July 25, 2021

Blues: pain, magic and comfort

Muddy Waters and Son House, two blues legends, on stage. Photo: Kultrum

The land where the blues was born
Alan Lomax
Translation by Ana Lima. Kultrum. Barcelona, ​​2021. 448 pages. € 29.50

A cheap harmonica is all Napoleon Srickland needed. No, it is not the start of a story inspired by magical realism. Or at least not entirely. It belongs to one of the editorial jewels of the season, the one signed by the historic musicologist Alan Lomax (Austin, 1915-Safety Harbor, 2002), a pioneer, during the first half of the 20th century, in the work of collecting and capturing the music that the black population farmed the length and breadth of the Mississippi Delta and from which the blues arose, a miraculous potion, linked with the African tradition and the tragic experience of slavery, with which he managed not only to rise to a life without value and without destiny, but also managed to transform music forever. .

Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Fred McDowell, Blind Lemon, Son House, Bessie Jones, Sam Chatmon, David Edwards, Big Bill Broonzy and Jack Owens are just some of the names that Lomax travels in this historic compilation of texts that goes beyond the ethnological. Build an authentic musical dam with masonry from the chronicle, the travel narrative, the journalistic interview and the songbook.

The blues managed to translate the old lament of the slaves into notes capable of howling like a freight train

Techniques such as the use of slide on the guitar or the mute on the harmonica they managed to translate the lament of a segregated and humiliated population into notes that howled like a mad dog or a riotous freight train. As torrential, magical and muddy as the river course that gave him inspiration, energy and comfort. How is it possible – wonders the author, a teacher of scholars like Ted Gioia – that these exhausted agricultural workers and their slave ancestors, degraded and cruelly exploited, had created songs so full of nobility and love? “

The bottom line is that blues has swept the culture of the twentieth century. A young man from Tupelo, white but with the voice and hips of a black, shook the Earth with the name of Elvis Presley and a little later, free of racial prejudice, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, among others, were already praying the new religion through the convulsive streets of London. It would be anticipated by the lyrics of the old blues: “The sun is going to shine on my back door one day, / A wind is going to rise and take my sadness with it …”