The urban displacement blues

Look closely and you will see not a damaged and decrepit Mississippi River town, but the anguish and despair of inner-city neighborhoods across the United States. — Steve Goldstein for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 19, 1992.

KingBiscuit-03Helena, Arkansas, in the 1980s was a struggling Mississippi River port town when city leaders embarked on an ambitious economic turnaround using blues music and history as its foundation. I first visited Helena in the early stages of this “revitalization” during the spring of 1988 while working as a folklorist for the State of Arkansas. Results of some of my research there were published in a 1992 Southern Folklore article, “The Helena Blues: Cultural Tourism and African-American Folk Music.”

Ethnomusicology was the basis for my work in Helena and the subsequent article. Concepts like displacement and gentrification weren’t on my radar screen as I turned ethnographic experiences into written accounts. More than 25 years later I look back on Helena’s efforts to jumpstart its economy and the social engineering that went into turning the city away from its industrial past and towards its tourism-based future and I see the forces reshaping cities around the world in play in the Mississippi Delta. Continue reading

Tabby Thomas, 1929-2014

NPR this morning reported that Ernest Joseph Thomas — Tabby Thomas — died yesterday. He was 84 years old. Tabby Thomas was a quintessential Louisiana blueser and one hell of an interesting guy.

There’s no need to rehash the obits popping up across the Interwebs to celebrate Tabby’s life. Instead, I’d like to revisit the night of June 25, 1991. My interview with Tabby was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer July 20, 1991. It was my first Inquirer byline.


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Precious Bryant: 1942-2013

Earlier this week the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Georgia blues musician Precious Bryant had died January 12 at age 71. I interviewed Bryant in 1990 for the defunct Atlanta alt-weekly Footnotes and I shot a roll of Plus-X of her performing at the 1990 North Georgia Folk Festival with one-armed harmonica player Neal Pattman (1926-2005).

Bryant, a Talbot County, Ga., native told me about how she learned to play guitar as a small child. “I learned the guitar when it was bigger than I was,” she said. “I was dragging it around; I couldn’t tote it.”

A versatile folk musician, Bryant was a regular at Georgia festivals. She also played festivals throughout the U.S. and in Europe. Blues was her first choice in music.

“I play the blues, but every now and then I throw a little rock ‘n’ roll in,” Bryant said in 1990. “I like the blues because it tells the truth. If there’s something you ain’t done, you are just going to end up doing it and so the songs just tell you the truth.”

Here are some of the photos I shot on sunny Saturday in Sandy Creek Park in October 1990.

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