Chapter One: Blues Valley

Chapter 1

Blues Valley








And Faith. These are the unglamorous and seemingly incongruous ingredients of the blues, the enigmatic blues we have so often felt and heard yet scarcely understood.

“He’s got the blues,”

“She is so blue,” or “They are singin’ the blues,” are common idioms. Blues has been spoken of for almost a century as if it were a ubiquitous explanation for personal defeat, or even a dreaded social disease. Blues was the dark side of the mind. Powerful, cryptic and seemingly beyond science, they have generally been interpreted as a negative thing, whatever they are.

But what are they? And from the sound of them, why do we care? The very name invites skepticism. Doug Macleod, a modern blues performer, jokingly admits “Blues are the only thing in the world where you can spend four hours telling everybody how much you feel sorry for yourself!” The most authoritative spokesmen, the original bluesmen themselves, have said that blues is a feeling. Something like depression, so pervasive that it is as common as allergies, yet a dark intimate place haunted by “blue devils” of doubt, sorrow and helplessness. This awful psychological grip, especially upon on a whole population is hard to imagine these days, but during the early days of our Country’s history, it was common and even manipulated to keep African- American slaves “in their place.” In those days it was the flip side to hysteria and rage.

Deep down inside the collective minds of American blacks, a lifeline of sorts formed from within their own society. Since music was allowed and even encouraged from them, they poured their whole souls into the one freedom they had: They gave flight to their emotions and dreams and put them into the air. As they began to congregate in the South, as slaves for vast plantations, song took on an importance right next to food and shelter. Africans had always had a love for music, and their culture had always emphasized rhythm and singing and dancing. But now it was emotional therapy and a show of community unity, as well as a spiritual connection to their ancestral homes, a reminder of happier times, and a promise of something better in the future. And in time, a kind of underground information system.

Negro slaves proved to be excellent craftsmen, builders, blacksmiths and stonemasons. Even today one can spot those items and places of superior quality, constructed by slave labor. And everything was done to humming, chanting and singing. Even the most menial things were done in song. They built well, and they sang well, and when the work was done, they continued to sing.

Even during the Republic of Texas era, when African- Americans were sold and herded like beasts of burden, whites noticed their slaves’ ability to entertain, preach and play dance music. It was not unusual for whites to attend black church revivals, just to experience their unique style of worship. Slave musicians were often recruited to play and sing at barn dances and other social gatherings.

Strangely, they were called upon to make the merriment for celebration, rarely had anything to celebrate. They often cooked the food, but did not sit at the banquet; made the music, but were not formally invited to the dance. When after the bloody Civil War the freed slaves still did not enjoy enfranchisement and Civil Rights, “Negro Spirituals” continued to be a popular comfort. It was a culture born and bred in the “blues.”

And this was the default consciousness of freed slaves after the American Civil War; families forever split up, people scarred physically and mentally, their hopes of freedom and equality smothered by pervasive racism in the North and the failed Reconstruction of the South.

In antebellum Texas, blacks existed in a fixed caste system engineered to make life better for whites, and were considered a sub-human support staff for each plantation.

The blues were born in these still, unhappy waters, but like the theory of Spontaneous Generation, somewhere in the evolution of blues as a state of mind, sprang the resilient spirit of humankind. And unexplainably, poetically, a peculiar music arose from the foulest muck of this institutionalized inhumanity. And it too has come to be known as “the blues.” After Emancipation, as black “songsters” began to sing about everyday life, and explore subjects outside of traditional church hymns, “blues” songs were published, and by the early 1920’s, made “respectable” by W. C. Handy and others. Black musicians across the South quickly made their own adaptations to the new sound.

A self proclaimed “songster,” Mance Lipscomb insisted that blues could be heard in bars and they could be heard in church just as well…

“Blues is a feelin.’ If it’s a feelin’out in these nightclubs, it’s a feelin’ in church... It’s a sad feelin,’ an a worried feelin,’ an a thang that’ll concentrate on yo mind... And that’s worrinated. That’s the reason they say the worried blues. Well you feelin’sorry. Disorderly. It communicates a whole lot a ways, the blues do. But it don’t come back unto you wit no happiness...”

Mance Lipscomb

Blues music covered the whole spectrum of life. They were as much about coping as they were about suffering; about work, about romance, about legend and lore and yes, about sex. The local bluesman became an everyday medicine man to the black community, a myth keeper, and primarily an entertainer, and sometimes, when it was safe, a social commentator. A bluesman might have been the most powerful man in his community.

Blues were a native-born medium for expression, dance and revelry, and they were a unifying force for a large American subculture, which perfected this art even as they picked cotton in the fields, singing rocking inspirational hymns and field hollers that passed the time and set the pace for the day’s monotonous challenge.

Lipscomb’s life was changed and his destiny revealed the day a stranger traded an old guitar to his mother, while working in the cotton field. She probably got it for him out of motherly indulgence, but her willingness to sacrifice for it proves the importance of music to her daily existence. At this point in black emancipation, no diploma or weapon could have been more valuable to them as a symbol and veritable tool of personal joy and achievement. Not long after, Mance asked if he could change his name. He felt liberated. He changed his given name from Bodyglin to “Mance,” short for Emancipation.

As with many great struggles, like the Jews gaining their freedom from Egypt, or the Protestants searching for theirs in North America, what seemed almost insignificant at the time became a gift to mankind. Blues, having emerged out of hardship, was flexible, indestructible, adaptive and eventually proven to be a lasting form of art. Few music historians will refute that blues blossomed into a huge artistic umbrella that gave birth to most other forms of American music we enjoy today. The musical traditions of Africa and Western Civilization merged along the river valleys of the South and forged a rich and powerful network of music that in turn spawned jazz. And boogie woogie and rock & roll. And rhythm & blues, Motown, and soul. And it strongly impacted bluegrass and country music. So much so, that to remove the very word blues would take away many important classics sung by Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and Johnny Cash. Blues is the mother of American music.

