Thursday, September, 22, 2005

A memoriam to bluesman R.L. Burnside, part 1

By Dr. Sylvester Oliver

Writing a memoriam on R. L. Burnside, an internationally known bluesman from Marshall County, is difficult especially when you admire so many of his musical and life accomplishments. He was an associate of the late David “Junior” Kimbrough who played in the same style, but he excelled much more than any other artist in spreading northern Mississippi hill blues around the world.

As an ethnomusicologist interested in African-American and southern regional music traditions, R. L. Burnside became a natural study for me simply because we lived in the same community near Holly Springs where I have spent years documenting the vibrant blues scene here from the 1960s to the present. During that time we were able to form a close relationship but the real beauty for me was that I got to know the man, his music, and his family very intimately.

Born Robert Lee Burnside on a farm near Oxford, Mississippi on November 23, 1926, he made his home near Holly Springs in the late 1960s where he lived the remainder of his life. He married Alice Mae Taylor in 1950 and fathered 12 children with her. Most of his early life was spent as a farm worker. For a brief period Burnside went north to Chicago with his wife only to return to Mississippi in 1959 after losing his father and brother to hideous urban violence and spending a brief stint in prison. It was during this period that he, facing 40 years old, took up the guitar and started to sing blues he heard in his local community, on sound recordings, and those he made up. This was the beginning of the first of three periods in his musical life.

The first period of his musical life (1959-1966) was an intense learning period. He listened and imitated the sound recordings of several legendary Mississippi bluesmen and attended house parties to hear local musicians perform similar versions as well as other popular songs of the day. Burnside learned his musical style from his neighbor and friend, the legendary bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell. McDowell, who lived near Hudsonville most of his life, moved to the Como area in the mid-1950s and became an important blues singer in the American folk music scene of the 1960s. Burnside adopted McDowell’s rhythmic bottleneck style and upbeat playing techniques.

Another later influence on his music making was Johnny Woods, a veteran country blues harmonica player. Together they played hill blues and standard blues tunes for a variety of national and international blues audiences. Other hill blues musicians who also influenced Burnside were part of the Como/Crystal Springs blues tradition in nearby Tate County where he lived for a while before moving to Marshall County, they included: Napoleon Strickland, Mott Willis, and Othar Turner.

Until the late 1970s Burnside lived a relatively obscure life as a farmer-musician. Seemingly, there was a certain fear of being misunderstood so he opted to live in the back-wooded area away from the general population to avoid disturbing his neighbors during many of his well-attended weekend music making events. In many ways his lifestyle fit the old American blues-musician stereotypes – a sharecropper, poor, jovial, addicted to alcohol, constantly in debt, and had a large family.

Interestingly, Burnside found an appreciative audience for his music that considered his talent and function more important than his personal idiosyncrasies. He was not one to put on a mask or wear a disguise for approval or acceptance. Burnside was who he was and what you saw was truly him – you either accepted him or rejected him.

Despite these characteristics and his limited assets and liabilities fully exposed, he was a devoted husband and loving father to his children. On many occasions I witnessed him giving his children every penny he had earned from his gigs to help meet their personal needs.

He often traveled to performances in an old vehicle, loaded down with his entire family and equipment – it was a sight to behold! But it showed the compassion he had to engage the whole family in his world of music.

As Burnside’s popularity grew, he began to enjoy a particular status as a well-known local bluesman who basically made music for family and friends who paid him sometimes with a few dollars, some food and whiskey.

The truth of the matter is that in spite of his economic status, the fulfillment that he got from playing the blues gave him great personal satisfaction. Over time he proved to be a popular attraction at local house parties, country picnics, fish fries, local cafes, and birthday parties in the region.

It was during the second period of his musical life (1967-1980) that Burnside stepped onto the national scene in 1967 after recording six tracks for blues researcher George Mitchell for the Arhoolie label titled Mississippi Delta Blues, Vol. 2 (Arhoolie LP 1042). Singing to the accompaniment of his acoustic guitar, Burnside began a slow trail of commercial recordings for both national and international blues labels. His frapping rhythmic bottleneck guitar style and distinct vocal quality distinguished him as a blues singer of northern Mississippi hill blues.

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