Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Sustainability Stamp Blues

 The United States has just issued a commemorative stamp in its series honoring the statehood anniversaries of each state of the union. This time, the state is Mississippi, and on the stamp is a painting of an acoustic guitar being played by a person with a brown hand and fingers. At the upper right are the letters Mississippi; at the lower right the number 1817 (the year Mississippi became a state), and at the lower left the word “FOREVER” followed by USA. It is the 200th anniversary of statehood, and it’s striking that the image chosen to represent the state is that of an African American playing blues on guitar. (The painting was made from a 2009 photograph by Lou Bopp of blues singer and guitarist Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, from the town of Bentonia, the same town of legendary blues singer/guitarist Skip James whose 1920s recordings are among the most riveting early blues performances. Well-known to blues aficionados for seven decades, James' recordings entered the public sphere in the 2001 film Ghost World, where they were the center of attraction for the young heroine’s fascination with a record collector.)
    This wasn't the first commemorative to honor a Mississippi blues musician; in 1994 a 29-cent stamp was issued with an ugly painting of Robert Johnson's head that borders on caricature. Johnson had been the subject of blues revivalists' fascination in the 1960s, and again in the 1990s after the Blues Brothers film rekindled an interest in the genre. Columbia Records once again reissued Johnson's recordings, this time on CD rather than LP (the originals had been on 78s), and it seemed as if a US stamp with Johnson's image announced blues' mainstream cultural significance. The name "Mississippi" didn't appear on the stamp, which seemed more a coup for the blues and for Columbia Records, than for the state represented by Johnson's music.
    But now, 23 years later, various things about this state's official commemorative stamp are notable. Blues, as I’ve written before on this blog, is a poster child for music and sustainability, because despite predictions for more than a hundred years of its impending demise, blues managed to survive. The “FOREVER” in this stamp takes on a double meaning: not only the stamp but also the blues is viable, so it's implied, forever. With this stamp, blues reverses 180 degrees, from impending death to eternal life. Certainly, in the 1960s when I was a guitarist participant in the blues revival of that time, and a part of the blues music culture, I wouldn’t have predicted anything like this. Not that I thought the death of blues was imminent, but its immortality on an official seal of the United States would have been inconceivable. Not only that, but in some ways it'd have been unwelcome.
    It would have been unwelcome for record collectors, and for blues revivalists like me, because for us blues had become, in the 1960s, an alternative music, just as the protest songs of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Peter, Paul, and Mary had; and just as old-time string band music had become. Blues then was positioned, in the revival, not just outside of but in opposition to the music, and the values, of official, mainstream culture. Blues on a US stamp would have been viewed as an attempt to co-opt it and buy it off.
    A few other things about this stamp are troublesome. Although I named the musician in my first paragraph, nowhere is his name indicated on the stamp. African-American erasure, once again. Indeed, blues itself isn't mentioned on the stamp; genre is under erasure just as is the artist's name. Identifying the state of Mississippi with a blues guitarist is appropriate because since the early 1990s the state's tourism department has promoted blues to visitors, realizing that the blues draws music fans who'll spend money in-state when they come to festivals, museums, gravesites, juke joints, record stores, and in other places associated with blues, not to mention money spent for food, lodging, gifts, and other things. 

Fifty years ago, to celebrate the Mississippi sesquicentennial, the US issued another commemorative stamp. This was during the decade of the 1960s blues revival, and also the decade of the Civil Rights Movement, Mississippi being one of the most racially violent states. Ironically, perhaps, the 1967 Mississippi commemorative stamp then portrayed a Southern white magnolia, the state flower, worn by many a southern belle, representing beauty, purity, dignity and gracious living.

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