Afro-American Folk Music from Tate and Panola Counties, Mississippi

Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture

Rounder CD1515

If ever a job was worth doing, it is Rounderís Library of Congress LP re-issue programme.  If ever a job was worth doing well, Rounder are doing it.  At any rate, that goes for their revampings of those discs which the L of C brought out in the 1970s.  I cannot speak for the ones which originated in earlier decades, because until a big bag of money drops from the sky, my scratched and battered and utilitarian looking LP copies will have to suffice.  Whatever about that, this refurbishment of a 1978 original is neither scratched nor battered, and it certainly doesnít look utilitarian.  Cover pictureThe CD comes in a handsome slip case, which also holds a 64 page booklet.  As is pretty standard nowadays, it contains detailed and extensive notes together with some idiomatic photographs.  The principal essay and the song notes are as per the original booklet.  They are the work of the discís editor, David Evans, who has also supplied a new foreword, to bring the situation up to date.  I was gratified to learn, from this latter, that the traditions of Tate and Panola still have quite a bit of life in them.  If the music nowadays gets overrun with curiosity seekers, full well do I know the feeling, but perhaps itís better that than nothing. 

Unfortunately, a worthy endeavour does not always guarantee value for money.  If Iíve got Rounderís marketing strategy correct, all the single CDs in this series are straight LP re-issues, but charged at full price.1. Presumably for reasons of saleability, the double CDs appear to have been slotted into a slightly cheaper price bracket.  Indeed, The Hammons Family, Rounder 1504/05, has three LPs squeezed onto two very full CDs; an excellent bargain by any standards.1  Not for the first time with Rounder, I wonder at their habit of leaving original contents un-beefed up, thereby denying punters a playing time commensurate with their outlay.  Nevertheless, in a world where this kind of gear sells in minuscule quantities, we have to weigh hard economics and periodic poor sound quality against classic performances and historical importance.  Unfortunately, in this instance, the factors are imbalanced, and the imbalance is not skewed in favour of the buyer.  While the disc lasts a mere forty-three minutes and nine seconds, the performances, though worthy enough, do not have the startling impact of, say, Vera Hall Ward, or Aunt Molly Jackson, or Rebecca Tarwater.  For that matter, blues fans may wonder at the omission of Panola Countyís favourite son, Fred McDowell.

That omission does not reflect any lack of admiration on the part of the editor.  Indeed, Evansí praise of McDowell is nothing short of fulsome.  Itís possible that Evans never managed to record him, although Iíd have thought that unlikely.  Alternatively, non-inclusion may simply reflect availability elsewhere.  However, I suspect that the main reason is one of editorial didacticism.  Evans takes as his text the local retention of an unusual array of African musical characteristics; plus an attendant panoply of unusual instruments.  Fred McDowell was neither local, being originally from Tennessee, nor did his music sound as close to his African forebears as some of the examples here.  Iíd better say then, that my estimate of this performer, as just a notch or two down from God on good day, has little bearing on my present disappointment.  I am more concerned with the fact that the editorís purpose has resulted in a rather tautological programme.

A word about the scope of the disc.  It is a survey of the hill country, just east of the more famous Mississippi Delta, which has been compiled from recordings made by David Evans in 1969 -71, together with three takes from Alan Lomaxís famous 1942 visit there.  Although the product claims to embrace the entire hill country, the recordings are mainly from the neighbourhood of Senatobia, Tate County.  I do not know if this makes the survey at all unrepresentative.  Whether or no, the hill country is fascinating territory to the folkorist, and some of the reasons for that fascination can be found in the Rounder/Lomax Southern Journey Series.2. See also Atlantic's Southern Folk Heritage series, and Roots of the Blues, New World NW 252.  For an account of Lomax's collecting work in the area, see Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began, Methuen, London, 1993.2  For whatever reasons of history, the region preserved musical forms which were lost to other parts of the South.  Where the blues displaced older forms of music elsewhere, in Tate and Panola, those older forms continued to coalesce.

