Friday, July 07, 2006

Bearden’s Memphis Blues

Memphis Blues: Birthplace of a Tradition
By William Bearden

Thanks, to W.C. Handy, Memphis will always have a special claim on the blues, thanks to his classics, like “Memphis Blues” and Beale Street Blues.” As William Bearden’s photo-essay book, Memphis Blues documents, the Beale Street area would be a vital center for the blues until the urban renewal schemes of the 1970’s destroyed the neighborhood, much like what also happened to San Francisco’s once vital Filmore District.

Bearden collects some great pictures and images to briefly outline the story of Memphis’ blues scene, giving thumbnail sketches of some fascinating cultural history, like WDIA, “the first radio station in America to be programmed solely by African Americans.” (p. 36) Some of his captions distill much into few words, like his take on Muddy Waters, writing: “his hard-edged sound was defined further by his attitudes toward authority, money, and women.” Sounds like the blues, alright.

On the jazz side, Phineas Newborn, Jr. is wisely featured (including a nice solo shot on p. 52). However, Memphis can boast of many other jazzmen well grounded in the blues, like Newborn’s associates who played with him on Young Men From Memphis: Down Home Reunion on the United Artists Label. These included musicians like Booker Little, George Coleman, and Louis Smith. Understandably, Bearden’s focus is on legit bluesmen, but there is considerable space given to blues-rock crossover figures like The Band’s Levon Helm, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and the band Moloch.

Ultimately, Memphis Blues shows the widespread influence of the music the city produced, in an attractive volume of black and white photographs. What men like W.C. Handy, Howlin’ Wolf, and Furry Lewis did in Memphis would have a historic effect on young English listeners, who would re-import the blues back into America as bands like the Rolling Stones and the Blues Breakers. Memphis Blues economically (perhaps too briefly for hard-core blues enthusiasts) illustrates that story.