Wednesday, October 02, 2013

George Mitchell's 1967 Trip to the Mississippi Hill Country

George Mitchell
Mississippi Hill Country Blues 1967
University Press of Mississippi

In the Summer of 1967, George Mitchell made a trip to Mississippi looking for unrecorded blues singers. The trip was a historic one that indicated that there were a number of down home blues artists of considerable talent still performing older styles of blues at a very high level. These were not the first recordings Mitchell had made, but in providing the initial recordings of R.L. Burnside as well as rediscovering Joe Calicott, who had recorded over 45 years earlier, Mitchell’s recordings were revelatory. Arhoolie issued two albums from Mitchell's recordings under the title Mississippi Delta Blues, although the recordings today are thought of as Mississippi Hill Country Blues, the rubric applied today to the music of Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Jesse Mae Hemphill and others. The trip also was the source for Mitchell’s classic book Blow My Blues Away.

In addition to documenting the music, through his camera Mitchell photographed these performers at home and with members of their families and community. The University Press of Mississippi has just published a terrific new book by Mitchell, Mississippi Hill Country Blues 1967 that reproduces many wonderful photographs that Mitchell took along with his recollections from that trip and interviews with a number of the performers he met including Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Rosa Lee Hill and Otha Turner. 

The pictures and words help us enter a world of house parties and picnics as we witness Johnny Woods on harmonica joining with Mississippi Fred McDowell. Mitchell was amazed by the fact they had not seen each other in 8 years when this happened. Then Mitchell recounts recording Calicott, who had made a few 78s with Garfield Acres and one under his own name, and a trip to one of the Hill Country picnics in a chapter titled Ain’t No Picnic If You Ain’t Got No Drums. R.L. Burnside is pictured playing guitar with a son or sons standing behind him. There are images of Joe Calicott playing his guitar on a porch and Fred McDowell reaching over Otha Turner to play the guitar Otha is holding and several pictures of Rosa Lee Hill that show the joy she exhibited despite the poverty she lived under.

An interview with Otha Turner provides backdrop for the Fife and Drum band traditions, but Turner turns out to be a fair guitarist himself. Turner is not the only representative of this tradition as several images feature Napoleon Strickland, who was fairly renown as a fife player. There are interviews with Jesse Mae Hemphill (Brooks), Rosa Lee Hill and Ada Mae Anderson, all of whom were related to the legendary Sid Hemphill who Alan Lomax recorded for the Library of Congress in the early 1940s. In addition to providing insight to their lives and the conditions they lived under, they also provided information on this great Hill Country legend  Jesse Mae Hemphill is the best known of the the three with her marvelous recordings, but like Mitchell himself, one is particularly taken with Rosa Lee Hill who as Mitchell says could stand as an inspiration for all. She was poor as anyone could be and lived in the middle of no where but was one of Mitchell's favorite persons, “That someone that poor could be that spirited and that full of life. …” Mississippi Hill  Country Blues 1967 is dedicated to her. 

Brief biographies presented at the end of this book all provide brief comments of what happened to the subjects after 1967 and a consideration of the legacy of these artists. Even if viewed solely as a coffee table book of blues photography (and the holidays are coming up) this book is easy to recommend. Inclusion of Mitchell’s recollections and interviews which help us understand the world of these performers, make this essential for blues lovers. 

I purchased this book. Some of MItchell's recordings from this trip have been reissued on Arhoolie CDs, while others are available in the Fat Possum box set, The George Mitchell CollectionHere is a link to the University Press of Mississippi blog that was posted before this book was published. It contains some sample photos.

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