ARTIST: KADIR NELSON
There has always been room in my life for some triumphant music, especially when I have been on a losing streak. It was at a time like that that I took a trip to the Delta to find the source of the Blues. I found a lot more than the Blues. I found people doing their best.
I had been tipped off that I might find a refreshing look at life by spending some time in the Mississippi Delta. Two Detroit friends, Robert and Caroline grew up in the Delta. Robert was a blues man when Caroline allowed it. All the stories that they told me of their early years growing up in the Delta were spoken with smiles on their faces. After reading some books on the Delta, the blues and the Northern migration I headed on a road trip to the Delta.
Often the books on the Great Southern Migration had a forward written by William Ferris who was the director of the Southern Studies Center at “Old Miss”, Under his 20-year tenure the University of Mississippi became internationally recognized as a leader in the understanding of life in the South. He was kind enough to send me to Jonestown, MS, a small town in West Central Mississippi just north of the Blues Crossroads.
THE LEGENDARY CROSSROADS IN CLARKSDALE, MS
For many years after that first trip I continued to take a reverse migration route from Detroit to New Orleans. I always tried to include a stop in Jonestown. It is a unique village with a not so unique history in the American South. Jonestown was hardly a biracial town. There were few white owners except for the Delta Oil Mill. With the decline of cotton the culture of interdependence defined the town. They took care of each other as best they could. In the center of the town live a remarkable couple, Donal and Lavern Burnett. The Burnetts have a Texaco gas pump in front of their establishment and some goods to sell inside. You can get some gas, fill your fishing tackle box and fill up on barbecue. They anchored the town with their presence. They provided a place to gather, a place to leave a child if necessary and a source for good advice. Through the years I have watched the Burnetts work with others to make the most of their lives knowing that no one is going to help them. They are all they have. They became my friends, pointed me in the right direction to hear really good music and showed me some truths. Jonestown today is in desperate shape with little hope.
This was for me a life changing experience in many ways. One of the changes was to better know the spirit of those who have influenced the music around me. The county where Jonestown is located in is one of the poorest in the country. In the churches I heard triumphal music despite seemingly hopeless futures for poor rural towns in the South. I had to go to juke joints in Clarksdale to hear Blues played, but I heard the roots of the Blues in the choir lofts of Jonestown.
ARTIST: ROMARE BEARDON
ARTIST: JACOB LAWRENCE
It is becoming harder and harder to live in Jonestown, MS. Crime and drugs move in when jobs leave. A lot of music-filled townspeople have left in desperation, looking for a better place.
ARTIST; JACOB LAWRENCE
Why did black Americans leave the South and migrate north?
The introduction of the cotton gin in the South eliminated manual labor and created a void in work opportunities. Cotton had provided difficult hard labor for many but offered security in company towns that small farmers didn’t have.
As black southerners struggled to survive as farmers on small plots of land they rented from white landowners, a series of agricultural disasters hit them hard in the 1910s: the boll weevil wasted cotton crops across the South, and powerful floods hit farm areas in Alabama and Mississippi. There was racial violence in black neighborhoods in southern cities and rural areas. Economic hardship and violence convinced many black Americans that they had no future in the segregated South.
Jazz musicians came north for the same reasons that other people did, failing crops and discrimination in the South. Fortunately, they brought their culture north as well, including a spirit of hopefulness and sharing that is embedded in jazz.
MARCH 29 – APRIL !
An explosion of spirit will be heard this week at the Dirty Dog. Aquanko, an assembly of some of Detroit’s very best musicians, will celebrate Latin jazz in this intimate club. You are invited to come by, lean back and enjoy some powerful music.