New World Jukebox Blues

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…

References

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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Forgotten Delta Blues

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.

 

Works Cited

Adams, S., [1947]. 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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