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Up from Mississippi: the unself-conscious blues of Roosevelt "Booba" Barnes

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Observers of popular music never tire of lamenting the artistic dilution that inevitably seems to accompany commercial success. It's been argued, in fact, that the entire history of pop music since the rockabilly explosion of the early 50s has been one of attrition: a revolutionary musical force is unleashed, it's co-opted by the recording-industry conglomerates, and things quiet down until the next sound of outrage is discovered and the whole process begins again.

But the musicians themselves aren't particularly interested in preserving what observers think of as the music's "purity." Just the opposite: the rage and desperation that underlie much of what we consider authentic blues, folk, or country music is usually born of a burning desire on the part of musicians to flee the cultural conditions listeners romanticize--oppression and crushing poverty. The fabled Delta blues masters were disarmingly honest about the fact that they chose music as a profession primarily so they could escape the grueling life of manual labor that was virtually their only other option. ("I'm gon' be a Baptist preacher and I sure won't have to work," sang Son House in "Preachin' the Blues," making it clear that he saw himself in a similar role.)

In recent years a spate of earnest (and usually white-owned) record companies has emerged with the self-stated mission of documenting the aesthetic of indigenous blues musicians. Like the folk-music labels that preceded them, these endeavors are characterized by idealism, dedication to the artists and their music, and an abiding belief in the unsullied purity of proletarian expression--a belief whose contradictions are seldom explored.

What distinguishes these labels from most collectors' labels of the past, however, is their desire to capture and sustain the living blues tradition. There's still truth to harpist Sugar Blue's lament, "I want to be a blues star but I ain't dead yet," but at least someone's out there trying to document what's happening in the neighborhood clubs and jukes, and even bring some financial reward to younger artists in their prime.

Rooster Blues, based in Clarksdale, Mississippi, may be the quintessential hard-core contemporary blues lover's label. Operated by Jim O'Neal, founding editor of Living Blues magazine and an unreconstructed blues idealist, the label is currently in the process of "discovering" a generation of musicians in the Delta region who'd previously been laboring anonymously in jukes and house parties. Rooster Blues also books and manages artists, with an emphasis on securing well-paying gigs for them outside the Delta area while encouraging them to maintain the artistic integrity of their music.

Rooster's roster includes Lonnie Pitchford, a young musician from Lexington, Mississippi, who plays a traditional one-string diddley bow as well as both electric and acoustic guitar. His repertoire on the acoustic consists largely of note-for-note reproductions of Robert Johnson's compositions; on electric he concentrates on slide techniques that evolved directly from Johnson. It's entertaining enough, but once the novelty wears off, there's little going on that's terribly original, even within the stylistic restrictions Pitchford sets for himself.

Roosevelt "Booba" Barnes, from Greenville, Mississippi, seems much less self-conscious about his role than Pitchford; that may be why his music tends to satisfy on a deeper level. In some ways he's a typical juke-joint bluesman: his technique is fairly basic, making up in emotional heat what it lacks in dexterity. But he's unusually inventive: even when he recycles riffs and songs you thought you'd never want to hear again, he brings something new to the material.

Barnes recently moved from Greenville to Chicago, ostensibly to expand his audience and his career. Although his style is as fierce and uncompromising as ever, there were hints at his recent gig at B.L.U.E.S. that his overall sound is already being affected by the change. His band was led by guitarist Vince Agwada, a local fret man blessed with remarkable dexterity, but who's hardly a firebrand in the rough-and-ready juke-joint tradition.

The set began with Bernard Whittaker sitting in for Terri Taylor, Barnes's regular drummer; Whittaker sounded tentative, unwilling to provide the kind of crash-bang primitivism one associates with Barnes. When Taylor hit the stage after a couple of songs, he immediately kicked the band hard in the ass, and the energy level picked up considerably. Taylor isn't any more down-home than Whittaker--he owes as much to funk and rock styles as he does to the traditional off-center blues shuffle--but he pushes a band relentlessly.

Barnes is a wiry, intense-looking man whose eyes bulge fiercely under a perennial scowl. But a delightful sense of play informs his music. (It was that same playfulness that earned him his nickname: as a child he was such a prankster that his family dubbed him "Booby," as in "booby trap." He still pronounces it that way, although somewhere along the line the spelling got corrupted to "Booba.")