Just how distinctive this coalescence is can be adduced from the opening track; a fife and drum piece, led by Napoleon Strickland.  Itís always a pleasure to hear Stricklandís outfit, and the provenance of black fife and drum bands is so limited that this would have been a revelation in its day.  Nevertheless, I suspect many listeners will find that time has blunted its impact, and there is nowadays little to distinguish the piece from a number of similar recordings.3. See Traveling Through the Jungle, Testament TCD 5017.  See also Roots of the Blues, ibid; Atlantic's Southern Folk Heritage series, and the Rounder/Prestige Southern Journey series.3  The next four tracks are in similar vein, although in my view, they are nothing like as good.  They feature a variety of instruments, not always including the fife.  Nevertheless, they seem to have been grouped together, as examples of strongly rhythmic pieces, in which the melodies have mostly been reduced to simple reiterative phrases.  The tracks in question consist of two performances from Sid Hemphillís band, interspersed with two more from Compton Jones.  The first of the Hemphill tracks has Sid on fife, playing After the Ball.  On the other, he switches to the quills, for a strange rendering of Devilís Dream, in which hardly any of the melody has been retained.  Similar examples of melodic minimalism occur with the Compton Jones contributions; Old Dick Jones and the fiddle tune, Granny Will Your Dog Bite.4. Another recording of Granny Will Your Dog Bite, from the same neck of the woods, and likewise recorded by David Evans, can be heard on Traveling Through the Jungle.  It is less repetitive than the Compton Jones performance, and to my ears much more interesting.  The performers on that recording are Othar Turner, Napoleon Strickland and R L Boyd.4  play Sound ClipIncidentally, the notes describe the Strickland piece, here called Soft Black Jersey Cow, as a version of Ida Red.  If this is the well known country standard, recorded by Ernest Stoneman and Woody Guthrie among others, then I confess that the resemblance was lost on me. (sound clip - Soft Black Jersey Cow)

To be honest, my enjoyment of this kind of music is fairly small dose, and my opinion may not be replicated by every listener.  Also, we are dealing with an extremely common feature of hill country entertainment.  I wonder though, if its universality is sufficient to justify taking up around one third of the programme.  If it is, then listenability could have been much improved by spreading the examples around the disc.

The record picks up considerably when we arrive at another track from Sid Hemphillís band; a railroading ballad called The Carrier Line.  Here, Sid abandons both fife and quills, to accompany his own singing on the fiddle.  play Sound ClipThis is one of the 1942 recordings, and poor sound quality makes the words difficult to fathom.  Nevertheless, I found it a fascinating piece and, quills or no quills, I was reminded of the Texas songster, Henry Thomas. (sound clip - The Carrier Line - Sid Hemphill)

It was at this point, or rather during the track which follows it, that I began mentally trying to locate the music of Tate and Panola Counties in the spectrum of Negro folklore generally.  Iím not sure whether Evans was trying to say something, either about railroads, or about origins and influences.  However, The Carrier Line is followed immediately by New Railroad, which features Lucius Smith on the banjo.  Despite the title, it is nothing to do with any white country music piece I can recall.  For that matter, the banjo style bears no resemblance to any white player I ever heard.  Smith was pushing eighty at the time he was recorded and I have not heard his way of playing before.  It is hard to judge, therefore, whether allowances should be made for advancing years.  Whether or no, Evans clearly feels that this is an old style of picking, which had its genesis among black musicians.

As if to build on the idea, that the hill country was a place ripe for the preservation of archaic idioms, Evans next presents us with two pairs of hill country blues.  In both cases, they show the genre in a state of emergence from earlier forms.  The first is a rendering of Shake Ďem on Down, by Compton Jones, who accompanies himself on the bow diddley (also known as the diddley bow, or jitterbug).  Compton Jones playing the Diddley BowIt is immediately followed by Ranie Burnette, who performs the same piece with guitar.  Shake Ďem on Down is closely associated with Panola County, for it was such a favourite of Fred McDowellís, that he was known locally as ĎShake Ďemí.  The two versions are cited in tandem to show how the guitar accompaniment of the second evolved from the first.  In fact, the diddley bow is an improvised instrument, of African ancestry, which is made out of wire.  It is struck with the finger of one hand, while the player changes pitch by sliding a bottleneck up and down the wire5. Instructions on how to make and play a diddley bow can be found in Jeff Todd Titon's contribution to Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World's Peoples, Schirmer, New York, 1996, Titon, ed.5  There is then, an obvious parallel with bottleneck guitar technique, which enables Evans to argue that bottleneck playing is rooted in African performance styles.

