When we consider the trauma of white supremacy during the Jim Crow era—what writer Ralph Ellison describes as “the brutal experience”—it’s important to understand the resilience and joy that sustained Black communities. We can experience that all through the “near-comic, near-tragic lyricism” of the blues. In part 3 of this series, acclaimed musician, songwriter and poet Adia Victoria talks with Charles L. Hughes about how the bittersweet nature of blues does “the very emotionally mature work of acknowledging” this complex history.
- Adia Victoria "Me and the Devil" from Silences (2019)
- Adia Victoria "Stuck in the South" from Beyond the Bloodhounds (2016)
- Adia Victoria "South Gotta Change" (2020)
- Blind Willie McTell "You Was Born to Die" (1933)
- Adia Victoria "You Was Born to Die" from A Southern Gothic (2021)
- Adia Victoria "Magnolia Blues" from A Southern Gothic (2021)
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The Jim Crow era was a rough time for African Americans. In every area of life, they faced inequality and racial violence. Despite the hardship and terror, they persevered. They did not let hate stamp out their love, or pain eliminate their joy. And we can hear that bittersweet blend of hard history when we listen to the blues.
I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries and this is "Music Reconstructed," from Teaching Hard History. When music is re-thought, re-mixed and re-imagined, that takes research. And the results can reveal insights into history for educators and students. During this special, four-part series, music expert and historian Charles Hughes brings us conversations with contemporary musicians who are exploring the sounds, songs and stories of the Jim Crow era through their music.
In this episode, Charles introduces us to musician, songwriter, poet and host of the Call & Response podcast, Adia Victoria. On her album, A Southern Gothic, Victoria blends history with the contemporary—the collective with the personal—as she shows us how the blues, as she puts it, is "doing the very emotionally mature work of acknowledging these troubling emotions that are as human as joy." Here's Charles.
[Music: Adia Victoria "Me and the Devil"]
Charles Hughes: Adia Victoria is one of the great contemporary blues musicians, someone who draws on the traditions of Robert Johnson, and Memphis Minnie, and Victoria Spivey and all the blues greats, very much in the tradition of the blues as a way to think about and understand experiences.
From the very beginning blues music was connected not only to the way that African Americans had to survive and had to figure out ways to live in a Jim Crow society, but it was also connected to the way in which their lives and experiences could be celebrated, could be re-imagined, could be remixed.
But she is also in the lineage of all the other Southern Black women who have used blues and a blues identity in order to try to push not only for greater change in their moment but a larger rethinking of American history.
She has released several acclaimed albums, her most recent being 2020's A Southern Gothic. And one of the things that she does throughout her work and she did throughout our conversation was she talked about how important it is to reckon with who you are and where you come from. And so it's very appropriate that we begin today with her song, which was digging deep into that history and that identity, as she tried to figure out what it meant for her to be, as she said at the time, "Stuck in the South."
[Music: Adia Victoria "Stuck in the South"]
Adia Victoria: "Stuck in the South" was a song that I wrote the evening of the murder of Trayvon Martin. It brought me back to when I was 16 in high school. And I learned about the lynching of Emmett Till.
I feel that that sense of security was taken from me. You knew that Southern black children had been enslaved, but it reminded me that the South would eat its children to preserve the adults' fear.
I grew up a Black, Southern girl in South Carolina. My family goes back in South Carolina 400 years. And so being Black and being female, you're put in a position where you're able to observe how power gets made, how power is transferred. But also more importantly, why? Why do the adults act this way? What do they need from me? Why is it being asked of me to carry on these traditions?
That unquenchable need to ask why and question authority is what landed me in the position that I am today, as an artist, as a social troll, as a social commentator is the question of why and seeing the ways that one word strikes fear in the heart of authority figures.
[Music: Adia Victoria "South Gotta Change"]
Adia Victoria: "South Gotta Change" was written in the summer of 2020, following the passing of John Lewis. I guess what people call the George Floyd moment, but, you know, for Black Americans, that's just another day in America.
And I found myself vacillating between that cynicism of ‘this is how it is' and the path that John Lewis traveled. It's a harder path.
It even seemed delusional that you'd go out there on the [Edmund] Pettus Bridge and expect anything other than what happened to happen. But, you know, the system can deal with cynicism. The system cannot deal with truth.
I view "Stuck in the South" and "South Gotta Change" as a growing up of my relationship with the South. There's a lot of learned helplessness in "Stuck in the South," defeatism almost in it of anger and a rage. But in "South Gotta Change," years later, I found a way to grow that rage into something and to take it off my shoulders and put it back on the people that it belongs to.
And again, speaking to the South as a family member, speaking to the white South, and it's kind of asking them, ‘What are you running from? What are these ghosts?' Like, ‘Whatever you're running from can't be worse than the soul death that you're experiencing because you're too afraid to just to challenge it.' I think that that's what John Lewis, he was asking young children to do when he asked him to engage in "good trouble."
[Music: Blind Willie McTell "You Was Born to Die"]
Adia Victoria: I realized too, that the blues for me had offered my first sense of Black Southern community. And when I finally met the music of the blues, I was in my early twenties in Atlanta. I was a high school dropout. I was a telemarketer. And I was lost. And so finding Skip James, and Victoria Spivey, and Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf, it saved me. It gave me a reason to preserve my own life.
