Mississippi Hill Country Blues 1967 (American Made Music Series)

Image of Mississippi Hill Country Blues 1967 (American Made Music Series)
Release Date: 
January 1, 2012
University Press of Mississippi
Reviewed by: 

“. . . a joyous little trip to North Mississippi Hill Country.”

Ask casual blues fans their favorite type of blues, and chances are good they will list classic Delta blues performers like Robert Johnson and Son House, or Chicago “electric blues” artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, or Buddy Guy.

It is rare that “North Mississippi blues”—performed by names like CeDell Davis and Asie Payton—comes up as a favored sub-genre.

This is due in large measure to the music’s relative obscurity in comparison to the more popular blues forms, which have tended to receive more exegesis and biographical coverage, as well as much more recording and airplay in places where the blues reaches a devoted fan base.

Thanks to George Mitchell, field recordist, blues historian, photographer, and excellent writer, the Mississippi Hill Country style of blues broke into the consciousness of blues lovers soon after Mitchell started recording Hill Country talent like Mississippi Fred McDowell, R. L. Burnside, Rosa Lee Hill, and Jesse Mae Hemphill in the 1960s. At the same time, he carefully documented slices of lives of the Hill Country residents, and became close friends with a number of them until their deaths.

The author fell in love with the music of the Hill Country as a young man, just as it was being “discovered” by blues aficionados. Its hypnotic strains, minimal chord changes, percussive insistence, and mesmerizing lyrics hark back to a tradition older than the Delta blues—perhaps to Congo Square, in New Orleans, in the 1800s, where African-born slaves were allowed for just one day a week to play their music and beat their normally forbidden drums.

The stunning black and white photographs in this book were originally part of a series Mitchell shot for another photo book of his, Blow My Blues Away. It was only a couple years ago, when he was cleaning out his work studio and darkroom, did Mr. Mitchell unearth a treasury of photographic negatives spanning 20 years, from 1962–1982.

According to Mitchell in his preface, many of the photos he shot for Blow My Blues Away did not make it into that publication. Therefore, when the author found negatives of his fateful photo and recording trip to the Hill Country in 1967 among his possessions, he knew therein lay the seeds for an excellent book on his beloved Hill Country and the 13 days he and wife Cathy spent recording lives and faces and voices. He notes that photographs he did not choose to use back in the 1960s now resonate with him. “Tastes change,” he notes wryly.

In the next section of the book “Hill Country in 1967” the young George Mitchell of 1967 describes his impressions of the locale. He tells us the Hill Country of 1967 is very poor and the land non-arable. Unlike the Delta, it is unfit for large-scale farming or cotton growing, and so keeping body and soul together has historically been difficult in this underprivileged region nestled within a very poor state.

In 1967, Hill Country economics were far worse than they are now. Where once farming or sharecropping had been possible, by 1967, Big Agribusiness practices had taken over and employment on farms and dairies dropped precipitously. The Hill people were left to their own resources. Thankfully for the soul, and for posterity, one of those resources was music.

Due to the perseverance and talent of field recordists like George Mitchell, Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, and numerous other then-young blues fans who ventured to the American South with tape recorders and enthusiasm, we can now fully enjoy the unique musical and cultural legacies of the Hill people. Most of Mr. Mitchell’s 1967 informants have passed since he put the final changes on Mississippi Hill Country 1967.

The book is not simply a “picture book.” It is an excellently written autobiographical record of 13 days spent with his loving wife Cathy and his trusty tape recorder, tracking down and interviewing Hill Country denizens and recording songs that had been played and transmitted only orally before Mr. Mitchell decided to take on the project of documenting the North Mississippi blues and its practitioners.

At the same time, the book is a sociological slice of life of the culture of the North Mississippi hills as it was in the 1960s.

The chapter “Summer Break” is Mr. Mitchell’s opportunity to tell his story as a young grad student with his heart in the Mississippi highlands, as it were. This section tells of preparation and intent. Mr. Mitchell had already been recording “unrecorded” blues artists since his teen years—Will Shade, Peg Leg Howell, Gus Cannon are just three of many he recorded in Memphis. When he moved to Chicago he worked in the famous Record Mart owned by Bob Koester alongside a then unknown guitar player named Mike Bloomfield.

In the section “Mississippi” Mr. Mitchell details the hatching of a plan with Cathy to “record unrecorded artists” in North Mississippi. He details the plans, the trip down I-55 to the exit marked “Como” [MS], and the irony of finding his subject at work when he ventures into a gas station asking where he could find the great bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell?

“You’re talking to him,” said McDowell, working a part time job to make ends meet. And that’s how Mitchell and Cathy were first granted entry to the North Mississippi homes of some of the region’s best and most talented musicians—through McDowell.

Other sections of the book—all profusely illustrated with superb black and white photographs taken by Mr. Mitchell—include biographical sketches of the musicians and singers and selected oral histories told by the performers and duly transcribed by Mr. Mitchell from the tape recordings he was making during the trip.

The photographs are as captivating as Mr. Mitchell’s poetic prose as he insinuates himself into the lives of poor yet generous people who made music that is at once mesmerizing and energizing. Such is the legacy of the Hill People.

Thankfully there are a number of recordings that have been released of North Mississippi performers, and it would behoove the reader to buy a few, put them on the box, and start a joyous little trip to North Mississippi Hill Country in the very competent hands of our guide George Mitchell.