Perhaps no river town in the South better typifies all the dynamics of this amazing music evolution than Navasota, Texas. Positioned right at the emergence to two major Texas rivers, at the crossroads of Texas history and the original center of the Texas plantation empire, and thus an epicenter of slave trade, Navasota truly inherited its now official status as the Blues Capital of Texas. But this evolution was hard to watch. It’s no wonder it has taken so long for the Navasota River Valley to find its identity. It is a place of amazing talent and musical history, but it is also a place steeped in secrets and infamy. With the advent of the Civil Rights Movement, this whole region has been ducking under the radar for a half a century. Before the 1960's, it was a place of hardship, oppression, and mere survival. And now after nearly one hundred years of denial, it is strangely and belatedly becoming a place of validation, as we explore our own history. While the iron box sat in a forgotten corner, the music carried its message to the four corners of the earth.

Now we can celebrate what perhaps millions around the world take for granted, that Navasota and its environs was the home of several well-known Blues masters. And now we have to deal with what else has gradually been taken for granted by the outside world; Blues Valley was also the valley of plantation traditions, racial inequality, and Ku Klux style martial law. And yet through it all, a lair for a few daring voices who told of their struggles in song. It was and is the heart of Blues Valley.

Many towns up and down the Brazos and Navasota rivers own similar stories. There were in fact numerous pockets of Old South agriculture where this process repeated itself in predictable fashion, all over east Texas, central Georgia and in the Mississippi Valley, where blues historians have always focused and written abundantly. For some reason the considerable contribution to blues history made by Texas bluesmen has been treated as a footnote. Texas has always been seen as just another wing of the American blues tradition, and the Brazos and Navasota River Valleys a mere echo of whatever had been played elsewhere. Early music promoters strained to establish authenticity for their new genre, and in order for a blues musician to be desirable, it was considered best if he was associated with “Mississippi blues.”

Men, women and children worked from sunup to sundown in the cotton fields.

It did not help our understanding of blues origins that Texas bluesmen failed to reach any kind of critical mass here in the Brazos Valley, and were so cagey and nomadic that few blues enthusiasts suspected how many there were, as they jumped train cars and performed to safer audiences in California, Illinois, or even New York. Texas blues masters like Texas Alexander, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Blind Willie Johnson, and many others are considered fathers of the blues today, yet the roots of blues are still considered to be somewhere in Mississippi. This book proposes to change that perception forever.

The true roots of the blues can obviously be found in African drums, and early American spirituals modified by early Christian Slaves, but they are also rooted in pioneer folksongs, Cherokee flutes, and even Spanish guitar. The Anglo-Scot and African immigrants who poured into Texas in the 1820’s and 30’s brought the very best of Southern traditions with them. But they found an already rich crucible of Spanish and Native American influences; a cultural foundry that would forge a varied and intriguing school of American blues. Texas blues, and specifically, Trans-Brazos blues.

Texas was a perfect mix of Old South farmland and the open range of the American West. Beautiful, green land. Oak laden meadows. Ideal climate and soil, but a ruthless cotton plantation culture driven by greed and stiff-necked apartheid. Upheaval came dispensing various degrees of ruin following a bloody and costly war with the Union, and subsequently insidious social traditions took over which would only be subdued by a hundred years of social pressure. Yet even in pitched battle over social reform, the various competing cultures have managed to tolerate, even grow to respect and love one another. The first bridges across these various cultures was music. Today the American pie is finally finding peace with itself, and with it, discovering a wealth of culture and lasting art. Proof of this is the majority of whites who throng to the annual blues festivals all over the South. And Navasota has led the way in this tradition, celebrating fifteen years of “bluesfests.” I can just see Blind Lemon Jefferson shaking his head in disbelief.

I have begun to call this slowly healing ground “Blues Valley.” Perhaps no other ground has birthed so much music and then unwittingly expelled it to the music collections of the world. Texas river plantation towns were not so much mothers of their offspring, but rather dandelions mindlessly sending their seed adrift. Few towns along these rivers have any idea about their own musicians and their songs, or have any notion of the genius that came out from amongst them. Even today, it a story largely ignored and unappreciated; an untold story of human struggle, survival and even lasting contribution to art.

The Sommers farm in Washington County, where Mance Lipscomb lived and worked.

This is the story our grandfathers hated and hid and took to their graves. It is Roots and Tombstone and Oh Brother Where Art Thou, all woven together, and it is all true. Perhaps now after so long, most of us have enough courage to face the music. To ponder our story of shared visions, and shared sin, common struggles and lessons learned. And most importantly, the artful solutions of the human spirit. Perhaps that is why this story and the art produced out of it are better known and celebrated in Paris or London or Munich than in Austin or Dallas or Houston. It is the story the rest of the world already knows, but that we have ignored out of ignorance, intolerance, racism or more probably, plain old shame.

So come face the music with me, break through the mists of your subconscious and discover a forbidden chamber in your heart. If you are a Southerner, you might have to take this invitation as a dare. If you are black, just thank God that He can change us all, one at a time. And read about what an incredible story you have. This is your story, not mine. I have only been a trustee, assigned to dispense it when greater forces see fit. It has been a liberating journey for me, marked by a greater appreciation for the importance of art and the truth, with all of its awkward side effects. The process is painful, but great things have emerged from this soul testing ground. Welcome to Blues Valley.

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