The Disappearing Blues
“Perhaps it's no coincidence that the word words is an anagram of sword. Well-used words cut through ambiguity and confusion like a sharp sword in the hands of an expert swordsman.”― Anu Garg
Today is the birthday of Blind Willie McTell, one of the greatest blues players of all time (born in 1901). He shares a birthday with my wife. One of McTell’s most famous songs is called Statesboro Blues about the town that he considered his “real home” instead of the town he was born in, Thomson, Georgia (the song was made famous by Taj Mahal and The Allman Brothers). A recent article in the local Statesboro paper tells a tale of a town that has not properly celebrated the life and work of McTell. They have a statue…a trail…but nothing else to preserve his memory, to keep his legacy…and there are some folks who want that to change.
There exists incredible institutions like The Library of Congress and The Smithsonian, heroic reissue labels like Dust to Digital and Bear Family, non-profits like the Association for Cultural Equity, all whose modus operandi is to preserve the artistic/cultural/historic achievements and stories that have been created by the famous and the unknown. But unfortunately, even with these efforts, there are so many treasures that go unvalued, left to erode and disappear. Much of the history of the blues is erased history with towns opting for development over preservation. The part of town where Son House and John Lee Hooker hung out in in Rochester, New York has been torn down years ago. The store in Avalon, Mississippi where John Hurt sat and played still stands, but is trashed, unkempt (still worth a drive, though). There is just a plain of dust in Marlin, TX where used to stand the neighborhood of Blind Willie Johnson. My friend Jane Rule and I once came upon a brick building being taken down in Mississippi, where the contractor doing the dissembling bragged how the structure housed the club that Sonny Boy Williamson used to frequent—reminiscing while erasing.
And let’s not begin to talk about the records that were produced back in the day…sold, loved and then dumped, leaving the few remaining for collectors to buy and resell for thousands of dollars.
There are definite examples of preservation efforts ongoing, where there are people who understand the long-game benefits of the work. In the early aughts, West Point, Mississippi’s Richard Ramsey almost single-handedly created a business around native son Howlin’ Wolf, not only helping erect the obligatory statue but putting together a museum, establishing a fantastic guided tour (where you will inevitably meet one of Wolf’s cousins), and helping grow an annual festival (and he did this while showcasing the greatest mullet I have ever seen).
Over the last decades, Mississippi has done a lot to tell the story of the blues and to preserve what is left. The Mississippi Blues Trail, which traverses the state, littered with incredible informative markers, led by the effort of scholar/documentarian Scott Barretta, is a fantastic way to celebrate the blues. And then there is Clarksdale, home of the famous crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. Downtown Clarksdale has been massively developed around celebrating its musical past…including erecting a blues museum and many modern takes on old music venues, becoming a Disneyland for tourists (it is just a shame in that town that none of the development money is going to the poorer black neighborhoods).
There is currently one comment that has been posted around the Blind Willie McTell/Statesboro article from a Thomson native that reads: “He’s well celebrated and represented in Thomson!” McTell might not have written a song about his birthplace…but the town still sees the importance and opportunity of celebrating such a legendary artist. Hopefully Statesboro, and other towns with similar cultural legacies, will invest in their preservation efforts.
Happy Thursday and HAPPY BIRTHDAY BARBARA!!!!
For those who follow this careers….Cooder…Mahal…Steve Miller…they all started together, played with one another. And while it seems like they have forever been in each others orbits, it is incredible that they are back recording together after all these years, two artists who are still on the top of their game.
Thank you Atlas Obscura for this great piece of journalism, looking at the people behind the subjects of some legendary artworks, digging into the concept of the muse.
“The eerie power of a certain low A is just one of many mysterious vibrations explored by the composer Richard Mainwaring.” This is a fantastic dive into the power of notes, of sound.
The above photo was taken by Allen Ginsberg (who passed 25 years ago today). I had not heard of Rosenthal until he died just to discover that he was the editor of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch as well as a publisher of many magazines that early on celebrated Beat writing. The Kaliflower Commune that he established in San Francisco is still around today. RIP.
FORMS OF THE HUMAN
By: Richard Eberhart
This newsletter will remain free. However, for those who find value in it, you can help support the work (and it is a big lift!). Subscribers will also get monthly treats: jump in! To support my work, become a paid subscriber!