Friday, August 04, 2017

High Water Everywhere

When it rains five days and the skies turn dark as night...
I woke up early this mornin', a water hole in my back yard...
Backwater rising, come in my windows and door... 
If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break...
I think I heard a moan, on the Arkansas side...
Nothing but muddy water, as far as I could see...
Lord the whole round country, man, is overflowed...
These are lines from songs by Bessie Smith, Barbecue Bob, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Charlie Patton, Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy.  They all touch in different ways on the floods of the late twenties, particularly the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.  You can hear clips on the New York Public Radio's list, Great Songs About the Great Flood.  I learnt from the accompanying article that filmmaker Bill Morrison and guitarist-composer Bill Frisell have collaborated recently on a documentary called The Great Flood.  'Morrison’s films are usually inventive, phantasmagorical affairs, built on decaying silent film stock; here he bases his work on archival documentary footage from 1927, and Frisell provides a score that’s full of his eclectic take on Americana, jazz, and contemporary music. The result is a meditation on the American landscape, on loss, and on consequences -- whether intended or not.'


I've been thinking about the blues and landscape this week, after reading Hari Kunzru's new novel, White Tears, which is partly set in Mississippi.  The way his protagonists are lured into the music's mythic history took me back to my own early enthusiasm for it, when finding information about the early musicians or hearing the records was still not straightforward.  As a sixth former I would take a bus to Sussex University library (you could just walk in if you looked like you were meant to be there) and spend time reading publications in the wonderful Jazz Book Club series.  Paul Oliver was the most prominent British writer on the blues and he seemed to have a fantastic life as an architect with a sideline in musical research.  Just now I dug out an anthology of his writings published in 1984, Blues off the Record, and it's noticeable how many of them describe the landscape that gave rise to the music in some detail, as if the blues was an aspect of geography.  His writing is not especially poetic, but any of those southern place names had an exotic poetry.  'As you descend from the hilly, wooded landscape of De Soto, Tate and Panola Counties in Mississippi to the flat bottomlands of the Mississippi River flood-plain, the landscape changes.  Not dramatically, because the hills aren't high enough to be a dramatic contrast, but very noticeably so, all the same...'

 
The early blues collectors are as fascinating as the singers themselves and much has now been written about them too.  They included people like John Fahey and Al Wilson (Canned Heat) who also made their own music and performed with renowned bluesmen.  I don't usually quote Wikipedia but I thought this paragraph in the entry for Al Wilson interesting, and as I'm a bit short of time at the moment, I will just leave this with you, along with a clip of 'Going up the Country'...
'Wilson was a passionate conservationist who loved reading books on botany and ecology. He often slept outdoors to be closer to nature. In 1969, he wrote and recorded a song, "Poor Moon", which expressed concern over potential pollution of the moon. He wrote an essay called 'Grim Harvest', about the coastal redwood forests of California, which was printed as the liner notes to the Future Blues album by Canned Heat. Wilson was interested in preserving the natural world, particularly the redwood trees. When he died, so too did the Music Mountain organization he had initiated dedicated to this purpose. In order to support his dream, Wilson's family has purchased a "grove naming" in his memory through the Save the Redwoods League of California. The money donated to create this memorial will be used by the League to support redwood reforestation, research, education, and land acquisition of both new and old growth redwoods.'

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