Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sweet as the Showers of Rain

In August of 1987 my family moved to Memphis. A few days after we’d arrived, I was going to my new school, an all-boys Catholic school run by the Christian Brothers. I was fourteen and it was all bewilderingly. My brother, my beacon, the one who explained Planet Earth to me was about to leave for college. The day before he left, he picked me up after school to take me home.

“Listen to this.” He had the radio dialed to WEVL, a listener supported radio station in Memphis that specialized in blues, bluegrass and other indigenous American music. “Listen to this.”

The song playing was 'Mother Earth' by the blues piano player, Memphis Slim. It’s difficult for me to encapsulate what I was hearing but I knew I was encountering something special. In the subsequent weeks, my brother would be gone and I would be enduring a loneliness unique to moving mid-high school. During this time, I would find WEVL on my dial and listen to it often in the evening, usually while I laid on the floor with my head underneath my desk. One pillow would support my head and another would seal off the rest of the world leaving me and the radio. This is how I fell in love with blues music.

A few years later, once my love of blues music had sojourned into full blown self-study. I was also learning to play guitar. This was the first time of many when my interest in something could only be sated through complete immersion. Among the many books I still have on Slimbo’s Shelf, The Blues Makers by Samuel Charters still stands out as the best. It was a Christmas gift from my brother who gratefully left a greeting on the title page. Recall, it was my brother who’d first played WEVL for me.

Books about blues music are either excessively academic or endlessly looping around the words 'whiskey' or 'juke joint' without context. The Blues Makers is different. For starters, this book is really a combination of two books by Charters, The Bluesmen first published in 1967 and Sweet as the Showers of Rain from 1977. Both parts dissect the regions and personalities by blending an engaging narrative with understandable, fundamental explanations of musical structures. Of the two parts of the book however, the second has a gravity that could only be captured in that window of time, 1977.

We live in a world today where one can walk into a Pottery Barn or a St@rb%ck$ (I refuse to advertise for them) and see a rack of CD’s for sale. These are usually compilations of music made for yuppies who wish to consume music to conveniently recreate the moods that emanate from authentic, iconic jazz or blues music. In 1977, however, blues had no such suburban visibility and sustaining distribution. It had been left forlorn by the long-dead folk revivals of the 1960’s. It’s icons were aging or dying. It’s urban African American audience was now equating blues music with Jim Crow and had understandably moved onto newer innovations.

Charters beautifully captures Memphis amid this desolation. It was not unlike the Memphis I recall entering ten years later. From 1977, Charters writes:

“There isn’t much to Beale Street now. You walk along the main street in downtown Memphis, and you turn away from the river, down the sloping blocks to what is now called W.C. Handy Park, and before you’ve gone a hundred yards you realize that the next time you walk down Beale Street, it might not be there at all.”

I remember a lean downtown Memphis and my first impressions of Beale recall it as being mostly closed and somewhat derelict. In 1987, Memphis had such a desperate feel, desperate to shake of the malaise of the 70’s and become known for something other than Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and Elvis Presley’s kitsch

My friend Dan goes to Memphis regularly for work these days. What he describes I wouldn’t recognize. The city has an NBA team now. Vast stretches of that enclave of East Memphis I lived in which I recall as undeveloped have been mowed over by reams of exurban expansion. Beale Street, that downtown strip where blues became famous has long been a barometer of the city’s ups and downs. It’s now a commercially vibrant PG-13 version of Bourbon Street.

But gratefully, WEVL is still broadcasting and going strong.

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