Go South to Find the Deepest Blues in the Reddest States

By Jason Berry, The Daily Beast

As the 1970s dawned, Mobile-bred Albert Murray, a longtime resident of Harlem, made a trip down South, meeting with writers and old acquaintances, gauging the state of race relations and literature since the civil rights movement. A retired Air Force colonel in his fifties, Murray pondered Yale historian C. Vann Woodward’s slant on Northern illusions about the South: “History is something unpleasant that happens to other people.” In South Toward a Very Old Place (1971)—blessed with no subtitle, a fusion of travelogue and memoir before it became a genre—Murray’s jazz-inspired prose staked out his literary terrain. “Naturally there are those who not only allege but actually insist that there can only be ghetto skies and pathological eyes in Harlem and for whom blues takes are never tall but only lowdown dirty and shameful… They don’t know what they’re missing.”

Murray’s next book, The Hero and the Blues (1973), treats the bluesman as a heroic figure in American life. With a bow to Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, Murray compares the blues singer to the bullfighter, a mythical descendant of the dragon-slayer, facing the odds with transcendent art. “Not only is the matador a volunteer who seeks out, confronts and dispatches that which is deadly; he is also an adventurer who runs risks, takes chances, and exposes himself with such graceful disdain for his own limitations and safety that the tenacity of his courage is indistinguishable from the beauty of his personal style and manner.”

Now into the arena steps an avatar of Murray’s matador, Louisiana-born Chris Thomas King, the blues artist who portrayed the wayfaring bluesman in the movie “O! Brother, Where Art Thou?”—yes, fans, that Chris Thomas King. He comes as the polemicist, with scores to settle, wielding words as a matador takes the sword to the bull. Full of provocations, King’s book, The Blues: The Authentic Narrative of My Music and Culture, is an adventure in reading.

“African Americans of my generation turned their backs on the blues after it was redefined by White usurpers in the 1960s and ’70s,” he writes. “We survived, ironically, thanks to White supporters. Today, the blues is a White musical genre, dominated by Whites on and off stage, a conundrum I’ve grappled with over the years. Consequently, to make sense of the whitewashing of my music and culture, I developed an interest in literature on the subject. What I read astonished me. The dehumanizing characterizations, misinformation, and lies about the music tribe from which I ascend were disturbing. Based on such sophistry, it’s no wonder Black people abandoned the blues.”

The idea that Blacks abandoned a musical idiom because of what journalists, critics, and historians wrote is a tough sell. It’s certainly true that white opinion-makers played an outsize role in shaping 20th century music trends; but the African American press in many cities gave detailed coverage of musicians, tours, and club dates, a trove of material for writers. Soul stations, now called urban, played a big part, too. Like early jazz, the blues changed as it migrated up from the South. Stars like Muddy Waters and B.B. King left Mississippi, shaping a strong, urban sound associated with Chicago, while another stream branched into post-World War II rhythm-and-blues in the swinging vocals of Louis Jordan, Roy Brown, and Fats Domino, whose honeyed baritone and rolling boogie piano became a bridge to rock-and-roll about the time that Elvis revolutionized pop culture.

“Usurpers” is a word with ideological freight. Van Morrison, the Rolling Stones, and Dr. John, among many others, forged their own blues stylizations—just as Jimi Hendrix did before his untimely death, and as does Alabama Shakes today. And so, with Clifton Chenier, the pulsating accordion bluesman who pioneered zydeco music from the French-speaking bayou country of South Louisiana in the 1970s.

Chris Thomas (he took the stage surname King later in life) carries serious blues pedigree. Born 1962, he grew up in Baton Rouge, one of eight children in a family whose patriarch, Tabby Thomas, was the musician-owner of Tabby’s Blues Box, for better than two decades one of the hippest music clubs anywhere, its story the heartbeat of this rocking, by turns maddening book. Tabby died in 2014 at 84.

“I had a little battery-powered AM/FM radio I kept under my pillow. I would lay there with my ear held to it trying to keep the volume as low as possible, listening throughout the night,” writes Chris, of his formative years, “just dialing in all kinds of music from rock stations to R&B stations until I’d fall asleep.”

And then, in a scene begging for the right film director, the day comes when

Tabby and the band are heading out on a road trip. The boy watches him rustle through the back of the station wagon.

Dad reached inside for a guitar case. He opened it, revealing a sunburst guitar. He handed me the instrument. I nervously held the hollow body archtop.

“This guitar once belonged to Slim Harpo. I want you to have it.”

I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Wow! I thought, a guitar once owned by Slim. I could hardly hear what he was saying because the silent guitar was playing so loud within my psyche.

“When Slim played it, he felt free as a bird,” Dad said. “Folks say they had to pry it out of his hands after he passed away.”

I marveled at the guitar.

