by Joe Seamons
When Ben Hunter and I arrived in Memphis, TN for the 32nd annual International Blues Challenge, we were one of 94 different acts set to compete in the Solo/Duo category. While we knew little about the Blues Foundation or the history of the Challenge, we were definitely proud to be there representing the Washington Blues Society. Each round of performances was audited by 3 judges whose job was to assess every act on their instrumental prowess, vocal skills, performance abilities, and “blues content.”
Ben and I didn’t worry ourselves too much about these categories—we decided to do what we do with a cross section of our blues-related repertoire and let the chips fall where they may. For those unfamiliar, Ben and I play and sing blues, ragtime, fiddle and banjo breakdowns, a cappella prison work songs, and novelty songs of all stripes while sprinkling in a little bit of stage patter about the history and origins of the music.
Ben and I are revivalists—we know it’s old, obscure music. We also know it’s pretty weird music to be performing in 2016, but sweet Lord what could be more fun? Of course, we don’t play it just for fun. We perform this music – which is now over a century old – because we recognize that America is failing to move forward healthily as a result of being wildly ignorant of our past.
Near the end of the Civil War a young black man named Robert Church jumped off a Confederate ship about to be captured on the Mississippi River. Church chose to swim back to shore, back to Memphis, and back into slavery rather than allow himself to be captured by the Union fleet and thereby freed. Memphis was the only town young Mr. Church had known. Even though he had a good education and appeared to be a white man—and thus could have left that city and slipped effortlessly into white society—he instead remained a resident of Memphis for his entire life. Indeed, Church slowly amassed a fortune throughout the years of Reconstruction—partially by swooping up devalued real estate on Gayoso Street after the Yellow Fever epidemic swept the city, killing thousands. Church allowed his brownhouses on Gayoso to be turned into brothels that employed white women all the way until 1920. Church became famous for being America’s first black millionaire. Few knew that his fortune was built in part on white prostitution, and he savvily kept the information buried. Eventually, Church passed his fortune on to his son, whose life of privilege and quality education allowed him to become a powerful political figure instrumental in the growth of the NAACP while organizing black voters across the South.
As I crossed Gayoso St each day to perform at the venues on Beale St, I thought about Robert Church, and about the dozens of Memphis musical icons—Gus Cannon & His Jug Stompers, Furry Lewis, W.C. Handy, the Memphis Jug Band—who undoubtedly knew and respected him for the powerful, self-made man he was. The racism and other offensive absurdities that all of these people were forced to overcome on a daily basis is a fundamental element of the immortal music they created in Memphis.
The legacy of that racism is still visible there in everyday life: all of the service people are black, while the vast majority of people they are serving are white. Now, here I am—a white man interpreting black music in tandem with a black man—and trying to pay tribute and honor the legacy of these men who fought against discrimination, poverty, and stupid odds to record some of the greatest music our country ever produced. The complexities at the intersection of race and music in America are beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say that I was keenly conscious of my role as one of the large majority of white people attending and performing at an international event dedicated solely to celebrating the blues.
Of course, it’s not that barely any black people play the blues anymore—it’s just that blues has evolved dramatically (with the same rapidity that black music in America has been evolving for generations) into the thing we call hip hop. The parallel to the Memphis Jug Band in the present day is not Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons singing “The Memphis Blues” – it’s Andre & Big Boi spitting “Da Art of Storytelling.” And if you stroll down Beale Street any other week of the year you’ll probably hear more hip hop, or Michael Jackson covers than you’ll hear blues.
But that week on Beale Street, different styles of blues were everywhere in the air as Ben and I and the 93 other acts in our category hustled through nearly non-stop performances. We were only able to hear a fraction of the other acts, due to the sheer volume of performers present but those we heard were very fine musicians with skills honed over years of professional gigging.
After our performance in the semi-finals I was feeling quite ragged from some sort of throat ailment as well as deep disappointment about how our set ended. In short, I went on a rambling discourse before our last song instead of keeping an eye on the timekeeper to give us our 5 minute notice. This forced Ben and I to cut off our final, a cappella song in the middle of a phrase, bringing what had been one of our best performances ever to a terrible and abrupt end.
Since I went straight to bed to lick my wounds and pray, Ben was the one who got the news. I was awakened late that night by a knock on the door from a tipsy Ben—we made it to the Finals! We would perform the next night in the snazzy and huge Orpheum Theater! Before I flopped back into bed, I tried to savor the victory. We had managed to pull the cotton over their ears somehow and make it to the last round of the whole shebang. Of the 94 solo/duo acts present, only eight made it to the finals.
One of these eight was our buddy Micah Kesselring, who had been competing at the IBC for years and can pick the guitar more rapidly and powerfully than Ben or I ever hope to do. Another was an older black gentleman named Bing Futch who won the guitar soloist award at the finals by playing the mountain dulcimer. One of our fellow duos in the final round was Innervision, a brilliant piano / harmonica pairing who both went blind as infants while in the same ICU unit. They became friends as children, and have been performing together since they were young. Their music is haunting and powerful, and like the performers in every round we competed in—they were every bit as deserving of first place as we were.
