Savoring bluesman's life takes a good ear

November 11, 1993|By Victor Paul Alvarez | Victor Paul Alvarez,Contributing Writer

How blue can you get?

Probably never as blue as this.

"I Say Me for a Parable" is closer to the blues than most authors of blues books will ever get, because most of these authors will never get as close to the blues as Mance Lipscomb. If it is true that "the blues came out of a man plowin' behind a mule, with little or no hope for better days," than Lipscomb was a man at age 11, already behind a mule to help feed his family after his father left for another woman.

His father was a slave and his mother was half Choctaw Indian. Lipscomb picked his first 50 pounds of cotton at age 8.

"The essence of Mance Lipscomb existed only here in Navasota," Glen Alyn writes in the introduction. Navasota, where Lipscomb lived until his death in 1976, is deep in East Texas, 120 miles east of Austin. There he became one of America's leading country blues artists.

"His aura of authenticity and his astounding musical prowess were always present onstage; these qualities, along with his accessibility and genuine compassion for his fellow human beings, drew people to him like a magnet," Mr. Alyn writes. Among those who felt this "magnetic" influence are Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder.

This oral translation, beginning in Mr. Lipscomb's 78th year, was transcribed from hours of taped conversation with Mr. Alyn, who took 20 years to compile the book.

Born in 1895, the musician tells of lynchings and the Lord and his first guitar and fiddles made with cigar boxes. He talks about childhood guitar heroes like Blind Lemon Jefferson the way Keith Richards mighttalk about Lipscomb himself.

Many of his passages talk about the life of the poor and black in turn-of-the-century Texas:

"See, people talkin' 'bout havin' that 'Pression [the Depression] and hawd times -- they didn't have no hawd times, man. They oughta come along when I was comin' up. I been so cold until I had to put my hand under my awm, try ta git my hand unnumb."

The translation is true to the bluesman's language, and Mr. Alyn spends plenty of time explaining the evolution of Texas dialects. The mind is often forced to place punctuation and stumbles a bit on the first few chapters, and the reading of such language is a very slow process.

So to truly enjoy the language and appreciate the stories, one must pretend to hear the voice of the 78-year-old farmer. The voice is key. Unless you're 78 and have worked on a farm since age 8, you'll have to imagine how each word sounds. If not, the beauty of the stories can be lost.

If you've ever heard Muddy Waters speak, than you know what Mance Lipscomb sounds like. The book, however, is an example of the problems with the printed word when discussing folkways and storytellers. Sometimes the printed word is a thief of articulation.

This is not entirely the fault of the author: Trying to convey something as simple and subtle as storytelling is nearly impossible in print. Mr.Alyn no doubt refrained from editing these passages to maintain their integrity. But no matter how amusing or touching the stories are, they must be told, not typed.

The inherently poetic quality of the stories, or 'go-alongs' as Lipscomb calls them, is worth the effort it takes to read them. It is one thing to read about a legendary musician through the interpretation of a professional writer. Writers write, they don't always tell stories, and at the end of most books about bluesmen the musician is regarded as a near deity. But in their own words, these are men with faults, strange convictions, superstition and intense modesty. In the case of Mance Lipscomb, he got his first guitar "fur a dolla and a half. I wadn but maybe twelve years of age."

Fifty-four years later, the American public would be able to spin Lipscomb's first record at home.

TC Among the most compelling narratives are those in which Mr. Lipscomb describes how to jump on and off a train, or how to find God and religion, and, of course, how to play good music.

"See. If you wanta git a young player ta play a gittah, brag on im. Don't cull im down, say, 'You ain't doin nothin'. That throw him off. Maybe he quit. You got ta say, 'Well ya know, you doin' good.' Then that'll give him encouragement ta do better. That's why I got so miny friends with the young players."

This is a serious effort to produce a coherent book of folklore and music. It confirms both Mance Lipscomb's greatness as a musician and the events in his world that made this so.

(Mr. Alvarez is an editorial assistant at The Sun and a longtime fan of the blues.)

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "I Say Me for a Parable"

Author: Glen Alyn

Publisher: W. W. Norton

Length, price: 507 pages, $35

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