Delta Dawn, Wher'd You Learn That Blue Note Song?

  People still argue about where the musical genre Blues came from.  Some say Memphis, some say St. Louis, and some say other places in between, but if you’ve ever driven a dirt road through the Delta on a Friday night in the summertime with the windows down and the bugs hitting the windshield and the radio turned up loud on a Delta AM station you’ll know for sure the Blues came from right by God HERE and you can feel it in your head and your heart.  If you can identify with that feeling then I might know your people, and the chances are better than even that we’re related somewhere back down some hidden genealogical or geographic line.  

I think it’s pretty safe to say that Memphis used to be part of the Delta.  Geographically and musically it still is, but they went and got all citified and international on us and only Beale Street and few barbeque places are left to show how it used to be.  Most of it is just like any other big city and nothing really special except for Graceland.  I don’t often make travel recommendations but if you’ve never been you should go.  I believe the song “Walking in Memphis” is an accurate depiction of the feeling some of us still get when visiting both Beale Street and Graceland, even if both of them are dandied up to attract more tourists now than they were when I first saw them in the 1970’s.  I still see Elvis and BB King and the Memphis Mafia and big Cadillacs when the line comes around about “are you a Christian, child?  Ma’am I am tonight” and get chills like I used to way back then. Play the song for yourself until you can see and hear and understand that the line above is about the power of music made more powerful with a rare and magical combination of music, geography, religion, upbringing, family and mood, and you just might be able to begin to make sense of the whole Blues thing, and can begin to understand why people love the Blues and the Delta and Elvis and why they are all inseparably related.. It’s as if music and religion and geography all mystically combine with the present moment to make something much more than just an experience for the ear.  It’s also an experience of the mind and the heart, and, like Southern cooking, takes a while to cook and meld and brew the individual ingredients into a separate, unique creation that is something special all on its own.  It’s sort of like the old preacher said in his prayer: “Lord, I don’t like flour, I don’t care for the taste of buttermilk and I don’t particularly like lard.  Mix it up and bake it, Lord, and I shore do love the biscuits that they make together, so thank you Lord for making something wonderful out of three things that by themselves are not so great.”

Make a pilgrimage to Graceland if you can, and see the parts of the place they let you visit and you’ll begin to understand even more about the Delta and Elvis and the roots of Delta culture.  The Jungle Room is trailer park chic, and underscores the old line about you can take the boy out of the country, but not the country out of the boy.  You will know for sure that Elvis was Mississippi country when you see that he and his family are buried in the backyard.  Really, if that’s not country then neither is cornbread.  I’ve heard stories about blues musicians playing the chitlin circuit that sold their soul to the devil in order to be the best blues player that ever was for just a little while until the bill comes due.  I don’t know if I believe any of those stories or not, but I can imagine if you sold your soul to that end there would be at least a little momentary happiness underscored by the pain of knowing that the devil’s bill will come due sooner or later, and that just might create just the right effect on your ability to play the blues in all its hurtful glory and pain and make it sound like you KNOW what you’re playing about.  If you ain’t hurtin in your heart and soul you ain’t feeling it and you ain’t playing the blues; at least not the real kind.

Some of Elvis’ hits were covers of songs from the old Chitlin’ Circuit Delta Blues singers.  “Hound Dog” was a Big Momma Thornton tune, “Love Me Tender” is the melody from Aura Lee, an old southern ballad, and “I Got A Woman” was originally a Ray Charles song. Elvis and Carl Perkins and Bill Haley were smart enough to use a musical style that was historically black and present it to white audiences. White audiences at the time were where the money was, but it came from the Delta and can still be found there. Say what you want about Elvis and the Colonel’s taste in movie roles and music, the Big E had a vocal range and control and tone like nobody else, and sold a lot of records and had sold out shows because of his voice and his bigger than life personality and in spite of some of his career choices. He could flat out sing.

 I won’t try to do a history of the Blues here other than to say that it’s a primal, basic sort of music that is often so simple it becomes complicated.  The folks listening to it identify with the simplicity and heart and feeling of the lyrics and the fundamental simplicity of the music itself.  It’s just like them - basic and simple and unpretentious and looking for a chance to get away from the stress and labor and demands of everyday life for just a little while.  I think it’s safe to say the Blues have a lot in common with the old black spirituals that farmers used to hear in the cotton fields and serve much the same purpose.   It provides an escape from the tribulations of the world, even if for only a few minutes...and that’s what I mean about the power of music.

 Delta folks won’t argue with you about the Blues or where it came from or even what it actually is.  They will argue with you about this singer or that guitarist or that sax player or even this song or that one, but not about what it is or what it isn’t. They just figure that if you don’t know or can’t recognize it came from the Delta and you have to talk a long time to describe it  then you’re too darn stupid to argue with anyway.  Just listen a little while. If you close your eyes and let the music wash over you, you can hear Charley Booker, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Lead Belly, Charley Patton and Elmore James and all the rest somewhere in every tune. You can find their music in beer joints, the back room of grocery stores after hours, front porches of houses or shacks that dot the lonely fields, street corners of small towns or sometimes on a flatbed trailer parked strategically in a park or side road in small towns.  You won’t have to look far, especially on Friday or Saturday nights.  You’ll know it when you hear it, and you might not be able to articulate what it is or what makes it special or the musical structure and organization, but you’ll know it because you’ll feel it. Like the homemade likker that’s sometimes passed around in a mason jar, it’s an acquired taste. Just imagine Bob Segar’s voice after 2 packs of cigarettes and most of a 5th of Jack Daniels - there’s gravel and a raspiness there, but a softness too that speaks of pain and suffering and dealing with it the best you know how and just carrying on.  If you don’t feel it or don’t like it or don’t understand what all the fuss is about for God’s sake don’t say so. To say so out loud to other people there would mean they would have to ignore you or ask you to leave.  They might even call you a Yankee. It would be better just to shut up and pretend to listen for a few minutes before you sneak off slowly and quietly and slink away in the shame of your ignorance.


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