Playing the blues to pay the bills

With a handful of albums and awards, Blind Mississippi Morris Cummings, a harmonica-wailing fixture in Memphis since the 1980s, is cut from the same downtrodden, wayward cloth as many bluesmen who came before.

His laundry list of misfortune includes run-ins with police; 13 ex-wives (12 children); and the Internal Revenue Service, which informed Cummings days before a scheduled club tour of England that he had three days to vacate his house after failing to pay the mortgage.

“This morning before sunrise, them old blues came a calling/I lay alone in my bed/That sad and lonely, empty feeling makes you wish you were dead,” Cummings sings in Morning Before Sunrise.

Surgery could not repair the damage caused by congenital glaucoma that blinded him at age four, leaving him in homes for the next 10 years.

During that time, Cummings unwittingly followed the legendary path of fellow Clarksdale natives Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker: he taught himself to play the blues.

Kept alive by yuppie collectors, folklorists and festivals, weekly grinders carry the uniquely American music forward—grinders like Cummings, who plays the blues to pay the bills.

“A lot of long suffering comes behind that music,” Cummings said in classic understatement.

After the recent deaths of Mississippi bluesmen RL Burnside, Little Milton Campbell and Clarence Gatemouth Brown, it’s understandable fans might fret that the music that shaped pop culture is dangling on BB King’s blood-sugar level.

At 80, King, a legendary blues guitarist and well-known diabetic, is among the last of his generation.

In the Delta cotton fields where the music began, the blues is not vanishing as some reports indicate however.

“There are always these guys coming down from New York to write about the blues,” said Steve Cheseborough, musician and author of Blues Traveling; the Holy Sites of Delta Blues.

“They poke their nose around for a week, then write how there are no more blues acts in the Delta.”

Not true, he said, just hard to find.

The blues has always been an outlaw sound; you had to go across the tracks to find it, explained Cheseborough.

Guys like T-Model Ford, they play at their house if people show up.

“We’re coming around,” assured BB King on a tour bus outside his Beale Street nightclub. “I think young people are going to take to the music once they realise everything they’re listening to comes from blues.”

Politicians are taking to it, or, at least to tourists that do.

Southern states are slowly coming to embrace blues. “Now that its good for tourism—now every town wants a festival and museum,” said Cheseborough.

Festival season culminated last weekend at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, where thousands annually overrun the river town to hear 100 acts or more.

Despite swelling popularity, BB King’s disheartened by an obvious dearth of black faces in his audiences.

“My audiences I look at now are almost all white,” said King, adding that his annual memorial concert for childhood friend slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers was a rare exception.

“The irony of the blues is black America mostly couldn’t care less,” King, father of 15 children, by 15 women, and the first millionaire bluesman, told ABCs Ted Koppel.

He will stay on tour until those fans come back, he said.
“I want black children to know about the blues, why we play it.”

Black nightclub acts like Cummings help. He can’t compete with artists like Taj Mahal, whose best-selling album last year upped diversity on an American blues charts dominated by Eric Clapton, Aerosmith, George Thorogood and John Mellencamp.

Still Cummings’ schedule is rarely empty, partly thanks to overdue proclamations by Mississippi’s governor, who specified a week last month to recognise the state’s profound blues heritage; and the US Congress, which designated 2003 Year of the Blues.

Said Cummings, cousin of late blues great Willie Dixon: “We had to wait for it, but compared to musicians who spent lifetimes never getting any recognition, and never getting paid, it’s fine by me.” - AFP

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