In 1941 a joint research team from the Library of Congress and Fisk University arrived in Coahoma County, Mississippi, to document musical culture within the local African American community. Until recently, the significance of this study has been presented from the perspective of its most famous researcher, Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax. Lomax understood the blues as an African American folk music, a visceral response to the grinding poverty and oppression of the Deep South. Lomax (1993, p. xi) saw it as his scholarly responsibility to preserve this subaltern music for posterity. Writing in his 1993 memoir, Land Where The Blues Began, Lomax reflected:
‘…never before had the black people [sic], kept almost incommunicado in the Deep South, had a chance to tell their story in their own way (Lomax, 1993, p. xi).’
Although this approach may appear empowering, recent scholarship has questioned its primacy in blues history. At the heart of many historical accounts of African American music is a imagined notion of an uncorrupted folk voice, constructed as distinct from an imagined mainstream (i.e. ‘white’) cultural perspective (Radano, 2003, pp. 1-48). In this way, Lomax and other folklorists saw the Mississippi Delta as an exceptional environment for folk expression, and were largely blind to musical culture that engaged with commercial and urban influences (Hamilton, 2001, p. 20). For Lomax, listening to the jukebox – a ‘neon-lit, chrome-plated musical monster’ – was destroying the uniquely raw and emotional folk music he sought to preserve (Lomax, 1993, p. 38).
Yet the project’s researchers from Fisk University, whose work was not published until 2005, took a different view (Gordon and Nemerov, 2005, 1-26). Rather than assuming that something vital to African American culture was risking extinction, Fisk sociologist Samuel C. Adams (1947) sought ‘to determine the areas of Negro folk life that are subject to the forces of civilization or the culture of the city.’ Adams’s study observed that the majority of African American ‘expressive culture’ in the town of Clarksdale now relied on urban mechanisms of diffusion, such as newspapers, radio, or films; jukeboxes had largely replaced live performance. Indeed, Adams concluded that Clarksdale’s inhabitants were overwhelmingly proud of urban influences on their cultural activities (Adams, 1947, pp. 270-273).
Adams’s observations can be seen in the context of a progressive reimagining of African American culture as a collective and nationwide identity after 1940, as identified by Green (2009). Borrowing Raymond Williams’s (1989) concept of a ‘transmitting metropolis’, Green (2009, pp. 6-8) argues that African American expressive culture were shaped by cultural products of northern cities such as Chicago and New York. At stake, then, are two understandings of the relationship between musical culture and the place of its consumption. Historians and folklorists have long understood the blues to be uniquely a product of Clarksdale and the Mississippi Delta region, a ‘place’ defined by a vision of African American musical authenticity. However, compelling research by Adams, Green, and others, suggests that musical culture functioned as a vehicle for a collective identity that transcended boundaries of place (Whitely, 2005, pp. 2-3).
The Fisk team’s research data takes broadly two forms. The first is a series of maps and written descriptions of the ‘Negro business district’, referred to by its inhabitants as the ‘New World’ district (Adams, 1947, pp. 229-231). These documents detail buildings, businesses, and entertainment spaces observed during the study, such as grocery stores, churches, restaurants, cafés, and ‘juke joints’. Adams notes the presence of music in these spaces on several occasions: he reports that, on Issaquena Avenue, jukeboxes could be heard in the street, and on Fourth Street members of the public gathered at Messenger’s Pool Hall and the Dipsie Doodle (‘a café and beer tavern’), to listen and dance to jukebox records. The second body of evidence is a document compiled by Fisk researcher Lewis Jones, entitled ‘List of Records on Machines in Clarksdale Amusement Places.’ This documents music available on jukeboxes in five ‘juke joints’ (including the Dipsie Doodle and Messenger’s) in September 1941.
What is most striking about Jones’s jukebox listings is the almost entire absence of what we might term ‘Delta blues’: the rural, unpolished sound of a male singer-guitarist, such as Robert Johnson. Instead, it appears that Clarksdale’s jukeboxes were awash with the latest urban sounds from New York and Chicago. Across the five lists, the performers with the most records are Louis Jordan and Lil Green, followed closely by Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and Fats Waller.
In what ways, then, might Lewis Jones’s findings cause us to rethink musical style in 1940s Mississippi? Conventional accounts of stylistic development tell us that the blues changed from a primarily acoustic and rural music to an urbane, ‘electric’ style in tandem with wartime and postwar black migration from the southern states to industrial cities in the north. Yet Clarksdale’s jukeboxes – only months before the attack on Pearl Harbor – were pulsing with the sounds of the big city.
I hope to write more on this subject in due course, but for now, follow my twitter account for regular links to recordings found on Clarksdale’s jukeboxes, under the hashtag #forgottendeltablues.
Adams, S., . Changing Negro Life in the Delta. In: Gordon, R. and Nemerov, B. eds., 2005. Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering The Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, pp. 226-291.
Green, A., 2009. Selling The Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940-1955. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Hamilton, M., 2001. The Blues, the Folk, and African-American history. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, pp. 17-35.
Lomax, A., 1993. Land Where The Blues Began. New York, NY: The New Press.
Radano, R., 2003. Lying Up A Nation: Race and Black Music. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Whiteley, S., Bennett, A. and Hawkins, S. eds., 2005. Music, Space and Place: Popular Music and Cultural Identity. Farnham: Ashgate.
Williams, R., 1989. Metropolitan Perceptions and the Emergence of Modernism. In: Miles, M., 2000. The City Cultures Reader, pp.58-66. London: Routledge.
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