Magazine

Mid-term Blues: What music reveals about US politics

  • 2 November 2014
  • From the section Magazine
  • comments

BBC News is visiting five states in five days to test the mood of American voters ahead of the mid-term elections on 4 November. We're following the old Blues Highway from St Louis to New Orleans to talk about the issues that matter most this election.


Day One - Ferguson, Missouri

Media caption"You're a part of something that shuts you out" - Talib Kweli, Hip hop artist

I have seen American flags burned at anti-drone protests in Pakistan, and seen them stamped on after air strikes on the Gaza Strip, but this weekend the Stars and Stripes were set alight by some protesters in Missouri.

It is more than two months since a police officer in this area shot dead 18-year-old African American Michael Brown. The media gaze may have turned elsewhere, but the almost daily confrontations with the police continue.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Activists carry the US flag upside down at a protest in Ferguson - some flags were later burned

"We don't feel American," says St Louis hip hop artist Tef Poe. "When you look at a mother whose son was murdered by the people supposed to protect us and serve us, how can you feel included?"

"It's just a shame that they would bring tear gas and tanks against their own citizens," says Tef Poe, referring to the perceived heavy-handedness by the police.

"How could you feel included in a system when they treat you so badly for speaking out against the injustices that they committed?"

It is a sobering start to our road trip down the so-called "Blues Highway".

Over the course of a week, we will be journeying from St Louis to New Orleans through the richest stretch of land in American music history, looking at some of the country's biggest issues and the way they are reflected in the music of today.

Image copyright AP
Image caption "We have to use our platform for something righteous" - Tef Poe, hip hop artist

Here in Missouri, they are talking "hip hop resistance". Rappers who feel that little has changed since Brown's death have come together for a protest concert in St Louis.

"Ferguson, Missouri, became Ground Zero for a wider protest movement," Talib Kweli told me. The internationally renowned hip hop star had flown in from New York to be at the event.

"In America, a lot of energy is spent getting a lot of young black and brown and poor people in prison. To do that, you have start by making them feel that their lives don't matter, but this community is motivated to change things now," says Kweli.

"As artists, we have a responsibility to speak about these things. We have a platform and we've got to use that platform for something righteous," says Tef Poe, who helped organise this event.

Like blues music, hip hop has become a way in which African Americans with few means can express their struggles.

To some extent, hip hop has been part of the confrontations that have taken place between young people from the area and the police. We saw that two months ago in the immediate aftermath of Brown's death, and we saw it even this weekend.

Image copyright AFP
Image copyright Getty Images

There was the same tension as protesters looked into the eyes of law enforcement officers close to the Ferguson police station.

Last time we were here, a voter registration table had been set up close to the spot where Brown died in Ferguson.

It was much talked about at the time that African Americans of the area had a very low election turnout, and as such denied themselves influence on the way Ferguson was run.

Just two months later, with elections at hand, we encountered a great deal of scepticism about the idea that change could come through the ballot box.

"It's a distraction and a mistake to think that voting is going to solve all your problems," says Talib Kweli.

He notes Brown was killed even as a relatively liberal African-American man sits in the White House.

Image copyright Getty Images

Politicians are fighting these elections on a vast range of local and national concerns. I wonder if we will stumble upon the same type of apathy from other communities as we look at a different issue each day this week, travelling through Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

We will be tracing back the route taken by poor blues musicians in the 1930s and '40s as they journeyed (in the opposite direction) from the Deep South to cities like St Louis. Here they found audiences that embraced their tunes derived from aching ballads, labour songs and spirituals. It quickly led to music revolution.


Day Two - Joiner, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tennessee

Media captionCountry singer Gretchen Peters calls proposed abortion restrictions 'extreme'

Early on Day Two there was a moment when I thought our road trip was about to come to an abrupt end.

As we drove south from St Louis, a huge bank of swirling black clouds rose in front of us. Alarming tornado warnings were being shouted over on the local radio stations.

But as the storms broke around us, there was little we could do but battle our way through the heavy rains to the nearest town.

It was in a grocery store, in the tiny town of Joiner, Arkansas, that we sought refuge until the storms passed. There were people from the area waiting it out there too - farmers, a mother in her pyjamas with her baby, and members of the family running the store.

They had all been born and raised in the surrounding area, and while we often read of the apathy that there is among Americans ahead of the mid-term elections, all those sheltering in Winford's Grocery Store said they would be voting in three weeks' time.

"I don't have any issues, but I will vote," Bruce told me.

