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National Public Radio Show Preserves Oral History of Rural Blacks

July 28, 1988

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) _ Elderly small-town Mississippi blues singers are being tapped as historians by a new National Public Radio series in which they share their memories and music to help young blacks understand their rural roots.

″Blues is not entertainment only,″ said Walter Liniger, whose 10 interviews with local blues lovers are woven together in the oral history and music series, ″The Original Down Home Blues Show.″

″Blues players have often been compared to the ‘griot’ in the African tribal system. The ‘griot’ was the storyteller, singer and historian of the tribe,″ Liniger said.

″In a sense the blues player once had a similar function: He-she processed and voiced in his-her own way the emotional undertows of the black community,″ said Liniger of the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi.

Syndicated by National Public Radio in January, the program already has aired on 12 stations around the country, said Craig Koon, president of Media Productions International, which covered the project’s $23,000 and provided technical assistance.

Thirty-four other stations are scheduled to begin broadcasting the series soon, Koon said. His company, based in Memphis, Tenn., is negotiating with an underwriter to fund additional interviews with aging blues men and women.

Liniger, a Swiss-born musician, said he didn’t interview any well-known musicians. He was interested in the everyday men and women, ages 60 to 80, from the rural South.

″If you go back to the early part of this century where the idiom of blues begins to sort of take shape, then the (blues) records or people’s memories are the only thing we have to document a certain aspect of the black experience in this country,″ Liniger said.

″I do believe that even if we read black intellectuals of the time, they were concerned with other topics than the rural South. They were much more concerned with the black experience in urban settings.

″The feeling I got from talking with a lot of older black people is they are living in a social context that is not documented either by blacks or whites.″

Each program in the series features an interview with a single musician.

The musicians don’t always perform, but sometimes choose from the Archive’s selection songs that they enjoyed in younger years. Liniger then talks with them about what life was like when that song was popular - exploring the educational, social, religious and moral aspects of the day.

For example, 70-year-old Ellen Jefferies of Holly Springs describes in one program her grade school memories.

″I went to the ‘rag school,’ to the ‘bush hollow’ ... just some posts nailed in the ground with some limbs and things cut off of trees and piled up around ’em and also over the top of it the same way. And that’s what we went to school in - the bush hollow. We toted our water from the spring down at the bottom of the hill,″ she says.

About 10 children would gather at the bush hollow for class - unless they were needed in the fields or elsewhere to help the family get by, Jefferies said.

Many rural black women of her day didn’t have the luxury of a doctor’s or hospital’s care when their children were born, she said.

″I never went to no hospital. I had my children myself,″ Jefferies recalls. ″I had a midwife to come see me once or twice. But whenever they’d get there my childrens was born. I ain’t lying. I had my childrens my own self. Me and the good Lord together, I say it like that.″

Five of her seven children died, Jefferies said.

Jefferies said she’s particularly proud of her son who lives in Chicago - a much different world than her Holly Springs.

Liniger said he hopes the radio program’s use of blues tunes as historical benchmarkers will help the children of Chicago and other urban areas better understand the lives of their grandparents.

In another interview, Liniger asked 76-year-old Lee Andrew ″Cotton″ Howell of Holly Springs: ″What does the blues offer you today?″

Howell replied: ″It helps me along. It brings up stories and memories with my friends. We’d be sittin’ and talkin’, you know. Ain’t that many left.″

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