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This is the music that helped enable people to survive the fierce brutality of

daily life in Mississippi. If nothing else recommends it, the fact that

this is survival music means we should know it and celebrate it.



Books by Kalamu ya Salaam


The Magic of JuJu: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement  /   360: A Revolution of Black Poets

Everywhere Is Someplace Else: A Literary Anthology  /  From A Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets

Our Music Is No Accident   /  What Is Life: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self

My Story My Song (CD)


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One Mississippi, Two Mississippi. John Hurt. Fred McDowell

By Kalamu ya Salaam


The blues, the basic root of most all of modern black music. The blues, often referred to but not often fully understood; indeed, most often misunderstood, twisted into simplified stereotypes, become most unrecognizable except for a few popular elements. But, you see, the blues is a big sound, the sound not of downpression but people’s spiritual resistance to being put down. Or so I have come to believe.

One Mississippi, two Mississippi. Mississippi John Hurt. Mississippi Fred McDowell. And on top of that, here are two more ways to do that thing, two which a ways most have not heard as the blues. First, a gentle, story-telling, finger picking style, so quiet you could sing it in church. Second, a blues you do sing in church. Whoa nah! Get ready for some other kind of blues.

Mississippi John Hurt was Mississippi born and bred, might have died unknown to most of us were it not for the folk music revival of the sixties and a renewed interest among college whites in this archetypal music of academically uneducated black people of the deep south.

Born March 8, 1892 in Teoc, Mississippi—died November 2, 1966 in Avalon, Mississippi, John Smith Hurt is widely considered one of the major country blues artists. He made his first recordings in 1928 but his career was cut off by the depression before he became popular. He spent most of the remainder of his life rearing 14 children along with is wife and working as a sharecropper.

In 1963 based on a hunch occasioned by a line mentioning Avalon as Hurt’s home town, folklorist Tom Hoskins located Hurt near Avalon, Mississippi. Hurt had kept up his guitar skills by playing for neighbors on the weekends. Hoskins arranged for Hurt to play the famed 1963 New Port Folk Festival and to record for Vanguard Records. For the next three years until his death in 1966 Hurt was very popular on the folk music circuit playing festival, colleges and clubs. 

Hurt’s gentle, story-telling song style and his flowing, finger-picking were different from what most people think of when referring to Mississippi blues. Nevertheless, Hurt’s music is quintessential blues—check out “Talking Casey” (from Rediscovered) which features Hurt’s guitar imitating not only the human voice but also train sounds.

A hallmark of Hurt’s style was his wry humor as exemplified in songs such as “Coffee Blues” and the children’s song, “Chicken Blues” (both from the Coffee Blues album). Hurt also specialized in folklore narratives such as “Stagger Lee” (from The Immortal album) and “First Shot Missed Him” (and all the other songs from Last Sessions).

“Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me” combines ironic humor with a gentle, lilting melody which contrasts with the subject matter of death and burial at sea. “Cast my body out in the sea / save all the undertaker’s bills / let the mermaids flirt with me.”

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Mississippi Fred McDowell is originally from Tennessee (born circa 1904 around Rossville and died 1972 in Memphis), Fred his adult life about forty or so mile below Memphis in Como, Mississippi, but as soon as one hears Fred, the man is instantly associated with the Mississippi Delta bottle-neck blues guitar style. It’s a rough tradition full of violence, evil doing, instability and a general reveling in miscellaneous misdemeanors and minor indiscretions. The Delta blues in particular is often contrasted to gospel in a wrong (blues) / right (gospel) dualist opposition.
So take in these selections from a prototypical Delta blues musician not only singing gospel himself but working with his wife and with friends (The Hunter’s Chapel Singers of Como, Mississippi) in a program consisting entirely of gospel oriented material. The album is aptly titled Amazing Grace.

Any one of the six songs is a great example but I would like to point to two in particular: “The Lord Will Make A Way” and “Amazing Grace.” The former song is basically Fred alone with just his guitar counterpointing his voice. It rocks fiercely and at the same time rambles though the melody, the wide vibrato of the steel strings vibrating throughout. The second song features the full choral group issuing forth a sound that may have emanated from the fabled belly of a storm-tossed slave ship during the middle passage (which is the actual origin of the song itself that was written by a slave ship’s captain).

