61 Highway Mississippi
The Alan Lomax Collection:
In the fall of 1959, Alan Lomax traveled throughout the state of Mississippi and recorded the songs contained on Volume 3 of the Alan Lomax Collection: Southern Journey. Calling it "the land where blues began," he recorded the various styles of African-American music he found there in the 1930s. Discovering a wellspring of musical talent, he returned several times over the next twenty years, visiting churches, picnics, penitentiaries and private homes so that these songs, and indeed, the musicians who sang and played them, would not be lost to time. And he richly succeeded.
Different and very distinctive styles are captured here. The first song, Louisiana, is a field holler sung by Henry Ratcliff, who was incarcerated at Parchman Farm Dairy Camp, a correctional facility. Each man in the "pen" had his own personal holler; it was a way of expressing individuality in a stifling environment. Ratcliff sings in a beautiful baritone voice, "O you can tell everybody that I'll be gone./ O I'll be by to see you 'fore the summer gone."
Panpipes were very popular in the delta both during and after the Civil War. Sid Hemphill (1876-1963) was locally famous for his piping at the time Lomax initially met him, but in Emmaline, Take Your Time he plays cane quills instead. With Lucius Smith on drums, he introduces us to a form of music common in West Africa. Nearing the end of his life at the time of this recording, we are afforded access to a style of music that in the ensuing forty years has become virtually extinct - and what a shame.
There are several blues songs performed by Fred McDowell, a favorite artist of mine. 61 Highway Blues is as close to perfect as a song can be. Playing a bottleneck slide, he doubles the melody and creates a polyrhythm with his right hand. "Lord, that 61 Highway, it's the longest road I know/ she run from New York City, run right past my baby's door." In Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning he actually gets his guitar to approximate the words in the verses. The guitar part "sings" the second half of several lines.
There's a remarkable song called Po' Boy Blues performed by John Dudley. Recorded at Parchman Farm, where Mr. Dudley was serving the last few months of his sentence, the guitar style of Robert Johnson is evident, which is not altogether surprising since both played the same jukes in Tunica County, Mississippi around the same time. Also covered here is Charlie Patton's Clarksdale Mill Blues, a previously unreleased track. "Tell me where was you when the Clarksdale Mill burnt down? (You know where I was...)/ I was standing here with my face all full of frown." Dudley builds the tempo, manipulating the rhythm with an unerring touch. It's inspiring to hear as his fingers fly across the strings.
There are two spirituals on volume three: God's Unchanging Hand with Anderson Burton leading the congregation at Independence Church in Tyro, Mississippi, and Trying to Make Heaven My Home, which was led by Viola James. Both songs are of 20th century origin and are typical of the black country Baptist churches. This hand-clapping, joyful, swaying music is still a staple of today's black churches, and certainly puts my Catholic parish to shame vocally (we're still choking over holding hands during the Our Father!).
Miles Pratcher on guitar and Bob Pratcher on fiddle recorded I'm Gonna Live Anyhow 'Till I Die for Alan Lomax on September 21, 1959. This track is precious and rare because few African-American string band blues songs have been catalogued before or since this one. It has a bluegrass feel underpinning the blues overtones that occur in Miles' vocals. They also perform If It's All Night Long, another strongly syncopated tune that will make your heart beat faster as the subtle acceleration sinks in.
Rose Hemphill, daughter of Sid, sings an anguished rendition of Rolled and Tumbled. Her guitar playing is first-rate and dead-on. (The motorcycle-loving, whiskey drinking, gambling part of my soul stands up and cheers when I hear this song. I suspect Rose Hemphill played rings around many of her contemporaries, but, ahem, I digress.) This tune alone is worth the price of admission.
For those of us who love the blues, I would recommend this as a "must have" disc. So with that having been said, we'll let Fred McDowell take us out:
"If I should happen to die, baby, before my time have come, I want you to bury my body down on Highway 61." Amen.
Edited by Roberta B. Schwartz