Saturday, December 8, 2007

North Mississippi, Part 2: Junior

Afrissippi guitarist Eric Deaton recalls wandering into Otha Turner’s backyard sometime in the late 1990s and seeing the man of the house flanked by Africans. Eric admits surprise at seeing this nonagenarian fife player going full blast in the midst of an African drum circle suddenly transported to the depths of rural north central Mississippi; but then the Hill Country, where the late Otha made his home, is a good place for surprises.

Remote and insular, the Hills are one of the few highlands areas in the U.S. where the population is predominantly African-American. As with any highlands area in the southeast, the topography of the Hills helps define the culture of its residents. After abolition (and, one hopes, before it) African-Americans took advantage of its inaccessibility to start lives off the plantations of the Delta and the rest of the state. There, farmers cropped their own land and enjoyed their own culture, which retained many African elements that are still prevalent that community. The most renowned of these is surely the fife-and-drum music of the old plantation days, a prominent feature of Otha Turner’s annual picnics, but the area is also famous for a particularly African strain of blues. This musical affinity with the Motherland doesn’t make it completely inconceivable that a troop of African musicians would materialize in the backyard of a Hill Country farmer, but Eric Deaton was still sufficiently impressed enough to turn to Luther Dickenson of the North Mississippi All Stars, who was also in attendance, and ask just what in the sweet bejeezus was up at Otha’s.

Luther broke things down for his fellow guitarist, and Eric later came to understand that he was actually walking in on a recording session for what became From Senegal to Senatobia (see last post). Luther played on the album and Eric did not, though Eric would later make an even more mind-boggling Motherland Connection with Afrissippi. But before we can talk about that, we need to talk about Junior Kimbrough.

Suffused as it is with such a sinister mystique and populated with such shadowy characters, the story of the blues in the 20th century almost collapses under the weight of its own mythology. With so little information about bluesmen of yore to go on, when discussing them as people we either reconstruct their personalities from mundane documents (birth certificates, death certificates, worm-eaten photographs) or we conjure images of them from their wicked awesome lyrics about pain and mojo. If the choice is between finding the truth and finding the legend, the blues fan will always find the legend. The blues is dark and mysterious and may have been the only music that could support a character like Junior who came of age in the era of jet engines and television, but whose mystique is just as impenetrable as the hoary old guys who only exist on 78s.

You can see Junior in his prime, before a debilitating stroke in the early 90s, on Robert Mugge’s Deep Blues, his fingers executing dreamy pentatonic runs on the treble strings while his eyes wander around the room like he’s scanning the sky for satellites. He’s performing “All Night Long” (listed on the soundtrack as “Jr.’s Blues”), the title track of his debut album just two years later. Drummer Calvin Jackson is playing in a style adapted from the martial funkiness of the local fife-and-drum corps and Junior, as he plays the melody, thumb-picks a drone on the bass strings of his guitar.

Junior and his longtime friend R.L. Burnside were the heirs to a decades-old blues tradition whose earliest known practitioners – Mississippi Fred McDowell, Ranie Burnette, Eli Green – established a droning and percussive style of blues that built complex grooves around single chords and punctuated melodies with slashing bottleneck glissandos. Hill Country blues largely ignores the 12-bar blues form or I-IV-V chord progressions that has defined blues composition since W.C. Handy started arranging the music in the 1910s. This tradition, with its thumping, gnarly approach to what is in 2007 considered lite beer music for finger-poppin’ white dudes, never sounds more African than in the hands of Junior or R.L., whose driving, buzzing 1969 recording of “Jumper On The Line” from My Black Name A-Ringin’ could have come from the southern borders of the Sahara.

Even to those who knew him, Junior was a deeply enigmatic man. Like other Hill Country musicians of his generation, Junior seems to have cut his teeth on the music of Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker; but toward the end of the ’50s (according to a feature in SPIN that I dimly remember) he decided to do things his own way. The first example of his style is a cover of Lowell Fulsom’s “Tramp,” recorded as a 45 for the Holiday Inn label in the mid 1960s. Over the years he developed a unique repertoire of haunting and libidinous songs, all based on pentatonic melodies and one-chord riffs played in the rolling, darkly sonorous style that was his trademark. By the time he recorded his first full (known) session for High Water in the early 1980s, he had perfected a sound that seemed to owe no allegiance to any extant American music; everything seemed to be coming from inside his own head. He once told Eric Deaton, who played in his band the Soul Blues Boys as a young man in the mid 1990s, that his songs came to him in his dreams.

Adding to Junior’s mystique is that his style does seem to have antecedents, but they’re all West African. Eric Deaton hears similarities between the Malian blues of Ali Farka Toure, the folk songs of the Fulani and the night ritual suites of the Gnawa of Marrakesh (themselves West Africans in exile). Afrissippi, the band Eric plays guitar for, began when club owner and musician Chad Henson introduced Eric and Guelel Kumba, a musician from Senegal’s griot caste, in Oxford, MS. Guelel played Eric a Fulani folk song called “Nduumandii” and Eric realized it was essentially Junior’s “Keep Your Hands Off That Girl” originally recorded in 1982 in Holly Springs, MS, a long way from Dakar.

Junior played his own music in his own club, which, by all accounts, was an oasis of good vibes in the Hill Country. A small wooden building on a concrete foundation just off Highway 4 in Marshall County, MS, Larry Brown, writing in the liner notes for Junior’s sophomore effort Sad Days, Lonely Nights, described Junior’s club as looking “more like a shrine than anything else.” Almost as famous as the man who made it, Junior’s club burnt down under mysterious circumstances in the early 2000s. If you find yourself on Highway 4, you can still see its foundation just off the shoulder of the road. You’ll see a tree there that somehow escaped the fire, and its branches will be covered in bottles. A picture of the tree is at the beginning of this post.

Get a Junior Kimbrough mix here and here.

Get a Hill Country mix here and here.

Have a good Saturday night.


Comb & Razor said...

hmmm... now i'm starting to rethink my comments in the last post just a little bit...

"Big Al" Marghreb said...

I think you make a good point, actually.

You know, we can't even really say what "African" music sounded like back then!

Comb & Razor said...

You know, we can't even really say what "African" music sounded like back then!

this is true...

i guess we can extrapolate what African musical priorities were, though.

as is often the case, Cuba is the key...

"Big Al" Marghreb said...

Cuba is, no doubt! And the backdraft from Cuba that gave us Bembeya Jazz, Orchestra Baobab...

I read in that book Rumba On The River that the rumba rhythm seems to be the one "dearest to the African heart." That's a huge generalization, I guess, but it does turn up everywhere. Cuba figured some things out!