The Blues as Black History


"Me and the Devil Blues"

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?

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13 responses to this post.

  1. Manga is not my thing either, but I may have to check this out.


  2. In a way. I’m realizing how much my own family plays a role in history–all our families do. I guess it’s one of the things about getting older I have a greater appreciation and humility about those who came before. I’m blessed to have a DVD interview my grandfather gave to a university 3 years before his death. I watched it yesterday and it was amazing how much he experienced!


    • You’re right Carleen. How awesome that you have that DVD. I made a audio tape of my great grandfather when I was young and I lost it a few years ago. Boy, I’d pay big money for that tape today.


  3. Posted by elliottzetta on February 28, 2009 at 10:38 PM

    Did you see Cadillac Records? I’m about to write a paper on the blueswomen–do you agree with Angela Davis that Bessie Smith and company were “pre-” or “proto-feminist”? I have to admit, the blues never really appealed to me; Billie Holiday’s voice grew on me over time, but the raw grit, the boom of Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith–not so much…I would read James Baldwin’s essay on how listening to Smith in Switzerland somehow brought him “home,” enabled him to write in an authentic voice, and I wished the blues would have that effect on me…no such luck. Now Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, or Sarah Vaughn–*that* I can write to…glad I found you guys!


    • It’s so funny that you raise this question, because I tried to figure out how to include a reference to some prominent blueswomen in my post – but the songs of Smith, Rainey (or Holiday) do not have the same impact for me. I think it might be because Muddy Waters reminds me of my uncles back in Virginia. Just a great voice and a guitar. Although I did hear a song on XM Radio the other day called “Too Much Butt” by a group called “Saffire-The Uppity Blues Women” that was fun and describes me pretty well – LOL. I’ve also really enjoyed Nina Simone.

      But to your question: I didn’t see Cadillac Records, but I’ve read Angela Davis’ book and I was really persuaded by her view of the early blueswomen as proto-feminists. Given the content of their lyrics, the courage it took to perform, and the insight they provide into the lives of ordinary, lower-middle class black folks – taken together, I think figures like Ma Rainey offer an instructive window into the lives of assertive, independent women outside and beyond the traditional “club movement.” And I’d like to think that the blueswomen were almost as influential in offering emotional and psychological resources for black women’s survival. I’m not an expert on feminist theory, but that’s my initial impressions!


  4. Posted by Wilhelmina Jenkins on March 1, 2009 at 2:23 AM

    I saw “The Uppity Blues Women” in concert a few years ago. If you get the chance to see them, go! They put on a terrific show.


    • Wow, Mina! What are the odds. I heard that song and I just had to write down the title. The lyrics are hilarious:
      I may have a lot but I’ll tell you what.
      There’s no such thing as too much butt…


  5. Claudia,

    I’m always looking so yes I came across a lot of things like the resource your site is and I discovered the work of Zetta. I don’t know when I made the decision, and I’m not sure it was conscious but for some time now I have searched for more recent history and new artists, writers and activists during Black History Month. I have long been frustrated and aggitated with the important but truncated list of iconic figures our children are taught about in school and the figureheads non-blacks are induated with in the media during the month. Is it Chris Rock who does the joke about the one black guy a white person can call friend and every white person in the group names the same guy? Arggggggggggg.

    Specific to history, let me share another example. This month for our Black History Month Contest, we got an entry on Phllis Wheatley. All I could think was, “Does a reader have to go back centuries to find a black poet to celebrate?” Honestly it’s as if black people stopped making history after King.

    By coming here, I’ve just learned about two more individuals who shaped our collective history. I’m happy to share that I am able to make connections to these names I didn’t know with others I do. I’ve read and enjoyed Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and regarding blues singers, while I know almost nothing about the genre and like Zetta the music doesn’t resonate with me as much as the history behind it, I can tell you about a poet, Tyehimba Jess, a poet and scholar who researched blues singer, Leadbelly. Jess wrote an entire collection based on the singer and his music. I had the good fortune to hear the poet at a reading, and let me tell you, the brother’s reading came as close to converting me to this music as possible. If you enjoy poetry, I think you’d like Leadbelly: poems. The collection is based on Leadbelly’s life and music. Like the lyrics of the blues singers’ is based on their own experiences, the collection mirrors Leadbelly’s life. Beautiful music on the page.


    • Thanks, Rich! And if I’m not mistaken, John Hope Franklin is still alive and still going strong. He’s an amazing historian.


  6. […] American culture is based on our ability to improvise: in religion, language, food, and especially music. Up in The Bottom, this is something to be admired and cherished. But there are times when I feel […]


  7. […] This is where the above quote from James Baldwin comes in. Although not a Buddhist, Baldwin wrestled with matters of faith and religion throughout his life, and like him, I have found that the blues offers one of the fullest expressions of this struggle. (Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve written about my musical fascinations.)  […]


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