And so "You Was Born to Die" is a song that I'd been listening to quite a bit. Whenever my anxiety would peak, I would go and sit under the Magnolia tree and remind myself that death is inevitable. It is as natural as birth. Life is a transitional experience.
So I wanted to feature Blind Willie McTell's "You Was Born to Die" as an homage to the blues that came before me, the blues that paved the path that I walked down now. And that's how that song was born. It was another instance of the blues saving my life.
[Music: Adia Victoria "You Was Born to Die"]
Adia Victoria: People see the blues as like suffer music or like tragedy porn. But I don't see it as that. I see it as doing the very emotionally mature work of acknowledging these troubling emotions that are as human as joy. And I think that's what the blues was for my ancestors. And it certainly was what the blues was for me.
And it gave me a way to contextualize my life and my experiences. The blues for me was life affirming. It was validating. It was the greatest heirloom that I ever received.
What all can you take from a human being? Basically sentence them to social death, as my ancestors were, and what remains there. And I thought about these folks who had been sentenced to slavery in perpetuity, not just their own selves, but their offspring, as far as they knew. And even in those circumstances, they were finding ways to express their humanity.
There was still the strive to express oneself. Even if you had been stripped down to just a pickaxe and the land that you have to work.
And I started thinking about the ways that the land, you know, informs the Southerner. The way that it's not just a backdrop. It's the land and nature as a scene of self encounter.
[Music: Adia Victoria "Magnolia Blues"]
Adia Victoria: And I had my magnolia tree that was blooming, you know, in my backyard. And that magnolia tree, I started going into sort of communion with it, and what the Magnolia tree has stood for, the myth-making and the imagery of the south, Moonlight magnolias.
And I asked the magnolia tree, ‘What is your truth beyond those lies? What memories do we share?'
So my song, "Magnolia Blues" was birthed out of those conversations. ‘What does this tree mean to me? What does this land mean to me?' And you know, when I think about educators, I think about my own education in the south as a little girl in Spartanburg was, the greatest education that I had was being out in the country in Campobello, around my grandmother's house, of just ‘How does this land speak to me? How does this land inform me and challenge me and shape me?' And, you know, I think that that's a great untapped resource that Southern educators, it would behoove them to lean into, as they're shaping and creating and challenging young minds.
I would encourage educators, take the kids outside, sit in a circle in silence and talk to the land. And don't try and be the teacher, the authority, the expert. Be the beginner. Let yourself be a beginner and a child with the land around you.
[Music: Adia Victoria "Me and the Devil"]
Charles Hughes: It is so striking to hear the connections between this idea of sitting with the land and listening to the land with a kind of teaching that I learned from a historian named William Cronin, who along with his graduate students developed this idea of reading the landscape. Of taking students out into nature or out into an urban environment, whatever kind of landscape you're around, and reading it as we would read a book or as we would read a historical document, to learn from it and to think about what it can tell us.
Living is not just about survival. It is also about determining one's own relationship to one's surroundings, one's community, one's existence, in a way that is equally as rich and complicated and important as any kind of more canonical, philosophical, or spiritual tradition.
The great writer Ralph Ellison talks about the blues as being an impulse to figure out a way to live within what he calls "the brutal experience." And he says that one must "finger the jagged grain" of that experience, in order to draw from it "a near-comic, near-tragic lyricism."
And what strikes me so deeply about Adia Victoria's work, beyond just how compelling it is, and how powerful her music is, and how loud it can be and how wonderfully connected it is to so many musical traditions, is that she reminds us through her own work and through what she calls on all of us to do, that's the only way really to learn. Whether it's learning from the music of the past, learning from the people of the past or sometimes just learning from the land and being where you are, so that you can figure out where you need to go. And I think she is such a powerful voice in this conversation. If anybody teaches hard history through their music, Adia Victoria surely does it.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Adia Victoria for sharing her insights and her art with us. And thanks too to my good friend and our music correspondent, historian Charles L. Hughes. Dr. Hughes is the Director of the Lynne & Henry Turley Memphis Center at Rhodes College and the author of Why Bushwick Bill Matters and Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South.
Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy.
"Music Reconstructed" is produced by Barrett Golding. Our senior producer is Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. Cory Collins provides content guidance. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond. I'm Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University and your host for Teaching Hard History.
- The New York Times, Robert Johnson, Bluesman Whose Life Was a Riddle
- Memphis Music Hall of Fame, Memphis Minnie
- Black Music Scholar, Victoria Spivey: Black Snake Blues
- The New York Times, John Lewis, Towering Figure of Civil Rights Era, Dies at 80
- The Washington Post, Renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge for John Lewis, who nearly died there on Bloody Sunday
- Dawn Porter, John Lewis: Good Trouble (film)
- All About Blues Music, Skip James
- Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Howlin' Wolf
- New Georgia Encyclopedia, "Blind Willie" McTell
- Urban Dictionary, Moonlight and magnolia
- William Cronin, Reading Landscapes - Learning Historical Research
- Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright's Blues, by R. Ellison