Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsMusicians

The Blues Master : In a culture with little memory, voices like Jack Owens struggle to survive. His sound echoes the hard times of the Mississippi Delta as it embraces a simpler life.

ENDANGERED PEOPLE: As times change, some colorful ways of life are disappearing. One in an occasional series.

November 22, 1995|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BENTONIA, Miss. — As a howling rainstorm soaks the delta, Jack Owens hunches over his guitar and tears stinging notes from the strings. Thunder cracks and rumbles in his front yard, but the old man's high, trembling voice rings out:

Lord I'd rather be the devil, than be that woman's man. Don't want no woman, just sit here while I can. . . . Yes, just be here while I can.

Owens grins as a ray of sunlight cuts through the gloom, flashing off his golden teeth. Putting down the guitar, he grabs a bottle of gin, takes a gulp and chases it with a swig of orange Nehi. Then he belches with satisfaction.

It's 1995 but it might as well be 1925. Owens has been playing the blues since he was a boy, and nothing here seems to have changed--from the mangy dog snapping at his feet to the rusting cars in the grass behind his shack.

At a distance, the little man on his front porch seems dwarfed by the flat and lonely landscape. Even his guitar looks too big. But if there's one thing Jack Owens has mastered in his 91 years, it's music. He's the oldest performing Mississippi Delta blues man--one of the last links to the golden age of country blues and an American tradition that has all but vanished.

"I don't got long," Owens says matter-of-factly, wiping his mouth on his sleeve and picking up the guitar again. "But until I'm gone, I'll be here."

*

Today, black kids in Bentonia watch rap videos just like teen-agers in Beverly Hills, and "Seinfeld" billboards stand in cotton fields along the Delta's busy highways. Regional distinctions are fast disappearing, and as the country becomes more homogenized, few Americans know or care much about the grinding, primordial blues that Mississippi artists once gave the world.

And why should they? At first glance, the blues are alive and well. You hear them everywhere, on radio and TV jingles, in clubs and on records that sell in greater numbers than ever. Fans of this mainstream music may think they're enjoying the real thing, but the gritty taproot of it all--the Delta blues--is withering away. In a culture without memory, folk voices like Jack Owens struggle to survive, and they are truly endangered people.

Some may question if this is a bad thing, because Mississippi country blues--and the lifestyle that nurtured it--grew out of slavery, racial bigotry and economic hard times. For many blacks, it's just as soon forgotten. Yet as people like Owens vanish, so does a legacy of musical authenticity and human contact that is impossible to replace.

Once upon a time, everyone in Bentonia knew each other. They helped raise each other's children, shared food and played music for entertainment. Traditions passed from one generation to the next, along with a powerful sense of community.

Today, the town is full of strangers and Owens' music is a metaphor for something much larger in America. He and people like him are ghosts in a disappearing rural landscape.

"Somehow, Jack has survived in his little corner of the world," says David Evans, a University of Memphis music professor and the man most responsible for rediscovering Owens during the 1960s blues revival.

"He's the dean of living Delta blues men and he gives you a rare window into a world that most of us can only read about, or listen to on records. . . . There just aren't too many people like him around, and soon they'll all be gone."

*

Fifty years ago, the Delta was filled with men like Owens. Singers such as Robert Johnson and Charley Patton roamed the Magnolia State, playing juke joints, rural dances and street corners. Without microphones or amplifiers, they sang of blues like showers of rain, of killin' floors and love in vain.

With their wailing, primitive sound, the original Mississippi blues men influenced younger artists such as Muddy Waters and B.B. King, as well as modern performers like Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. Yet the country life that nurtured the blues changed during World War II--and so did the music.

From 1940 to 1970, some 5 million African Americans fled the South to escape racial violence and to find better jobs. They left behind Jim Crow laws and tenement shacks that were being torn down, the result of new technology that no longer needed human hands to pick the valuable cotton crop.

It was an unprecedented migration, and the black refugees who flocked to Los Angeles, as well as to Chicago, New York and other Northern cities, brought their culture with them. In time, the acoustic Delta blues went electric, reaching a much wider audience. Meanwhile, those traditional musicians left behind in Mississippi had fewer people to entertain and their numbers dwindled.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|