Book Review—Thinking the Blues

a box set about the blues becomes intellectual history as a community of discourse.

x-posted from US Intellectual History Book Review.

  • William Ferris, Voices of Mississippi, Artists and Musicians Documented By William Ferris (Atlanta, GA: Dust-to-Digital, 2018)

The reason why it’s here is a bunch of us like blues. We study that. — Gussie Tobe, interviewed by Bill Ferris in Leland, Mississippi

The rock, the terrain upon which we struggle is itself abstract, a terrain of ideas…. — Ralph Ellison, “The Little Man at Chehaw Station”

The blues is now expansively celebrated: as music, art, literature, cultural sensibility, and social history. What about approaching it as intellectual history? This has always been an element of blues study, from the subtle work of Zora Neale Hurston to Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray’s modernist, liberal take on the form to Amiri Baraka’s radical interpretations to Angela Davis’s black feminist examinations.[1] Folklorist William Ferris’s box set of his field recordings allows us to take stock of the ways in which we might better consider the blues not just as artistic expression, but also as ideational investigation—as thinking. Ferris’s documentary work was created during the late 1960s into the middle of the 1970s. It has now been released with a beautiful book of his photographs along with extensive liner notes. The box set presents a world of robust intellectual theorizing as sophisticated as any philosophical system or engagement with politics, law, religion, or other aspect of human experience (full disclosure: Ferris was a teacher of mine in graduate school).

The blues is many things in many places, of course: down-low stomping, spiritual quest, a way to feel sorry, a virtuosic mode of soaring to new heights. Ferris’s recordings draw our attention to one of its main crucibles: the rich vernacular culture of African Americans living under difficult conditions of poverty and racism in the Delta region of Mississippi. We hear the genre after the de jure end of Jim Crow in Mississippi with the passage of the Voting and Civil Rights Acts in the mid-1960s, but not with the end of de facto racial injustice (not by a long shot). The sounds and images Ferris documented are packed with ideas. Singers, musicians, and storytellers explore concepts of beauty, power, equality, definitions of the self, understandings of community, meditations on time and history itself, and other concepts of what life is and how the world works. This comes as no surprise to anyone paying attention to the vernacular wisdom and commentary contained in much blues culture, not to mention the complex theological ideas found in the gospel songs recorded by Ferris in the Delta, which also appear on Voices of Mississippi. Nonetheless, it is worth adding these voices to the field of US intellectual history more explicitly. Those singing and speaking on Voices of Mississippi have a lot more than just trouble in mind, as the old blues song put it: they have a far wider range of interests.

To be sure, Voices of Mississippi raises all the vexed issues of the history of folklore one would expect. What does it mean to “capture” culture and thinking across boundaries of difference, whether of race, class, gender, region, or some other marker that separates those with privilege from those who suffer and struggle? In this instance, what do we make of a white progressive Southerner such as Ferris making his career through portrayals and studies of African Americans from his home state? Here is a man raised in a liberal family outside Vicksburg, Mississippi. While open-minded, that family nonetheless was part of a larger system of racialized oppression. They owned and ran a former plantation with many black workers on it. There is no record of cruelty in these relationships. Indeed, Ferris describes in the liner notes how he learned to possess a deep sense of empathy from his father. But how Ferris’s own privileged career, with prestigious positions at Yale University, University of Mississippi, University of North Carolina, and a stint as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities Ferris, relates to the less fortunate people he documented speaks to the larger tensions of ethnographic work, of the differences between the mediator and the mediated. Ferris himself would, I suspect, be the first to admit and examine these dilemmas for what they are, and to do so not defensively but with a sense of alertness to their problematic dynamics.

