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Black, white and the Memphis blues

Black History Month wrapped up yesterday, technically speaking. But then Black history isn’t limited to the calendar. That’s especially the case when it comes to roots music.

I spent a few days in February in Memphis, aka the home of the blues. My first impression was that maybe the blues is homeless these days.

Beale Street, with its juke joints and junk shops, is a neon fly trap for tourists. Despite the fact that BB King’s Restaurant holds prime position, and that the Museum of Rock & Soul, and Gibson Guitars are right around the corner, there’s every indication that the blues is Beale Street’s prodigal son: gone wandering, maybe never to return. The ghost of the blues haunts the place, in the form of historical plaques telling the stories of blues heroes long gone.

Today, on a strip of watering holes where the ribs are served on styrofoam plates, and the beer in giant plastic cups, you can buy a toilet seat in the shape of a guitar, but the most popular item seems to be a t-shirt that reads “Not black, not white, just blues.”

What does that mean, exactly? Sure, today’s blues musicians are all the colours of the rainbow, and that’s as it should be. Still, if we claim the blues is colourless, we lose perspective on the origins and deep meaning of the genre.

As LeRoi Jones pointed out in Blues People, his seminal history of African-American music, the blues is the musical expression of a people’s suffering. The form has aged, the players have changed, history itself may have changed, but the conditions of the blues still demand our attention. Memphis is mostly Black –and the Great Recession threatens many of the gains of the past generation.


The National Civil Rights Museum was a grim, if uplifting reminder of the terrible cost at which those gains were made. Standing at the spot where Martin Luther King was assassinated, the struggle for equality is made suddenly real, and close in a way it had never been for this Caucasian Canadian kid before.

I was inspired, but also embarrassed. For all these years, my dream destination in Memphis has been Graceland.

As for that: I was moved at Graceland too. With Graceland (unlike Beale Street) you KNOW it’s going to be tacky. And the story of the boy who grew up listening to the blues on Beale Street til it permeated his music and moved his shaky legs, is a great story. Everyone can dream with the kid who became the King.

But Memphis is a town of three kings: Elvis was the king of rock & roll. B.B. King is still the King of the Blues. I’ll never forget now that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King is the one with the dream that mattered most.

The main purpose of my trip to Memphis was to hear the music being made today, at the Folk Alliance International Conference. As a conference that draws folks from across the States and Canada, the event was mostly white, in terms of faces, but when you hear folk or roots in an American context you are often hearing Black music. And there’s a lot of feeling for collective struggle at FAI: Joan Baez got a Lifetime Achievement Award, acknowledging her lifetime of work on the dream Dr. King held dear.

The most compelling performance of the weekend for me was Watermelon Slim, a skinny old white guy who’s got the blues so real it’s almost unearthly. Go figure.

Even as the blues has been subsumed and transformed and channeled into other musics, and other contexts, the revival in Black roots, country and folk music is one of the most exciting “new” developments on the scene today. I ran into Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I’d interviewed them last spring. She was beaming when I congratulated her on the group’s recent Grammy win for Best Traditional Folk album.

I gave Rhiannon my copy of Blues People. And I brought my daughter back a book of Martin Luther King quotations.

As the clerk at the Civil Rights Museum gift shop said, “The thing I love about it is, it’s for all of us.”

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3 comments

  1. avatar
    Rosalie from Sault Ste. Marie 1 March, 2011 at 18:51

    ……the blues is by far the most moving genre for me, perhaps cuz as you quote, “it is the musical expression of a people’s suffering”. But it evokes so many emotions….and mostly what I notice is that when I hear the blues….I smile….nostagically…..and I’m inspired even though I don’t necessarily understand why…….in anycase, I don’t necessarily understand how my light goes on in my living room, but I am grateful to those who make it happen…….the blues….they always have a home with me…..and Martin Luther King continues to be a source of inspiration…..he believed…..I believe……..thanks for sharing…..

  2. avatar
    Eric 2 March, 2011 at 08:22

    ….Watermelon Slim is such a fascinating character. His life story would make your head spin and I hope he keeps on doing what he’s doing as he’s been threatening to get off the road for some time (and when an ex-trucker says that, he usually means it). But you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Slim sing – a cappella – his version of Stan Rogers’ Northwest Passage. He’s got a lot of time for Stan and sang it once to an Eastern Canada audience, bringing tears to many an eye…

  3. avatar
    ross neilsen 29 March, 2011 at 01:59

    Slim is scary. He is so real it’s almost too much to believe. But he is. A little over a year ago, while in Clarksdale, my band and I went to the local Juke on the owners invite. Slim immediately took a break so he could hump more gear in so we could all play together. One of the greatest nights of my life and I’ll never forget it.

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