Radio Series Showcases Mississippi Blues

By Adam Nossiter

Vol. 10, No. 6, 1988, p. 20

This is how Lee Andrew "Cotton" Howell, 72-year-old ex-sharecropper and small-time bluesman from Holly Springs, Miss., describes the birth of a blues song, in a new public radio series:

"Id just play. Make up something, and sing to it. Just the sound with the music. That's the way they was made up, back in them days."

Howell is expressing in words what this new series graphically demonstrates. For the blues musician of the country juke joint and the fish fry like Howell, the line between everyday speech and the sing-speech of the blues was a fine one. Rhythms and phrases of everyday speech, with the help of harmonica and guitar, became song.

In "The Original Down Home Blues Show," a new series of radio documentaries about the works and days of country blues singers, we hear how close are the speech patterns of rural Southern blacks like Howell to their music.

The twenty-four shows consist of interviews with ten bluesmen from north-central Mississippi, punctuated by recordings of famous players the bluesmen listened to and idealized in years peat, as well as with their own efforts. The programs were produced with the help of the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi, a branch of the university's library. The archive is the largest collection in the world of blues recordings and documentary material about the blues.

Broadcast already on fifteen public radio stations around the country this year, nineteen more are elated to air the program, said one of the show's producers, Craig Koon. He is talking to potential underwriters in order to distribute it free to all 347 public radio stations.

The interviewer on the programs is the research associate of the Blues Archive, a Swiss-born blues artist named Walter Liniger who plays harmonica for well-known bluesman Son Thomas.

Liniger'a aim wee to cull memories of work and social conditions from rural Mississippi blacks, so in these programs he deliberately stayed away from blues musicians like Thomas who have achieved renown. Conscious of the exploitation rural musicians have suffered at the hands of eager Ph.D. candidates, Liniger instated on paying them.

His artists do not, for the moat part, have memories of standing in recording studios. Their music is considerably rougher and more uncultivated than those who do. Moat are like 76-year-old Stonewall Maya, who spent much of his life milking cows: "Back in them days, they'd give a little fish fry," May remembers. "I'd play guitar. And man--we'd get things going!"

Even more compelling than the memories of life on the white man's plantations--which have, after all, been gathered elsewhere--is the language of the old bluesmen.

It is the poetic language of the songs, delivered without accompaniment: "I come up the hard way. Didn't have no shoes on my feet...Didn't have no mama or daddy. Just out there by myself," remembers Wilburt Lee Reliford, a blind harmonica player who once played with Howlin' Wolf.

The language in that reminiscence is both figurative and literal: the absence of shoes summarizing succinctly a childhood of hardship and deprivation; "out there by myself" abstracting the loneliness of an orphaned youth.

He lost his eyesight at an early age, Reliford remembers, and "cried for about ten years." This is the semi-exaggeration of song. Eyesight is valuable, he explains, because you can see things before they get to you." [sic]

Reliford, 62, still plays a powerful speaking harmonica--which he keeps in a brown paper bag, according to Liniger.

Famous blues artists like Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamaon, and T Bone Walker do make musical appearances in the show. Liniger asked his interview subjects to choose the music they listened to in their youth. That music, pulled from the Blues Archive, helped bring to the surface their memories of life forty and fifty years ago.

Liniger, an intense blues enthusiast who says he reamed much of his English listening to blues records, wee searching for the "subjective remembering of facts" the musical memories would stir.

Sometimes, the music is a direct reflection of those memories. In the interviews, Howell, Mays, and Reliford talk about getting behind a plow at the age of six, going without shoes, the ravages of the boll weevil, and the hard times during the Depression. Then we hear Charley Patton singing the "Mississippi Boll Weevil Blues," or Sonny Boy Williamson plaintively pleading that he not be "sent down to that welfare store."

"We have a blues archive here," explained Liniger in the cavernous room at Ole Miss which houses, among other things, B.B. King's record collection.

But what we actually have is a documentation of the industry. What we don't have is field recordings documenting the region we're in."

That region provided a harsh livelihood for these old men: "It was pretty rough," remembers Howell; "It wasn't easy at all," says Mays. And yet they remember their lives with a surprising absence of bitterness. Their life reminiscences are spiced with memories of the things which made life pleasurable: women, fried pies, even hard work--and above all, the life giving blues.

"They'd pay a dime to dance. Then they'd dance round and round," remembers Howell.

Adam Nossiter covers Alabama and Mississippi for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. To learn when the series will be broadcast in your area, or for more information, call Walter Liniger, Blues Archive, University of Mississippi, 601-232-7753.