Image caption Shelter from the storm - the BBC team seeks a safe haven from potential tornadoes in Arkansas

"Around here we don't vote on issues or even what party people are from, we vote on the person and what we know about them and how they run things."

But down the road in Tennessee, there is a very specific issue on which people will be asked their opinion on 4 November. Just as I was beginning to think we would never be able to reach Memphis to hear about it, the storms eased up a little.

As well having a say on every seat in the House of Representatives and a third of the seats in the Senate, voters in some states will also be voting on changes to local laws.

In Tennessee, people will be asked whether or not they want to change the rules governing abortion. It has drawn the attention of women's rights campaigners across the country.

When we finally got to Memphis, we met Gretchen Peters, a Grammy-nominated country singer and songwriter who raised eyebrows when she spoke up about her views on abortion.

"For me, women's rights remains the biggest issue in Tennessee today, and that extends to the right of women to govern what happens to their own bodies," she says.

"What scares me about what is happening in the mid-terms in Tennessee is that the amendment that's on the ballot would actually not provide for abortion in the case of rape or the potential death of the mother.

"That is extreme."

At a nearby mobile clinic that tries to convince women not to have an abortion, Cathy Waterbury, who works there, told me she believed a woman who went through with an abortion after being raped would be victimised twice.

Image caption Gretchen Peters says she's received hate mail for speaking out on abortion

"I don't think anyone has the right to take the life of another human being... born or unborn," Waterbury says.

Peters courted controversy in 2008, when Sarah Palin chose to use her song Independence Day as a walk-on anthem at rallies during the presidential election campaign.

"Sarah Palin used it thinking it was a patriotic standard because she hadn't listened to the song," Peters says.

"It is actually a story about domestic abuse and a women who is horribly oppressed and can't figure a way out."

In response, Peters announced she would send all royalties from the use of the song to Planned Parenthood, an organisation that supports giving women the choice to have an abortion.

But with a largely conservative fan base, it can be difficult for a country singer in Tennessee to come out in favour of a woman's right to have an abortion.

"I got some really quite ugly hate mail, but to me country music has been about adults and real life and the problems they face and I have a responsibility to stand up for the issues I believe in."


Day Three - Little Rock, Arkansas

Media captionWe're at the state capitol in Arkansas asking why so many Americans feel Washington is not working

It was sad that we had to leave Memphis without even setting eyes on the hallowed gates of Graceland, but there was a long drive ahead and the promise of meeting some colourful personalities at the end of it.

After the shock of being caught in tornados the day before, we made sure to leave on the car radio for local alerts, but mercifully the weather was much kinder.

As we crossed into our third state in as many days, Arkansas, the election attack adverts came thick and fast over the airwaves.

If the polls are to be believed, this is a state with one of the tightest races for a US Senate seat, and one that could decide whether or not the Democrats retain control.

The ads that we heard were, on the whole, scathing and negative.

We reached Little Rock and, on our way to Arkansas' main government building, drove along President Clinton Avenue.

Not everyone here is happy with the legacy left by arguably the state's most famous son.

"Bill Clinton climbed and got rich, his wife climbed and got rich, and Arkansas stayed where it was," says Rod Bryan, who in 2006 got enough backing to become the first person in more than 60 years to run for Arkansas Governor as an independent.

He feels that although people's intentions are usually good when they start out in politics in the US, money and interest groups then get in the way. It was a subject we wanted to explore further here.

But the other issue that we wanted to look at, and that had already been often mentioned on our trip so far, was the frustration many Americans have with the inability of their politicians to work together.

Republican State Senator, Jon Woods, told us both main parties were to blame for the rows that have led to a certain degree of political paralysis. But he insists that it does not have to be that way.

"If you asked me who of anyone I really wanted to sit down with and talk to, I'd say Krist Novoselic, the Nirvana bass player," he told us.

"Do I agree with his political views? No, some things I really disagree with. But do I admire him and want to hear what he's got to say? Yes."

This evening, the final televised debate between Arkansas' senate candidates has just taken place. It was, as expected, aggressive and often very personal.

If only they had been chatting music, as we had with the politicians we had met.

In a city where tenor sax player Bill Clinton and rock bassist Mike Huckabee had served as governors, state senator Jon Woods insists music still unites, especially in this state.

"If every state's politicians formed music groups and they had a huge battle of the bands, Arkansas would win hands down."

Even Rod Bryan, the former independent candidate for governor, let his otherwise vehemently anti-government front slip for a moment when we told him we had been speaking to Senator Woods.

"Oh yes, I know Jon, he plays bass guitar," he said before pausing. "I guess he's alright."


