Arts » Reading

Three recent books explore the varieties of the Southern music tradition

Songcatching

by

comment
Tim Barnwell's "Benton Flippen and music trophies, Mt. Airy, Surry County, N.C.
  • Tim Barnwell's "Benton Flippen and music trophies, Mt. Airy, Surry County, N.C.

Hands in Harmony: Traditional Crafts and Music in Appalachia
By Tim Barnwell
W.W. Norton & Company

Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues
By William Ferris
The University of North Carolina Press

Let the World Listen Right: The Mississippi Delta Hip-Hop Story
By Ali Colleen Neff
University Press of Mississippi


In Let the World Listen Right: The Mississippi Delta Hip-Hop Story, an account of her time spent in and around Clarksdale, Miss., Chapel Hill scholar Ali Colleen Neff tells of Red's Lounge on a Sunday night, a time when the blues tourists have left and the locals reclaim their spots on the stools and onstage.

"But what appears timeworn and quaint to authenticity-hungry outsiders in fact contains richness far beyond that of interiors of corporate rock 'n' blues joints of Middle American renovated downtowns," Neff writes of the after-hours transformation she witnesses at Red's. "(It) may have been composed from worn materials, but in its use of the familiar the juke joint retains a wealth of local meaning, history and style." In other words, Red's is a genuine reflection of place.

Two other recent books about Southern music and culture also center on, in a broad sense, place. Hands in Harmony: Traditional Crafts and Music in Appalachia by Tim Barnwell spotlights Southern Appalachia, and Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues by William Ferris (who also wrote the foreword for Neff's book) joins Neff's work in exploring the (sub)titular state, the Delta region in particular.

But as Ferris writes in the epilogue of Give My Poor Heart Ease, "Place is the stage in which the drama of each life plays out." All three authors live by these words in these works, letting individuals from the regions occupy center stage and, for the most part, tell their own stories. Barnwell, Ferris and Neff clearly see people as the heart of a place. And they also agree that music and other art forms represent its soul.

Tim Barnwell's "Etta Baker with electric guitar, Morganton, Burke County, N.C."
  • Tim Barnwell's "Etta Baker with electric guitar, Morganton, Burke County, N.C."

Jan Davidson, director of the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C., sets the stage for Hands in Harmony in the book's foreword. He introduces Francis Goodrich, an artist who started North Carolina's first handicraft revival program at the end of the 1800s, and Olive Campbell, who documented English and Scottish ballads at the dawn of the 20th century. Davidson then brings on Barnwell, presenting him as a modern-day equivalent to Goodrich and Campbell as artist and chronicler. Barnwell, a professional photographer and a photography instructor, has already set the (decidedly sepia) tone, though, with three of his striking photographs appearing even before the reader reaches the foreword.

Opposite the title page is a shot of Byard Ray—hat obscuring the upper half of his face, fiddle bowed—followed by a portrait of Barnwell's mother, to whom the book is dedicated, sitting at a piano and looking ready to begin a lesson. Turn the page, and there's Mount Airy fiddling champ Benton Flippen in an easy chair, preparing to launch into, say, "Haven't Seen Mary in Years" as a packed trophy case looks on.

All three shots offer an instant reminder of how a well-composed photo can speak volumes, and after a short introduction, Barnwell uses the next 75 pages to make the case that a camera is the most effective bridge for reaching that stage where lives are lived. The faces and, true to the title, hands of Barnwell's subjects—ranging from familiar names such as Doc Watson, Etta Baker and Bill Monroe to out-of-the-limelight carvers and chair makers—serve to tell their stories, accompanied by only a name, date, place caption. On page 67, just to choose one example, Homer Ledford sits in a rocking chair, mountain dulcimer on his lap, in his Winchester, Ky., living room in 2005. His large hands are outstretched, his head cocked, and you just know he's about to tell you about making that particular instrument.

In the latter part of Hands in Harmony, you do find out more about these folks via short bios by Barnwell and, in the majority of cases, through the subjects' own words. This has a similar effect as first witnessing an artist display his or her talent and then later having the opportunity to get to know the person, even if just a little. Turns out that Ledford invented both a hybrid dulcimer-Dobro called the dulcibro and another combo instrument known as the dulcitar, and the dulcimer in his lap is a very special one. "I made this as a wedding anniversary gift," he says, "and my wife wouldn't take a fortune for it." Sadly, you also learn that he passed on the year after the photo was taken. An accompanying CD enables you to bask in the work of some of the hands featured in the book, including Flippen's, and hear some of the voices (but, alas, no Homer Ledford).

Scene from a house party, included in "Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues" - PHOTO BY WILLIAM FERRIS/ UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESS
  • Photo by William Ferris/ University of North Carolina Press
  • Scene from a house party, included in "Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues"

Ferris' Give My Poor Heart Ease is also a multimedia affair, with a CD of its own as well as a DVD of vintage footage. Both works are unstuck in time: Barnwell's photographs span 25 years, while Ferris' book covers the 1960s and '70s, a period that saw him touring his home state of Mississippi and interviewing African-American musicians about the blues and life in the Deep South. And just as in Hands in Harmony, photographs play a big role, with 45 halftones interspersed, each with stories to tell. It's as if both authors possessed the same brand of enhanced camera, a model that makes intangibles like pride, spirituality and joy become as discernible as eyes, ears and mouths.

