Roger Griffith, author of ‘My American Odyssey’ shares his thoughts on Music of the Deep South — in response to Carleen Anderson’s Cage Street Memorial concert.
Music of the Deep South
The south has many different names to enhance its mysticism. The Deep-South, The Mason-Dixie Line, The New South, and Gateway to the South are just a few monikers that you may know. Music is one thing that is consistent throughout the region. During my travels I discovered Jazz interspersed with Blues, mixed with Gospel, fused with Country and Western, added elements of Folk all helping to create one of my first loves, Sweet Soul music. The Deep-South has many music capitals such as New Orleans the spiritual home of Jazz and Louis Armstrong. Some of these musical roots stem post-slavery when black and white sharecroppers after a hard days shift in the field, would come together grabbing what instruments they could to make music from juke bottles, skiffle boards and harmonicas.
Culture, arts and music are at the vanguard of change. In America and Britain one of the first ways black and white people mixed together was through music, which can lay claim to being one of the first desegregated industries in America. The roll call of southern artists makes your skin hum with joy; Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, Booker T and the MGs and many, many more. Add the likes of Chess, Sun, Fame and Stax Record Labels and Studios and we are talking more than just musical history.
This was made possible by people who broke down the colour bar of the despised Jim Crow laws that separated the races. These included music mogul Sam Phillips and Rick Hall from Muscle Shoals, Alabama. These men were ahead of their time not only benevolent and principled but also businessmen giving many their first opportunities. Sam Phillips discovered the then 19 year-old dirt-poor truck driver Aaron Presley who became known as Elvis. Phillips set up Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee discovering bluesmen Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker, and Ike Turner.
Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis made Rock ‘n’ Roll popular around the world and depending on your viewpoint; they copied, stole or were influenced by black artists such as Fats Domino and Little Richard. BB King came out of the cotton fields from Mississippi, beginning as a radio announcer on a Memphis radio station (WDIA) and became the most famous exponent of the Blues.
The street BB King helped make famous, Beale Street, Memphis is the spiritual home to many African-American’s in the south. Memphis is like Harlem to New York, or Brixton in London, the cultural centre of southern black America. In Downtown Memphis is the Rock and Soul Museum. Aretha Franklin grew up here and the famed Stax Records not only has a fantastic museum in West Memphis it is also a community based music school. Graceland is also here and the Reverend Al Green still preaches from his Tabernacle Church. Further north, Tennessee’s state capitol Nashville is home to Country and Western.
Great bluesmen like Roscoe Gordon, Calvin Newborn and Rufus Thomas began to shape Rhythm & Blues, now re-packaged and re-marketed today as R&B. Early 1940s big bands dancers played in exotic costumes with X Factor style amateur auditions held at the legendary Palace Theatre, bringing new hustlers and chancers to Memphis.
Blues travelled from its spiritual home in New Orleans, up the Mississippi River through the delta and Memphis, then on to Chicago. The Prohibition era of the roaring twenties meant black musicians were in demand. Legislation was passed that banned the sale of alcohol, leading to the rise of the illegal clubs Speakeasies. Men and women mingled together revelling in the illicit atmosphere of alcohol, dance and music served up the jazz-men of the south like Duke Ellington. Elsewhere, Alabama native Nat King Cole was breaking down the colour bar in Los Angeles and Las Vegas with Frank Sinatra. In 1960s Bristol this was repeated in places such as Tony and Lalel Bullimore’s Bamboo Club in St Pauls.
Whilst Atlanta for instance is a city that looks to its past whilst staying in the present, Memphis is still held hostage by its past. The locals tell you ‘Memphis has torn down more history than it remembers’ through the curse of urban renewal which struck through the hearts of many low income and black communities splitting them in two, much as the M32 divided St Pauls and Easton here in Bristol in the 1970s.
Another southern native raised in Gospel, Otis Redding, was revered in UK and Europe especially after the release of his album ‘Otis Blue’ 50 years ago in 1965. Only pirate radio stations like Radio Caroline played Soul music at the time for the real music lovers. The response from white UK citizens was overwhelming for those touring musicians from the segregated south. Its legacy lives on through British singing royalty influencing Tom Jones, Elton John, Bryan Ferry and Rod Stewart. Today Ujima Radio 98FM carries on this proud tradition, although we are legal!
Windrush Contribution to Modern Music
We also celebrate our origins from the Drum, brought to the world by African slaves in their tortuous journey. The drum is found in the Dubplate of the Jamaican Sound Systems that spawned the Wild Bunch leading to the Bristol Sound of Trip Hop from Massive Attack and Portishead providing the Drum & Bass beats pioneered by Roni Size and today DJ Krust, who is now an Ujima DJ.
From New York, came the emergence of Rap music heavily influenced by former Caribbean residents Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa all originating from the West Indies who sang or ‘toasted’ on the records. Next came block parties, sparking a cultural revolution that included break-dancing, turntables and scratching records. The urban poetry and street tales of isolation and deprivation became Rap, sparking the Hip-Hop culture that entered and now dominates the mainstream.
Oh of course let’s not forget the graffiti or street-art that influenced Banksy who was also around in the Wild Bunch days. This Bristol gumbo from past and present helps to make the city a cool place to live, study or simply be and brings in much revenue to some but not enough of Bristol’s institutions.
But it is the fatal consequences at the Lorraine Motel that draws a dark stain over Memphis through the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King on 4th April 1968 at 6.01pm. Sadly that blood soaked stain is still part of America’s culture today as more black lives are innocently slain. Just before he was killed Dr King requested saxophonist Ben Branch to play his favourite piece Take My Hand Precious Lord as he stood on the balcony minutes before a sniper’s bullet took his life.
From juke-joints, Shebeen’s and rum-shacks to concert halls. In life, in death, in sadness, in joy, music continues to be an integral expression of our humanity, and a unifying clarion call in each of our souls.