Monday, November 24, 2008

SINGING THE BLUES


By Carolyn Haines

Nov. 24


Mississippi is a state of great diversity. When I was in my 20s, I had the terrific good fortune of working as a photojournalist for several newspapers. In that role, I got to travel the state covering politics and “soft” news. While I grew up in the southeastern part of the state, an area called the Pine Barrens, I also got to spend time in all of the other regions.
This has stood me in good stead for the series of mysteries, the Sarah Booth Delaney 'Bones' books, I write set in the Mississippi Delta, a place I came to love when I was “newspapering.” The Pine Barrens and the Delta are worlds apart. My region of the state was settled by timber men, “dirt” farmers who had smaller plots of land and who produced vegetables and cattle. The Delta, where it’s said the topsoil is eight feet deep, was one of the most profitable regions of cotton production. The land holdings there stretched into the thousands of acres for a single family.
In the Pine Barrens, there were well off people, but not the wealth of the Delta, which had two classes—the very rich and the very poor.
In the piney woods I grew up with the sound of fiddles, piano and guitar, sometime mandolin. The music harkened back to the Irish and Scottish ancestry of many of the settlers. The Delta is another story. This is the land and the people—coming from a heritage of slavery—who created the blues, the root stock of rock-n-roll.
In the last few months I’ve been working on a collection of short stories centered around the Mississippi Delta blues and a crime or noir element. In researching the history of the blues and the colorful array of musicians who played in cotton field “juke” or “jook” joints, gradually working their way north, I’ve learned many new things about my state. And the work has given me an excuse to explore the music that sends shivers down my skin.
Last week, I was listening to Big Mama Thornton as I drove to the feed store to get my weekly supply of horse feed (600 pounds—which I have to unload, thank you very much). The power of the music is undeniable. My little hound, Lucille, was riding along with me and howling softly. She’s developed a fine appreciation for Big Mama Thornton and loves to sing along with her in the pickup. (Pickups technically belong to country music, not the blues, but I have a cross-over pickup.)
As the stories for this collection come rolling in, it’s so much fun to see what the blues mean to different writers. Several of the contributors are authorities on this music and others share my experience—a love of the blues but not necessarily a total knowledge of the history.
One of my first introductions to the Mississippi Delta came when I, along with other reporters, went into the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman (known for many decades as Parchman Farm) undercover to do a story on prison conditions. The prison was under fire for a long history of chronic issues, so a group of reporters was allowed to stay in the prison to document conditions.
Even though we were only “in” for a couple of nights, I have to say that I got my first real taste of what the Delta might mean to someone without money and rights. Standing in the prison yard, gazing out over the thousands of acres of cotton that was flat and straight all the way to the horizon, I understood how effective the land itself functioned as a prison.
Parchman and other southern prisons like Angola in Louisiana were formative influences in the blues. Some of the finest musicians did time in those institutions. There’s a terrific book, THE LAND WHERE THE BLUES BEGAN, by Alan Lomax that recounts how the prison experience shaped so many blues musicians.
The pub date for this book (tentatively titled DELTA BLUES), which includes some of the finest writers working today, is fall 2009. Bleak House is the publisher. You’ll be hearing more about this anthology, but right now all I can say is that this project has brought together many things that I love greatly: the blues, aspects of Mississippi, knock 'em dead fine writers and crime. What could be better?

2 comments:

River Jordan said...

Thanks for the heads up and I hope you send us a reminder. It sounds like a great project and a terrific read.

River

Augusta Scattergood said...

Hi, Carolyn,
I'm a fellow blogger who reviewed your recent mystery for Delta Magazine. Be sure to let me know when the Blues book comes out. I'm sure Delta will want a review of it. I grew up in the Delta, a great place to be from. Still have lots of family there even though I married a Yankee and moved! Augusta Scattergood