Ferris, Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the UNC-Chapel Hill, originally planned Give My Poor Heart Ease as an update to his 1979 book Blues from the Delta. However, as he explains in an interview that's part of the press package for the new book, plans changed. "In effect, I decided to change the book's perspective from that of a white scholar talking about music to that of black speakers describing their lives and how music shaped their worlds." The new work, then, is a chronicle of voices other than the author's, a work of almost holy transcription.

Ferris does give voice to a scene-setting introduction, a revealing look at his childhood on the family farm outside of Vicksburg, the journey that led him to the blues and its practitioners, and his roots as a writer and scholar: "As I tried to find my voice as a writer—first of fiction then of folklore—the voices I heard as a child always remained in my ear. They were like teachers who led me as a white person to embrace black culture. These voices were the beacon that led me into a territory that was forbidden, sometimes dangerous yet intimately interwoven with my own life." Then Ferris steps aside so as to not block the beacon and lets those voices roam —from that of Ferris family housekeeper Mary Gordon and gospel singer Fannie Bell Chapman to legendary fife player Otha Turner and the book's cover subject, B.B. King—courtesy of hundreds of hours of interviews he conducted three and four decades ago.

The book is divided into four sections, with place frequently a determining factor as Ferris shares the voices of those from communities such as Gordon's Rose Hill, Turner's Gravel Springs and Chapman's Centreville, where she speaks movingly of her childhood and her faith and punctuates her words with song. Ferris, somewhat to his surprise, also gained access to Parchman Penitentiary, enabling him to record conversations with inmates as well as an overseer at the prison camp. And there was a visit to Jackson's WOKJ, yielding these memorable words from radio announcer Bruce Payne: "Let me ask you a question. Have you ever been to a country church where there was no piano? All that foot stomping and clapping hands, that's black music—the untrained voice, the untrained foot stomping and clapping. If you really want to hear black music, if you really want to know what black music is all about, go to a country church."

The last section, "Sacred and Secular Worlds," presents a fascinating juxtaposition. With Payne's words echoing, Ferris offers a pair of transcriptions, one of a Rose Hill church service followed by one of a Clarksdale house party (with a film of the latter included on the DVD). Both gatherings center on music, both in their own way providing a form of haven from the struggles of the outside world.

"Jerome "TopNotch the Villain" Williams, a key character in "Let the World Listen Right: The Mississippi Delta Hip-Hop Story" - PHOTO COURTESY OF ALI COLLEEN NEFF
  • Photo courtesy of Ali Colleen Neff
  • "Jerome "TopNotch the Villain" Williams, a key character in "Let the World Listen Right: The Mississippi Delta Hip-Hop Story"

Neff's immersion into that outside world—and doing so as an outsider and stranger (words she uses to describe herself on several occasions)—is among several elements that give her Let the World Listen Right a different feel from the other two books. Neff, a former music writer on the West Coast and currently an instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill, moved with photographer Tim Gordon to Clarksdale in 2004 and spent the next five years documenting the Delta culture, with an emphasis on the region's vibrant hip-hop scene. The results are an arresting combination of scholarly study, travelogue and diary. In a nod to the book's musical focus, call it freestyle fieldwork.

The ethnographic aspects cover a lot of ground, offering discussions of African-American oral traditions and the important role they play in both blues and hip-hop and of the birth and growth of rap and hip-hop, from The Sugarhill Gang to David Banner, with stops at both James Brown and H. Rap Brown along the way. But when Neff begins to wax too academic for readers who are in it more for the music and the character studies, she shifts gears and draws them back in with a juke joint anecdote or personal glimpse.

She's never better than when turning a reporter's eye and music fan's ear on her surroundings and simply telling you what she sees and hears, as in this depiction of a Clarksdale Saturday night:

Hip-hop clubs catering to eighteen-and-up crowds rise and fall every few months in this part of the Delta ... On Fridays and Saturdays the parking lots of defunct dollar stores across the street from these clubs fill up with cars, many of which sport bright paint jobs, big shiny rim, or homemade body customizations. Dirty South hip-hop hits, ranging from the Miami booty bass of the early nineties, Atlanta crunk and trap favorites, Mississippi artist David Banner's banging club anthems, Houston's heavy screwed and chopped artists, and New Orleans' Big Tymers and Lil' Wayne are mixed together on the playlist.

Of the voices heard, Hands in Harmony and Give My Poor Heart Ease sport ensemble casts. And while many also get a chance to speak in Let the World Listen Right—DJ Dr. Pepper, hip-hop artist Kimyata "Yata" Dear, lounge owner and verbal duelist Red—the book clearly has a main character or, more accurately, tour guide. Delta hip-hop hero Jerome "TopNotch the Villain" Williams is Neff's chief collaborator on her Mississippi travels. It's his picture on the cover, and it's his mantra, a saying he returns to time and time again when freestyling, that gives Let the World Listen Right its title. And in the book's most inspired section, Williams and Neff engage in a conversation of sorts that's both musical and personal, as Neff follows a transcription of a freestyle performance from Williams with her interpretation of his poem and then Williams offer his commentary. It's a dialogue that, by choice, is absent from the books of Barnwell and Ferris, and it adds to the unique flavor of Let the World Listen Right.

In the afterglow of all three of these works, you feel as if you've been given the truest form of insight into a place, and from a multigenerational perspective, thanks to visits from the likes of Ralph Stanley and the grandchild on his knee in a Barnwell portrait and from Mary Gordon and her grandson-in-spirit, Jerome Williams. First-person insight, presented in all its soulful glory.

Add a comment

Quantcast