When I, a white Mississippian, worked as a folklorist in my home state in the sixties and seventies, I set out to study African American music, but the people I met opened my eyes to much more than music. Each of the musicians I was privileged to record—through interviews, sound recordings, still photography, and film—revealed the fabric of life in their families and communities in powerful ways. By featuring their voices firsthand in this book, I attempt to give the reader the opportunity to hear, from the inside as much as possible, voices, stories, and music that are the roots of the blues. By trying to capture the faces and surroundings of these musicians through photographs and films that complement and deepen their recorded voices in important ways, I hope to make portraits of the speakers that respect their entire lives and their culture.
These African American musicians speak about and perform musical traditions that are the authentic roots of black music. Hailing from the Delta, as well as from northeastern, central, and southern Mississippi, these musicians represent a wide range of musical traditions that include one-strand instruments, bottle-blowing, fife and drum, hymns, spirituals, the banjo, the fiddle, and prison work chants, all of which helped define the blues.
In this volume, richly varied musical worlds are presented through the voices of the artists themselves. Their narratives are edited from field recordings I made in each artist’s home and community. The artistically and emotionally rich profiles of musicians that emerge illuminate both the African American experience and the history and culture of America itself.
But here, in the introduction, I will tell you something about my own background and why seeking out the voices of the blues was so important to me. I grew up during the forties and fifties on my family’s farm, located fifteen miles southeast of Vicksburg in Warren County. While my father owned the farm and black families lived and worked for him on the land, both my family and these black families had ancestral roots in the state that dated back to the nineteenth century.
Before telephones and television arrived in the fifties, members of the community either walked or drove to Vicksburg on a gravel road. Today, local residents still orient their lives in relation to Fisher Ferry Road, which passes through the farm and connects it to the outside world. Travelers either head “up the road” to Vicksburg or “down the road” to the Big Black River. Residents often study travelers on the road and speculate aloud on where they are headed. Drivers, in turn, blow their horns and wave at friends who sit on porches that face the road.
On the farm, my family had daily, if not hourly, interactions with black families in our home and in the fields. Their lives and ours were intimately linked. The farm was in fact inhabited by many more black people than white people, and in im