A review of :
“Catfish & Cotton: Driving down the blues highway“,
by Luc & Marc Borms, 2012
Doubtlessly, my background as sociologist left indelible traces on my character and attitudes. Hence, it is one of my bad habits never to take things for granted, and it is a natural reaction of mine to turn whatever comes in my hands upside down for a few times before I form an opinion on it. I also need to understand something from the inside and in all its aspects before I can appreciate and love it. Skepticism is my second nature.
It was no different, when the publication “Catfish & Cotton – Driving down the Blues Highway” written by the brothers Luc & Marc Borms, reporting on their 2011 journey in the Delta region came to my attention. The journey’s aim was not short of ambition: constitute “a guide that seeks to explain the culture of the region”, look for what makes the Mississippi cradle of the blues distinct as it is. The word ‘explain’ persuaded me to order the book, of course with the inevitable dose of skepticism. Since a couple of years now, I am digging deep into various scholarly material to grasp why and how the political, social and economic conditions of the South since the seventeenth century have culminated into this music genre, the blues, that has been the mold for much of today’s popular music, and that still makes the listener all over the world have goose skin. From a mere vernacular music it has reached a world wide appeal and audience. That is unbelievable, no? There have been a few so-called blues ‘revivals’, but I would rather contend that the blues has never needed a revival: it is very much alive today, as it was more than a century ago, and it has constantly been seducing audiences and musicians.
What could a traveling guide offer me in addition to the pile of books that is building up in my library to such proportions that my wife starts to despair for lack of space? There are other ‘guides’ on the market targeted at the flock of tourists who visit the famous blues highway, and the other shrines and holy places where the pioneers rambled through the streets and entertained, in the smoky juke joints, their dauntless and rough public of drunken gamblers, and their female companions for the night. These guides, without exception, bored me after a few minutes and only corroborated my view of today’s southern blues counties as an artificial and fake environment, largely reconstructed and reshaped with the sole goal of keeping a steady flow of greenbacks from tourists’ pockets. Authenticity has become rare.
Hence, that evening, when I sat down in the couch to glance through the publication, my expectations were not very high. True, being also a dedicated amateur photographer, the photographs were promising, some of them were utterly appealing, but would the content be at the same level? After half an hour, I still held the book in my hands, and that was a good sign. It captivated me. Surely, I did not find the type of attempts of “explanations of culture” one finds in classic books of blues scholars; the “explaining” was of another, refreshing type. It was an explanation “from within”. So, the next evening, I found myself again in the sofa with the same book in my hands, hooked on reading it till the end. Although it confirmed my prejudice about the fake set up of many touristic places, this book looked beyond the outer layer. It listens to what real people have to say, the people carrying today the spirit that was also fertile to the forming of the blues. Through the interviews with a panoply of people, musicians, painters, museum and hotel owners, …Luc & Marc have reverberated the echoes of not only the sounds of the past, but foremost of the blues passion that still thrives in today’s Mississippi region. The detailed narrative of their road experience – substantial amounts of caffeine were needed to take them in only a few weeks through the entire Delta region -, their visits, and before all the conversations with people for whom the blues is an essential and vital part of their personality, make the journey come alive. Even more than that: at certain moments, I sensed the heavy heath of the Southern climate which also weighed massively on the shoulders of the slaves hoeing in harmony the cotton fields at the rhythm of their hypnotizing work songs. I could feel how the South with its Anglo-Saxon aristocracy of slaveholders was so much different from the Northern counties. There came flesh to the bones of the characters I had been reading about in – often boring – narratives and scholarly papers on the conditions that merged into a unique setting that gave birth to the blues.
My skepticism on the book is gone, and I have dedicated a special place for it in my library, not only because of its attractive cover (bravo for the photographer!). Whenever, I feel like wandering around in the Mississippi region, I will reach for the book. Surely, those of you who are planning a trip to the Delta region will also appreciate the detailed description of the itinerary and the practical hints of what is worth visiting and who is worth talking to. However, for those of you who have few hopes of ever crossing the Atlantic Ocean, for whatever reason – mine is fear of flying – the book more than compensates for it. Read it, and it is almost like you’ve been there. Thank you, Luc & Marc.
Erwin Bosman, 2012