This is the kind of music that is both primal and powerful. Some might call it primitive—actually, rather than “primitive” it might be more accurate to say unsophisticated but there is nothing simple about it. Here is the power of the blues mated with the spiritual longing of gospel. For those who have never heard music like this, these songs are surely both a surprise and possibly a delight.

This singing makes you feel good.

This is the music that helped enable people to survive the fierce brutality of daily life in Mississippi. If nothing else recommends it, the fact that this is survival music means we should know it and celebrate it. (And by the way, although they are often thought of as a Chicago outfit, the Staples Singers led by Pops Staples musically is based in the country Mississippi style of gospel singing. In what Fred McDowell is doing you hear a direct antecedent.)

These men and women are true American heroes, not just survivors but heroes. This is the music that was the bedrock for not only rock and roll but also the aural fuel of the civil rights movement.

One Mississippi, two Mississippi. John Hurt. Fred McDowell. Give thanks.

Source: Breath of Life


You gotta move

               Lyrics by Mississippi Fred McDowell  and Rev. Gary Davis

You got to move
You got to move
You got to move, child
You got to move
But when the Lord
Gets ready
You got to move


You may be high
You may be low
You may be rich, child
You may be po'
But when the Lord gets ready
You've got to move


You see that woman
That walk the street
You see the policeman
Out on his beat
But when the Lord gets ready
You got to move


You got to move
You got to move
You've got to move, child
You've got to
But when the Lord gets ready
You got to move.

posted 19 November 2008

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Mississippi Fred McDowell—You gotta move / Mississippi Fred McDowell—Highway 61

You Gotta Move" is a song written by Fred McDowell and Rev. Gary Davis. Being a well-known song of McDowell's, covered by The Rolling Stones in their 1971 album Sticky Fingers.The album which included this song was recorded at McDowell's home in Como, Mississippi in 1964, and in Holy Springs, Mississippi and Berkeley, California in 1965.Personnel: Mississippi Fred McDowell (vocals, bottle-neck guitar); Eli Green (vocals, guitar); Annie McDowell (vocals).CD Release Date: November 30, 1993. Label: Arhoolie Records.

Mississippi Fred McDowell—I Walked All Night Long  / Mississippi Fred McDowell—Goin Down to the River

Fred McDowell—Shake Em On Down  / Mississippi Fred McDowell (1904-1972)—What's the Matter Now?

This is from the "Lomax - First Recordings." Fortunately Fred was alive in the fifties and sixties during the renaissance of Folk Blues, so that his talent could be recorded for posterity, for us. "In the spoken introduction to the Capital Blues Collection "I Don't Play No Rock 'N' Roll," Mississippi Fred Mc Dowell says, " My type of blues, I play it with a bottleneck, you understand, see - rib what come out of a steak." Mississippi Fred later switched to a glass bottleneck because "it gets more clear sound out of it."

Mississippi Fred McDowell—When I Lay My Burden Down / Mississippi Fred McDowell—John Henry

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Mississippi John Hurt—Nobody's Dirty Business (1928) / Mississippi John Hurt—Salty Dog Blues

Mississippi John Hurt—Stack O' Lee Blues (1928)  / Mississippi John Hurt—Make Me a Pallet on the Floor

Mississippi John Hurt—Louis Collins (1928)  / Mississippi John Hurt—My Creole Belle

Mississippi John Hurt I'm satisfied  / Mississippi John Hurt—Big Leg Blues (1928)

According to personal biography of his life John Hurt learn to love and appreciate music and guitar playing from William H Carson, a man infatuated with his teacher at the St. James School, located in Avalon, Mississippi. John Hurt stated, " I wasn't allowed to bother Mr. Carson's guitar. I would wait until he feel asleep at my house, then I would slip his guitar into my room and try to play. There I learned to play the guitar at the age of nine years old. After that, my mother bought me a second hand guitar at the price of $1.50! 1 can tell you there was no beautiful sound than my own guitar music. I was playing for country dances at the same time working very hard on a farm new Avalon Mississippi."

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Mississippi John Hurt—Spike Driver Blues  / Mississippi John Hurt—Goodnight Irene

Seen here with Pete Seeger & Hedy West. Not sure of date, circa 1950's-60's(post Seeger blacklist). Playing John Henry (Steel driver Blues). Lived:(March 8, 1892,Carroll County, Mississippi - November 2, 1966, Grenada, Mississippi) the eighth child of ten.

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. WashingtonPost

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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration.—Publishers Weekly

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 5 May 2012




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