Racism remains a dominant reality and challenge in American life and culture. Most would agree that much progress has been made over the fifty years since the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Most would agree that there is much more work that is required before all people are treated fairly and where equality is the norm. Now this is an admittedly provocative approach to reviewing an album, but has particular relevance to the disc in question. In 1947, Alan Lomax sat with three prominent bluesmen and, as was his habit, recorded them at his home in Greenwich Village after they had performed at Town Hall in New York City. What followed that evening were a series of conversations that for that time and place were both frank...and dangerous.
Blues In The Mississippi Night, the resultant recording, is really more of a documentary than a pure musical album. Starting conventionally enough with "Life Is Like That" featuring all three of the artists, it then moves into a commentary explaining what the blues are. Much of the initial conversation is, for blues aficionados, not unusual in that it lays out in terms that are safe the basis of the blues-good, but general explanations for the origins of some of their tunes. With the advent of a very emotional field recording of a call and holler, Lining Hymn, the conversation begins to deepen.
With every succeeding conversation continuance, the emotional deepening continues until the musicians start really touching their personal real life experiences in ways that, were they to be made known to the communities, the white communities, in which they live, would have seriously endangered their lives. This is, in part, why these recordings were so long in being released. Until this country had matured beyond the level of 1947, these conversations would have been death warrants.
The music, when it occurs, is often in the course of conversation as in Levee Camp and Prison Songs/Conversation Continues and this allows the conversation to flow and the stories of these very challenged lives to come alive. When the straight musical interludes occur, one enjoys them but waits for the conversation to start up again. This is not to demean the music, it is fine and moving. How could it be otherwise with three such seminal figures? Still it is the story of their lives, told outside the music, which is the heart of this very unusual disc. The documentary feel is periodically and well reinforced by the inclusion of the field hollers (mentioned above), O 'Berta and Don't You Hear Your Po' Mother Callin'? (chain gang choruses), and Murderer's Home (prison gang singing). This is really where the contribution of Alan Lomax is most apparent. These field recordings are his work traveling and recording throughout the south, in this case, in Mississippi. What you have are three insightful artists speaking of their experiences working on plantations and for the company store; working the prison farms; the petty hassling by the white community leaders; the allegiances created with white plantation owners that provided relative safety and protection; the lack of interest by the white community in blacks killing blacks; how people who speak up for themselves are categorized as "crazy" for doing so because of the danger to themselves and their community; how whole communities were held hostage when the "crazy" person could not be directly punished/killed; the sense of ownership and entitlement that the white power structure had and the impunity with which they wielded that power; the creativity required to survive and/or escape life in Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. They are personal stories that, as the three men get increasingly comfortable with each other and the microphone, flow as natural conversations with depth and meaning beyond any other blues recording you are likely to have heard. The CD may not be a traditional blues disc, but it approaches the blues in a way that complements any blues recording you may have and love. Bottom line is that these were brave and creative artists expressing themselves in ways that you have never heard before and will never again, a seminal recording. The conversations are such that you forget that you have purchased a music disc.
This documentary has been issued to much acclaim a couple of times. This latest CD reissue has the bonus of an added unreleased track by Big Bill Broonzy on acoustic guitar. It serves as a commentary summary of the complicated relationships between blacks, whites and the blues. The recording serves as a reminder of how much we owe to African American culture and to Alan Lomax for giving us the opportunity to appreciate it.
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