Sunday, September 30, 2007

Roughing it

Passing overland through Guatemala in 1839, the American explorer John L. Stephens and his travelling companion, the British artist Frederick Catherwood, spend a night in a rustic homestead, where they bravely bear up in the face of unfamiliar customs.

"Our host was a don; and when we presented our letter he received us with great dignity in a single garment, loose, white, and very laconic, not quite reaching his knees. The dress of his wife was no less easy; somewhat in the style of the oldfashioned shortgown and petticoat, only the shortgown and whatever else is usually worn under it were wanting, and their place supplied by a string of beads, with a large cross at the end. A dozen men and half-grown boys, naked except the small covering formed by rolling the trousers up and down in the manner I have mentioned, were lounging about the house; and women and girls in such extremes of undress, that a string of beads seemed quite a covering for modesty.

"Mr. C. and I were in a rather awkward predicament for the night. The general reception-room contained three beds, made of strips of cowhide interlaced. The don occupied one; he had not much undressing to do, but what little he had, he did by pulling off his shirt. Another bed was at the foot of my hammock. I was dozing, when I opened my eyes, and saw a girl about seventeen sitting sideway upon it, smoking a cigar. She had a piece of striped cotton cloth tied around her waist, and falling below her knees; the rest of her dress was the same which Nature bestows alike upon the belle of fashionable life and the poorest girl; in other words, it was the same as that of the don's wife, with the exception of the string of beads. At first I thought it was something I had conjured up in a dream; and as I waked up perhaps I raised my head, for she gave a few puffs of her cigar, drew a cotton sheet over her head and shoulders, and lay down to sleep. I endeavored to do the same. I called to mind the proverb, that 'travelling makes strange bedfellows.' I had slept pellmell with Greeks, Turks, and Arabs. I was beginning a journey in a new country; it was my duty to conform to the customs of the people; to be prepared for the worst, and submit with resignation to whatever might befall me."

Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sweet As the Showers of Rain

I picked up a copy of this book by the blues historian and poet Samuel Charters in the Strand Bookstore in the 1970s, at a time when I was living in New York City. I had never heard of it, or him, at the time, but the book has stayed with me ever since. My urge to hear the records of the old blues musicians of the '20s and '30s comes and goes; there have been periods when I've hardly felt like listening to the blues at all, as well as times when I listened to little else. Whenever I do get the urge, though, I dig out my battered old paperback copy, and I've never really found anything that comes close to this book in capturing the spirit of the music and of the men and women who made it.

Charters, who's now well into his eighties, has written a number of books on the subject, and this is almost certainly not the best known (that would likely be his first, The Country Blues, which was published in 1959), but I have a special fondness for it. It's actually Volume II of an aborted series, one that was projected to survey a variety of regional blues styles through chapter-length profiles of the most interesting or most significant players. Volume I, which was published as The Bluesmen, covers many of the now well-known bluesmen of Mississippi, including Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and Booker White (the last of whom, however, mysteriously appears on the cover of Volume II, in which he is barely mentioned). It also encompasses the musicians of Alabama and Texas. Sweet As the Showers of Rain, published in 1977, focuses on the Memphis area as well as Georgia and the Carolinas, and includes profiles of the Memphis Jug Band, Willie McTell, Blind Blake, and a number of less familiar figures. Both books have been in and out of print several times, at one point in an omnibus volume called The Bluesmakers.

Though the two regional volumes are similar in approach I think it's in Sweet As the Showers of Rain that Charters really hit his stride. A number of the players covered in its pages were still around when he began his researches, and he got to know several of them pretty well. (Regrettably, he just missed meeting McTell, who died in obscurity in 1959 just as The Country Blues was being published.) Charters may have been a blues enthusiast and a musicologist, but he never let his interest in the music blind himself to the fact that his subjects were people — even when they didn't have a guitar in hand. In his pages, bluesmen like Gus Cannon, Will Shade, and Furry Lewis — all of whom Charters knew — come through with their flinty dignity intact, as they look back on more than their share of hardships but also some good times spent carousing, travelling, and music-making. Some of the stories are grimmer than others; here's part of Charters's sobering encounter with the great Tennessee singer John Adam “Sleepy John” Estes:
Winfield Lane was a rutted, unpaved farm road running through the red-brown clay earth outside of Brownsville, Tennessee. Most of the farms had been abandoned and there was only a scattering of houses along the road, some of them deserted cabins with fallen-in roofs and peeling tar paper. There were small stretches of cotton, some grazing land, but most of the land was overgrown with brush and trees. The cabin John lived in was about a mile and a half from the turn into Brownsville, a sagging wood shack that had been painted red. The ground in front of it was bare of grass, an open mud space with a refuse of dirty dishes, old clothes, a chair that had gotten broken and left outside the door. It had only two rooms, one of them empty except for a bundle of rags on the filth of the floor, the other room with a chair, a rusted wood stove, and two beds piled with the same rags that were on the floor of the other room. A metal plate with bits of food stuck to it had been left on the chair, and flies clustered around the rest of the dishes left in a bucket on the floor. There was no electricity or water. In the daytime most of the light came in through the cracks between the cabin's warped planks. It looked like any of the abandoned cabins left in the fields, but John Estes was living in it, with his wife and five small children.

Many of the old bluesmen who were found still living in the 1950s and 1960s were living in ghetto buildings, or in shabby houses in small towns in the South, but Estes's poverty had a desperateness to it. He'd long been troubled with his eyes, and he'd finally become completely blind. Even knowing that he was in poor health, blind, and living in a poor shack, I still wasn't prepared for the sight of him, a gaunt, tall figure in dirty farm clothes, a shapeless straw hat on his head, sitting alone on a bare wooden chair in front of the cabin of a neighbor. Because he'd been told someone wanted to see him, he had an old guitar across his lap, the strings rusted, a pencil tied around the neck as a kind of capo. One of his sons, who was about nine years old, led him back and forth from his house to the Meaux house, and it was painful to watch him stumbling along, holding his guitar, his feet scuffling with uncertainty over the dirt and the stones.

A few months later John was able to move into Brownsville, and with the earnings that came in from concerts and recordings he was able to add to the welfare check he received from the state of Tennessee, but the years of darkness and poverty on the country road left their marks on both his health and spirit. The man across the road, a sharecropper with a family of his own to feed, had tried to do what he could for John, but he felt that it was John's blindness that had left him so helpless. “People cheats him, you know, when he goes and buys things. If he gets some butter they makes him pay four times what it says on the counter; then they don't give him his right change.” He had grown blind when he was older, and he hadn't developed any of the ways to deal with his blindness that someone younger learns. He was only fifty-eight years old, that afternoon at the cabin on Winfield Lane — but he looked and moved like a man in his seventies.
After his “rediscovery,” Estes began performing again, this time for the new audiences of the folk and blues revival, and he went on to record several LPs before his death in 1977. But passages like this bring to mind exactly what the stakes were for a poor black man in the rural South, in the American century.

Update (2015): Samuel Charters died in Sweden on March 18, 2015. The New York Times has an obituary.