by George Mitchell
University Press of Mississippi
In the midst of preparing to move out of his home of more than three decades, George Mitchell ran head on into his past as he tried to arrange the negatives of all of his photos from his many trips throughout the south trying to track down undiscovered blues musicians. The author devoted twenty years to research, often making spontaneous field recordings when his investigations uncovered a talent like R.L Burnside.
The summer of 1967 found Mitchell heading into the home stretch on completing the requirements for his Master’s degree. Needing a break, Mitchell and his wife Cathy decide to make a trip to the Delta region. They gather up their limited resources, even borrowing a 35 mm camera in order to get the best possible photos. The audio recordings from that trip were released on the Arhoolie label while many of the pictures were used in Mitchell’s 1971 book, Blow My Blues Away (now out-of-print).
As he stood there reviewing each negative, the author was surprised to find he didn’t remember taking many of the shots from that journey. In that moment, the idea for this book began to form. Interspersing text from his interviews along with his stunning photos, Mitchell paints a vivid portrait of a time when change was sweeping through America but for the hill country residents, life was the same hard scrabble existence they had known since childhood.
The couple’s first break occurs at a gas station, where they ask the attendant if he knows Fred McDowell and are pleasantly surprised to discover that it is the man himself standing in front of them. Soon the trio goes off in search of harp player Johnny Woods. After trips down numerous back roads, they find the musician passed out. But once McDowell starts playing a guitar, Woods quickly recovers and joins his old friend in creating some deep blues. When Mitchell asks about a local fife & drum band, McDowell promises to gather them at his house that evening.
That chance meeting leads Mitchell to several of the most highly regarded hill country musicians. The man who kept the fife & drum tradition alive, Othar Turner, speaks with great pride on the role of drums in providing a rhythm for dancing all night long. His remarks also reflect the cautious approach to living in the South that many African-Americans adopted in order to survive. Turner introduces them to Burnside, an unknown who quickly captures Mitchell’s attention with a droning guitar style. Included is a photo of the youthful Burnside bent over his guitar in deep concentration (Page 57).
Other chapters focus on three women from the Hemphill family, Rosa Lee Hill and her more celebrated sister, Jessie Mae (Hemphill) Brooks, along with their cousin Ada Mae Anderson. Rosa reminisces about her younger days playing guitar around the area with her father, the multi-instrumentalist Sid Hemphill. She also describes her family’s tough financial situation due to a poor cotton crop. Mitchell got to hear Jessie Mae talk about wanting to be free of men after dealing with an abusive husband. Equally frank are her remarks about race relations at that time. The daughter of Sid’s brother, Ada Mae played guitar, drum, harmonica and sang with the family band as a girl. She did manage to escape the South, moving to Indiana for a time. But she never felt like she fit in and eventually returned to Como to care for her mother. A shot of her leaning on a shovel in the middle of a field with a wide grin reveals her spirit in the midst of poverty.
Additional chapters cover another meeting between McDowell and Woods, a quick recording with Joe Callicott and then a Labor Day gathering complete with barbecue and the fife & drum band in all their glory, creating a whirling mass of dancers all day and all night long, as evidenced by the accompanying photo array. Mitchell also includes four pages of short biographies of the musicians and closes with his thoughts on the current conditions in the hill country, where buildings stand empty and a new generation of musicians, centered on the Burnside and Kimbrough clans, continues making music with a modern edge.
We should be thankful that George Mitchell pursued his passion almost five decades ago. He recorded some amazing blues music and, through his pictures and interviews in this hard-cover tabletop volume, he allows voices to come to us out of the past, reminding us of where we were and how far we have yet to go. Don’t miss this thought-provoking slice of history.