Like our duo, Innervision consisted of one black person and one white person. While the music is what it’s all about, I couldn’t help but ponder the fact that—if Ben and I were to win—I would be a white man receiving an award in place of black folks who have been contending their whole lives with America’s racism. This style of music was created to serve as a spiritual release and a way to cut loose on a Saturday night, but it also provided a crucial outlet for black people to do something that was otherwise extremely dangerous: to voice their discontent with racism.
In prison camps, juke joints, and out on street corners, blues singers voiced all manner of poetic protests to the persecution that was happening every day. White people would dismiss music making by blacks as inconsequential or sheer entertainment. So, the only place where black people could get away with speaking truth in front of whites was the realm of song.
Happily, our society has evolved somewhat beyond that sorry state of affairs, but in the process we’ve made the blues into just another musical style. It is treated by most of our media and our populace as merely another category. But the forms and formulas of blues music still provide a vital outlet for those of us who feel the weight of America’s tragedies and travesties. When Ben and I sing an old prison field holler we aim, in some small way, to give a voice to all those invisible people out there locked up in solitary confinement today in American prisons. We can’t make you change that reality, but we can at least force you to face it.
Acknowledging the origins and adapting the vital function of blues music to the present is the only way that my appropriation of the music feels appropriate. Yet I still feel like some demented inversion of Robert Church. He chose to stay in Memphis even though it meant a life of persecution as a black man. I choose to keep plying my trade in the blues world even though I end up taking gigs from the descendants of those that created the music.
But when it comes down to it, I can only pray that it proves even more meaningful to be part of a biracial duo that comes together through the medium of black music. That is another vital function American music has long performed: to break down the senseless barriers our society has created.
Ben and I played our final set in the majestic setting of the Orpheum, and we felt tolerable good about it. Apparently we got a standing ovation (we hustled off stage to clear the way for the next act so quick that we weren’t aware of the ovation in the moment). Hours later, after all the bands and solo/duo competitors had each played their set, we stood back stage nervously awaiting the results to be announced by the president of the Blues Foundation. Second place was awarded to Innervision and after we cheered them enthusiastically my heart went still—our chances were now one in seven to win first prize.
Our only hope to win was that we were doing something quite different than anyone else we had seen or heard about. No one else there was playing a banjo of any sort, for instance. None of the duos were doing a cappella harmonizations of old field recordings, which is actually pre-blues music. Hopefully, this would generate the same response we get everywhere we go—a keenly expressed longing for the roots of the music, to hear something that feels old and new at the same time. But is our kind of originality, which is more about the arrangements and the approach, really what the judges were interested in?
When so many of our competitors were brilliant guitar slingers playing slide in open tunings, what will they make of an acoustic derivation of a Duke Ellington composition played on mandolin and acoustic guitar? We had a shot, but since we were coming out of pretty far left field, we had zero sense of how long a shot it might be. And then the president of the Blues Foundation opened up the envelope, read, “Washington Blues Society” and I couldn’t really hear anything after that. Ben’s arms were folded. His shoulders slumped and he put his head down; I looked around in a pure state of shock and wondered if my body was about to jump or crumple; and then we both floated out onto the giant black stage. Ben—for once in his life—was completely speechless, so I strung together some words about how much inspiration we had taken from all the fantastic musicians we had been hearing all week and made sure to thank our parents as well as the incredibly encouraging people of the Washington Blues Society.
When we were ensconced at the Corner Bar of the Peabody Hotel later that night we got some whiskey in us and then decided it was time to look at what, exactly, we would be awarded. We learned that—besides the $2500 cash, the plaque and the free studio time—we would be invited to perform on the Rhythm & Blues Big Easy Cruise across the Carribean, as well as festivals in West Virginia, Florida, Maryland, and Hot Springs, Arkansas. All of a sudden we went from wondering how to get our foot in the door on the festival circuit to wondering how we are going to afford plane tickets to all of these places.
But when I started to reflect on what we had achieved, it wasn’t really about these perks at all. I am hoping that, by winning the Challenge playing a more diverse range of material, we did more than show it could be done. In the finals we had performed two a cappella prison songs, one Duke Ellington tune, an old timey fiddle tune-ification of an early blues tune, and a blues song that we specifically interpreted as giving a voice to transgendered people being treated as the black sheep of the human family. Hopefully the music and the introductions we gave it served to demonstrate that our culture has lost something essential. But all of that comes back to ignorance—people have no trouble seizing upon those crucial ideas when they’re exposed to them—but conquering ignorance is our daily task.
We have found no better way to address that ignorance than to give people an education disguised as entertainment. That is one function of our performances: we don’t try to play it just the way the Memphis Jug Band did, we simply demonstrate that those decades-old songs still address the same troubles that bedevil this bewildered country today. Corporate corruption, racism, drug wars, gun violence, gender discrimination—they had all of that back then. These are some of the traditions that we should have let fall by the wayside.
Meanwhile, playing music for fun instead of for money has damn near gone out of style. It’s all backwards. And that is the source of our blues. That is why we sing. And, I am convinced that that is why we won the International Blues Challenge. It was not by virtue of superior originality, musical chops, or more authentic “blues content.” We talked between each song to ensure that the audience understood where we were coming from, and where we’re trying to drag this culture to as it drowns in that ignorance: towards a cultural revival. We are like Bob Church after he dragged himself onto shore, seeing if he can turn his illicitly gained fortune into a better lot for his people. We will keep on fighting, till we reach the higher ground.