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Henry Rollins: The Column! The Mississippi Blues

[Look for your weekly fix of the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]

After more than three decades of touring America, this was only the third time I have been to Mississippi. The first was in 1987. We played in Jackson in front of about 30 people who stood in the back and watched us from the darkness. The next night we did a show in Hattiesburg, in the southwest corner of the state. From the journal:

06-09-87 Hattiesburg MS: 0200 hrs. Show done. No monitors. Bad PA. Whining promoter boy always on the verge of tears. Ripping his guts out, telling me how hard he worked and how he lost $40 on the show and he knows that's nothing to me but he's doing the best he can and why am I laying all these guilt trips on him by telling him the PA sucks? He's talking a mile a minute and I'm staring at his Minor Threat shirt and stifling the urge to take him over my knee and spank him. He finally throws the money down on the stage and stomps out in a teary rage. We're all looking at each other trying to figure out what this boy's problem is. Anyway, he gave us $131, much less than promised, so I don't know which one of us should be crying.

We played in Mississippi again in 2000. It was one of those large radio station-sponsored shows. I remember the heat and humidity were incredible. We played early in the day.

The band Live were playing later and at one point the singer told the audience that his father had worked in a factory and, that being the case, he deserved to be onstage. It was a strange thing to say. I have never felt the need to justify my existence onstage. My father worked hard to be an extraordinary racist, homophobe and misogynist. I am not sure what that makes me deserving of. Anyway, the audience collectively took it in and then sent a memo back to Live's lead singer in the form of a perfectly thrown, fairly full can of beer that caught the singer square in the head. I can't remember the brand.

Mississippi is the state with the highest percentage of "technically obese" adults. That makes me think of the FLOTUS and how she once brought up the topic of child obesity to the American people and the temporary governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, then accused Ms. Obama of trying to outlaw dessert.

In 1861, Mississippi was the second state to secede; it was restored as a state in 1870, five years after the Civil War came to an end.

In the days of slavery, more than half of the state's population was of African origin. It is said that Mississippi is the birthplace of the blues. Stripped of their freedom, homeland, native language and customs, its people gave birth to a beautiful and often starkly painful music. From field hollers to gospel to the origins of jazz, this mostly awful chapter of America's history resulted in music that is America's greatest gift to the world.

 

Many years ago, when I first started touring in the Southern states, I would go into record stores and write down titles that seemed interesting because I couldn't afford to buy them. One of the exceptions was the used blues records that so many stores in the South had. Luckily, they were cheap. The pictures of the players looked so intense, I knew they had to be good.

Whenever I could get to a record player, I would listen to these LPs. It was like opening the book of America's dimly lit back pages. Mississippi Fred McDowell, Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Robert Pete Williams, Barbecue Bob and "Blind" Lemon Jefferson were all mysterious, almost phantomlike to me, especially the Mississippi Delta players. Skip James sounded like a departed spirit and Robert Johnson, already so steeped in myth, completely blew my mind.

The more I listened to and read about the lives of some of these players, the more I understood about American history and the country's incredible capacity for violence. I came to the conclusion that it was the blues that was American music's Big Bang. From then on, I was able to find the blues in almost every band's music. An appreciation of the blues allowed me to understand the component parts of the music I was trying to make.

As the years passed, I came to the conclusion that the blues was the musical sound of life itself. Without the blues, modern music would be nothing like it is now, not remotely.

 

Tonight's show is a few hours behind me and the crowd out by the bus has long dissipated. I didn't know how it was going to go onstage. I never do, so that's not a big deal. They were a great audience.

Postshow, talking to people by the bus is how I get a partial read on my America. One would perhaps be unwise to judge the many by conversations with the few, but the Mississippians I spoke to were exceedingly friendly and thankful that I finally returned their town after so many years. The more inebriated citizens were a little harder to understand and required patience to listen to, as they often repeated the sentences they had staggered through several seconds before, but that very well could describe what the hallways of Congress are like right after their lunch break, so what the hell.

The music of those blues artists I mentioned is all in print, and the sooner you get to it, the better you'll be. If there is any single kind of music that can be considered essential, it is the blues, the genuine article.

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