The second pair of examples comprise a single unedited recording.  It begins with Othar Turner singing Black Woman as a standard country blues, whilst accompanying himself on the guitar.  Then, with some prompting from Evans, he does the same piece unaccompanied, in the style of a field holler.  Given his excellent work on blues composition,6. David Evans, Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues, Da Capo, Berkeley, 1987.6 Iím surprised that Evans makes only a passing comment on the instability of Turnerís text.  The two sets of words were recorded within seconds of each other, yet they are markedly different.  Iíll admit that, as a contrast of styles, these performances are striking, but Iím not sure where they are supposed to lead us.  The notes present a rather fanciful picture which purports to show how the blues evolved out of the field holler; an assumption which I regard as open to question.  In it, a farmer sits behind a cuss of a mule and ponders his woman and his desire to up sticks and move; demonstration, one might say, of social or personal alienation.  The problem is that the field holler goes back to slavery times.  Indeed, there is some evidence to link it to African musical practice.7. Lomax, Roots of the Blues. Ibid7  On the other hand, the blues does not emerge on any significant scale until the end of the nineteenth century.  There is therefore, a chronological hiatus between the two of at least two generations; and there is a socio-cultural one.  The forces which produced the field holler were not the same as the ones which gave rise to the blues.  Moreover, where the blues is associated with public performance, the holler is personal.  One could describe it as a private occupational song; a sort of individual moan.  Unfortunately, while the booklet acknowledges that the blues exists independently of the field holler, it offers no opinions as to how or why personalised declarations of nineteenth century slave discontent became transmogrified into generalised statements of twentieth century Ďfreeí Black alienation.  Senatobia Womenplay Sound ClipFor that matter, I would have welcomed some ideas as to why the music of this part of Mississippi displays so many African characteristics. (sound clip - Othar Turner demonstrating Black Woman as a blues and field holler).  For reasons of space the conversation between Evans and Turner has been omitted.

It is time to leave off hacking my way through the record, and start hacking through the booklet.  As I said earlier, it contains some impressive photographs, and I was particularly taken by one of a group of ladies enjoying a mighty good picnic.  It must have tickled someone at Rounder as well, for the photograph appears on both inside covers.  More to the point, the illustrations do not reveal the kind of terrain which one associates with the term hill country.  In fact, to judge from these photographs, the place is not much hillier than the rest of Mississippi.

Leaving these aids aside; David Evans has contributed extensive notes to the individual tracks, plus a foreword for the present release, plus a detailed descriptive ethnography.  I was glad to see that ethnography, because I was recently taken to task for daring to suggest that such things are desirable, or even that they should be a necessary part of editorial capability.  All I will say is that this one is so damned good, and sheds so much light on the music and the people of the area, that it should be required reading for anyone contemplating anything remotely similar.Mississippi Hill Country showing Napoleon Strickland on fife, Jimmy Buford on bass, drum, R L Boyce on snare drum and Othar Turner dancing

Moreís the pity, then, that the booklet does not try and explain those African retentions.  Nor does it say whether musical retention is paralleled by other forms of cultural retention.  The point is important because music does not develop or stagnate of its own volition.  It is an element of social culture, which changes in response to changes within all the other cultural elements.  Logically, then, where we find African performance styles in abundance, we should also find well preserved examples of other African cultural forms; dialect, for example, or folk tales.  We should also be able to identify some of the historical or sociological reasons for this apparent lack of musical change.

I do not normally consider myself a follower of origins theories, for they are typically non-empirical, un-utilitarian and subjective.  That is why they have been abandoned by most branches of social enquiry.  Yet I find that Evansí argument intrigues me.  That is mainly because the music of Tate and Panola contrasts so sharply with most other regions of the American South.  Also, Iím presuming that his statement includes the various sea island communities of the eastern United States, where cultural and geographic isolation have left various forms of African folkways relatively intact.8. Guy B Johnson, Folk Culture on St Helena Island, South Carolina, Folklore Associates, Hatborough, 1968.  For sound recordings of Sea Island culture, see Been in the Storm so Long: A Collection of Spirituals, Folk Tales and Children's Games, from John's Island, South Carolina, Folkways CDSF 40031; Georgia Sea Island Songs, New World NW 287; Bessie Jones, So Glad I'm Here, Rounder 2015.  See also Southern Journey, especially Vol 13; Earliest Times, Rounder CD 1713, for various additional recordings from the Georgia Islands.8

