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Blues During the Pandemic

Blues During the Pandemic

For well over a century, blues artists have demonstrated remarkable tenacity in the face of a wide range of hardships—racism, financial exploitation, and harsh physical conditions. The last year and a half of cancellations, lost financial opportunities, and relative social isolation, however, have presented a new set of challenges. Here, I’ll share the Covid stories of some artists, address how the blues scene has adapted to the pandemic, and recount some of my own experiences out in the field.

Since 1999 I’ve been actively covering the Mississippi blues scene in my roles as a writer and researcher for the Mississippi Blues Trail, a writer for various magazines and newspapers, host of the weekly radio show Highway 61 on Mississippi Public Broadcasting, and as editor and continuing contributor to Living Blues magazine. Notably, I spent much of the summer of 2020 out in the field working on an assignment for Living Blues. I’ve also had the fortune to do blues associated projects as a podcaster, filmmaker, speaker, and via museum work, while my main gig is teaching sociology at the University of Mississippi, where my classes include Anthropology of Blues Culture. And I hope it goes without saying that I’m a big fan of the music and have befriended many artists, including those featured here.

Above (main image): Southern Soul star Nathaniel Kimble with his son Nathaniel, Jr. in Benoit, MS. This photo was taken in June 2020 during a photo shoot for the Delta issue of Living Blues. Photo courtesy of Scott Barretta. Right: Bill Steber photographing musician and visual artist Bobby Whalen at the Cozy Corner Cafe on Church Street in Indianola. Whalen painted the murals on the building. Photo courtesy of Scott Barretta. 

The first thing that’s important to note are those who have passed away. Gospel-blues artist Reverend John Wilkins, the son of blues pioneer Robert Wilkins and a pastor at Hunter’s Chapel in Como, looked like he was going to pull through after a long hospital stay that included intubation. However, he died on October 10, 2020, at age 76, just prior to the release of his wonderful new album, Trouble

“It’s not so much that I gave up mentally, I was so weak physically. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I just couldn’t rest. I was too weak to drink water, I was too weak to walk, man. I felt like it was the end of my world. It was time to start making other plans, you know.”

On Christmas Eve of that year, Greenville native Kern Pratt, who had last performed on December 4, died at just 55. He had been hospitalized for pancreatitis but then tested positive for Covid. A celebration of his life took place on September 25, 2021 (the day before his 56th birthday) at Greenville’s Warfield Park; it was followed by a jam in his honor at the annual Sam Chatmon Festival in Hollandale.

Others were almost taken from us, including octogenarian Bobby Rush, who after months of rehabilitation triumphantly returned to performing, celebrated the release of a new biography, and received his second Grammy award for Rawer Than Raw.

“I got it on January 28th,” says Rush. “There was zero cases at the time. They didn’t know what it was. For about six months I lost all hope. I had faith that I would get well, but I didn’t know if the public would come back. I didn’t see it for a minute. That was a devastating thing for me to not see the end of the rainbow.

“It’s not so much that I gave up mentally, I was so weak physically. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I just couldn’t rest. I was too weak to drink water, I was too weak to walk, man. I felt like it was the end of my world. It was time to start making other plans, you know.”

Things turned around, Rush says, when he received some encouragement from his brother, a pastor.

“One night he called me, he said, ‘Get up and get your guitar.’ I got up and got my guitar at midnight, I didn’t put it down until eight or nine the next morning. I had my guitar on my arm for at least nine or ten hours. He didn’t want me to give up, [but] to keep the faith.”

Rush returned to work via the Internet in the early fall, doing events on Zoom and working with Cameo, a celebrity video message business.

“I’d do shout-outs at $50. They got so good I went up to $100. I was doing sometimes eight to ten shout-outs a week.”

Rush’s first “show” after recovering from the worst of his illness was a recorded segment he made at the GRAMMY Museum Mississippi for a fundraiser. His first live performance was on December 12, 2020, in Tunica.

“I did five or six songs, I could barely get off the bandstand because I was so tired, just wore out physically. I’m totally better now. I’m back mentally strong and physically strong, I’m ready to jump over the moon, I just can’t find a moon, it’s too cloudy.”

