Take a drive up Highway 49 from Jackson to Clarksdale, the Mississippi Delta, cradle of American music. Savor the view of vast fields of cotton, small towns, and many place markers where towns used to be, before time and machines wore them away. Breathe the sweet country air.
By the time you intersect Highway 61, “The Crossroads,” you will have passed through a land that produced musicians Muddy Waters, Jimmie Rodgers, Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Patton, John Lee Hooker, Skip James, John Hurt, Elmore James, Elvis Presley and Robert Johnson, just to start.
For American blues, there is no place more hallowed and legendary than the Delta, and nowhere as historically authentic.
Go there – the Delta is a lovely and fascinating place to visit – but don’t expect to hear great blues just anywhere these days. The legendary talents are long gone with the communities and hard times that bore them.
Where is authentic blues now? Anywhere there is a longing and a musician that can translate that through honest feeling into music. The Blues is a feeling and expression born of spiritual necessity. Great music cannot rest on its laurels; it has to be needed now, it has to matter to be great.
Two Forms of Authenticity
“I was at a conference recently and they were discussing how millennials really respond to authenticity and sensitivity, and I thought, ‘That’s great! We’re already doing that!” –from Rev. Ann Kansfield’s sermon, Greenpoint Reformed Church service, September 24, 2017
There are two forms of authenticity. The first is historic authenticity, concerning the past (“the authentic article,”) and then there is authenticity of expression (“authentic feeling”), which concerns the present. It is important to make that distinction, because too often they are confused. They have nothing to do with each other, and it is false to judge one against the other.
Anyplace can deliver a meaningful experience, but it’s not the location, it’s not the dress or anything conforming to legacy that give it meaning. For meaning, a true connection must be made to the people present and their present concerns.
Authenticity in musical expression is the same as authenticity in spirituality: no pretense, no ritual for the sake of tradition, nothing done without thought and care. We are in the moment. Finding authenticity is finding the true article. If anything rings false, it is muted.
If we go to the Mississippi Delta and are not moved by the music, then it is only a place where good music used to happen and we are looking at historical artifacts. Authenticity of origination is not what it used to be. One hundred years ago, a clarinettist from New Orleans would have certainly been steeped in jazz better than anyone else. These days, a clarinettist from Japan or Canada or anywhere may be just as skilled as one from New Orleans. They can have virtually the same education from 2nd or 3rd generation jazz musicians and access to the same recordings.
Despite what we would like to believe, talent is not inherited, so don’t look for authenticity there. Location and heritage can have something to do with talent, but not always.
Now transfer this phenomena to a church—easy to do, as music and spirituality are so closely related—and ask if the location is producing an “authentic” experience simply because it is a location where spirituality is supposed to occur.
If we go to a church and do not find the true message of Christ in the community, then the church is only a building where people meet. It has Christian symbols, a Bible, a pastor, some music, some prayers are spoken by the crowd gathered there. But is it offering sanctuary to everyone? Is it uplifting hearts? Preaching love and acceptance? Challenging the status quo? Is everyone engaged and heartened by the church?
Authentic artifacts are worthwhile for museums, but they hold no candle to the flame of authenticity in the present.
Like Greenpoint Reformed, our church band, the Milton Street Revival, aims for the latter form of authenticity. We can play spirituals, blues, rock, jazz, country and traditional hymns all with reverence for the past, but we approach them as our own. The one thing that unifies the wide variety of styles and songs we encompass is that they ring true and speak for us as individuals. I believe that connects with the needs of the congregation.
We represent a significant portion of Greenpoint Reformed’s congregation, in that we are trying to be as honestly ourselves as possible, not emulating others or “putting on for show.” It’s music as a form of prayer. We put a lot of heart and care in what we do.
Authenticity and Robert Johnson
It’s been wonderful to perform traditional blues-folk songs like “I Shall Not Be Moved,” “Jesus is a Mighty Good Leader,” and “You Got to Move,” in church and see how they still have a lot of power to inspire and transcend. I love and have studied American musical roots, so a recent visit to the Mississippi Delta was a sort of pilgrimage.
The book I had brought along on the trip, Escaping the Delta, by Elijah Wald, is a book about bluesman Robert Johnson’s legacy, but moreso a tome on authenticity and music. If you have any interest in the development of American music, and especially if you love blues, I can’t recommend the book highly enough.
In his time, Johnson was a musician aiming for the broadest appeal and success but achieved very little before dying young. In the years since the rediscovery of his recordings in the 1960s, Johnson has taken on mythologic dimensions as a “pure” folk-art hero, and his fame has become arguably greater than any other blues musician ever. Was he really the greatest, or is it greatness only in retrospect? Whichever side you choose to see him, it’s alright. The bottom line is, his music resonates well. He was a great musician.
There will never be another blues musician quite like Robert Johnson or an era quite like the one in which he lived, but a musician may certainly play blues today that carries the same level of emotional/transportational power as Johnson. If the delivery is heartfelt and you appreciate their level of musicianship, then it is as good and legitimate a blues as the one Johnson delivered, no matter where you are. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
While I was in Clarksdale, I got lucky. I entered the dilapidated door of Red’s juke joint to find Delta guitarist Terry “Harmonica” Beans playing blues in the classic style with just a guitar, his voice and stomping his foot on some warped wooden floorboards. He sang deeply and played powerfully, and being there, I guess you could say I got a double dose of authenticity. But I imagine that Terry on a good night would be great no matter where you hear him.
A good musician is just a performer of vibrations connecting with an audience. That’s all there is.
The Milton Street Revival Band, lead by Music Minister Jason Benjamin, performs music services at Greenpoint Reformed Church every Sunday at 11AM.