Something else turns up on Voices of Mississippi too. Other folklorists such as Alan Lomax typically chased something beyond the perspectives of those they recorded. They wanted to discover the earliest known version of a song, or develop a grand anthropological theory of human music and culture, or identify the meaning of the American experience in some grandiose fashion. Ferris, by contrast, is far more humble in his folkloric pursuits. He is curious about these big topics, but places his immediate human interlocutors first and foremost in the spotlight. On Voices of Mississippi, they are never merely vessels for the transmission of some cultural gold dust that Ferris is mining. He is not the star. They are. With a kind of quiet, almost Zen-like mode of open listening and recording, he most of all tries to get out of the way of their stories and songs, their experiences and ideas. This is not where dead voices gather in some mystical repository of magical treasure. Ferris seems, most of all, to want us to hear the lively voices of Mississippi on their own terms, in their own ways of thinking, their own efforts at feeling their way toward their own intellectual visions and truths.

Ferris allows the ideas of those he records to flow forth. If you listen closely to Voices of Mississippi and take in the photographs (or go watch Ferris’s documentary films at, you begin to hear and receive the Delta blues as something far beyond sounds and images produced, mechanistically, by particular social and economic conditions. Instead, one begins to tune in to voices whose ideas were surely forged under the pressure of slavery and then Jim Crow segregation and inequality, but then stretch right past those constraints to a vibrant, elastic, robust arena of discussion, dialogue, and intellectual exploration. Whether thinking about love, intimacy, work, power, struggle, existential angst, playful freedom, religious faith and its challenges, the qualities of quotidian experience, or larger political questions of justice, the voices on Voices of Mississippi have many things to say.

Ferris is not the first to notice this, nor will he be the last, but his box set is a wonderful example of intellectual history operating in places that are often not included in the field. Voices of Mississippi often highlights moments in blues (and certainly in the more overtly theological gospel music he recorded, but let’s stick with blues for now) when its makers propose highly self-conscious statements. In this way, Ferris’s documentary work reveals not just blues cultural production, but also blues cultural theorization. It is a music of extraordinarily complex self-reflection and intellectual exploration. We might say that the blues, in Ferris’s portrayal, is about what those who play and listen to it themselves have called “deep study.” As Ferris made a point of noting in his classic 1978 book Blues from the Delta, the music does not arise from the Delta mud or some other bizarrely naturalized, overly romanticized portrayal. It exists because its makers treat it as a form of knowledge. “The reason why it’s here,” Gussie Tobe explained to Ferris, “is a bunch of us like blues. We study that.” James “Son” Thomas tells Ferris of a song that probes the feelings of losing a lover, “That’s what you call a ‘deep study’.” In another interchange, he sings an Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup song to Ferris whose lyrics include the lines, “You’s my all-day study, you’s my midnight dream,” Thomas is singing about a woman, but he might as well be talking about the blues itself.

On Voices of Mississippi, the blues as “deep study” is also about understanding that one joins a conversation when choosing to perform the music. The blues does not, as the stereotype would have it, just burst forth from isolated individual souls. It comes from a tradition. Which is to say that the blues has a historiography, or maybe a bluestoriogaphy would be the better way to put it. As no less a figure than BB King told Ferris, the blues was neither a spontaneous expression devoid of engagement with previous ideas nor a static cultural form frozen in place; instead, as King described it, “I think that younger musicians have a groundwork laid for them. The older ones have left something for you to build on so you build your own ideas upon that foundation, on top of what has already been built. …Each generation puts its own thing to it and makes it sound a little different. But the roots are still right there and you can still feel it when you play.” In short, the blues is what intellectual historians would describe as a community of discourse, one with a lineage and a sense of collective endeavor.

