On March 23, Fruteland Jackson, a nationally known blues musician, teacher, and blues historian, shared part of his vast knowledge with a virtual crowd of nearly 300 eager listeners as a second-time Levy Lecture speaker. Mr. Jackson has the distinction of hosting the only in-person Levy Lecture in 2020, on March 10, right before the pandemic restrictions took effect.
In this new presentation, he included archival photographs of people and places, copies of book-covers and music, and maps as he traced the journey of how, why, and where the blues emerged in the United States. Often he would pause to demonstrate musically the expression he was describing verbally. Mr. Jackson, whose friends call him Frutejack, sang, played one of two guitars, or played his harmonica —sometimes simultaneously.
One of Mr. Jackson’s heroes is the late Willie Dixon, a prolific blues composer and leader in the expansion of the Chicago blues style, who described the blues as “the facts of life expressed musically.” The rhythms of the blues stemmed from coastal areas of Western Africa among Africans who were captured, enslaved, and shipped to America. Nuances of the spoken word among African languages were broken down and lost as people from the same tribe were split up and sent to different plantations or regions. This was not accidental: the intent was to prevent communication.
The music sung incorporated African rhythms and sounds. Mr. Jackson explained, “This rhythmic scheme appears to be a direct descendent of the most common type of West African music that Western musicologists referred to as antiphonal, or call-and-response-style singing. Those are some of the elements of the music that have survived and are found in blues music.”
What emerged were field hollers, work songs, and church music. By expressing their feelings of sadness and despair, the singers felt less alone. Singing the blues helped them cope and face another day.
The blues offered a shared rhythmic structure that increased productivity in farming and prison gangs. Church songs, spirituals, and hymns offered a way for an individual to be part of a larger, communal experience. Church music offered encouragement, and a way to talk to one’s god. When every other environment represented harsh conditions of daily living, church was a sanctuary that offered comfort, and where each person felt welcomed.
Mr. Jackson discussed close to 30 different blues musicians over the course of an hour. Three areas in the United States – the Mississippi Delta, the East Texas Coast, and the Piedmont Region – nurtured distinctive blues sounds and the musicians who played them. The Mississippi Delta, or “the land where the blues were born,” produced widely known blues superstars including Charley Patton, Eddie “Son” House, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, McKinley Morganfield (known as Muddy Waters), and B.B. King, many of whom were influential in creating the distinctive sound of Chicago blues.
Two musicians in particular were especially noteworthy, in Mr. Jackson’s opinion. The first, and one of the most successful blues musicians in history, was W.C. Handy, a Methodist preacher’s son born in 1873. His grandfather, also a Methodist minister, was one of the first Black people to own property in Florence, Ala.; W.C. was born in a log cabin his grandfather had built. Despite his father’s admonition against pursuing a career in music, leading to years when the two men did not speak to one another, W.C. Handy persisted through homelessness and poverty before he finally succeeded.
By the time W.C. Handy died in 1958, he had written 70 blues songs, including the most recorded ragtime blues song in history, “The St. Louis Blues.” It was published in 1914 and was reportedly Queen Elizabeth’s favorite dance tune. W.C. Handy was known throughout the world as a musician, composer, conductor, and publisher.
He was wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, having played and led orchestras all over the world, before kings and queens, and on world-famous stages. Even his father eventually relented, having attended one of his son’s concerts on the sly and witnessing first-hand the adulation and joy W.C. Handy shared with and received from an adoring public. His outsize influence is still felt among blues musicians today.
The second influential musician Mr. Jackson discussed was Willie Dixon, born in 1915 in Mississippi. Willie Dixon recorded with the Chess Recording Company (Chess Records), a Chicago-based company run by two brothers, Phil and Leonard Chess, who managed clubs on the south side of Chicago. Chess Records was known for promoting Black blues artists, including Bo Didley, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Muddy Waters, and many others, and came to define the amplified Chicago blues sound. Willie Dixon composed, played upright bass, and developed, Mr. Jackson said, “one of the most extensive song catalogs in the world.” He also established a foundation, Blues Heaven Foundation, that offers guidance to musicians about copyright law and publishing, provides scholarships to promising students, and helps support elderly blues musicians.
Like Willie Dixon, Mr. Jackson is a big supporter of blues education. In 1991, he established the “All About the Blues Series, Blues in the Schools” program in conjunction with the Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tenn. He has introduced the blues into classrooms across the country through assemblies, workshops, and classroom instruction, reaching well over 1 million students, from pre-kindergarteners through high school-aged teens.
“Blues in the Schools” workshops and artist residencies have proved to be an excellent tool for students from all walks of life, including gifted students, the physically and emotionally challenged, and inner city high-risk students. The Blues Foundation recognized Fruteland Jackson’s contributions in 1997 with the W.C. Handy “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award in Education.
Fruteland Jackson has produced three albums with the Electro-Fi label as well as several spoken word CDs, Singing the Blues with Stories, Vol. 1. Readers may enjoy an encore of his Levy Lecture on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.
By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.