On Sunday February 16, 1947 folklorist Alan Lomax invited Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim and Sonny Boy Williamson to his office at Decca Records in NYC to record them discussing the blues.
What I Say By Stephen Dale Petit
Never intended for commercial release, what emerged from this collective autobiographical audio document was a searing indictment of black life in the US South. That a system of institutional, social and cultural racism brutally oppressed black people living there has been widely acknowledged for decades, but at the time of recording it wasn’t. And when Lomax later said he felt the system “resembled fascist regimes” and that a black person was “subjected to terror just like a Jew in [Nazi] Germany”, he went further still in describing the savage truth of what it meant to be black in the Mississippi Delta.
But these descriptions are clinical; hearing the voices of those who suffered under the yoke of America’s apartheid talk of their experiences is both moving and shocking, and when all three musicians recall that a common saying was, “Kill a nigger hire another one; kill a mule I’ll buy another one,” it’s impossible not to feel chilled to the bone.
When Lomax played back the recordings the men were terrified; it was simply not done for Southern blacks to speak so candidly and they feared for the lives of family still living there. First made available in 1957, Blues In The Mississippi Night interweaves field recordings of prison and levee camp songs with speech; Lomax fictionalised the speaker’s names at their request. It’s mandatory listening for anyone with even a passing interest in the blues.