What defines this “deep study,” this community of discourse? Sometimes the messages are straightforward, but just as often they are complex and sophisticated, suffused with multiple meanings and perspectives. Take James Thomas’s song, “44 Blues,” which opens the box set. The song is ostensibly about a man bereft with jealousy at his woman’s infidelities with another man. He is at the edge of violence, wearing his gun across his body until “it made my shoulder sore” while sleeping in a little cabin. But violence in the song, with its ominous, circling, dipping and returning guitar bass line that seems to pace around under Thomas’s voice and occasional swirls of higher guitar cries, also speaks to an entire intellectual understanding of masculinity for a black man in rural Mississippi, who must decide how to handle the question of violence in a society violently stacked against him. “Ain’t gonna wear my 44 no more,” Thomas’s character sings, asserting his independence while also putting his gun aside. “I do what I want to,” he declares. It’s one of many songs that reflect on the question of how pleasure, pain, freedom, constraint, autonomy, and community relate to each other. Thomas is caught up in a world in which violence feels immediate, yet also something to push away in order to live another day.[2]

Other songs on Voices of Freedom similarly think through different dimensions of life in and beyond the Delta. Scott Dunbar’s “Jaybird” and a song called “I Dreamed I Went to the UN,” performed by an unidentified musician accompanied by the more famous guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell, give a sense of the range of the secular blues presented on the box set.

Dunbar’s “Jaybird in the Air,” recorded by Ferris in 1968, is a cantefable, a spoken-word story. Told by Dunbar, a songster from Lake Mary, Mississippi, it relates the tale of a young man who outsmarts the parents of a girl he is courting. As the song unfolds this adventure, it also contemplates larger questions of danger, power, and emancipation. Over a loping rhythm on guitar, Dunbar moves between narrative and variations on three sung lines, “I wish a was a jaybird in the air,” “I’d build my nest up in some kind of big house,” and “My momma told me I would never die.” The song seems to arise from an Elizabethan fantasy, transposed to the Mississippi Delta. It plays with time to become dreamlike, a narrative that is partly about generational struggles, a young man outwitting his elders, yet also conveying a larger longing for freedom. The protagonist becomes many things at once: a young man, a suitor, a trickster, a jaybird, an Orpheus, a kind of knight behind the wheel of a shining Model-T Ford, hoping to whisk the fair maiden away from the constraints of her family to a new kind of empowerment in order to get himself to be able to fly away.

“I made that one up,” Dunbar declares, claiming the song’s narrative as his own, as if to argue that there’s more to the song than a simple fantastical tale. He owns the song, and it is about him as much as about those in the story itself. Most of all, the song seems to reach for the pursuit of joy in the face of never forgetting one’s vulnerabilities in a cruel and unfair world. This is what makes it a blues. As the novelist Ralph Ellison famously proclaimed, “the blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”[3] But perhaps the complexity of Dunbar’s song asks us to adjust Ellison’s description of the blues somewhat. There is not the “consolation of philosophy” in Dunbar’s song so much as the exploration of a philosophy, one particularly concerned with working out the tensions between trickery and freedom, between desire and sin, between forging new bonds and enacting betrayals of kinship. This is complex stuff, communicated with “near-tragic, near-comic lyricism,” but it is hardly consoling; rather, it is a rigorous and multifaceted investigation of the dynamics of generational conflict, love, courtship, power, and emancipation.

If Scott Dunbar’s “Jaybird in the Air” might be understood as a philosophical meditation, the singer of “I Dreamed I Went to the UN” offers a more overtly political side of the blues. Recorded in 1967, this cover of Louisiana Red (Iverson Minter)’s “Red’s Dream” imagines the protagonist as an everyday citizen who “set the whole nation right” by confronting Nikita Khrushchev over the Cuban Missile Crisis, putting Fidel Castro in his place, and then being summoned to the White House by the President to win the Cold War for the US. Deciding he will run the Senate, he explains “gonna be some changes though.” The singer plans to “put a few soul brothers in it.” He names African American musicians, as if both to express the power of music as a political force and to point out the continued lack of recognition of the contributions of black Americans to the United States. “Ray Charles and Lightning Hopkins,” he sings of whom he would put in charge politically. “And a guy like Jimmy Reed.” So too, “Bo Diddley and Big Maybelle.” These are “all I need” he decides, to fix the world’s problems.

