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Blues is one of the sounds most responsible for modern American music. It is foundational for rock and roll; early rock was in some cases nothing more than blues with an insistent beat, and many of the greatest rock acts have been enthralled by Delta bluesmen to the point of near plagiarism. Country music, as well, owes a great deal to blues; the two forms really emerged together in the post-Civil War southern countryside. And of course modern R&B (Rhythm and Blues) is a direct descendant, even if Beyonce sounds very far away from Robert Johnson. Jazz is often called the greatest American art form, and it should be, but Blues holds a special niche of its own, further from the rarified air of jazz and closer to the roots of the American soul.

It was in Chicago, the destination of many African American migrants during the 20th century, where the blues got plugged in and electrified, that it really took off as a public form. Instead of a simple one man, one acoustic guitar setup as it was most often in the Delta, Blues became a band phenomenon: guitar, bass, drums, and more often than not keys.

This is a shot of Jeremy Powell, who plays keys all over Memphis – search Youtube for “Jeremy Powell” Memphis and you’ll get a wide array of videos of him sitting in with various acts in different venues across town. The night we saw him, he was playing my favorite Memphis bar, the Rum Boogie Café, with a band I’ve been unable to identify. That’s okay, because they weren’t all that good, allowing Jeremy to stand out even more. He was a fantastic keyboard and organ player, and was without question the standout on that stage, both through his music and his amazing stage presence.

This shot is one I was sure at the time I didn’t get; on my camera it seemed blurred and unimpressive, due to the very low light conditions that were messing with my camera’s focus – should have gone to manual, but… I didn’t. So a number of shots didn’t come out the way I wanted. Ironically, though, the one I was sure was ruined – Jeremy, pausing for a moment after a solo to take a drag on his Newport – came out better than any of the rest; in fact, when I converted it to B&W, I instantly fell in love with the shot. I think it’s one of the best I’ve ever taken. I've included a color version in WS for comparison.

The song I’m linking to today is a Muddy Waters song, but the version is by one of the blues’ great piano players, Otis Spann. Like Muddy himself, Otis was from the Delta, but like so many of his generation he moved north to Chicago during the African American Great Migration of the 20th century, leaving his home behind to find opportunity in the North. This song, which shows his brilliant skills at the keyboard, is about that dual identity, north and south, which is shared not only by so many African American migrants but also by the music they brought with them – a music with deep southern roots which was radically transformed in the North. Clicking the link will play the song on Grooveshark.

My Home is in the Delta”, Otis Spann

Well my home's in the delta,
Way out on that old farmer's road.
Well I’m leaving Chicago,
People, people, and I sure do hate to go.

Yes I'm leaving here in the morning,
Back down the road I go.
Well I know my baby,
She don't know, she don’t know the shape I'm in.
I haven't had no lovin'
Oh lord, Oh lord, when God knows when.
I been sittin' here thinkin'
Wondering where in the world she been.

Ah, you know I just been sittin' here thinkin'
Wondering where in the world she been.

Larger version on Flickr, here.

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Additional Photos by Andrew Lipsett (ACL1978) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 882 W: 75 N: 1651] (7327)
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