Rush frames his experiences with Covid in terms of the broader challenges he’s faced over his long life and career.

“Life is going to be after everything. I’ve been Black a long time, so life after being Black, what is after that? Covid isn’t the worst thing that’s happened to me. Everybody asks me about the George Floyd thing—I’ve had a foot on my neck for 87 years. I’m letting you know there’s nothing new.”

An acoustic performance from Bobby Rush's home in the Summer of 2020.

Rush’s longtime collaborator Vasti Jackson took a 15-month break from playing live in the United States, but remained active in surprising ways because of his wide range of musical activities, including working in musicals and with international organizations. Jackson was at his home in Hattiesburg in early March 2020 when the pandemic cancellations began.

“It disrupted my world. My calendar had events in Europe from March all the way to October. So all of that stopped. Then people around me began to get sick, people were dying, so I began to isolate… living like I had Covid.”

Since 2017, Jackson has portrayed Ike Turner in the European touring show, Simply the Best: The Tina Turner Story, for which he has also written songs and served as the musical director. Jackson was scheduled to return to the stage production in mid-2020 following various other commitments; as it turned out his return to playing music during the pandemic took place overseas.  

“The company I work for in Germany called in August [2020] and said we’d like to do a residency at the Estrel Theater in Berlin—just going from my room to the theater. That was in September and part of October, seven weeks. Thank God, no one in the production or the audience tested positive for Covid. They were very stringent. They had Plexiglas between the singers, we couldn’t come within however many feet of one another on stage and we had Plexiglas circles around the microphones.”

Vasti Jackson (center) with his guitar students at Playing For Change Bizung School in Tamale, Ghana. Photo courtesy of Vasti Jackson.

While still in Germany, Jackson was contacted by friends from Ghana, who invited him to visit for what turned out to be a five week visit. And from Ghana, Jackson traveled to Rwanda, where he remained from November 23, 2020 to May 21, 2021.

Some of those friends were colleagues from the Playing For Change (PFC) Foundation, known for its collaborative videos of songs played by people around the world. Jackson has contributed to videos including the viral What’s Going On, and worked with PFC projects including a collaboration with Saharan musicians in southern Morocco.

Vasti Jackson pictured with the great Moroccan vocalist, Oum El Ghaït Ben Essahraoui at Taraglat Festival in M'hamid El Ghizlane, Morocco. Photo courtesy of Vasti Jackson.

During his stay in Africa, Jackson also worked with the organizations Africa in Colors and Taste of Afrika.

“I had the opportunity to promote cultural exchange, for teaching and strengthening music industry ties. I was playing at schools, with performances in Accra, Ghana and Kigali, Rwanda. It was personally rewarding because I could feel the spirit of the ancestors and the root element of what we call blues in the motherland. Because the rhythm and the melodies are the heart, lung and liver of what we label the blues in Mississippi and the USA.”

“The safety in both countries is very high. Their conscious commitment to be unified in following the instructions of social distancing, masking, lockdowns brought forth extremely low numbers in both countries.”

Jackson returned to live performing in the U.S. on June 5, 2021, at the celebration of the expansion of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola. The outdoor event also featured Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Gary Clark, Jr., Castro “Mr. Sipp” Coleman, and Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks. Since then, he’s appeared at Hattiesburg’s Saenger Theater in the “Motown Downtown Revival,” a tribute to Mississippians at the label that also featured G.C. Cameron and Robert “Duke” Tillman.

"...I could feel the spirit of the ancestors and the root element of what we call blues in the motherland. Because the rhythm and the melodies are the heart, lung and liver of what we label the blues in Mississippi and the USA.”

In November 2020, Vasti Jackson visited Rwanda. He intended to stay for thirty days and instead stayed for six months. This video, “Rwandaful” is a tribute to the cultures of Rwanda and Mississippi.

The State of Blues in the Delta

Prior to the pandemic, I had committed to being the lead writer on a special issue of Living Blues on the Delta, which would entail spending weeks traveling around together with photographer Bill Steber. Underwritten by Visit Mississippi as well as local tourism entities, the issue was scheduled to come out in September 2020. As summer approached, it became clear that delaying this trip until things passed over wasn’t an option. Normally Bill and I approach special issues—we’ve done a half-dozen or so—through traveling and rooming together, but out of caution we decided to drive separately, stay in different homes, and conduct more extensive phone interviews with artists after abbreviated meetings.