As Fred McDowell follows the singer closely with his slide playing on acoustic guitar, the vocalist uses “Red’s Dream” to explore the existential possibilities and complexities of national citizenship, race, and geopolitics in the nuclear era. The song contains the anxiety of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the United States to the brink of nuclear war. It shows just how deeply into intimate lives “bomb culture,” as Paul Moyer called it, saturated: right into people’s dreams. And with its call out to black musicians as much-needed political leaders, the song suggests that it is the untapped potential of African American blues citizens and their music who might address the problem properly. The song is an assertion of national belonging in the face of Jim Crow exclusion, a declaration of the need to reorder race in the US buried within a fantasy of national and global heroic rescue. “Yeah,” someone affirms when the singer mentions the “few soul brothers” he will assign to the Senate. All that from a juke joint in the Mississippi Delta, which Ferris’s microphone reminds us might be just as important a locale as the chambers of the UN General Assembly. At the end of the song, two voices speak at once. Someone in the room says, “That’s what we need” to the singer about his dream of going to the UN, sharing positively in the assertion of a soul transformation of global affairs, while Ferris excitedly asks, “got some more like that?”

The contributions of the creators of the blues and other forms of Delta music are manifold. They may well be “what we need.” Ferris’s contribution is his eagerness to hear them, and to ask for more. In an essay in the box set booklet, Tom Rankin calls this “the long and patient listening of William Ferris.” To Rankin, Ferris is capable of placing the intelligence of his subjects “right at our very door, in perfect earshot for us all to listen.” For instance, Rankin recounts, a conversation between Ferris and James Thomas at Yale, where Ferris was teaching. It leads to profound reflections by Thomas on the dynamics of race, class, and mortality in America. When Ferris asked the blues singer as they walk through a cemetery, “you think anybody will remember us?” Thomas, whose playful and powerful sculptures of heads are featured on the cover of Voices from Mississippi in yet another documentary photograph taken by Ferris, responds with a “piercing answer,” as Rankin puts it: “They might remember you, not me.” Thomas is putting a finer point on things, or one might better say a blunter point: Ferris, not him, will probably get the glory. Rather than responding defensively, or objecting to Thomas, Ferris simply let his comment stand, recording it to capture “the frustrating lack of resolution, the inability to discover a happy storybook ending,” as Rankin describes it. The moment becomes, as Rankin eloquently puts it, a message “plain and simple, and gilded with the grace” of Thomas’s “articulate honesty and the art of his words.”

On Voices from Mississippi, one most of all takes in Ferris’s compendium of listening to the “deep study” of the blues, as well to his recordings of the equally moving ideas found in gospel or in his audio documentation of Mississippi storytellers both black and white. His openness to their ideas reminds us that intellectual history resonates best when it is sensitive to thinking as it happens at all levels of society, not merely among elites. Taken together and funneled through Ferris’s ears, eyes, and recording devices, we hear everyday people thinking exceptional thoughts. They tell us about the pursuit of freedom and how to feel one’s way through troubling constraints set against authentic liberation; they sing about transcendence and limitations; they probe the nature of art, religion, and politics; they speak of power, and of love. They reflect and philosophize. Ferris lets these many voices sing and speak. Think of him as a kind of human One Strand, the one-stringed instruments that young musicians in the Delta would nail to their homes so that their houses themselves became sonic resonators (you can see one made by the wonderful musician Louis Dotson in a photograph Ferris took that serves as the cover of the Voices of Mississippi book). He allows a community of discourse to vibrate all along his documentary work, amplifying its frequencies of expansive intellectual engagement.

[1] Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1935) and There Eyes Were Watching God (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1937). Ralph Ellison, “Richard Wright’s Blues,” Shadow and Act (New York: Random House, 1964), 77-94. Albert Murray, Hero and the Blues (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1973); Stomping the Blues (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976); and Murray, Albert. The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture (1970; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1990). Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963; reprint, New York: Perennial, 2002). Angela Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Random House, 1998).

[2] For more on the relationship between Jim Crow violence and the blues, see the work of, among others, Adam Gussow, Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

[3] Ellison, “Richard Wright’s Blues,” 78-79.

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