After only a few bars of "Crosscut Saw," Barnes's opening number, he was duck-walking down the aisle, playing guitar with his teeth, and generally refusing to quit until the energy level of the room had been pushed as high as possible. It's difficult to say whether it was a conscious effort on Barnes's part, but the effect was to heighten his image as an unreconstructed blues primitive--a musician apparently so raw and primal that he's never bothered learning how to pace a show; he just goes onstage and lets everything explode.

The music, meanwhile, was first-rate. At its best it was everything Barnes's advocates claim: an exuberant blast of unself-conscious blues, bursting forth with new power against the background of the city's urban roar. Barnes's leads consisted primarily of piercing single-note patterns laid end-to-end, sometimes flirting with dissonance and interspersed with ragged chords. His phrasing tended to be choppy, with lots of empty spaces, and as unstructured as his show: he hit the air screaming, then dipped and twisted his way through solos that maintained their relentless intensity until they were over. His occasional missed notes or botched chords sounded less like mistakes than discarded ideas--it was almost as if he'd dropped them to the floor and let them splinter into dissonance.

Barnes eventually laid down his guitar and blew harmonica, complementing his playing with hip gyrations that seemed oddly out of place on the tidy bandstand at B.L.U.E.S. He screamed the lyrics of Little Walter's classic "Last Night" ("Last night / I lost the best friend I ever had"), transforming a moody lament of personal loss into a furious wail of agony. But his blowing remained tender; he juxtaposed anger and sorrow, heightening the song's double meaning as a tale of romantic disappointment and a memorial to a deceased friend.

The harp instrumental "Juke," another Little Walter trademark, became a rootsy tribute in Barnes's hands. Southern bluesmen have long delighted in taking modern material and recycling it into the folk tradition, and that's what Barnes did here. He replaced Walter's lithe, sinuous lines with raw chords as the band boogied furiously behind him. As always, he accelerated to an immediate climax and remained at that level throughout the song.

On a sweaty Saturday night in Barnes's Playboy Club in Greenville, that party spirit probably roars on unfettered into the wee hours. On the north side of Chicago, though, audiences are used to artists who structure their shows with a bit more texture and variety. The crowd at B.L.U.E.S. didn't exactly become bored or distracted; but after the initial explosion of enthusiasm that greeted Barnes's early efforts, the general atmosphere shifted from rollicking to comfortable--not a state most people associate with the wild abandon of a blues bacchanal.

This was partly due to differences in style between Barnes and his sidemen. When Agwada took over guitar solo chores, the music was almost viscerally wrenched from Barnes's intense Delta sparseness to an urban, distinctly rock-tinged vein. Agwada plays with admirable enthusiasm and undeniable polish, but he sometimes seems strangely detached from the heat of the moment, as if the notes are merely lying around on the neck of his guitar. He sounds immersed in the excitement of revelry but devoid of the fire of creation.

Mostly, though, it was apparent that Barnes was straining to fit his music into the cultural context of a north-side Chicago club. He might have encountered some of the same difficulties--although probably not to the same degree--had he been playing at Brady's, the Cuddle Inn, or any of the other more widely known south-side establishments. As much as a lot of us like to romanticize Chicago as a kind of Delta-blues outpost, there's no denying that both the music and the social milieu that nourishes it are irrevocably different in the two places. This may not have been true in the early 50s, when Muddy Waters and his contemporaries were forging the link, but it's certainly true today.

Rooster Blues's Jim O'Neal has acknowledged as much: he says he moved to Mississippi because he felt the scene here had become too overrun with white aficionados like himself. He wanted to go where the music and the atmosphere were still pristine, where Barnes and other local celebrities were carrying on more or less as their musical forefathers had been doing for decades. As a music lover, O'Neal reveled in Mississippi as he once had in Chicago; as a record producer and archivist, he began to document and record what he found.

But of course, as any quantum physicist will tell you, the act of observing affects the observed. The same process of attrition that accompanied the evolution of Chicago blues from a 20th-century urban folk music into an international phenomenon is now under way in Mississippi. Like the generation of bluesmen who preceded them, the young musicians O'Neal has discovered see their art as a means of financial liberation as well as self-expression. Let the earnest young aficionados talk of authenticity, roots, and indigenous communities: "goin' to Chicago" has long been a black southern metaphor for freedom and the possibility of a better life, and for musicians like Booba Barnes the dream still lives. One wishes Barnes and his fellow Mississippians well; as for the music, catch it while you can, because soon it will probably change.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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