"There was a constant fear that you could pick up the virus on the road and transmit it to the very people whose stories that you’re striving to help amplify and preserve."

“Doing this kind of work is always one of the great joys of my life, but this was particularly daunting,” recalls Steber. “Because almost all of the work had to be done outdoors in the heat and observing strict protocols to protect the artists. There was a constant fear that you could pick up the virus on the road and transmit it to the very people whose stories that you’re striving to help amplify and preserve. Many of the artists were older, and in fact two of the people that we worked with came down with Covid, just weeks after we visited them.”

The work gave us insights into how a wide variety of artists were coping with the pandemic. Over several months, we met with over twenty-five musicians including Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Keith Johnson, Lucious Spiller, John Horton, and Anthony Sherrod, generally talking with them outdoors. It was a joy to be serenaded by musicians who brought their instruments for photo shoots, but we sorely missed the casual meals, performances, and leisurely hanging out that is normally an integral part of documentary work.

Far Left: During the summer of 2020, Scott Barretta and Bill Steber visited with about twenty blues musicians across the Delta. Steber is pictured photographing Christone "Kingfish" Ingram for the cover of Living Blues magazine. Photo courtesy of Scott Barretta. Left: Photographed by Bill Steber, blues musician, Christone "Kingfish" Ingram is pictured on the cover of the Delta issue of Living Blues magazine. Photo courtesy of Scott Barretta. 

Talking to artists about how they had adjusted to the pandemic yielded information that normally doesn’t come up during artist interviews. While some musicians lost their main source of income, others were able to continue with their regular day jobs that, given the generally low pay for gigs, often allowed them to be active in the blues. We met Greenville’s John Horton on his bulldozer at a catfish farm in Itta Bena, Jake Brown (of “Jake and the Pearl Street Jumpers”) of Cleveland at Dockery Plantation during a break from his upholstery shop, and Keith Johnson on the banks of the Mississippi River on a day off from his job in Human Resources at a Greenville casino.

Others were forced to turn to webcasting. In Clarksdale, Lucious Spiller was one of the first to do these shows and was likely the most active—for a year he played every Wednesday night, on Thursday afternoons (a time amenable to Europeans) and on most Saturdays, about as often as he normally performed. Aside from a fall off after the first weeks, support for the gigs—which was almost enough to pay the bills—remained steady until things began to open up in May of 2021. Spiller recently performed at the annual Sunflower River Blues Festival, which was cancelled in 2020.

Blues Tourism Continues Virtually

About five years ago, Clarksdale reached the milestone of live music seven days a week, 365 days a year, but that ended abruptly last March. Just prior to the shutdown, Colleen Buyers moved from California to Clarksdale to launch a tourism-oriented company, Shared Experiences. As Clarksdale shut down she launched the webcast series “Live From Clarksdale (LFC),” whose first non-venue broadcast was of Lucious Spiller. During the “Virtual Juke Joint Festival” in late March, LFC featured 27 acts over nine hours, with 10,000 people watching live and over 200,000 via social media sharing.

Since then the series has barely missed a day—an exception was when Ben Payton, who moved to Clarksdale in early 2021, didn’t show up for a scheduled gig, and Buyers discovered that he had died at his home (apparently not Covid-related). 

In the summer of 2020, Buyers assisted me when I hosted a Kennedy Center-sponsored event at Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art featuring Payton. We worked together as well during the hybrid Deep Blues Festival at the courtyard of Shack Up Inn at the roofless venue at the New Roxy, where the late Jackson musician Louis “Gearshifter” Youngblood played his final gig (also not directly Covid-related).

Scott Barretta and Colleen Buyers of "Live From Clarksdale" watch the late Ben Payton performing at Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art for the Kennedy Center's "Arts Across America" webcast series on August 27, 2000. Photo by Roger Stolle

According to Buyers, LFC has supported over fifty musicians, reaching about 40,000 people monthly, and sometimes as many as 200,000. Buyers sees her work as an extension of the projects of Roger Stolle of Cat Head and others who created the infrastructure that facilitated live music every night of the year. A major sponsor was Visit Clarksdale, and many of the broadcasts were from long-standing venues including Red’s, Hambone Gallery, and Bluesberry Café.

