All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.
- James Baldwin
This February, I approached Black History Month differently than I have in the past. Instead of looking to PBS and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s latest “discovery” for inspiration, I tried to be mindful of the ways black history already affects my daily life. So I began with my iPod and two of the blues singers who have made themselves at home there: Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Both Waters and Hopkins are masters of the acoustic guitar-driven “country blues” with low, gritty voices that transfigure suffering through song. Yet, I hadn’t realized until recently that the experiences about which they sang were their own. After listening to Alan Lomax’s recording of “Burr Clover Farm Blues” by Muddy Waters, I learned that the Stovall Plantation in the lyrics was the name of the farm where Waters recorded the song that afternoon in the 1940s, the same plantation where he was picking cotton for fifty cents a day.
The same is true for Lightnin’ Hopkins who grew up in Centerville, Texas in the early 20th century. His song, “Cotton” is not his most famous, but it is one of my favorites. It tells the story of Hopkins’ childhood experience in the field with his parents. Hopkins’ vocals are easy, conversational, and clearly illustrate why he was so well known for his spontaneity and improvisational skill. A song like “Cotton” makes me feel reflective and humble, particularly when I consider how far African Americans have come and how songs like this one have provided comfort along the way.
I stood straight up in the field,
Looking round, trying to find me some shade
(Lord, Have Mercy) Poor Lightnin’ trying to find him some shade
Poor Mama sitting there with her pencil and paper
Figuring up every dime that the family made
Both Waters and Hopkins were influenced by the Father of the Blues, Robert Johnson, the legendary musician who was said to have acquired his talent by selling his very soul to the devil. My research on Johnson led me beyond his recordings to Japanese manga artist Akira Hiramoto’s Me and the Devil Blues 1: The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson. Described as a “phantasmagoric reimagining” of the bluesman’s life, this comic follows Johnson through the moments of hardship and grief when he began to develop his craft.
I love comics, but I have never been a big fan of the aesthetic style and form of manga. So seeing the life of a black southerner take shape in the Japanese style forced me to experience the blues in a new way. Ultimately, what I found appealing about Me and the Devil Blues is the way Hiramoto visualizes sound; he captures the passion of the intense rhythms quite convincingly.
The same way that James Baldwin’s story, “Sonny’s Blues” conveys what the blues feels like through well-chosen words, Akira Hiramoto shows us what the blues looks like in black and white sketches. Long panels shaped like shards of glass, cinematic perspectives that highlight the nimble fingers and the long gaze of the bluesman. There are moments when the translation of the oddly hysterical dialogue fails to match the artwork. But the merits of Me and the Devil Blues overshadows these failings, and I’m looking forward to reading the second volume.
How about you? Did you come across anything new this Black History Month?