The blues—as a palette of intense, often contradictory feelings; a range of social conditions heavily inflected by blackness and southernness; an expressive form encompassing literature as well as music; and a philosophical orientation towards experience—are a more complex cultural phenomenon than some realize. This essay unpacks the latter two concepts: blues expressiveness and the blues ethos. Blues expressiveness is constituted by a range of cultural practices, including the AAB stanza, call and response procedure, vocalizations, blues-idiomatic language, and signifying. The blues ethos, too, offers multiple strategies for surviving bad times by refusing to reify the down-ness of the present moment as an inescapable condition, sometimes with the help of harsh, redemptive laughter. In this essay, Adam Gussow draws on a range of lyric, literary, and folkloristic commentary by Langston Hughes, Cornell West, Bessie Smith, Howard Odum, Kalamu ya Salaam, W. C. Handy, Angela Y. Davis, Lonnie Johnson, and many others. The essay also takes an autobiographical turn as Gussow mines his own bandstand and classroom experience with Mississippi-born blues performers Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee and Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry to illustrate the blues ethos in action.
The best-known setting for William Faulkner’s work is of course the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, set in the hills of North Mississippi, but Faulkner also spent time in the Mississippi Delta, both in person and on paper. In various ways, Delta natives and those with close ties to the alluvial region—such as Ben Wasson, William Alexander Percy, and Phil Stone—significantly affected Faulkner’s life and career. As a result, the Mississippi Delta’s impression on Faulkner influenced much of his fiction in the 1930s and ’40s. The Delta crops up in novels such as The Wild Palms, Go Down, Moses, and Absalom, Absalom! and in stories such as “The Bear,” “Red Leaves,” “A Justice,” and “A Courtship.” Unfurled, these novels and stories present a Faulknerian history of the Delta, and in “The Delta and Yoknapatawpha: The Layering of Geography and Myth in the Works of William Faulkner,” Phillip Gordon bridges the narrow divide between these two Mississippi regions that were so significant to the work of Mississippi’s most celebrated author.
The Center for the Study of Southern Culture announces a $1,000 research grant to advance scholarship on The Radical South: Southern Activism, Past and Present. The Center will also provide travel expenses for the selected scholar-in-residence to visit the University of Mississippi campus and present her or his work in a lecture during a month-long series of events in April 2017. The scholar-in-residence’s work will be subsequently published in the Center for the Study of Southern Culture’s online journal, Study the South.