Finding America’s Musical History Along the Mississippi River
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay by musician Benjamin Hunter is an extension of the exploration in our summer print journal of how people and music migrate and mix. For more stories on this theme we’re calling (Im)migration, check out the summer journal here.
In 2015, I set out on a journey down the Mississippi River with my music partner Joe Seamons. The year before, Joe and I had started working on a musical project exploring old and obscure American roots songs. But to interpret the music truly and justly, we couldn’t just replicate the recordings we heard. Even making new arrangements of old songs wasn’t enough for us. We needed to explore the parts of the country where this music came from in order to better understand and more fully respect the songs that we were reincarnating.
So, we decided to follow the Mississippi southbound, working backward, to seek and document the legacies of America’s folk and blues culture. Since neither of us were from the South or the Midwest, we figured the story would make most sense to us if we started the journey from where the music found us and went to where the music came from. From Chicago down to New Orleans, we would venture from big city to small town and find what we could, and ask as many questions as possible over the course of a little over two weeks.
All we ever had before were books and recordings of old folk songs. And we’d listened to the bearers of those cultures whom we met at festivals and workshops and who introduced us to their music. Those were the stories we knew. But we wanted to find others who held stories that connected us back to this element of American history that has defined our popular culture. It’s a history that we often forget. It is a history that tangles in and out of itself, functioning as a way to pick out the bad parts of the past so that you can focus on the good parts of the future.
America’s music is just as tangled as its history, and arguably better for it. Music, like language and dialect, changes depending on where we come from. The regions, the climate, the elevation, the terrain, they all affect how we connect with each other. And while those things might change the music, the music itself fulfills the same purpose — as a reflection of the place you came from.
In many old blues, folk, and country songs, the lyrics provide keen observations of what the world looked like. They offer insight into the complexities of life. They offer a new perspective and voice. No two recordings are alike, but some sure do sound similar. Lyrics are shared, names change based on dialect, and versions are recorded hundreds of miles away from each other.
Joe and I started our quest in Chicago, a bit east of the Mississippi, where thousands of Black folk migrated during the mid-1910s through the 1960s. Chicago remains a bustling, futuristic city, with parks, museums, and a thriving music scene. It would be a trip to see what Chicago looked and felt like during the Great Migration, when Black families moved in droves to Northern cities in search for better jobs and a chance for a dignified life. Chicago blues saw Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Alberta Hunter, Koko Taylor, and Willie Dixon. There was a certain sophistication to their blues, but still a deep connection to the rural origins of the music.
In Chicago, we met a tap dancer named Reggio “The Hoofer” McLaughlin. Reggio is from the Windy City, and so was his mentor, Ernest “Brownie” Brown, who used to perform in the Cotton Club in Harlem. Reggio is a highly acclaimed, award winning teacher and performer, and his embrace of different styles of hoofing has allowed him to push the envelope so far, in the same way that Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Fred Astaire, and Gregory Hines did.
Reggio invited us to meet him at the Old Town School of Folk Music, where he still teaches. We spent an afternoon with him, part of which was a tap lesson. Reggio made sure to show us how one basic step could morph into a variety of steps that have shaped the art of tap dancing through the century — going back to African Juba and the influences of Irish steps. He is an incredible being, period, but also an excellent teacher; his humility in remembrance of those who mentored him was striking.
From Chicago, we traveled to Davenport, Iowa. Davenport is a pivotal stop because it’s through this port that Chicago got most of its import/export business. Up the river from Hannibal, Missouri (Mark Twain territory), through St. Louis and Memphis; Como, Mississippi,and Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and out through New Orleans — Davenport took all of that and sent it to Chicago. It was here in Davenport that we met Hal Reed.
Hal is the grandson of Lucius Smith, a northern Mississippi banjo player who was recorded by Alan Lomax in 1942 and 1959. We met Hal at the River Music Experience, a nonprofit performance space serving the Quad Cities, but he later took us to his house. He showed us the banjo that his grandfather played and where it was dug out on the third fret because he slid into it so much. He brought out an old fife and drum, another relic from his family passed down along with the music. He talked to us about Sid Hemphill, who was born a slave, went blind, played multiple instruments, and even crafted his own instruments. He taught everyone in his community how to play, including Hal’s grandfather, Lucius, who later played with him in his band. Lucius taught his son, who would later teach Hal, who has now taught to his sons and nephew.
When we got to Hal’s house, a very particular feeling came over me. He took us down to his basement and prominently displayed on the far wall was an enlarged old photograph of a cotton field and slaves picking cotton. A reminder for him. A reminder for anyone. This is our history, and it is tangled up in this music. As he described his history with this music, he was so excited that we were coming from the opposite end of the trail, working our way back to the music that he was raised on. He pointed to the giant print behind him. It meant that his music, his culture, and his legacy had traveled its course to us, and we were bringing it back with us. It was now a part of our legacy and our culture, and now it was just as much our responsibility to spread that gospel.
In Lomax’s recordings, Sid, Lucius and the rest of the band play on a tune called “The Carrier Line,” an amazing 21-verse ballad about the carrier train freight line. It’s a great example of a standard blues ballad, yet it’s a song that would have never made it out of Mississippi had it not been for Lomax’s recording. Unlike traveling ballads like “John Henry,” or even “Frankie and Johnny,” this was Sid’s recollection of a true story and he was the only one to put it in a song. So there it stayed in Northern Mississippi. While songs like that were siloed, Hal’s personal stories gave them wings and allowed them to migrate in a completely different way.
The other stop on our journey that really stuck out was when we got to New Orleans. Through a tip from a fellow historian, we met up with a man named Kaven, an unbelievable character who shared stories with us for more than five hours. He told us stories of growing up, and how his mother would make him recite and memorize poetry, songs, and scripture. When he was a young man, he was charged with armed robbery, and was sentenced to two life sentences, though he was released after 33 years. At one point when describing his time in prison, he said, “Man, oppression will make you go back and think of some things you heard years ago.” He coped with prison by going back to his songs and poetry that he learned as a child.
When I think of prison, my mind can’t help but think of the atrocities that were described to me by Kaven. When listening to prison recordings collected by John and Alan Lomax, you’re listening to the only sanctuary that many of those men had. Music was the thing that could take them away from their troubles, and it couldn’t be taken away from them. Those songs gave Kaven purpose and identity. It meant that he came from a place, and that meant something not just to him, but also to how he contributed to the world around him.
So much of our country’s soul is lost when we refuse to learn from our past. When I explore our human history, it is through our songs that I find the most sincerity and the most truth. The music carries with it the story of its own travel. To deny those stories is to deny the song.
Our trip down the Mississippi River taught me a lot about this country and how we view not just the world, but ourselves. In a race to homogenize into a unified America, we lose sight of what makes us a unified America. It requires us to recognize and remember and teach our histories, so that we can realize and embrace the strengths that we bring. American folk and blues music has influenced styles of music all over the world, but that’s because it was influenced by styles from all over the world. It wasn’t invented by America; it was created by everyone’s participation in America.