The View From My Place: The blues; music that made America great


When the world appears to be coming apart at the seams, the presumptive nominee for a major political party sprays his face with tanning spray and appears to be on a collision course with his own party, there's only one thing you can do; go to Memphis.

From May 3 to 8 I had the pleasure of going down to the land where the music I've made part of my life began. I migrated toward The Blues in September of 1969 and never stopped enjoying "America's Music". This was my second excursion to Memphis to attend the annual Blues Music Awards hosted by the Blues Foundation. For those who enjoy a nearly unhealthy relationship with this genre attending the BMA is somewhere between like going to Mecca and fishing in a stocked pond.

You can simply hang out in the Cook Center lobby upstairs outside the main performance hall and find yourself in a conversation with Big LLou Johnson, Bobby Rush, Ben E. Turner, John Mayall, Rick Estrin, Kid Andersen, Aki Kumar, Dennis Gruenling, Sugar Ray Rayford, Wee Willie Walker, Mr. Sipp, Joe Louis Walker, Sugar Ray Norcia or Anthony Geraci. Now, in the event that you have no idea who any of these folks are I would encourage you to look them up.

Blues has always been underground and enjoyed a very loyal fan base; many of whom show up at the BMA event. In an article by Ed Kopp in All About Jazz he explains why: "While blues lyrics often deal with personal adversity, the music itself goes far beyond self-pity. The blues is also about overcoming hard luck, saying what you feel, ridding yourself of frustration, letting your hair down, and simply having fun. The best blues is visceral, cathartic, and starkly emotional. From unbridled joy to deep sadness, no form of music communicates more genuine emotion.

The blues has deep roots in American history, particularly African-American history. The blues originated on Southern plantations in the 19th century. Its inventors were slaves, ex-slaves and the descendants of slaves — African-American sharecroppers who sang as they toiled in the cotton and vegetable fields. It's generally accepted that the music evolved from African spirituals, African chants, work songs, field hollers, rural fife and drum music, revivalist hymns, and country dance music. The blues grew up in the Mississippi Delta just upriver from New Orleans."

My last day in Memphis was supposed to be a winding down day. The BMAs are only a part of what goes on. There is music everywhere in clubs on Beale Street. On Saturday I had breakfast with Anthony and Andrea Geraci. He told me he was performing that afternoon at Ground Zero; Morgan Freeman's club in Clarksdale, Miss. Neither of us had even been to Mississippi, the place where it all began.

They stayed a place called the Shack Up Inn located at the Hopson Plantation; As a young boy, Muddy Waters worked at this plantation. The shacks you rent today were formerly slave shacks. The barn that once held bales of hand-picked cotton is now the most awesome blues club in the country (no one under 25 allowed).

Amazingly, Anthony's shack had an ancient, woefully out of tune honky-tonk piano. I grabbed my satchel of harmonicas and the two of us played some great stuff. The music we love channeled us back to a time when the people who stayed in this two-room shack lived very hard lives. It was spiritual.

If you're around on Friday, June 17th I would like to invite you to my 65th Birthday Blues Benefit at the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester Big LLou, the voice of Sirius XM Radio's BB King's Bluesville is coming in from California to join me and my band for a benefit performance for Heartworks and SVAC. You'll get a better appreciation for the music that has always made this country great.

— Bob Stannard is a columnist, author, musician and retired lobbyist and lives in Manchester.


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