PSS Winter '13

PULTENEY STREET SURVEY - WINTER 2013

Telling the Delta Blues

by Sarah Tompkins ’10

Erickson Blakney ’87

FIRST JOB: in Journalism: Paid Internship, Toledo Blade

CURRENT JOB: Journalist with CBS News Radio and Independent Filmmaker

The story of Erickson Blakney’s adventure is one worth telling, a quest through the country’s Southern roots peppered with larger than life figures: Bill “Howl N Madd” Perry, whose guitar hums with the story of his sharecropper father and his own time spent picking cotton; or James Lewis Carter “T-Model” Ford, a guitarist who transformed a tumultuous upbringing into a raw, honest sound.

“Southerners are big storytellers – great storytellers,” says Blakney ’87. “That’s something I’ve always known. But, you have to be able to cut through things, find what is true – get at the roots.”

As a journalist and filmmaker, getting at the roots is one of Blakney’s specialties. Although he was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, it’s in Clarksdale, Miss., home of the Delta Blues, where Blakney’s story really began.

Growing up, Blakney was accustomed to the allegories and fish stories of the customers at his mother’s restaurant, where he delivered food to area factories and offices. From those moments honing an ear for storytelling came a man who pursued journalism during a stint at the Toledo Blade, and now, a writer and reporter with CBS News Radio.

However, it was his childhood summers in the South that struck a resonating chord, leading him to create “True Delta,” a film documenting the musicians of one of the blues’ oldest genres – the Delta Blues. A rough, raspy strain of the blues heavy with rhythmic bottleneck slide, the Delta Blues are a near tangible manifestation of an era defined by Jim Crow Laws, field labor and extreme poverty.

“My family is originally from Southeast Mississippi, and I grew up spending summers along the gulf,” explains Blakney. “I never knew the rest of the state, but as an adult I became curious about this place that is so rich with so many contrasts.”

One visit to the Delta led to another and then another - a mysterious pull to a land of red clay, warm languid days and a slower way of living. It was on a trip to Clarksdale that Blakney stumbled upon the Delta Blues.

Escaping the crowds at popular tourist spot Ground Zero blues club – founded by actor Morgan Freeman – Blakney sought out Red’s Lounge, a word-of-mouth establishment on the outskirts of town. “I didn’t even think it was open,” recalls Blakney. “There were rusty barrels scattered around and this little, dim light hanging over the entrance.”

Only four people inhabited the dark space presided over by owner Red Paden. “There sat this incredible guitarist, just strumming away – and no one was there listening to him. Where was everybody?”

This question plagued Blakney, prompting him to share his experience with anyone who would listen. “I began talking to people about this story, about this idea of passing on music, about the true blues.”

One such person turned out to be Blakney’s former HWS professor Lee Quinby, who served as the Donald R. Harter Chair in the Humanities Professor at HWS for more than 20 years – and who had recently completed work producing a documentary.

Quinby guided Blakney through the process of filmmaking, keeping him focused and finding just the right people to help fill in the mysterious notes of these Deep South blues. After learning about the Sunflower Blues and Gospel Festival, Blakney also called friend and photographer Mike Scanlan ’86 to tell him about the need to document the incredible musicians performing there. Before long, Blakney had the beginnings of a Southern narrative on his hands.

“Mississippi is this complex interfolding of people, race, land, big stories, sordid truths, love, hate, smells and sounds,” muses Blakney. “The blues haven’t evolved the way other music has – it’s stayed true to its roots.”

“True Delta” made its New York premiere in October as part of Mountainfilm Festival New York at Lincoln Center – with a live performance by Mississippi Bluesman Bill “Howl N Madd” Perry himself. The film was met with an overwhelmingly positive response, which Blakney credits in part to the guidance of fellow HWS grads David Holbrooke ’87, the Mountainfilm Festival director, and Josiah Emery ’87, an instructor at Prague Film School.

And the experience inspired Blakney to create the True Delta Project, a multimedia, community-based project, recognizing blues musicians, and health and education initiatives throughout the Delta region.

“The richness is incredible; when you hear Johnnie Billington or “T-Model” Ford perform, it is so pure, so raw it strums somewhere curious and deep in your soul,” he says. “That is worth supporting.”

 

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