In this series of blog posts, I explore the music and venues documented by the Library of Congress/Fisk University Coahoma County Study, 1941-42. Each post features an exclusive playlist, holding the records played on jukeboxes in the city of Clarksdale during September 1941.
Like many blues fans, I’ve long been fascinated by the Mississippi Delta, and the role it has played in blues history. Many legendary musicians lived and performed in the area, giving birth to a unique and evocative style, exemplified in the work of Muddy Waters, Son House, or Charley Patton – to name only a few.
Although these musicians are probably the most well-known ‘Delta blues’ performers, it would be a mistake to think that this was the only style listened to or performed in the region. In fact, scholars such as Elijah Wald, Marybeth Hamilton, and Paige McGinley have long called attention to the musical diversity of the area, particularly in urban centres such as the city of Clarksdale. During the first half of the twentieth century, Clarskdale had a vibrant African American cultural economy. It was a regular stop on the ‘tent show’ circuit for blues singers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey in the 1910s and 20s, and by the early 1940s the city’s African American ‘New World’ district boasted (according to one survey): 51 food stores, 22 restaurants, 20 general stores, 8 radio and electrical appliance stores, 9 juke joints, 9 drug stores, and 10 churches (Adams 2005, 229-230).
These survey figures come from one of the most well-known blues research trips, the Library of Congress/Fisk University Coahoma County Study, 1941-42. Conducted by renowned folklorist Alan Lomax (Library of Congress), the musicologist John W. Work III (Fisk), and sociologists Samuel C. Adams (Fisk) and Lewis W. Jones (Fisk), the Coahoma County Study is famous for capturing some of the earliest recordings of Muddy Waters, Son House, and David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards – all iconic ‘Delta blues’ performers. Yet the wider aims of the project have been largely forgotten. On the trail of not only blues but also work songs, spirituals, toasts, children’s games, and popular song, the LoC/Fisk team sought to understand what was happening to ‘traditional’ African American culture in a region that was swiftly being colonised by mass ‘popular’ culture from northern cities, in particular Chicago and New York (Hamilton 2001).
As well as making field recordings, Lomax’s research team made surveys of musical tastes and listening practices amongst their informants, and in some of the businesses of the New World district. The survey I’m especially interested in is a list of the recordings that were held on the jukeboxes of five Clarksdale ‘amusement places’, compiled by Lewis W. Jones during September 1941. Although Lomax (1993, 38) would later refer to the jukebox as a ‘neon-lit, chrome-plated musical monster’, researchers like Jones appeared to have viewed it as a barometer of cultural change. His list provides a fascinating snapshot of what some of Clarksdale’s African American residents were listening to during this period.
Jones’s lists provided only song titles and performer names, but I’ve spent a while digging around to find out exactly which recordings these were. And over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting Spotify playlists of the recordings that could be heard at each venue.
So grab a beer, kick back, and click here to listen to the sounds of the first venue in this series: Messenger’s Café and Pool Room…
Samuel C. Adams, ‘Changing Negro Life in the Delta’, in Gordon and Nemerov (eds.) Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942 (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2005), 226-291.
Marybeth Hamilton, ‘The Blues, the Folk, and African-American History’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (2001), 17-35.
Alan Lomax, Land Where the Blues Began (New York: The New Press, 1993).
Lewis W. Jones’s lists are held at the Library of Congress, in the American Folklife Center’s Alan Lomax Collection (AFC 1941/002, folder 31). They have also been published in Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (New York: Amistad, 2004), and Gordon and Nemerov (eds.), Lost Delta Found, 311-314.
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