By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – Blues music is honesty. It’s what raw, gut-level honesty sounds like. No politeness. No pretension.
It’s about love and anger and jealousy and joy. It’s about confronting rejection or heartbreak. It’s about looking in the mirror long and hard.
Blues music is high art. It’s poetry for the masses. The words and music come, unfiltered, from the souls of those able and willing to perform it.
Last week, David “Honey Boy” Edwards died in Chicago, a city many Mississippi-born blues artists grew to call home during the last century. They could make a living there, often performing for other ex-patriot African-Americans whose subsistence jobs in the Delta evaporated during the mechanization of farming.
The migrants met hard times in Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, too, but a person could get work.
Edwards, born in Shaw in 1915, was 96. His obituary called him the last of the Delta bluesmen. Maybe. Maybe not. What is documented is that he’s a contemporary of Robert Johnson, the “founding father” who was poisoned and died in 1938.
The obituary said Edwards got his first paying job in Memphis when he was 17 and that his last appearance was in April in Clarksdale. He was in his 90s before I ever saw him. His voice was failing, hands wrinkled, knuckles gnarled – but the notes he drew from the strings of his guitar were clean, crisp. The longer he played, the sharper the sound.
History of the blues
A lot of people have made a living studying the blues. Many are walking encyclopedias of who performed what when and with whom. There are actually blues snobs, which is pretty strange when you think about it.
The music and the musicians have been poked and probed and analyzed and explained. The curiosity about their music has resulted in legions of students earning doctorates just as they might have done studying geology or chemistry or math. Ole Miss has a blues archive, perhaps the largest in the world.
The blues, which gave rise to rock and roll, has given rise to descriptive humor. There are lists. For example, the highway, the jailhouse, an empty bed and the bottom of a whiskey glass are places about which blues songs are written. Blues songs don’t mention golf courses, department stores, universities or yogurt shops.
Good blues modes of transportation are walking, Greyhound buses, old trucks, Fords and Cadillacs. Unlikely blues modes of transportation include Volvos and commercial airlines.
Good blues names for women include Bertha, Susie, Stella and Wanda. Bad blues names for women include Debbie, Cindy, Heather and Brittany.
Some illnesses and ailments are better for the blues than others. Breaking a leg while snow skiing could not be the basis for a blues song. Having a leg bitten off by an alligator could be.
Steadily, an industry has been developing around the rhythms and words that poured from the souls of black sharecroppers as they drank cheap liquor in dirt-floored juke joints on steamy Saturday nights.
For years, tourism types fretted over what to do for visitors, mostly from Europe, who flew into Memphis, visited Graceland and then wanted to travel down Highway 61 to experience “authentic” Delta blues. There were a few festivals, but, as noted, most blues performers had emigrated from the South.
Today, the situation is very different. There are more festivals, more clubs, museums and such. Cat Head in Clarksdale is a fantastic shop and the owner, Roger Stolle, offers a live weekly blues update on international satellite radio. Nearby the Delta Blues Museum is undergoing an expansion. In Cleveland, Tricia Walker is directing a renaissance of regional music at the Delta State University Music Institute. And the B.B. King Museum in Indianola is a world-class — a world class — interpretive center.
A literature teacher will say novels and poems become classics (“A Tale of Two Cities,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “Atlas Shrugged”) if they seek universal truths effectively and plunge the depths of emotion. Two men named William, one Shakespeare and the other Faulkner, documented the human experience with equal effectiveness, but 350 years apart.
But their work isn’t as accessible, doesn’t speak to us as directly. David “Honey Boy” Edwards and his fellow bluesmen added the music. They knew the heat of a cotton field. They chopped weeds from can see until can’t. In performing, they had no message, no agenda. They released pent-up emotions through simple words, simple chords and honesty about uncomplicated topics.
The old guys liked to make money. Who doesn’t? But their validation came from putting it out there, not from fans treating them as superstars.
Fame wasn’t bad. Truth was what mattered.
Poets for the masses. Can’t say it any better than that.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.