But if isolation equals retention, how do we explain the fact that the hill country is on the mainland and centrally located?  The terrain does not seem all that hilly; it is well served by roads and railways; and it is fairly close to Memphis.  Nor do we find satisfactory explanations in present day population density, ethnic ratios, class structure, or economic activity.  The preface tells us that Tate and Panola counties, nowadays (ie. 1978) have black and white populations in roughly equal proportions.  Also, the local class/caste structure sounds no different to that of the rest of the South.  Moreover, the sharecropping system, a defining feature of inter-ethnic economic relations throughout Mississippi, is alive and at work in Tate and Panola.  As far as population density goes, the only statistics I have to hand relate to the present situation.  That means I can take no account of historical trends.  However, the 1998 Mississippi State population report gives a state-wide density of approximately 53 persons per square mile.  Tate and Panola combined, come out only marginally below that figure at 50.09.9. The figures for overall population density have been extrapolated from data quoted at the Mississippi State website http://www.state.ms.us.  Regarding ethnic mix, the proportion of black people in these two counties sounds somewhat light compared to the rest of Mississippi.  However, the present ratio may not always have applied.  Evans says that in former times, the black population outnumbered the white, but does not say by how much.  He indicates that the present (1978) population balance reflects a decline in sharecropping, coupled with differential employment opportunities between blacks and whites.  That, is white people tend to seek reasonably well paid employment in Memphis and commute in.  Black people, being typically forced into more menial jobs, find that they have to move away from the area in order to secure them.  Whilst I acknowledge this, if poor land meant fewer slaves, the ethnic ratio would nevertheless have been lower than the state average to start with.
For a description of class relationships in the deep South, see John Dollard, Class and Caste in a Southern Town, Yale UP, New Haven, 1937.  Note, however, that Dollard's book refers to the 1930s, where Evans is writing about the 1960s/70s.9

If the current situation offers little enlightenment, we ought to find a more approachable answer in the regionís economic history.  In engaging the past, though, we need to remember the catastrophic changes which the civil war wrought upon southern society, and accept that no single answer will straddle the martial divide.  We need to ask the same question for the anti and post bellum periods.

Let us take the earlier period first.  As with other aspects of Europeanisation, musical acculturation was a process deliberately entered into by the slave owners.10. Peter Kolchin, American Slavery 1619 - 1877, Penguin, London, 1995; Deena Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals, Illinois UP, Urbana, 1977.10  They systematically stripped the slaves of their African heritage, partly because they feared that the music might contain coded messages of rebellion, but also to satisfy the ownersí needs for musical entertainment.  It was normal practice for owners to train the more musically talented of their slaves in the accompaniment of ballroom and country dance.  That is an important feature of the development of black music in the American South.  It means that we have to think very carefully about the effects of acculturation, when we encounter an area which does not conform to the musical practices of the rest of the South.

This disc is proof, that at least some of the slaves of Tate and Panola provided entertainment for some of the slave owners.  I do not know how statistically reliable a sample this constitutes, but no less than fifty percent of the tracks show some signs of interaction with white folks.  Nowhere is this interaction more in evidence than with Sid Hemphillís band.  Hemphill was the son of a musical slave, and his band relied heavily on white patronage.  However, the booklet gives no indication as to how many more bands like Hemphillís there were.  Neither can we discern the proportion of the white population which used the slaves as servant musicians.  These questions seem important to me, because the extent of African retentionism ought to bear some relationship to the frequency of white patronage.  Iím wondering therefore, whether the poor quality of the land, and the consequent presumed poverty of many of its white inhabitants, inhibited the development of Negro generated, white oriented, entertainment systems in the area.  Was it an exception to what we know of slave acculturation patterns generally?

Despite my remarks, about the isolation of the sea islands, the rate and intensity of slave acculturation generally was less of a geographical phenomenon than one of economic organisation.  According to Peter Kolchin,11. Kolchin.  Ibid.11 it depended on a collocation of factors, not all of which are relevant to the present issue.  In very simple terms, though, large plantations required large labour forces.  The bigger the labour force, the more likely were its members to interact with each other, and to remain uninfluenced by the white population.  Therefore, large plantations made for slow rates of acculturation, and for slow abandonment of African folkways.  If Tate and Panola was a land of small, poor farrmers, we should expect it to be a place of rapid acculturation.  It clearly wasnít, and the implication I am reaching for is that the poverty of the land made it an exception to the general rule.  Might there have been, in this part of Mississippi, a sizeable element of farmers who were too poor to afford the musical trappings of their more substantial neighbours?  Could it be that slave labour forces were typically too small to provide an identifiable element of musically able slaves?  Could it be that the farmers in Tate and Panola were often too poor to provide them with musical instruments?  Could it be in fact, that plantation dances, while not unknown, were less numerous there than elsewhere, and that the slaveís music was typically less interfered with as a result?

