It was 2009 when I discovered that, really, I knew nothing about my father. Barack Obama—that other mixed person, or mulatto, as we once were known—had recently been elected president, ushering in a period of my life where I often found myself on the wrong end of unflattering, though usually well-intentioned, comparisons.
“You are half black, like the president! This is a great time for you! Yet you yourself do not seem to be presidential material?” one man marveled during a trip to South America I’d made that year.
“Tell me, which one is black: your father—as usual—or your mother?”
“Barack Obama barely knew his father. Do you know yours?”
Did I know my own father. I hadn’t even given that question much thought, until one day, on a whim, I checked to see if my father had a Wikipedia page. It turned out that he did, and it was there that I first learned that my father had been “among the first Chicago blues musicians to find success with Chicago’s white North Side crowd in the late 1960s.” This information, believe it or not, rocked me. Allow me to explain: of the few details I had known about my father’s life at the time, one of them was the fact that my mother had met him while he was playing a blues club on the North Side of Chicago. Some things fell into place.
I realized that day that I was, essentially, the result of a successful foray by my father into a theretofore untapped market.
The fact that this juicy facet of my own conception had been unearthed by someone else made me grind my teeth. Why was there a person out there—an anonymous internet person, at that—who knew more about my own father than I did, especially such intriguing stuff as this?
I knew I had to close this information gap. I needed to start spending some serious together time with my 74-year-old father.
Musicians are known to be itinerant, and this is especially true for bluesmen—long before Muddy Waters proclaimed himself to be a “rolling stone,” we knew blues musicians as musically-gifted Depression-era vagabonds riding the railroads from town-to-town, with all manner of those Robert Johnson hellhounds on their trails. The histories of the formative Delta blues musicians tell us that these images were often not all that far from the truth.
As the son of a modern bluesman, the rambling blues life resulted in a father who was, by his vocation, up all night playing blues and asleep during the day. He was also overseas in Europe quite often. After my parents split up, well into my adulthood, my father and I retained that pattern of occasional visitation forged in the restlessness of the blues rhythm. So we were both a little shy when we sat down together one fall day in 2009.
I asked him what it was like, living back then, and there. I motioned to the pictures on the walls of his Skokie, Illinois home, which are festooned in celebration to the blue note; a century-spanning display bearing testament to my father’s musical life, with many framed flyers and photographs of my him jamming with blues and rock greats. But the piece of nostalgia that caught my attention for the first time that day had nothing to do with B.B. King or Buddy Guy, but rather an old framed black-and-white photo imprinted with the ghostly image of a young woman on a Florida plantation circa 1930—long wrap-around skirt, hair bundled up in a bandana—standing in the backyard of a shotgun home which loomed blurrily in the background. I would eventually learn she had been my great aunt.
My father hesitated, unsure of how to respond. We sat awhile like two blood-bonded strangers accustomed to breezy Chi-town banter—crazy weather, cursed Cubs—until finally he took the lead, his smile spreading wide as a set of eighty eights, as though he’d secretly been waiting for these conversations all along.
“Boy, you could not get ahead in those days,” he said. “They held you down low. It was impossible to get ahead. You were always in debt to the landowner in some way, and whenever something happened where you needed extra money—a child got sick, an illness, anything unexpected—you had to go to the commissary, and so you usually ended up in debt to the landowner by the end of the year.”
It was here, and in the bondage of slavery before it, that the source for most of America’s popular music was born. O Brother Where Art Thou—the movie whose soundtrack came onto the scene as the most high profile mainstream display in years of the mix of Southern folk music that would ultimately give birth to country, jazz, R&B, rock, and most pop music as we know it—opened with a brief tracking shot of an all-black chain gang laboring to break rocks while singing a work song, because it was this music that was the direct predecessor to the blues.
(The actual recording used in the movie, "Po’ Lazarus,” was a song led by then-prisoner James Carter, recorded by the great folklorist Alan Lomax at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Penitentiary in 1959—a prison whose walls would come to house many a childhood acquaintance of my father’s.)
My father told me that day that some of his earliest memories were of his aunt showing him how to pick cotton without tearing his hands, and of the rising falsetto field hollers they used to communicate —“we didn’t have cell phones back then,” he shyly explained.
I asked him if there were many moments of fun. He told me how his grandfather used to hitch up his wagon and take them into town on Saturdays to the nearby theater in Macon, where he and his brother would watch cowboy movies—Roy Rogers, Buck Jones, and Hopalong Cassidy dominating the marquees.
“The way they had it at that theater, we had our own section while the movie played, of course. We sat downstairs, and the whites sat upstairs. But there used to be a problem with some of the white kids spitting on us. So the theater eventually changed it to blacks upstairs, whites downstairs.”
The contrast struck instantly: for my generation, “racism at the movies” has come to mean a lot of grousing over a particular casting director’s minor decision.
Some see the blues idiom as one of surrender to the oppression that my father and so many others endured. But I see it as just the opposite: a miraculous expression of life. Similarly, the decision to go north to the “Promised Land” was not an easy one for most people at the time. Northern cities like Chicago were cold and alien. The mere first sight of them could “depress and dismay, mocking all fantasies,” as Richard Wright wrote in American Hunger, recounting his initial glimpse of Chicago, that “unreal city whose mythical houses were actually built of slabs of black coal wreathed in palls of gray smoke.”
“Whenever I stopped looking for work long enough to think about it, I was very scared,” my father admitted of his first years in Chicago.
To many in the South, the North seemed downright dangerous. The story of blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson (“the first”) circulated among many aspiring Southern musicians, ringing as a sort of precautionary tale that my father remembers well. Williamson had been found stabbed to death in a South Side apartment after arriving in Chicago, the rumored victim of fellow recently-arrived Southern blacks who had been desperate and starving, unable to find jobs.
My father, however, was lucky enough to have had an uncle in Chicago, a musician who occasionally wrote to him, promising to introduce him to some up-and-coming blues musicians—men with sobriquets like Little Walter, and Muddy Waters. And so, one day in 1950, my father hopped a Greyhound bus to Chicago, leaving the cotton fields behind.
He was 15-years-old.
“I could not imagine you doing it. Boy, I sure could not imagine you doing it,” he told me at the end of our conversation that day. The echoing delivery made me think of a song—I Could Not Imagine You Doing It Blues, in this case.
I knew what he meant, and it stung a little, because I knew he was right. He could not imagine me having the courage to do what he’d done at the age of 15. I left his house that day with that refrain—I could not imagine you doing it—ringing in my head.
In W.C. Handy’s autobiography, Father of the Blues he tells of how he “discovered” the blues while traveling in Mississippi in 1903, where he happened to notice a man with a guitar at the Tutwiler rail station. He writes of this historic encounter:
“A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. His song struck me instantly.
‘Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.’
The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I ever heard.”
This early blues musician was singing about how he was waiting to hop a train south to Moorhead, where the Southern railroad line crossed the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley line, nicknamed the “Yazoo Delta” by the locals, and even more affectionately shortened to “The Yellow Dog.” So W.C. Handy was listening that day to an early blues song about the train ride the singer was about to take, to where the Southern line crossed the Yellow Dog line.
Reading this blues origin story, if I wanted to know my father, I too would have to go further than books and records to understand his and my blues roots. I would have to venture out. I would have to go south, tracing a sort of reverse route of the migration my father had made over half a century earlier; a pilgrimage to get closer to the heritage I barely knew. Eventually, I would have to go to where the Southern crossed the Dog.