Son House and Skip James were both born in 1902. House was from Clarksdale, Mississippi. James grew up about a hundred miles to the south, near a town named Bentonia.
Despite the proximity of their origin, their music sounds very different, a testament to the diversity of folk traditions that were then floating around Mississippi. House plays a driving blues unmatched in intensity, his songs featuring a dynamic guitar style that he would pass on to his protege, Robert Johnson.
Though he lived close to the Delta, James’s songs sound nothing like the blues of that region, or any other blues recorded prior to 1931. The guitar is set to a minor key tuning, one that James’s adherents had a difficult time replicating. He brushes the strings with his fingers, and the falsetto waverings of his voice tell of hard times, the cunning of the passions, and haunting of spirits.
House and James both signed contracts with Paramount Records at the start of the 1930s, but like other bluesmen, they were driven into retirement by the Great Depression, when music sales fell off and record companies were forced to shrink their rosters. Both worked a series of odd jobs in the 1940s and 50s, and claimed it had been several years since they had played guitar when they were asked to resume their careers during the folk revival. “I thought the old music was all forgotten by now,” said House. “I never knew that so many people would want to hear it again.”
Obscure for most of their life, Son House and Skip James are now regarded as music revolutionaries. In the years since their death their songs have been performed by Cream, Buddy Guy, Beck, Ry Cooder, Cassandra Wilson, the White Stripes, Lucinda Williams, and many more.
The Mississippi Summer Project, as Freedom Summer was originally called, was designed to shine a spotlight on Mississippi, the most violent and refractory state in the Deep South. Unlike neighboring Alabama and Tennessee, the civil rights movement had won no major victories in Mississippi, and voter registration efforts there were stalled.
In response, movement leaders recruited college students and asked them to spend their summer in Mississippi. Most of these volunteers were white. They would be sent to towns all across the state, where they would teach in schools and attempt to register voters.
Mississippi’s power elite viewed Freedom Summer as an invasion from the north, an imperialistic campaign bent on destroying a culture that depended on white supremacy. Threats were issued from Klansmen and mayors alike; some towns doubled the size of their police force. Bombings, beatings: everyone in the movement knew they would occur, and possibly worse. Civil rights workers had been killed in Mississippi before. And yet, as David Dennis, one of the coordinators of Freedom Summer, remarked: “You didn’t get a lot of attention, a lot of outrage from this country. And we felt the reason why is that people losing their lives in the danger zone were not the country’s children. They didn’t look at us as being the country’s children. To build attention the country’s children would have to be on the scene.”
The first volunteers arrived in Mississippi on the weekend of June 20 and 21--just as the searches for Son House and Skip James were coming to a head.
*Photo copyright Dick Waterman