Our Summer 2017 issue looks at the two great musical traditions that come out of the African American culture of the South: jazz and the blues. These uniquely American genres are known throughout the world and, although they began within the black communities of our country, they have come to belong to people of all races and regions. They are part of the American identity. These two musical forms have been creatively interwoven and reimagined, and they are at the root of the best of rock and roll, hip hop, and rap. American writers like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Albert Murray and musicians like Charles Mingus and Gregg Allman have recognized the importance of these musical traditions in shaping our national identity, and historians know that the history of jazz and the blues provides a critical window into our collective past.
In his essay, “Robert Johnson and the Rise of the Blues,” Elijah Wald examines both the myths and the realities of a musician who, legend has it, met the Devil at the Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and sold his soul in exchange for musical talent. But if his only recorded album, King of the Delta Blues Singers, made Johnson famous, Wald points out that the blues predated Robert Johnson. It took shape in the Delta, spread to the working-class salons of New Orleans, and became part of the repertoire of big band greats like Count Basie. Johnson died a violent death in 1938, but his slide guitar virtuosity became a model for later musicians like the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. For Wald, Robert Johnson’s true talent was “blending the past with the present, creating music that was deeply rooted but looking toward the future.”
The task of preserving the blues tradition and its history, as well as ensuring that it will be kept alive by future generations, has been taken up by the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. The museum’s director, Shelley Ritter, offers us a brief history of that museum in her essay, “Clarksdale: Myth, Music, and Mercy in the Mississippi Delta.” For those of us who have made the pilgrimage to Clarksdale several times, the museum remains the first stop on any visit. And for those of us who teach or write history, that stop is essential, for, Ritter points out, it is here that one can see the remains of Muddy Waters’s plantation cabin and listen to and watch videos of many practitioners of the blues over the last century. The museum’s goal, Ritter explains, is to “help untangle the mystery and meaning” of the blues “through an interpretation of the lives of the men and women behind the music.” Ritter invites you to come sell your soul at the Crossroads if you wish, or seek your soul in Clarksdale; in the end, however, “let the Delta Blues Museum help heal your soul with the mercy found in the blues.”
The other great American musical genre, jazz, is the subject of Krin Gabbard’s essay, “Charles Mingus and the Third Stream.” Here Gabbard focuses on Mingus’s brief connection to a music that combined classical music and jazz. To explain Mingus’s participation in the movement, Gabbard traces his journey from childhood training in classical music to a jazz style influenced by African American rhythms and the blues. Along with Miles Davis and George Russell, Mingus was open to experimenting with “third stream” music that was written by classical composers but played by jazz artists. Mingus, however, was too eclectic to be pigeonholed. He refused to identify with a single musical genre, and this, the essay suggests, is why he never had a hit record.
Finally, filmmaker Kerry Candaele looks at a band that blended jazz, the blues, and rock to create a Southern music of vitality, virtuosity, and authenticity. In “Songs of a Different South: The Allman Brothers’ Blues-Rock Legacy,” Candaele pays tribute to a musical legend that is, in his words, “wide and deep.” The death of Gregg Allman this past May makes this essay particularly timely. Candaele stresses the baseline that jazz and the blues provided for this band from Macon, Georgia. From early works like “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” to the classic “Whipping Post,” to the more recent “Where It All Began,” the Allmans perfected a sound defined by jazz-infused jamming and improvisation. Along with his brother, Duane, who died at twenty-five in a motorcycle accident in 1971, Gregg put together a racially integrated band in an era when segregation dominated social relations in the South. The Allman Brothers band was proudly Southern, but they did not wrap themselves in the Confederate flag or embrace the ideology of the “lost cause.” Instead they made music that brought together black and white artists who shared deep roots in the South.
This issue of History Now also offers two special features: First, “Jazz and the Blues: Selected Writings” a mini-anthology compiled with the participation of the Library of America. Included are excerpts from novels, essays, and other writings by Wallace Thurman, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Miles Davis, and others. Second, a timeline entitled “Fifty Jazz and Blues Greats, 1912–2017,” which includes links to landmark recordings. Both of these should be invaluable in your classrooms.
Jazz, like the blues, was born in the South, but it did not remain a regional music. Donald L. Miller’s video presentation, “Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America,” reminds us that this musical tradition spread north, to Manhattan, where it helped usher in a broader modern American identity. Miller offers us new insight into the Jazz Age and into the way in which the music captured the American imagination in the twentieth century and continues to capture it today. In addition to the video, you will find a lesson plan on the relationship between jazz and the Beat Generation and links to several essays on these musical genres from the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s digital archives.
We wish you a relaxing summer—and hope this issue will prove to be a must-read whether at home, at the beach, or wherever your travels take you.
Editor, History Now