Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sonny Boy Who?: Blues and the absence of memory

At a blues concert at the White House on Tuesday, honoring both the music and the occasion of Black History Month, Rolling Stones frontman and force of nature Mick Jagger gave a history lesson.

Between tearing into “I Can’t Turn You Loose” (an Otis Redding classic) and “Commit a Crime” by Howlin’ Wolf, Jagger briefly regaled the crowd that gathered in the East Room, talking about the blues, “something I fell in love with when I was about 12 years old.”

“The thing was, we were in England and there was a great blues performer called Sonny Boy Williamson ...”

Crickets from the crowd. One or two tentative claps from far back in the East Room ... but no more recognition than that.

Jagger tried to awaken some memory from the crowd. “I don’t know if you remember Sonny. He was a great harmonica player. Anyway ...”

It wasn’t a huge moment, and in the greater scheme of things, Jagger’s aside will be forgotten. The bigger shame is that, the performer he mentioned at the White House on that night well into Black History Month was already long forgotten. Or just plain overlooked.

Commenting on YouTube, The911 Shaman got it right: “One person clapped in the back row. You know the world is upside down when white folks know more about black history than black folks.”

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Sonny Boy Williamson was born Aleck (Rice) Miller in Mississippi in December 1912. He’s not to be confused with John Lee Curtis Williamson, a blues artist and harmonica player who was the original “Sonny Boy” and who died in Chicago in June 1948. (Blues scholars often distinguish between the two with Roman numerals I and II.)

Sonny Boy Williamson II started his career on the King Biscuit Time show on KFFA radio in Helena, Ark., and later performed on a program on KWEM radio, working with blues greats before they were greats — Elmore James and Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup among them.

He developed his own signature harmonica style. In liner notes for “Boppin’ With Sonny,” producer and blues scholar Marc Ryan observed that “[t]he tone of Sonny's harmonica was unusually full, the result of a combination of virtuosic breath control and an especially large resonating chamber created by cupping his hands around his ... harp.”

Williamson II played and wrote songs throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and was a direct influence on the emerging blues scene in England.

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He toured frequently, recorded with early incarnations of the Yardbirds and the Animals. He died of a heart attack in May 1965, but not before inspiring legions of young Brits hoping to make their mark in the world of music.

Brits like one Michael Philip Jagger, who took the time to remember him at the White House last Tuesday night.

Black History Month is often punctuated with ritual observances of singular figures in black American history and how their exploits dovetailed with the development of a nation that reviled them. We know the names by heart: Harriet Tubman. Frederick Douglass. Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King Jr.

But it’s regrettable, to say the least, when other names from that history go begging — now much as they did when the people behind those names were alive. It’s a sad sad sad commentary on the immediacy of our attention span when we revere the usual suspects, but fail to remember others whose contributions run deep in the American cultural soil ... others who matter ... other links to our history, just above our heads.

Image credits: Sonny Boy Williamson top: via sonny Jagger: Sonny Boy Williamson bottom: via YouTube.

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