Scholars of syncopation go to the Delta

Annual gathering at Arkansas State University gives the blues their due

When Jim Baird is asked to define the blues, he pauses for a moment and then recites a B.B. King line: "Nobody loves me but my mother Â- and she could be jivin' too."

"Americans are loved for two things around the world: their movies and their music. And the blues are the basis of popular music," says Mr. Baird, a professor at the University of North Texas who has been studying American culture and music since he first discovered the blues as a college student in 1962.

The juke joints where the blues took root here in the Delta have been closing down, but academic exploration of this uniquely American art form Â- midwife to a half-dozen other musical genres Â- is thriving from coast to coast.

At the University of Virginia, for example, a class looks at the impact of Robert Johnson, an early bluesman credited with influencing performers as diverse as Eric Clapton and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Johnson was only 28 when he died in 1938, but his music "remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice," Clapton has said. Although Johnson received little formal education, the course description says his lyrics are "tightly wrought poems worthy of intense literary examination."

The rise of African-American studies departments on university campuses, in fact, has been a significant catalyst for a proliferation of courses on the blues.

And an annual symposium for scholars interested in the blues is now in its eighth year at Arkansas State University. It was conceived as a conference on the history and culture of the Mississippi Delta region, but the response to the first year's subject, the blues, was so overwhelming that it has been repeated ever since.

The original conference took place during what is generally referred to as the second blues revival, sparked by Columbia Records' 1990 reissue of Robert Johnson's collected music. This year's symposium, which just concluded, lured about three dozen scholars, some from as far away as Genoa, Italy.

The flip side of the American Dream

Why the intense academic interest in the blues? If movies and music are indeed America's two truly unique cultural exports, the history of film is largely a product of white America, while the blues is an African-American creation. For that reason, say some, the music that chronicles the flip side of the American Dream has been slower to receive scholarly attention, and its impact on music worldwide is still underrated.

Wholly different strains of African and European music were combined to produce Delta blues, says William Clements, a professor of folklore at ASU and an organizer of the symposium. "The blues were not only a new creation, but became the foundation on which other forms of music were built."

A product of the Delta

Unlike rock 'n' roll, which has but a few vague geographical landmarks, such as Graceland, the blues are a specific product of the Delta and the African-American experience here. The music is thought to have developed from slave field songs, rhythms kept simple owing to the lack of instruments that had once been available in Africa.

Even now, the flat cotton fields stretching to the horizon here, the humid air punctuated by train whistles, old men loitering near an ancient Greyhound bus station, timelessness that equates to hopelessness Â- all these elements combine to spontaneously sound the blues. This is still a place that evokes the basic rhythms of human existence that form the basis for most blues lyrics.

Juke joints

Other scholars likewise view the blues in their larger historical context, beyond merely the music.

Barry Lee Pearson, a folklorist at the University of Maryland, speaks of juke joints Â- often one-room nightclubs on the outskirts of town that brought people together for an amalgam of dancing, gambling, music, and general self-expression Â- as important socio-evolutionary influences. The syncopating crowd would ebb and flow as a whole, part to let individuals dance, or play music, or sing Â- buoyed by the collective group Â- and then flow back together as one.

"It's a very African concept, and one of the many ways African philosophy has helped America become America," Professor Pearson says. "The younger people who are coming to the blues are really working hard to keep it alive because it's recognized as a central pillar of the African-American experience, a means of communication between the past and the future," he adds.

One of those young fans is Nicole Meredith, a student at Arkansas State University. She sat in on the screening of a documentary on "Diamond Teeth" Mary, a blues singer and dancer who performed into her 90s and passed away in 2000.

Ms. Meredith says her mom and dad always had the blues playing around the house where she grew up in Morrilton, Ark. Now she slips down to B.B. King'sBlues Club in Memphis or even heads to New Orleans to get her "fix" of the blues. "I love the blues, it's such a neat art form," she says. "It speaks to what's human in all of us and for that reason I think it will survive for a long time."

Sacred side of the blues?

This year's symposium, which of course included a number of blues performances, was entitled "The Sacred and the Secular."

It was an intriguing combination of themes for a number of scholars, since the blues have been referred to as the "devil's music," as different from gospel as Saturday night is from Sunday morning.

But the blues, with all their earthiness, do sometimes take on an element of the sacred. "The blues have a certain spirit," Baird says.

"It's not the kind of spirit a churchgoer might speak of, it's not really religious, but it comes from the deepest part of the human experience Â- that desire to connect with something bigger than themselves."

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