“Folks say, if you can play the right notes, the heavens will open, grant you anything you wish,” Dad whispered. “Now, you take it, maybe you can find them special notes.”

It didn’t matter if what he said was true. Dad knew myths and legends are what captured a young boy’s imagination. Like the Excalibur sword of legend, with the guitar in hand I believed I could slay the dragon—find them special notes!

Imagining he could “slay the dragon,” Chris Thomas King in his many footnotes makes no reference to The Hero and the Blues, surely an honest absence. Even the most voracious readers miss lots of books. Elsewhere in this one, he acknowledges Murray’s influential Stomping the Blues (1976) on the symbiosis between the Saturday Night function—blues-driven dancing in Southern clubs like Tabby’s—and the rhythms of Sunday morning church song. Devil’s music denounced by preachers, the blues, profane, arise the next day as sacred in vocals praising the Lord. Different lyrics, similar melodies. Think of Ray Charles singing “I Got a Woman” to the melody of “This Little Light of Mine.” The list goes on.

Chris Thomas came by his chops playing both sides of that symbiotic bridge. Growing up, he writes, “I played drums for a quartet of older gentlemen who sang in an old-time jubilee vocal style like the Soul Stirrers”—the gospel singers whose star, Sam Cooke, went on to cross-over fame as a soul stylist, singing, “Another Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody / I got some money cuz I just got paid.”

Slashing away at those who see the Delta as the musical seedbed, Thomas harpoons Martin Scorsese for his blues series on PBS.

King’s personal journey occupies the latter (and better) half of The Blues: The Authentic Narrative of My Music and Culture. The first half, uncorking attacks on “the blues mafia” of oral history pioneers, writers, producers, booking agents, and other white people he indicts for cultural hijacking, is almost a different book. Historical overreach mars an otherwise intriguing argument that the blues came not from Africa, nor the Mississippi Delta, but New Orleans. Slashing away at those who see the Delta as the musical seedbed, he harpoons Martin Scorsese for his blues series on PBS (“bloated and confusing… a lost opportunity for the culture”).

Without indicting The New York Times directly, he scoffs at the year 1619 as a historical origin point of Africans reaching America—“a preposterous obfuscation of both African and American history” by ignoring “Africans [who] played a significant role from the founding of La Florida, established in 1513 and stretching to include what became Louisiana.” Nikole Hannah-Jones, take that!

By Chris Thomas King’s lights, the blues arose from the Creole culture of New Orleans, at one with primordial stirrings of jazz. There’s an argument to be made here; so many early jazz songs have “blues” in the titles and stylistic attack. But King’s long trek back into colonial history yields more alleged myth-peddlers for the spear, among them, Freddi Williams Evans, author of an important work, Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans, for “the spurious Mississippi folkloric description that the stringed instrument” in an architect’s 1819 eyewitness account of enslaved Africans dancing warps Ms. Evans’s take on the instrument: “a version of the banza…the precursor of the banjo.” (Disclosure: Freddi Evans was a consultant on Congo Square dances in my documentary, City of a Million Dreams.)

King insists that the stringed instrument that day in 1819 was a guitar; he bypasses Ned Sublette’s discussion of the banjo in The World That Made New Orleans for a long excursion on the guitar’s evolution from Spanish and Moorish antecedents, leading him back to Louisiana. Aghast at the British for rounding up orphans from streets of London to ship across the Atlantic as indentured servants to Southern planters, King ignores accounts of French empire-builders kidnapping people from poor houses and prostitutes from hospitals, marching them to ships as prisoners, some in forced marriages, on to Louisiana in the early 1700s.

He romanticizes Gulf South Indians for “a spiritual symbiosis with their ecology.” At least in Louisiana, the history of foreign plunder began with colonists desperate for food, relying on Indians. Two of the Gulf South tribal nations had complicated histories he avoids. The Chickasaw trafficked enslaved Indians from other tribes with the British. The Natchez’s “Great Sun” was a demigod whose death caused followers to sacrifice babies in funeral processions, according to French eyewitness accounts. History is messy, the more sides you follow.

King finds his stride in writing about Lonnie Johnson of the Crescent City (born 1894), “the first guitar virtuoso in all of American music. Part of his genius was how he melodically transposed the improvisation of blues trumpeters such as King Oliver and Louis Armstrong to the guitar. In addition, he reinvented the all-encompassing hot piano style of Jelly Roll Morton for the guitar.”

