Monday, May 13, 2013

On the Horizon: Mississippi Hill Country Blues 1967

Today's Music Monday post focuses on a very specific type and year of music. George Mitchell's Mississippi Hill Country Blues 1967 is a collection of photographs that document Mitchell's trip to to Mississippi, where he searched for then unrecorded blues musicians including R. L. Burnside, Jessie Mae Hemphill, and Othar Turner. This journey yielded recordings of music now on cherished and touted albums and CDs. From Mitchell's fieldwork many others discovered the region and its distinctive style of blues.

These over 100 black and white photographs capture  vibrant blues tradition at the moment of its discovery. Intimate, without posturing or pandering, these photographs provide a raw, authentic look at African American blues musicians, their families, and their stomping grounds in the Mississippi Hill Country at a time when blues music remained a lively, though waning, part of their community and blues musicians were viewed with respect and pride. Blues musicians brought pleasure and release to people wrestling with severe poverty and pervasive discrimination. 
 
Mississippi Hill Country Blues 1967 will be available in August and also includes Mitchell's interviews, conducted at the time he took the photos, with four of the musicians who talk about their music, their lives, and the times in which they live. Running throughout is the author's recounting of his experience of the seminal musicological odyssey.

Click through to see for a short excerpt and sample of the photographs and to listen to R.L. Burnside's "Shake 'Em on Down."

The following is taken from a description of the Hill Country and its music written by Mitchell upon his return from Mississippi in 1967. 


Although today radios play in shacks and jukeboxes bellow in caf├ęs, many black people in Mississippi still make their own music or search out friends who do. However, the number of people who make music is diminishing and many who formerly played have stopped. But the old songs have not yet died in Mississippi.

It is often said that blues was born in Mississippi, and this may be true. Where a harsh life afforded no other means for providing entertainment, gaining prestige, or shedding frustrations, the blues filled a vacuum.

The blues singer often composes or “studies” his own songs, singing about whatever is on his mind at the time. His songs may be morose, merry, bitter, or bawdy. Usually accompanying himself on guitar or harmonica, he sings of hard times and easy money, good loving and cheating women, restless rambling and grinding toil.

Although blues is the most popular type of music, jumps, ballads, and work songs have also been passed on from generations before. Drum and fife bands make a haunting, primitive sound at barbecues and picnics. And, whether accompanied by musical instruments or not, whether in church or at home, spirituals or “church songs” still bring solace to a troubled people.

A troubled people, yes. They have much reason to be. Yet the North Mississippi Hill Country is also one jumping, swinging place.







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