not of what I’ve heard yet. No, I mean, I met some people there and they told me that this is where it all came from, you know, and I haven’t found anything yet . . . The blues is a different thing, man. I mean, ain’t no sense of me lyin’, ’cause you know better. The blues is, you know, a feelin’. You got to feel it to play it. 
In his 1981 travel memoir, The Roots of the Blues, the musician Samuel Charters, who studied the early form of the music in his 1959 book The Country Blues (indeed, the title soon defined a genre), describes a trip along the Gambia River to Banjul, Mali, searching for that link. Charters went to Senegal to study the griots, singers of tribal biography and history. Itinerant musicians who accompany themselves on the kora, a harp-like, 21-string instrument, griots were felt to be early exemplars of bluesmen like Charlie Patton, Henry Thomas, and Robert Johnson. The problem with that theory, for blues history anyway, was that Charters found nothing in the griot repertory, or their role in society, with any American parallels.

Griot songs were mainly long litanies in praise of, and commissioned by, local chiefs, offering extensive ancestral detail. The private world of personal sorrow and resolve at the center of the blues—told in simple, repetitive verses, regular rhythm, and a standard three chords—was unknown in the west African tradition.

By the end of his trip, Charters 
understood, finally, that in the blues I hadn’t found a music that was part of the old African life and culture . . . The blues represented something else. It was essentially a new kind of song begun with the new life in the American South. 
Earlier, Charters had seen something at a festival that looked familiar.
In one of the groups I could see more than seventy boys dancing around [a] spirit figure . . . [which] stumbled along in confusion, his spindly body hung with a felted, festooned costume so heavy it weighed him down. 
This recalled, he says, a Mardi Gras morning in New Orleans twenty-five years earlier, where he’d seen “an older boy in a wildly colorful costume . . . white dyed feathers hanging from the arms and legs, and crowning all of it, a magnificent Indian headdress, its beaded headband slipping down over his painted face.”

For Charters, the Mardi Gras Indian’s costume was “an exuberant exaggeration of something that may have been worn for one of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows.” But Choctaws once participated in the Catholic carnival as enthusiastically as that remote city’s Latin and African inhabitants, long before Andrew Jackson got to town, much less Bill Cody.

Slave-owning allies of the French who lived along the Mississippi far north of the city, Choctaws were more welcome in the revelry than blacks: “In the early years of Mardi Gras, blacks were banned from the main parades and ‘masking Indian,’ as it’s called, was a ruse for inclusion.” Apparently, racial boundaries in that colonial city were as ambiguous as upriver property lines.

The New Orleans Indians whom Charters witnessed that Mardi Gras morning sang songs, he recalled, with “incomprehensible words or phrases,” such as,
Here we’re runnin’ in the Indian land 
Hey, hey To Weh Bakaweh. 
Perhaps because his African voyage had borne such scant fruit, Charters was drawn to a conclusion that appears to be based more on wishing than observation: “I understood for the first time that the phrases I thought were incomprehensible like ‘To Weh Bakaweh . . .’ must be African.”

That the words may well have been picked up while “runnin’ in the Indian land” and that Weh Bakaweh sounds more like patois for the archaic Way back a-ways possibly never dawned on him. Instead, Charters decides that Bakaweh must be “from one of the languages along this coast. [But] I was never able to locate it.”

It is not my intention to pick on Sam Charters, a fine and knowledgeable writer who has done more for the recognition and appreciation of idiomatic American music than most anyone. However, to overlook the possible Indigenous American origins of what was so vividly presented before his eyes and ears that Mardi Gras morning indicates something like a fundamental dislocation, a culture-wide bias which no old 78s, by themselves, could possibly triangulate away.

Inside that Mardi Gras chant is an exclamation used with such ubiquity in American popular song that it’s almost invisible, two words that appear over and again, from Jimmie Rodgers’s “Blue Yodel #10” to Henry Thomas’s “Cottonfield Blues”. Betty Lou DeMorrow uses them to great effect in a smutty little ditty from 1933 called “Feels So Good”; Bobby Darin gave them a hip, Vegas snap in “Mack the Knife”; they’re the refrain of Oklahoma-born Woody Guthrie’s “New York Town”, and they kick-off the second verse of the first original song Bob Dylan ever released: “Hey-hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song.”

In his Thunder Being vision, which he described to John Neihardt, the Sioux medicine man Black Elk saw a “black hail cloud, still standing yonder watching, filled with voices crying ‘Hey-hey! Hey-hey!’ They were cheering and rejoicing that my work was being done. And all the people now were happy and rejoicing, sending voices back, ‘hey-hey, hey-hey.’”

It was a common exclamation of the Plains peoples, intended to call the attention of the spirits, either in joy or regret. Black Elk also told Neihardt that they were the last words of Crazy Horse after he was bayonetted by an Army private at Fort Robertson, Nebraska, in 1877.
My, my.

* * *
(back to part II)
(back to part I)

Big Bill Broonzy — “Hey, Hey”

Posted by permission from The Guitar and the New World: A Fugitive History by Joe Gioia, the State University of New York Press ©2013, State University of New York. All rights reserved.

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