It would have been on the bigger estates where the prestigious balls and country dances were held.  Equally, it would have been the larger owners who had most to fear from slave rebellion, and where sheer imbalance of numbers left owners feeling most vulnerable.  On the other hand, where there were few large concentrations of slaves, it is possible that there was less need to suppress their Ďcodedí musical messages.

I have to stress that, for lack of hard evidence, any ideas I can offer are hunch, rather than hypothesis.  Moreover, what we have accumulated so far only takes us half way through the story.  That is because systematic musical acculturation took place before the civil war, not after.  Therefore, we need to explain what happened after the civil war, when different patterns of interaction and oppression emerged, to influence the music of black Americans.  We need to explain why, in Tate and Panola, certain patterns of music not only survived the convulsions of the civil war, but continued to survive into the present day.  And we need to explain why others have not.  On the one hand, musical forms, which appear identifiably African, are evident in abundance.  On the other, in many of those pieces of what were formerly white entertainment, we find the melodies reduced to mere fragments.  We find the melodies supporting the rhythms instead of the rhythms supporting the melodies.  The suggestion which Evans seems to draw from this is that white entertainment was a cultural aberration as far as the slaves were concerned.  They played it because they had no choice.  Therefore, the breakdown of white patronage was accompanied by a musical reversion to Africanism, in which these Ďwhiteí pieces became quasi-Africanised.  There seems to be quite a bit of mileage in that theory, and it would neatly explain the reversal of significance vis a vis melody and rhythm.  Unfortunately, it does not explain why this reversal was confined to the Mississippi hill country.  Why do we not find similar regressions in other parts of the American South?

However slender the evidence, it does not prevent us from making a prediction.  It is that the social forces, which gave rise to the blues in the Mississippi Delta, or Texas, or Tennessee or anywhere else, were either absent in Tate and Panola, or else were of comparative insignificance there.  The blues emerged, not during the slave era, and not as the direct result of African experience, but at the end of the nineteenth century.  The idiom bears a family resemblance to the field holler, but the one cannot be explained simply as an outgrowth of the other.  The blues is a psycho/musical consequence of the reassertion of white Southern authority, after the victorious Federal government had ceased to exert armed control over the South.  It is an expression of Negro social alienation; a black reaction to a white backlash.12. Paul Oliver, Songsters and Saints, Cambridge UP, Cambridge, 1984; Lomax, ibid; Dollard, ibid; Davis, Gardner and Gardner, Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class, Chicago UP, 1941.  See also, my article, Cantometrics; Song and Social Culture, this publication.12  Therefore, if older musical forms survived in Tate and Panola, if there was indeed a reversion to African style performance patterns there, then the social history of the region must be different to the rest of the Deep South.  The implication of all this is that the white population of Tate and Panola had less reason to feel threatened by black emancipation, than did white people elsewhere; also, that anti-Negro pogroms must have been carried out less frequently there, and with less ferocity than in places where the blues took root.  I am not entirely sure why this should have been so.  However, I suspect that, as with pre-civil war acculturation, the root cause is the poverty of the land.  My suspicion is that, in the aftermath of the civil war, the area became a region of external migration for both races; that the resulting depopulation abated competition for land; and also led to an element of geographical segregation between the races.

A lack of population pressure may well have arisen from three directions.  Firstly, if poor soil had originally supported fewer slaves than the average, then a comparative lack of anti-Negro pogroms might in part be a simple function of numbers; fewer Negroes per head of the white population for the whites to feel threatened about.  Secondly, unproductive land encouraged many freed slaves to leave the area, and seek employment on the fertile alluvial soil of the Delta, thus further reducing the Negro population.  Finally, several years ago, I heard the singer Shirley Collins, who accompanied Alan Lomax on that famous Southern Journey field trip, talking about their recording work in the Mississippi hill country.13. Post civil war Negro depopulation of the hill country is touched on in Jeff Todd Titon, Early Downhome Blues: A Musical and Cultural Analysis, Chapel Hill, North Carolina UP, 1994.  Shirley Collins' comments were delivered as part of a lecture, America Over the Water, at the National Folk Festival, Sutton Bonington, Leicestershire, April 1998.13  She too made the point about the hill country being poor land, and said that the Negro population occupied the worst of it.  It was land which the white people had vacated.  They didnít want it.  She was presumably quoting a personal impression, and one arrived at a long time ago.  Her statement therefore needs to be approached with a fair measure of scepticism.  However, it appears to make sense, because if black people could migrate to the Delta, then white people could do likewise.  The white people would have left land behind, and those black people who stayed in Tate and Panola would logically have been free to occupy the poorest parts of it.