Examining how early jazzmen, notably Buddy Bolden and Jelly Roll Morton, drew blues into the jazz repertoire, he writes that as jazz arose “in the 1890s there was no musical culture in the Delta… Prior to it being drained and cleared, well into the 1910s, the Mississippi Delta was a safari populated by black bears, Florida panthers, and wild wolves. Delta musicians Charlie Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters were all first introduced to the blues primarily by phonograph recordings. In their own words—in letters and interviews—they each acknowledge phonograph records were their greatest influence. They all, without exception, either recorded Lonnie Johnson songs, or copied lyrics and riffs from his phonograph records to creative derivative songs. Patton, Hurt, Johnson, and Muddy were neither pioneers nor originators. In regard to blues origins, they were secondary sources.”

If Lonnie Johnson is the blues equivalent of Buddy Bolden as the pioneer of an art form, the view of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters as “neither pioneers nor originators” seems harsh. For as the music moved, so it changed. Armstrong and King Oliver transplanted the seminal idiom to Chicago in the 1920s and began recording. As the center of gravity shifted to New York, the big bands of Basie and Ellington that Albert Murray chronicled took the ensemble style into jump blues and swing music that got large crowds dancing in the Depression; if the blues progression began in New Orleans, the migration from Lonnie Johnson via Jelly was bound to change it. When you put an idea into the world, the world owns it—so said Art Blakey, as the alto sax lion Donald Harrison Jr. once told me.

King’s narrative gains momentum in writing about his career springboard in Austin, Texas, at Antone’s, the club that launched Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. He has a priceless cameo of owner Clifford Antone, entering via the kitchen escorted by plainclothes cops on his night free from jail.

He had the aura of a 1920s gangster, a modern incarnation of a Chicago speakeasy owner, only he wasn’t a bootlegger or a moonshiner. Rumor had it, he was distributing some of the finest weed in Texas. Clifford liked to present himself as the kind of guy you didn’t want to screw around with. His round baby face and dark eyes resembled Al Capone. In a sense, he was that guy, though not in a vicious way. He obviously was a well-connected man. Nevertheless, what defined Clifford for me was his fervor for the blues. He loved the blues and the musicians who made it.

An elegant, trenchant irony pervades ‘South to America,’ a book destined to rank with classics about the region.

If Chris Thomas King the dragon slayer is cut from Murray’s mold of the blues matador, the Princeton scholar Imani Perry in her remarkable new book South to America uses Murray’s South to a Very Old Place as a template for her travel through a Southland where Black cultural energy circles the White obsession over innocence from history. Across the South, the mannered courtesies mindful of cultural tourism that extend now to African Americans cannot mask the revanchist white supremacy as Trump-besotted lawmakers in Georgia, Texas, and Tennessee engage in gerrymandering and other vile tactics to dilute the Black vote.

An elegant, trenchant irony pervades South to America, a book destined to rank with classics about the region. Raised in Cambridge, Mass., the child of activist academic parents, Perry by virtue of family ties in Alabama and Louisiana wrestles with a genuine love of the South and Black folkways as she peels away the placid surfaces of daily life, exposing markers of the brutal history many white folk seek to whitewash. This is quite a literary balancing act. Scene by scene, Perry guides us through the tunnels of historical memory with a searchlight focused by wisdom.

A Lyft driver in Charlottesville, Virginia, a white woman born again in belief of salvation, tells Perry, “Jesus says that when we are saved, we will rule like kings and queens in heaven… with everything, just like you like it, French doors and pretty bedroom with ruffles on the bed skirt.” As some Americans will do with total strangers, the woman confides that she’s divorced. Seeing her “older and disregarded,” Perry, who elsewhere mentions that she is no longer with the father of her growing children, makes a stunning move when asked to pray with her driver.

We women age, eyes sweep over us in obvious disregard, our moments of confusion are mocked, our knowledge makes us schoolmarms rather than experts, nags rather than wise. She believed in the architecture of her own suffering. I didn’t approve of it, but I understood it. As I was praying I could not in good faith respond to her with revulsion. I had an ethical obligation to wish her well. And so, as usually is the case, I prayed against the cruel violence of dominion and diminishment. And armed with the belief in things unseen and miracles alike, I prayed she might be swayed to love the God of slaves. That God is far more tender than the one she praises, even to women like her.

Perry’s trail through territories of heart and history leads to surprising places, as when she ponders Alabama Shakes, “a White band with a biracial Black front woman, Brittany Howard, who belted like a blues queen, and moved her voice across gender and genre lines with elision, rising and falling, wails and howls… like a gutbucket Smokey Robinson as she sings, ‘I just wanna stay high with you.’” From this pop music cameo, Perry turns to deeper materials of life.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an article about Brittany Howard that doesn’t mention that she is biracial. It as though the South is misunderstood as an absolute racial border and therefore the consensual interracial relationship is posited as a heroic narrative. This is simply historically inaccurate. Interracial sex is a complicated but persistent reality through Southern history, ranging from frequent rape to true love. But once the fact of sex and procreation across the color line is set aside, there is a larger genealogical and historical point. We lived together, Black and White. We traveled from the Upper South to the Deep South together. We died together. This intimate garment is a lesson. If you think, mistakenly, that American racism can be surmounted by integration, by people knowing each other, even by loving each other, the history of the American South must teach otherwise. There is no resolution to unjust relations without a structural and ethical change.

