When I saw on Woodmere Art Museum’s website a while back that their “Friday Night Jazz” would feature a tribute to Blues pioneers Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter, powerful feelings began bubbling up like rainwater.
When you grow up as a white boy in a big northern city, the Blues are, at most, a lilting, strangely affecting, unknown tongue that whispers to the heart. Like listening to a musical foreign language, you sometimes feel its mysterious beauty but do not understand all of the words.
I know, of course, that the Blues are all about bad crops, racism, poverty, no work, too much rain, broken romances, et al. But it wasn’t until I spent time in the Deep South while in the Air Force in the 1960s that I began to hear some of the nuances in the Blues’ powerful language.
There was something about the Mississippi Delta that spoke to me the first time I passed down the macadam from the rolling cliffside of Yazoo City, just a few months before three civil rights workers were tortured and murdered by the KKK in Philadelphia, Mississippi, for the “crime” of trying to register blacks to vote. It’s no wonder they sing the Blues in the Mississippi Delta.
The land was oozing away to the horizon like a giant footprint on the earth. It was July, and the sun spent its time glowering like a giant round slab of butter. The fields were too wet to plow, and the cotton hung from its stalks like sooty teardrops. Blues weather.
As we weaved through the Delta’s moonscape, austere and primeval, I heard the plunk of a flat one-string guitar stretched taut on the weathered boards of a sharecropper’s cabin wall. The plunk, discordant and primitive, came to me across the dreary fields, and a voice, singing of hard times and hard women, wailed in the distance.
At that point I felt the spiritual hum of the blues like the residue of an ancient ceremony involving blood and tears. The Delta opened my heart to the Blues, but it was Muddy Waters who became my tutor….