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The Blues Cradle Stands on Indian Mounds

The Blues Cradle Stands on Indian Mounds

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Published by Erwin Bosman
About archeology and blues
About archeology and blues

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Published by: Erwin Bosman on Sep 19, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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05/29/2014

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- The blues cradle stands on indian mounds
Posted on August 3rd, 2011
Many places in the Southern states claim the title of birth place of the blues. Memphis, Clarksdale, NewOrleans, Texas… In the most spread collective image the cradle of the blues stands in the MississippiDelta. The fact that the self proclaimed father of the blues, W.C. Handy, was unfortunate to be stuck in theTutwiler station waiting on a train hours late on schedule – a train headed (presumably) to Clarksdale – hasonly contributed to the persistence of this image. W.C. Handy tried to catch some shuteye when he noticedthat a “lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plucking a guitar” beside him while he slept. His weirdsong “Going’ where the Southern Cross’ the Dog” left an unforgettable impact on him. The tune kept onrambling in his mind.This story that supposedly happened in 1903 belongs to the text book historical narratives of the blues. Butwhy do we focus on Tutwiler and the (for us) happy fact that the train was running behind schedule?Probably, because it has so many romantic aspects, speaks to our imagination and …because W.C.Handy made himself tremendous efforts to promote his story. There is however a problem with the claimthat he had a ‘first’. This succinct post serves no other purpose than to help us remind that two years earlier some academic had already been struck by the same kind of weird music. To be more precise, on May 11,1901, Harvard archaeologist Charles Peabody arrived at Coahoma County to conduct a seven-weekexcavation season at the plantations in Clarksdale and in Oliver. His archaeological work focused on
 MyBlues
The way I feel about blues
- The blues cradle stands on indian mounds | MyBlueshttp://www.myblues.eu/blog/?p=13081 van 43/08/2011 15:25
 
mounds of the Choctaw people (river people), a Native American people who lived throughout the east of the Mississippi River valley and its tributaries. His attention went to their mounds, artificial hills (“tumulus” inEuropean terminology) related to ritual, power and burial customs. The excavations required strenuouswork for which he hired African American workers. His attention was caught by their repetitive andmesmerizing chants. It is said that what they sang at night interested him particularly, because it wasimprovised rhythm with “hard luck tales” for lyrics.The observation that his transcription of the songs and his ‘Noteson Negro music’ (1903) were published before his archaeologicalfindings (1904) illustrates the profound effect that his worker’schants must have had on him. In his words, the chants were “Quiteimpossible to copy, weird in interval and strange in rhythm;peculiarly beautiful”.However, just has W.C. Handy’s story needs some historical annotation, so do we need to make somecritical remarks to Charles Peabody’s place in history. The earliest direct reference (other than byrecollections) to what might be considered blues was made already a decade earlier, in 1890 by a collector named Gates Thomas, who transcribed a song titled “Nobody There.” Place of occurrence: South Texas.Thomas gives no indication whether the singing was accompanied by an instrument, but he does quotethat it was a pentatonic tune containing tonic, minor, third, fourth, fifth, and seventh chords. In combination,this resembles to something like a blues tune (David Evans).I need to add from my side that (as Karl Hagstrom Miller also indicates) the prudence in this historicalreading needs even to go further and should guard us from concluding that what Thomas, Peabody o
- The blues cradle stands on indian mounds | MyBlueshttp://www.myblues.eu/blog/?p=13082 van 43/08/2011 15:25
 
Handy heard where the exclusive musical expression of the African Americans they met. As I haverepeatedly stated in previous posts, the origins of the genre that would later become to be known as bluescannot be analysed along the sole dimension of race. The colour line that was drawn in the musicalspectrum of blacks and white was not present as such in the early musical-historical environment out of which blues and jazz would be born. Miller points out that Peabody was aware of the fact that his AfricanAmerican workers also knew songs that had been recently composed in New York, and that they could alsosing them. However, in a perfect human reaction, Peabody was mainly if not exclusively struck by the ‘new’and ‘weird’ sound and paid little or no attention to what he was accustomed to hear as popular music.This makes we wonder whether perhaps W.C. Handy slept through a popular song that the ‘loose-jointedNegro’ might also have played in the Tutweiler train station, but that only the “weird” song woke him up.Just a speculative thought of course…..but a tempting one, no?
- The blues cradle stands on indian mounds | MyBlueshttp://www.myblues.eu/blog/?p=13083 van 43/08/2011 15:25

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