Return to Coahoma County

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excerpt from Nathan Salsburg (www.oxfordamerican.org):

Alan Lomax visited Texas Island, Mississippi twice, once in 1941, and again in August 1942, toward the end of his second summer documenting black vernacular song in Coahoma County, in the heart of the Delta.  According to legend, Lomax came calling at the plantation’s big house to seek permission from the patriarch, Guy Telford Mohead, to make his recordings. Placing a foot up on one of the porch steps, Alan made his case to Mr. Mohead, likely explaining his Library of Congress affiliation.

It’s said that G.T. then told Lomax to take his goddamn foot off the porch and his person off the property. That Alan, likely with his wife, Elizabeth, and Fisk professor Lewis Wade Jones, proceeded to surreptitiously drag his disc-recording machine into the church service (or, perhaps, that he had already done so, and was merely offering the polite tribute of a post-facto formality) is a testament to his boundless pluck. And his good luck. Somehow Lomax managed to never get himself shot.

Neither pluck nor luck—or any degree of secrecy, for that matter—was necessary for the four of us who compose the staff of the Alan Lomax Archive to visit the Mohead plantation this past October, after several heady days spent in the Mississippi Hill Country. We had gone to the Hills to donate Lomax’s original fieldwork from the region to the public libraries of Senatobia and Como.

We had met dozens of family members and friends of musicians whom Alan recorded on his trips there—musicians such as Sid Hemphill, Viola James, Miles and Bob Pratcher, Otha Turner, Napoleon Strickland—and we had marched with them down Como’s Main Street behind Turner’s granddaughter Sharde Thomas, arguably the last of the Hill Country fife-blowers to learn via oral tradition, who leads the current iteration of Otha’s Rising Star Fife & Drum Band.

We followed Thomas past the Mississippi Blues Trail markers erected for her grandfather and Fred McDowell (whose debut recordings were made by Lomax in 1959) to the unveiling of a new marker for Strickland, whose son and extended family had come all the way from Cleveland, Ohio, for the ceremony. A large crowd was gathered. Como’s mayor spoke. An impromptu photo session lasted twenty minutes. In the thirteen years I’ve been employed by the archive, I have never felt Lomax’s work—to say nothing of my own—resonate with so much vitality, or relevance.

Driving  back to Clarksdale, my foot throbbed dully with each depression of the clutch, and the road was covered, blanketed, by tiny frogs. From the upper right of the windshield, a huge, bright white form descended, fast, like a lantern being hurled from a branch high above, and smashed into the front passenger-side wheel. It was an owl, engorged on frogs, diving for more. It made an appalling thud, my colleagues screamed, I swore, and then I felt sick. I don’t consider myself susceptible to that goofy, ersatz brand of Mississippi Delta hoodoo—crossroads and all the rest—but this felt like the worst kind of juju.

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