Looking back on my visits with each of these speakers, their voices remind me of how surely, how ruthlessly race defined each of their lives, as well as my own. Whether in Rose Hill Church, in Parchman Penitentiary, or in Poppa Jazz’s home, race was always on their minds and on mine. It shaped their music, their tales, their very consciousness, and my own.
From slavery to the present in the United States, race has defined the core of our being as blacks and as whites. These voices part the veil of black worlds and reveal the beauty, the fear, the violence that the burden of race has placed on the shoulders of each generation.
Music clearly was a powerful, effective shelter from racism both in slavery and in segregated worlds. It offered a safe haven through both sacred and secular song. Whether black people were working in the fields, dancing in juke joints, or worshipping in church, music provided an escape from the hostile, violent white world.
Gender also shapes the speakers in important ways. Mary Gordon, Martha Dunbar, and Fannie Bell Chapman bring forceful female voices to these narratives, as Gordon and Chapman describe their spiritual journeys and Dunbar recalls how she worked alongside men doing hard manual labor.
Sacred and secular worlds constantly intersect in each speaker’s stories. Lee Kizart’s description of preachers in Chicago who drink whiskey in the church basement and then preach their sermons upstairs and Poppa Jazz’s tale of the brothers Heaven and Hell touch a theme that is familiar among bluesmen. Reverend Isaac Thomas recalls a parrot who tells the preacher that the “same gang” who go to the blues joint on Saturday night attend church on Sunday morning. And Mary Gordon parodies a hymn about a preacher who tries to seduce her.
The colorful personality and language of each speaker come through their voices. From the gentle religious narrative of Mary Gordon, to the comic tales of Scott Dunbar, to the angry voice of Gussie Tobe, each speaker establishes his or her tone. And each has deep roots in the place where he or she lives.
Place is the stage on which the drama of each life plays out. From isolated rural communities like Rose Hill, Lake Mary, Gravel Springs, and Parchman Penitentiary, to Delta towns like Leland and Clarksdale, to cities like Jackson and Memphis, each narrative is shaped by the place where the speaker lives. While my interviews with Willie Dixon and B. B. King were recorded at Yale University in New Haven, both Dixon and King anchor their stories with memories of their childhoods in Vicksburg and Indianola. As celebrities whose music is known and loved throughout the world, Dixon and King remain deeply attached to and defined by the places where they grew up.
Like a chorus, these voices frame the black experience and the music associated with its world.