This song is a new model—built on a standard frame, maybe, but showing an understanding of how the blues legacy both enables the expression of chaotic emotions and streamlines them, tuning them up for maximum performance within a structure that demands precision as much as openness.
When CeDell Davis was a boy, his mother told him he would go to hell if he kept on playing the guitar and messing around with the devil’s music. Davis was born in the Delta town of Helena in 1926, and there was no shortage of devilment. A bustling cotton port on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River, Helena was like a Chicago or Memphis in miniature, home to scores of white saloons and black juke joints where bootleggers, gamblers, and hustlers gathered. It was violent and wild and music was everywhere, from the clubs downtown to the street corners by the docks. “Back then, Helena was wide open,” Davis told me. “If you had the money, you could get whatever you want.”
When Prince sang “Soft and Wet” from a 45 on my record player, the lyrics were hidden beneath the funky beat. My grandparents never knew what I was listening to. Prince and his doe eyes and big Afro and glistening lean body stared back at me from the pages of Right On! magazine. We lived far out into the woods, on a gravel road. My grandparents were farmers. Books and magazines and television told me that normal black girls did not live like this. But I did. Prince was the sex I knew nothing about. Prince sealed my fantasies about a larger world.
Around two thousand years ago a woman died in Greek-speaking Asia Minor, near the ancient city of Aydin, in what is now Turkey. Her name was Euterpe, after the muse of music. Her husband or son, Seikilos—his relationship to Euterpe depends on how you read a gap in the dedication line—commissioned a stele, a stone memorial, which bore the following words, etched in Greek: “I am a tombstone, an image. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance.”
Think of these women, coming out of the South and up to Milwaukee, arriving finally in tiny, all-white Grafton by either streetcar or automobile and feeling their way in a studio for the first time. As they fought the forces of shell-shocked alienation, disorientation, and possibly stage fright, the musical conversations between these two gifted artists created other worlds for them to fleetingly inhabit. Their duet yielded a recorded history of blueswomen’s subversive interstitial lives forged outside of both the jail cell and the sphere of domestic abuse, conditions which hovered close to each of them.
Willie Mae Thornton was one of the crucial donors in the transfusion of black Southern blues into two separate veins of white rock & roll in America. Born in southern Alabama in 1926, she was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame the same year she died, in 1984. Although she could not read music, she was a respected colleague of Robert “Junior” Parker, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Clifton Chenier, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, B. B. King, Gatemouth Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, James Cotton—everybody who was anybluesbody. But Big Mama’s name comes up today mostly in discussions of two songs that tethered her to white rock & roll history.
Because the house on Durwood Road did not have air-conditioning and because three seasons in Little Rock seem to be mostly summer, Bob Palmer was practicing with his bedroom window open. He sucked on the reed of his Army Band Selmer saxophone and wondered if he might someday sound like Stan Getz on the albums his dad played. No, he’d never sound like Getz, but he didn’t have to. He just had to sound like what he sounded like, and he was still figuring out what that was. He had time. He was only in junior high. His little sister, Dorothy, said he sometimes sounded “like an elephant with its trunk caught in the door. Scree! Scree!” He didn’t mind the comment. It didn’t necessarily sound good, but what did “good” mean? It was sound. And sound was interesting.
No person living today knows exactly what an 1850s minstrel banjo sounded like; the music that was made on such instruments predates the invention of recorded sound. But we know that the banjo was brought to America by Africans, and that white players, including Thomas F. Briggs—author of the first banjo instruction book, an invaluable resource for historians and musicians—learned from black banjoists. When Giddens composes for or performs on her banjo, she channels both the history and the mystery of early American banjo music: what has been passed down as well as what has been lost.