Thus, if re-settlement produced an element of geographical segregation, then the Negro portion of the populace may have been comparatively untroubled by the terror which was going on over the rest of the South.  These arguments do not mean that the Tate and Panola Negro population never came into contact with white people.  Neither would they have avoided the racism, which was an endemic feature of life in the South.  Nor would they have avoided that matrix of social attitudes and behaviour patterns, which underscored the white populationís belief in its own ethnic superiority; and which was itself the legacy of black slavery and white southern civil war defeat.  However, the black population might have been spared some of the worst effects of that racism, and of those attitudes; the beatings, the lynchings, the cabin burnings, and the nocturnal visits by the Ku Klux Klan.

There are four tracks left to discuss.  They are a pair of religious songs, a childrenís game and a lullaby.  The religious examples follow the programming of the rest of the disc, in that they are placed in tandem.  Here, though, there seems to be little illustrative intent; unless it be to demonstrate two widely differing approaches to religious expression.  The first is a charming little piece which I found both homely and heart-warming; Ada Turner singing This Little Light of Mine, while she churns a butter cask.  The other is a much more high powered affair and represents a head on collision between the old and the new.  It is an all stops out performance by the Choir of the Hunter Chapel Missionary Baptist Church of Como, Panola, singing Heís Calling Me.  This is a composition of the gospel singer, Dorothy Love Coates.  Iím not much of a gospel fan and have never heard Ms Coates sing this song.  Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine how her performance might have rubbed off on the singers of Hunter Chapel.  In a long and fascinating note to this song, Evans talks us through the performance in considerable and helpful detail, whilst arguing that the modern gospel style of the Hunter Chapel Choir is grounded in the ring shout; a nowadays defunct form of religious observance, which originated in slavery days.  From the few ring shouts Iíve heard, I can see what he is getting at.  Two things bother me, however.

Firstly, this is where Fred McDowell is most noticeable by his absence; the performance being unaccompanied, other than by some percussion from the choir members.  I assume, and the notes donít say otherwise, that this is the same collective which McDowell used to accompany on Sunday mornings in the same Hunter Chapel.14 Fred McDowell: Amazing Grace, Testament TCD 5004.14  In fact, the present recording was made not during a normal church service, but at a Sunday school, where McDowell apparently would not have been called on.  Nevertheless, the song was cut just over twelve months before he died of cancer, and that echoing percussion makes an eery portent of things to come.

Secondly, the notes claim that space considerations precluded the use of more than two religious songs.  However, forty three minutes and nine seconds is no great long time, even by LP standards.  Surely, as well as directing the listener to religious performances on other L of C LPs, David Evans could have squeezed a couple more on this one?

We close with two pieces, which are no less beguiling for their functionality.  They are Little Sally Walker, a children's game song from Nettie Mae and Aleneda Turner; and the lullaby, Go to Sleepy, Baby from Mary Mabeary.  Both songs are notable for their ubiquity.  They are as likely to exist in the mouths of white people as black, and for very much the same reasons.  At the end of the day, searches for racial roots in music finish up facing the same blank wall.  People do not make music because they are white or black, or because they inherited a particular gene pool or a particular set of cultural parameters.  They make music out of a need to express themselves, and the sounds they make enunciate their immediate social culture, not what went before.  For all the appalling treatment of black people by white Americans, their music is as much a part of America as Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed.  It is not how much of their African heritage the slaves retained which should concern us.  It is how successive generations of black Americans melded that heritage, in the light of the racism and discrimination, and dehumanisation, which were facts of life in deep south America - anti or post bellum.