Day Four - Clarksdale, Mississippi

Media captionAren Wilkins, 10, sings about growing up in America's poorest state

For me, there was something magical about today; the characters we met, the warmth of the communities, and the feeling that the land itself was drenched in the richest of music history.

The route we took passed through huge swathes of cotton-growing country - endless fields blanketed in white. That crop will be forever linked to the music of The Delta.

Image caption The cotton fields of Mississippi

Mechanisation of cotton cultivation in the 1940s meant that job opportunities for African Americans in The South declined dramatically. That, in part, led to extraordinary mass migration north back along our very route as people journeyed in search of a way to make a living.

Of course, as they travelled they took with them the music through which they expressed their pain - the blues.

"Years ago, your Afro-American people couldn't communicate with white people, so they would sing about it," says 88-year-old Sonny Payne. "The blues today is about the same thing."

Image caption Sonny Payne has been playing the blues for more than 60 years

For more than 60 years, "Sunshine" Sonny Payne has hosted "King Biscuit Time", the longest-running blues radio show in the world.

I contested his assertion that the blues are the only way for some people to communicate their feelings, exactly as in the past. After all, I said, there is no longer legal segregation, and African Americans have available to them the same means of expression as everyone else.

"You don't know this area very well, do you?" he told me.

Image caption Rich in musical history but still America's poorest state

We then crossed the Mississippi River to meet a precocious emerging blues talent, one that I hope will one day be a huge star.

Clarksdale is known to many as the birthplace of the blues. It was there, in a glass-fronted converted store, now a youth club, that we met 10-year-old Aren Wilkins

He was quiet, modest and well-mannered. When he climbed up with his guitar onto a stool behind the microphone to perform for us, his legs dangled a couple of feet above the ground.

But as he gave the signal to the high school musicians that he played with to fire up their stop-time blues chords, and when he opened his mouth to sing, he was transformed.

Image caption "I just go into a world of my own and just sing." - Aren Wilkins

The surprising richness in his voice, the assured way he sang the words, was mesmerising.

"Well, it feels like I don't hear anything or see anything around," Aren told me. "I just go into a world of my own and just sing."

The neighbourhood in which Aren was born and raised is among the roughest in Clarksdale. His state, Mississippi, is the poorest in America.

Clarksdale was one of the hubs of The Great Migration back in the 1940s.

Lack of jobs is a huge issue in modern day Clarksdale too. With that, comes the scourge of drugs and guns and gangs.

Image caption Aren hopes music will lead to a better life

Aren's family hopes music will keep him occupied enough that he steers clear of trouble. But, in a place where opportunities are not easy to come by, the blues could also one day be a route to great things for him.

Aren seems amply aware of the issues that surround him, and already determined, through the blues, to avoid the bad things he has seen.

"The blues is not a kind of music, it's how you feel. Certain lyrics just come out, and that's what blues is to me," Aren tells me. These, I have to remind myself, are the words of a 10-year-old boy.

I start to think that veteran blues host, Sonny Payne was right; things have not changed that much at all.


Day Five - New Orleans, Louisiana

Media captionThe BBC's Aleem Maqbool meets Grammy award-winning jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield in New Orleans

Driving into warm and vibrant New Orleans on the final day of our road trip made the rain and cold in St Louis and the tornadoes in Tennessee earlier in the week feel like very distant memories.

It is a magical sensation to walk down Frenchmen Street in the city and be bombarded by the sounds of live music coming from so many different directions - a trumpet here, a piano there, a double bass somewhere else.

This city largely celebrated the election of President Obama in 2008. Mr Obama may not be on the ballot on 4 November, but as he conceded recently, his policies most certainly are. The question is how the president's approval ratings - at their lowest ever - will impact how and whether people vote.

Mary Landrieu, the incumbent Louisiana Democratic senator, has been criticised for distancing herself from the president. But holding on to her seat is crucial if the Democrats are to retain control of the US Senate, and stop the Republicans taking charge of both houses of Congress.

Observers back in Washington tend to see these elections through that prism, focusing on the handful of Senate seats the Republicans need to pick up.

In contrast, on this road trip we've been focusing on the issues - and particularly how these issues are being reflected in contemporary music. With that in mind, there was one man we had to check in on in New Orleans.

Grammy and Billboard award-winning jazz man Irvin Mayfield was eloquent in his belief that music was intrinsically linked to life, history, people and to politics.

He called jazz "democracy in art-form", explaining that in jazz, each musician has to shine as an individual but simultaneously needs to work in harmony with the collective.

Mayfield seemed to have the answers to everything except the big one here: who will win Louisiana on 4 November?

More on this story