The “structural and ethical change” Perry rightly advocates seems a far piece from reality in these schizophrenic times. As certain Southern school boards and legislators fall back on white nationalism to cleanse the student reading lists of works that might echo Critical Race Theory (taught in some law schools) the book-banning of classics by Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, and Ray Bradbury, among others, is a burning signal of the fear of truth that roils beneath the political surface. As C. Vann Woodward told Albert Murray of the north-south divide fifty years ago: “History is something unpleasant that happens to other people.”

The history happening now across the South is a repulsive reminder of something else: the great power in politics is to make people believe that something false is true. The country that first put men on the moon is an idea up for grabs, a country searching for a self-image born of pluralism to replace the old myth of endless space. Donald Trump’s demagoguery and the mendacity media led by Fox News is built on the premise of theft: truth-stealing conspiracy theories to rile people who yearn for a great white USA that blots out any spots of racial injustice.

For us Black Americans, song, ecstasy and syncopation are so incorporated into our lives that they hardly registered as forms of African retention.

— Imani Perry

Wending her way through the South, Perry riffs on music and pop culture in exploring distinctions of the great white floorshow. “Little Richard reminded everyone, during his life, of the indignity he was forced to endure in comparison to Elvis,” she writes. “Never granted his rightful place in the history of rock and roll, he resented Elvis and he told the world about it too.” You wonder where she is going with this, then comes the jack popping out of his box:

The man who really deserves the criticism Elvis got was Pat Boone. But we’ve mostly forgotten him, so he doesn’t come up that often except among those who think like he does. Pat Boone, a descendant of Daniel Boone, was born in Jacksonville and raised in Nashville. He had a very lucrative career doing covers of songs first recorded by Black artists. A conservative Christian, he has spent his later life making birtherism claims against President Obama, and charges about homosexual agendas and the existential threat of anyone who speaks Arabic poses to Americans. This is simply a continuation of his past. Listen to his renditions of Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ or ‘Long Tall Sally.’ They are frankly stripped of every tinge of eroticism till they sound like spoiled milk.

Perry cites any number of white authors for influential insights as she visits waystations in the mind of the South, acknowledging for example one of her undergraduate professors at Yale, the art historian Robert Farris Thompson, author of Flash of the Spirit and other works that chronicle the flow of African cultural memory in symbolic expressions of the South. On a visit to First African Baptist Church in Savannah, she notices holes in the basement floor “bored in the formation of the cruciform Kongo cosmogram” she had seen in slides Thompson showed. “The circle around is a sign of continuity, the cycle that continues whether we are in these fragile human bodies or not. For us Black Americans, song, ecstasy and syncopation are so incorporated into our lives that they hardly registered as forms of African retention. After all, they’ve been made and remade. But confronted with ancestral legacies that have receded into mystery, we caught our breath, held it tight in our bodies, before releasing it in a collective wind.”

New Orleans lies near the end of Perry’s journey, a place that in the 1850s was the nation’s largest market for enslaved Africans, a reminder that makes her want to vomit, and sparks brooding of “sweetness born of the violence of slavery as a metaphor of New Orleans, which is a cradle holding together the South and its strands at the root. Like its native drink, a Sazerac, it’s sweet and strong enough to knock you on your ass or knock you out. And of course, as people try to cut it off from the rest of the South, it functions like a phantom limb, one that we feel everywhere in the fabric of the country, even when we don’t see it right there on us.”

That notion of the phantom limb, I would suggest, can be applied to any number of Southern outposts as officials seek their slices of cultural tourism’s economic pie. White pillared plantations draw visitors, and now host wedding receptions regardless of race. Mississippi road signs proclaim the state the birthplace of the blues, a claim to make Chris Thomas King shake his sword, and an advertisement all the more lugubrious with the Republican-majority legislature in Jackson of a mindset closer to Trump’s lies than the song meanings of B.B. King. The phantom limb—a past that’s felt, a burn that won’t cool as places harboring White supremacy seek the Black tourist dollar without an ounce of shame.

Between the blues as an idiom of regenerative properties, and the sacred hold of memory drawing African Americans to backwoods ancestral villages or core neighborhoods in cities still stratified by race, the South in its tensions over a moral reckoning, struggling to become less benighted, and more enlightened, is a psychic drama of American identity, a theater of the mind as mirror of a country whose soul is at sea in the choppy politics of hate.

Jason Berry is the author of City of a Million Dreams, the subject of his documentary film in which jazz funerals serve as a lens on New Orleans history.