The U.S. Senate declared 2003 the Year of the Blues, effective this month. No, not those blues not the kind Sen. Tom Daschle experienced after Election Day last year.
The Senate is celebrating the blues of Robert Johnson, Son House and Skip James, the pre-World War II music of the black rural South that gave birth to rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll as well as becoming a popular genre in its own right with a devoted fan base of purists.
Why 2003? It’s the centennial anniversary of the year composer W.C. Handy discovered the blues the “weirdest music I have ever heard,” he is said to have remarked.
The Memphis-based Blues Foundation, together with the Experience Music Project, a multimedia museum in Seattle, is spearheading a Year of the Blues project to commemorate Mr. Handy’s discovery.
It will feature an eight-part PBS series (airing this fall), blues concerts and festivals across the country, and educational outreach programs.
The first event, a “Salute to the Blues” concert, was held Friday at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
“I’d like to see people use the designation to share the cultural experience of the blues and to highlight that it’s a part of our heritage,” Sen. Blanche Lincoln says via telephone. The Arkansas Democrat, who sponsored the resolution, grew up listening to the blues in Helena, Ark., the midpoint between St. Louis and New Orleans on the Mississippi River. In the late 19th century, she says, Helena was a thriving riverboat town and thus fertile ground for blues musicians in the cotton-farming industry.
For the past 18 years, Helena has been home to the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival.
Though nonbinding resolutions are often empty gestures, the Year of the Blues resolution, enacted by the Senate in September, commits the federal government to safeguarding early blues music from historical erosion.
“I wish they would put their money where their mouth is,” says Anna Lomax Chairetakis, director of the Alan Lomax Archive in New York City, in a phone interview. “I wish [the Senate] would do something concrete like make space on radio and television.”
Ms. Chairetakis, 58, is the daughter of the late Alan Lomax, the legendary folklorist and musicologist who died in July at 87.
By the 1940s, the “weird sounds” discovered by W.C. Handy, considered the “father of the blues,” had begun to wane in popularity.
It was Mr. Lomax who kept the blues alive for the listening public.
In 1933, he and his father, John Lomax, also a well-known folk-music collector, began making field recordings of ethnic folk musicians in their native Texas, the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia and other Deep South locales.
Thomas Edison’s widow lent the pair an acetate disc recorder, Ms. Chairetakis says. Portable tape recorders weren’t available until 1946.
Under the auspices of the Archive of American Folk Song, a branch of the Library of Congress established in 1928, the father-and-son team first recorded a song by a field hand working near Dallas.
“The singer and all the people who were listening were transformed with amazement,” Ms. Chairetakis says. They had never before heard music that was an integral part of their communal life played back to them.
Ms. Chairetakis, who holds a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University, compares the experience to seeing one’s reflection in a mirror for the first time.
Mr. Lomax went on to discover seminal blues musicians such as Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters), “Big Bill” Broonzy and “Mississippi” Fred McDowell.
A domino theory might go something like this: No Alan Lomax, no Muddy Waters. No Muddy Waters, no Rolling Stones. (At the very least, they would have been called something else: It was Muddy Waters’ song “Rollin’ Stone” that provided the band its name.)
The Library of Congress’ Folklife Center (housed mostly in the Jefferson Building on Capitol Hill) has all of Mr. Lomax’s recordings up to 1942. The Alan Lomax Archive has the rest, about 600 hours’ worth, stored at Hunter College in New York City.
Jessie Mae Hemphill, a blues singer from Senatobia, Miss., met Mr. Lomax sometime in the 1960s; she’s not sure of the exact date and can’t precisely peg the year of her birth (1934, says the All Music Guide). Mr. Lomax recorded the singer’s father, Sid Hemphill, in the ‘30s. Blues music was a family affair, she says.
“He came down here to record us,” Miss Hemphill says via phone, “and we were the biggest musicians around.” Nestled in Mississippi’s hill country, Senatobia is fewer than 50 miles from Memphis, one of the country’s most important urban blues hubs, along with Chicago and New Orleans.
“I loved Alan so much, I could just squeeze him,” Miss Hemphill says.
In conjunction with the reprinting of Mr. Lomax’s 1992 book “The Land Where the Blues Began,” Rounder Records reissued a companion CD containing 28 key Lomax field recordings last October.
Along with classic selections from bluesmen such as Mr. McDowell and Muddy Waters, it also includes previously unreleased recordings of rousing, guttural sermons from Baptist preachers in rural Mississippi. That’s an appropriate addition, considering that blues had roots in gospel music; its plaintive expression sprang from the Negro spiritual tradition of slaves, recast by 20th-century blacks kept subservient by segregation, whether de jure or de facto.
The spread of mechanized cotton farming uprooted poor black workers, creating an itinerant black male population across the Deep South. “It created a deep sense of alienation which was expressed in the blues, and a feeling of being orphaned and lonesome,” Ms. Chairetakis says.
It also caused a mass migration of rural Southern blacks to the industrial North in the years before World War II. They brought the blues with them to urban meccas such as Chicago and Detroit, where the acoustic blues morphed into the electrified sound that formed the basis of rhythm and blues and, later, rock ‘n’ roll.
“These are oral traditions that disappear,” Ms. Chairetakis says. “These are evanescent things, but they’re the product of a long shaping and molding and a human experience. That’s why they grab us so much, and that’s why they’re so significant.”