July 24, 2024

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CD & Book review: Marina Bokelman and David Evans – Going Up The Country: Adventures In Blues Fieldwork In The 1960 – 2023: Video

Blues records were the rage in the Roaring Twenties era, and into the following decade. But as many African Americans began to migrate to the north in search of greater opportunities, the music saw a decline in interest, especially for the acoustic forms which became too down-home for many big city dwellers.

Many artists plugged in, embracing the electric instruments that allowed musicians to break through the everyday noises of city life. Meanwhile, key artists like Son House, Skip James, and Rev. Gary Davis slipped into the mists of time, often presumed to no longer be of this world.

But the folk music revival in the 1950s eventually sparked renewed interest in the roots of blues music. By the mid-1960s, dedicated fans were doing extensive research that lead to journeys south to try to “find” some of these artists. In a time free of cellphones and the Internet, their work required many skills to uncover any traces or slim references that might lead to an important discovery. One might liken it to being a private investigator of the blues.

Marina Bokelman and David Evans met at UCLA, which was one of three colleges at the time that offered a degree program in Folklore. They were students in the Folklore and Mythology program, with abiding interests in music. By June of 1966, they were living together in a shack near the road to Topanga Canyon, starting to plan their first trip south to conduct fieldwork, which in those days usually meant a very dry academic approach that seemed to be the exact opposite of what you would want when applied to music, especially music that touched the mind, body, and soul. The basis for their first trip was to uncover as much information as possible about blues singer and songwriter Tommy Johnson, the author of a song that became the title of this book.

The first few chapters of the book give Evans space to explain their approach to fieldwork while Bokelman touches on how they edited their field notes. In another chapter, she reviews the cameras she used to take photographs that featured throughout the book, delving into the challenges she faced with lighting and reluctant people, and the methods she employed to overcome the obstacles. She also provides a tutorial on viewing the photos in order to help readers to process all of the important details.

Then each of the authors take a chapter to describe their life up to the point of meeting at UCLA. Born and raised in Spanish Harlem in Manhattan, Bokelman grew up surrounded by music. When her father was recruited by Howard Hughes to work in the aerospace industry, her family moved to Los Angeles. She was soon learning to play guitar, sing folk music, and began to attend shows at the famous Ash Grove club, which was the West Coast bastion for folk music. Artists like guitarist Brownie McGhee exposed her to the blues.

In his chapter, Evans starts his story with his birth in Boston. His father did well in the insurance business, allowing the family to move to the suburbs. Eventually his parents managed to get him into Phillips Academy a very prestigious private boys high school, where he quickly lost his growing interest in rock ‘n’ roll music. Once he reached Harvard University, Evans was inspired to start playing guitar and banjo. His love of the blues stems from a 1962 concert featuring Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon, and a fortunate meeting at a local record store with Al Wilson, who would go on to be a key member of Canned Heat. Also included is his remembrances of his first field trip to the New Orleans area to meet Babe Stovall and Roosevelt Holts.

The chapter entitled “Sometimes The Field Came To Us” is a chronicle of their experiences with Robert Pete Williams and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Both musicians were booked at the Ash Grove. The authors were “volunteered” to house both men, giving them a chance to get to know them, and along with Wilson, gather information that would prove fruitful in their fieldwork.

The meat of the book are the chapters devoted to two trips to the South. The first covered a span from August 10 through September 16, 1966, focusing primarily on areas in Louisiana and Jackson, Mississippi. The unique feature of this book is that their experiences are laid out in the notes that they wrote at the end of each day. It is not a story based on recollections, but actual notes detailing the arc of their daily experiences. Readers will not only learn about who they visited, what they learned, and any music that was played, but also about what they ate, the fights they had, and the often squalid conditions they endured in their pursuit. The daily reports include notes for both authors, creating a more complete record of the activity, that also entailed shopping at thrift stores for blues record that Evans would then sell by mail to help finance their ventures.

One quickly gains an immense amount of respect for both authors for the many hardships they overcame. They would spend hours trying to find a house with nothing to go on but an address and vague directions. They often arrive at someone’s home only to find they aren’t there, leading to several more attempts before finally making the connection. The couple pose as being married in order to avoid creating any unease, going so far as to buy a pair of wedding bands. Traveling with limited funds, a night’s stay in a decent hotel becomes a rare treat, with bug infested, dirty rooms or shacks the usual fare. They also have to tread carefully to avoid any suspicions of being Northern agitators for voting rights and equality for the Black population.

One might think that the daily diary would make for a boring read. But as you get deeper into the narrative, you began to root for the duo, and join in the joy when things come together, allowing them to spend time with a musician, to record some meaningful music on their portable recorder, and gather information on names and places that just may result in future rewards. They endeavor to meet their “subjects” on their own terms, striving to keep their encounters real and authentic as possible when two cultures interact.

The 1967 venture ran from August 13 until September 10, not waiting for the ceremony to award Evans with his MA degree in Folklore & Mythology for his thesis entitled “The Blues Of Tommy Johnson: A Study of A Tradition”. They first headed to check out an archive in Waco, Texas that had important details for Bokelman’s thesis work on the song “The Coon Can Game,” a blues ballad that crossed racial lines. Once they make it to Cleveland, MS, it takes plenty of cleaning supplies, bug spray and elbow grease to make the only available rental seem better than the about-to-be-condemned condition they found it in.

Highlights of this trip include a visit with Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, who regales the authors with stories about Son House, Willie Brown, and Robert Johnson. They sneak in a visit to Dockery Farm before returning to Crystal Springs, MS, managing to catch guitarist Houston Stackhouse, who was visiting the area. They manage to get some recordings of Stackhouse, who put off playing until a local funeral was well under way out of respect. Evans is delighted at meeting Mott Willis, a skilled guitar player that he considered a “missing link” between several generations of blues musicians.

The final chapters document the rest of the story for the authors. Bokelman ends going back to nature, delving into cultures in mountain regions while sharpening her skills as an herbalist and healer. Evans follows the academic track, eventually landing at Memphis State University as an associate professor overseeing their master’s and doctoral program in Musicology, specializing in southern regional music. He started the High Water Record label through the University, eventually releasing numerous LP’s and CDs of blues and gospel music. He has written extensively about the music, authored three books, including one on Tommy Johnson, and has continued to play music in a variety of settings.

This book stands as a testament to the those hardy souls who risked like and limb to travel the Southern states, and in some cases back up North, in a dogged pursuit to “rediscover” many now legendary blues artists. Because of their efforts, artists like Son House, McDowell, Davis, Skip James, and others had another opportunity to enjoy a well-deserved moment in the spotlight. Thanks to this effort by Bokelman and Evans, we now have a far better understanding of what it took to pursue and enhance our knowledge of the music. A revealing look at time of change…

cover art for The Mississippi Arts Hour| David Evans