Bearing witness to birth of the blues

July 21, 1993|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

". . . the mighty river of blues uncoils in the ear of the planet . . ."

Alan Lomax should know.

More than almost anyone, the white, 78-year-old folklorist helped reroute the deep, disturbing blues of black America from the Mississippi Delta to Main Street, U.S.A.

And from there -- propelled over time by their bratty progeny, rock and roll -- the blues have rambled around the world.

An old joke among bluesmen goes: ". . . in the beginning, God created Adam, but Adam had the blues because he was lonely. So God created woman. Now we all got the blues . . ."

A more proper punch line might credit Alan Lomax, who shares much of the credits with Lewis Jones, his African-American colleague from Fisk University who helped cut a path to the music where there had been none.

Because of Mr. Lomax's field work a half-century ago with primitive machines that preserved the human voice on 15-minute acetate discs, the blues flow everywhere, uncoiling in Earth's ear.

In "The Land Where the Blues Began," the man who helped his father, John A. Lomax, create the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress tells how he braved a segregated heart of darkness to capture the blues during World War II America.

Unlike prizes bagged by hunters of big game, Mr. Lomax's trophies live on, singing hard truths and simple joys for more affluent generations unable to articulate their own sorrows.

Along the way, for such trifles as having the gall to speak to black laborers without first asking permission of white landowners, Mr. Lomax encountered hatred unknown to him.

"My heart had struck a depth of sorrow and hurt such as I had never imagined," he says.

In the end, he has written a story as much about the place where such sorrow was cultivated as the songs employed to endure it.

In "There Is a Hell," one of several chapters devoted to spirituals, Mr. Lomax says: "We were in the heart of the Delta, the vast floodplain of the Mississippi stretching south from Memphis along both sides of the great river, and endowed by its yearly overflow through the ages with the deepest topsoil on earth. This treasure made its white owners not only rich but arrogant, although their main achievement had been to enslave and exploit the black laborers who actually cleared and tilled the land. The blacks had not only applied their inherited African agricultural skills to the development of the Delta, but had transformed remembered West African music into a new style called the blues . . ."

Time changes everything, as a blind street preacher told Mr. Lomax outside a 1941 convention of Baptists in Clarksdale, Miss., and the old world is transformed.

That same year, Alan Lomax could not have known the degree to which he would help transform the world when he journeyed to Tunica County in search of the supernatural Robert Johnson, composer of "Hellhound on My Trail."

But he must have had a hunch that it was going to be important, because his recollection is phenomenal.

Mr. Lomax did not know Johnson was dead. In Tunica, Robert Johnson cannot be found above the ground and instead we meet his mother, Mary. The story of Alan Lomax's encounter with Mary Johnson on the front porch of a shack is so detailed you wonder if the event was recorded on acetate, in notebooks, or simply bubbled up in memory from the top of the folklorist's head.

A lot of the long, always pleasurable anecdotes in this book seem far too exact, but Mr. Lomax was paying attention when no one else was and for this alone he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

He quotes a bereaved Mary Johnson crying: "I used to cry over him, cause I knowed he was playin' the devil's instrument, but Little Robert, he'd show me where I was wrong cause he'd sit home and take his little twenty-five cents harp and blow all these old-fashioned church songs of mine till it was better than a meetin' and I'd get happy and shout. He was knowed to be the best musicianer in Tunica County, but the more his name got about, the worse I felt, caused I knowed he was gonna get in trouble."

Trouble found Robert Johnson in a glass of poisoned whiskey. Little Robert was good and dead by the time Alan Lomax came looking for him, and in his absence the adventurer discovered McKinley Morganfield riding on a tractor.

You may know Mr. Morganfield as the late, great Muddy Waters.

Of his first recording session with Muddy, Mr. Lomax writes: "In two stanzas of hyperbole he measured his hurt . . . the moments that turned his thoughts to death, the empty hours and desolate days of longing . . ."

A half-century ago, Alan Lomax dared to trespass upon the lost, dark earth of Mississippi with a recording machine. Because of ++ him, Muddy Waters earned a shelf in the Library of Congress and through Muddy, the Rolling Stones came forth to seduce a baby boom generation so fixated on the music of their youth that they use it to sell breakfast cereal and sports cars.

No one is much happier because of any of it.

Says Mr. Lomax: "Now that people everywhere begin to taste the bitterness of the post-industrial period, the Delta blues have found a world audience."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Land Where the Blues Began"

Author: Alan Lomax

Publisher: Pantheon

(Length, price: 539 pages, $25

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