Against all that, we are better off for the existence of this CD, than if it had never seen the light of day.  Despite my objections, the history of black music in America is a long and muddled trail, and the researches of people like David Evans can only shed light on the problem.  Nor, it must be understood, is Evansí work in confined to the search for Africanisms in Tate and Panola.  Among my more treasured possessions is a general survey of black rural religious singing, which he produced several years before the disc under consideration.  It is called Sorrow Come Pass Me Around, and in terms of superb it is completely off the scale.15. Sorrow Come Pass Me Around: A Survey of Black Rural Religious Music, Advent 2805.15  If nobody has had the foresight to re-issue that LP, and you happen to see it in some expensive second-hand vinyl catalogue, do not pause to worry about how you are going to raise the asking price.  Once you have the disc home and on your turntable, all qualms about the bank you so rashly decided to stick up, will be utterly dissipated.

Fred McCormick - 9.3.01

Notes:

1. Presumably for reasons of saleability, the double CDs appear to have been slotted into a slightly cheaper price bracket.  Indeed, The Hammons Family, Rounder 1504/05, has three LPs squeezed onto two very full CDs; an excellent bargain by any standards.

2. See also Atlanticís Southern Folk Heritage series, and Roots of the Blues, New World NW 252.  For an account of Lomaxís collecting work in the area, see Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began, Methuen, London, 1993.

3. See Traveling Through the Jungle, Testament TCD 5017.  See also Roots of the Blues, ibid; Atlanticís Southern Folk Heritage series, and the Rounder/Prestige Southern Journey series.

4. Another recording of Granny Will Your Dog Bite, from the same neck of the woods, and likewise recorded by David Evans, can be heard on Traveling Through the Jungle.  It is less repetitive than the Compton Jones performance, and to my ears much more interesting.  The performers on that recording are Othar Turner, Napoleon Strickland and R L Boyd.

5. Instructions on how to make and play a diddley bow can be found in Jeff Todd Titonís contribution to Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the Worldís Peoples, Schirmer, New York, 1996, Titon, ed.

6. David Evans, Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues, Da Capo, Berkeley, 1987.

7. Lomax, Roots of the Blues. Ibid

8. Guy B Johnson, Folk Culture on St Helena Island, South Carolina, Folklore Associates, Hatborough, 1968.  For sound recordings of Sea Island culture, see Been in the Storm so Long: A Collection of Spirituals, Folk Tales and Childrenís Games, from Johnís Island, South Carolina, Folkways CDSF 40031; Georgia Sea Island Songs, New World NW 287; Bessie Jones, So Glad Iím Here, Rounder 2015.  See also Southern Journey, especially Vol 13; Earliest Times, Rounder CD 1713, for various additional recordings from the Georgia Islands.

9. The figures for overall population density have been extrapolated from data quoted at the Mississippi State website http://www.state.ms.us.  Regarding ethnic mix, the proportion of black people in these two counties sounds somewhat light compared to the rest of Mississippi.  However, the present ratio may not always have applied.  Evans says that in former times, the black population outnumbered the white, but does not say by how much.  He indicates that the present (1978) population balance reflects a decline in sharecropping, coupled with differential employment opportunities between blacks and whites.  That, is white people tend to seek reasonably well paid employment in Memphis and commute in.  Black people, being typically forced into more menial jobs, find that they have to move away from the area in order to secure them.  Whilst I acknowledge this, if poor land meant fewer slaves, the ethnic ratio would nevertheless have been lower than the state average to start with.

For a description of class relationships in the deep South, see John Dollard, Class and Caste in a Southern Town, Yale UP, New Haven, 1937.  Note, however, that Dollardís book refers to the 1930s, where Evans is writing about the 1960s/70s.

10. Peter Kolchin, American Slavery 1619 - 1877, Penguin, London, 1995; Deena Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals, Illinois UP, Urbana, 1977.

11. Kolchin.  Ibid.

12. Paul Oliver, Songsters and Saints, Cambridge UP, Cambridge, 1984; Lomax, ibid; Dollard, ibid; Davis, Gardner and Gardner, Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class, Chicago UP, 1941.  See also, my article, Cantometrics; Song and Social Culture, this publication.

13. Post civil war Negro depopulation of the hill country is touched on in Jeff Todd Titon, Early Downhome Blues: A Musical and Cultural Analysis, Chapel Hill, North Carolina UP, 1994.  Shirley Collinsí comments were delivered as part of a lecture, America Over the Water, at the National Folk Festival, Sutton Bonington, Leicestershire, April 1998.

14 Fred McDowell: Amazing Grace, Testament TCD 5004.

15. Sorrow Come Pass Me Around: A Survey of Black Rural Religious Music, Advent 2805.

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