The Annual UMiss Blues Symposium is the “must attend” event for all serious blues fans, particularly those who appreciate the early blues musicians, aka country blues, or pre-war blues. These guys, mostly from the early 1900s on up through World War II, are the bedrock upon which blues is based. People such as Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Johnnie Shines, Tommy Johnson, and of course the most famous of all, Robert Johnson.
Although Robert Johnson is certainly the man best known as bringing country blues to the masses in the 20th and 21st centuries, you’re doing yourself a great disservice if you don’t expand and catch some of the other great musicians from this era. Everybody knows the story of how RJ, as he was known, made a pact with Satan at a certain crossroads in Mississippi one black, black midnight. But most people don’t know that this particular story is bullshit.
The story itself has been around since long before RJ could count himself among the living, and it’s been applied to several others since, although not with the notoriety attributed to RJ. The way the story goes is that in exchange for learning how to play the catchiest, meanest, bluesiest licks possible on the guitar, RJ gave his soul to the Devil. Although it was mostly likely hard work and practice that made him great, the fact remains that he went from a bumbling, not even amateur-rank player to the one everybody knows in the span of about a year. His contemporaries were known to tell him in no uncertain terms, “No, you cannot sit in!” when he made the rounds of the juke joints. And the fans stayed away in droves during his pre-pact with the Devil days. But it’s still a max-cool story.
RJ is also the guy who ultimately brings people today and many of those from the recent past into the country blues world, including the British Invasion from the 1960s. Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, John Mayall, Alexis Korner, Long John Baldry, Led Zeppelin, and many other equally famous rockers and blues rockers still famous today were hypnotized by this country blues music, and were the British beginnings of being brought into the blues fold.
The Newport Folk Blues Festivals of the mid-1960s brought men like Son House, Skip James, and Howlin’ Wolf from the original country blues pioneers, and modern musicians such as Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and many others, to the attention of the mostly college kids from that era who were the pioneers of that particular American roots music wave of interest. And it’s these musicians who brought many of us who are blues fans today into the fold.
Many people, me included, thought that when we first heard the sounds of musicians such as Cream doing “Cross Roads” that we were hearing new sounds, rather than music recycled from the early 1900s, originally played by a bunch of itinerant, hoboing black men. The wonderful journey that those introductions eventually led me to explore the history of their music. I was amazed to be able to clearly hear the identical, in some cases, words and music coming from the mouth of one man with a guitar, and maybe a harmonica, and comparing that to say, Cream’s “Cross Roads,” with its screaming guitars and the hypnotic words of RJ transmogrified into modern blues rock lyrics.
Which brings us to the UMiss Blues Symposium, which will be held 26-28 February at the UMiss campus in Oxford, Mississippi. UMiss is also the proud owner of some of the best country blues and modern blues archives held anywhere in the world, thanks to the foresight of people like Jim O’Neal, William Ferris, and others who founded one of the foremost blues archives and one of the top two American blues magazines extant today, Living Blues. Both of these men, and many others in the blues hierarchy of today, usually attend these annual events at UMiss, and are still very active today with the blues.
Many musicians attend these symposia as well, one of whom will certainly be there being Adam Gussow of Mr Satan and Adam fame. Satan and Adam are one of the more modern interpretive blues groups around. They blend a potpourri of blues that’s both country blues and funky, and who will get anybody out of his or her chair and steppin’ lightly around the dance floor. And even if you’ve never danced a step in your life, you will when you hear Satan and Adam. They’re that good and that funky.
If you make it to Oxford this year, be sure to attend Adam’s open jam in his hotel room. I emailed Adam today and I’m waiting for his reply regarding the exact details, which I’ll add to this article when I get his reply. You can also see and hear Adam and Mr Satan at Adam’s website, Modern Blues Harmonica.
This year’s symposium will be one of the lower-key symposia, with a shorter guest list of luminary speakers and moderators than is sometimes seen. Also, no special events such as the bus tours they usually offer. I’ve only been on one of their bus trips and it was well-worth the few bucks we had to pay for it. That “hands-on” technique is the absolute best way for me to learn something. I sometimes have trouble connecting something on paper to what I can picture in my mind. Different people learn best in different ways. Some by hearing, some by reading, some by sight, and then people like me, the hands-on group, which is a combination of all the above.
All that said, however, this year’s symposium is looking to be quite interesting. The leadoff event will be Evan Hatcher’s presentation of “John Work and Field Recording.” John Work was, for many reasons, virtually ignored in his key involvement with John Lomax in the making the now legendary and famous Lomax recordings of the various quickly disappearing forms of American music. All this year’s symposium events are free except for a couple optional musical performances that require a ticket.
On the second day, the leadoff will be the one I’m looking forward to: “The Mississippi Lomax Recordings,” which will be the first public showing of commercially unreleased footage. That session alone is worth the trip! The second day also features a talk by Dr David Evans, the noted blues historian whose blues roots include his friendship with all the founding and subsequent members of Canned Heat in their infancy. Dr Evans has a number of books out, plus he’s also a musician. You can hear him the first evening of the symposium, and you can pick up some of his books and CDs.
And take it from one who’s been there and done that, if you’re into country blues, you could easily spend a year in the Mississippi Delta exploring and investigating these early pioneers of what has become the basis of virtually all music played today on the radio. Punk, rap, you-name-it, all have their roots in the rootsiest of American music, country blues. And if the symposium would last a week, you’d still rue its brevity, just from the aspect of the interesting people to meet and converse with.