“What’s unique about Live From Clarksdale,” says Buyers, “is the coordination—some call it cat-herding—between musicians and venues to make sure we covered all seven days a week, across a variety of venues, and that musicians didn't compete by playing at the same time. We all supported and promoted each other. We broadcast from over twenty cool and historic businesses in town, from Abe's BBQ to the front porch of Clark House.”

LFC also featured virtual tours of Clarksdale, conversations about civil rights history, and engaged with regional blues societies, broadcast from the Blue Front Café during the 2021 Bentonia Blues Festival, and partnered with people from Brazil, Israel, and the Clarksdale Seoul Blues Exchange.

“It was really, really rough on a lot of artists, a lot of them were making music, they were looking for something to do...It was tough financially—when the shows shut down, the arenas and clubs shut down,
there wasn’t anywhere to play."

Southern Soul and the Pandemic

The last show I attended before the world stopped was the “Put Up or Shut Up Blues Show” at the Leflore County Civic Center in Greenwood on March 7, 2020. It featured stars of “southern soul” including Willie Clayton, O.B. Buchana, Bigg Robb, and L.J. Echols, as well as local artists Narvell Echols and the Jay Morris Group. According to promoter Cyrieo Hughes of Greenwood’s WGNL radio station, the $40 a ticket show was at capacity, with 2,700 attendees. It was the last event at the venue, which for six months in late 2020 and early 2021 became the headquarters for the civil rights-themed TV production, “Women of the Movement.”

“It was really, really rough on a lot of artists, a lot of them were making music, they were looking for something to do,” recalls Hughes. “It was tough financially—when the shows shut down, the arenas and clubs shut down, there wasn’t anywhere to play. I follow a lot of them on social media, and they were bored. But there were a lot of live performances on Youtube and Facebook.”

The contemporary Southern soul market is largely structured around multi-artist shows at large civic arenas, and it was only on July 9, 2021, when the first arena show resumed: the “Southern Soul Live” event during the 18th Annual Jackson, Mississippi, Black Rodeo at the Coliseum. But a glimpse around Facebook suggests that outdoor, multi-act festivals are flourishing across the state.

“When they came back most of them was doing track shows [vocalists singing to back-up tracks]. Some guys still use bands, like L.J. Echols and Willie Clayton, but the younger group seem to accept the tracks—they’ll pay forty dollars to see a track show in Grenada, Coffeeville, I’m talking about three or four thousand people coming to them.”

Looking to the Future

It’s doubtful that the audience for more traditional blues will turn to track shows, but with the rise of the Delta variant it’s likely that in the near future we’ll see a relatively larger share of outdoor shows, particularly given Mississippi’s warm fall weather. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes in Bentonia has hosted multiple events on the porch of the Blue Front Café since the summer of 2020, including one celebrating his nomination for a Grammy, and attendance was strong at multiple outdoor or partially outdoor festivals.

But relatively few clubs have the ability to stage shows outdoors, and concerns about Covid have limited attendance at some venues, particularly as many tourists in summer 2021 were leery about visiting the state. The return of the long-running jam session, Blue Monday at Hal and Mal’s in Jackson, earlier this summer was cause for celebration, but it shut down again just a month later due to renewed health concerns. 

Here’s hoping that increased vaccination and the implementation of safer policies at clubs and festivals allow for musicians to start making a living and for the rest of us to enjoy the simple pleasures of live music once again.

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Scott Barretta

Scott Barretta

Scott Barretta, a resident of Greenwood, is a writer/researcher for the Mississippi Blues Trail and teaches sociology, including music classes, at the University of Mississippi. He is the former editor of Living Blues magazine, hosts the radio show Highway 61 on Mississippi Public Broadcasting, and has written exhibits for the B.B. King Museum and the Grammy Museum Mississippi. In 2016 he received MAC’s Governor’s Arts Award.

Photo by James Patterson