Tahlequah Daily Press

March 3, 2014

Aldridge sings the blues

Special Writer

TAHLEQUAH — The gray is beginning to cover his once-black hair, and it shows when the tall, lanky musician adjusts his black felt cowboy hat.

He’s admits to being a little nervous. To keep his hands busy and mind occupied before the show begins, he tunes his guitar, glancing around the room, waving or nodding to friends.

“An Evening of Blues Music,” presented at Webb Tower by Dr. Harold Aldridge, professor emeritus of psychology at Northeastern State University, was in observance of Black History month.

After a brief introduction and enthusiastic applause, Aldridge began with a joke.

“As the milk cow said to the dairy man, ‘Thanks for the warm hand,’” he said.

For the next hour, the audience was taken on a journey through black history via the blues, from deep in the Mississippi Delta, to Alabama, the East Coast, Kansas City, Oklahoma, Texas and California.

“I’m going to tell you the history of blues, and hopefully, it will be entertaining,” Aldridge said. “I stick with the old stuff, from Memphis, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee.”

According to Aldridge, blues music is evolving.

“It’s almost like rock in some places; I guess next we’ll have rap blues,” he said.

As his story unfolded, the audience learned the blues has changed with varying locations and situations.

“The blues originated in West Africa and came here as a feeling, the soul of it, the spirit of high John the Conqueror,” said the Aldridge. “Guitars and banjos came, too.”

Aldridge said his dad sang the old blues songs, and his granddad told stories, as did his aunties, of their history and growing up in the black community of Taft. He also learned all styles of blues as he played guitar with friends of his father, some of the old men around town.

“When the slaves worked in the fields doing the same thing every day, they sang out field hollers and chants that built on one another,” said Aldridge. “Along with work songs, spirituals and gospel, they developed into the blues.”

Through the songs, they would built one another up, he said.

His grandfather worked for Midland Valley Railroad in Muskogee from 1920 to 1945.

“He was a gandy dancer, part of a crew of six men who built the railroad track with a pick and an ax,” Aldridge said. “They unloaded gravel by hand, then carried heavy rails and had to line them up. They used the cadence of songs to line it up right.”

Throughout the performance, Aldridge mentioned several blues men, his favorites, then played a song typical of that singer’s style, telling stories about him.

“Robert Johnson’s deep Delta blues opened up the door for other blues musicians. The deep blues of the South reflects life and death, hard work and hard times,” he said. “As blues left Mississippi and Alabama and filtered, it was changed by the music already there. On the east coast, it became Piedmont blues, a softer sound with more picking to it. In the Chicago-style blues of Jimmy Reed, it was a rolling style: simple, basic stuff. The audience knew his songs and sang along.”

Aldridge related the story of R.A.L. Burnside, who  spent time in prison for murder.

“He denied killing anyone, saying, ‘I did mean to shoot the guy in the head, but his dying was between him and God,’” said Aldridge. “These guys were a different breed of cats.”

In Texas, they played a single note, picking blues-style. When blues made it to the West Coast, it had more  of a jazz style – like T-Bone Walker, from whom Chuck Berry got his moves.

“Oklahoma was a crossroads from Kansas City, to Texas and California,” he said. “How did blues get to Oklahoma? There were blacks who came in shackles with the Five Civilized Tribes, and after the Civil War, tribes were in flux. And there were Freedmen.”

The tribes tried to make the territory an Indian state.

“But ‘the Man’ saw too many resources for that to happen, he said. “State negroes, born in the U.S., came to Oklahoma territory because it was supposed to be a free state. They were just gamblers enough to believe it would be an open free state.”

With the Dawes Commission, many freedmen got land, the same as Indians.

“Former slaves and Indians knew nothing about owning little parcels of land; they believed all the land was open and so the land got away from them real quick,” said Aldridge.

More family stories followed, including a song written for his grandfather, Buddy Wells, who was a quadroon: a quarter black and three-quarters white. Wells was raised under the tutelage of his white father.

His aunties said when the father died, the whites considered Buddy to be “uppity” when he wouldn’t stay in his place, so he left ahead of a mob and set up a home in Taft.

Blues songs are born from coping with such situations.

“I’m going to sing a song about race, money, politics and sex,” Aldridge said, “So if you don’t like one part of the song, hold on to it and I’ll get to something you’ll like.”

Inviting the standing-room-only audience to sing the chorus, he sang, “I had the blues so bad one time; it put my face in a permanent frown; now, I’m feelin’ so much better; I could cakewalk into town.”

And like many a blues song, the evening ended with hope and humor.

Ben Kracht, chair of the Cherokee and Indigenous Studies, and the NSU History Department, sponsored the event.

“I’ve always been a fan of blues music,” Kracht said.

“Harold knows the history of the songs and the stories that go with it.”

Carl Farinelli, musician and professor, said he shows a video of Aldridge to his American Song as Literature class.

“He knows, and takes you back to the roots of the blues from work hollers – rhythms built on work that the poorest folk did in those days,” Farinelli said. “He takes you down a historical blues road. Very few people know that road the way Harold does.”