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It was the coldest night of 1985. Algia Mae Hinton had just returned home to North Carolina after her Carnegie Hall debut, where she had been the sole woman on a Southern Roots of Blues tour. Just hours after she fell asleep, Hinton woke up to her room ablaze. She escaped barefoot, the ground jagged with frost, and watched all her belongings burn into oblivion.
The story goes that Hinton soon wrote a song about the fire, "Going Down This Road". Within the year, Mike Lightnin' Wells, a young White musician from the area, released it in Hinton's first commercial recording. The song is classic Piedmont Blues: deceptively upbeat, with a finger-picked guitar melody evocative of ragtime. It is both vulnerable and buoyant. It simultaneously inspires one to weep and to dance, to ask of the world: Why such sorrow and such beauty?
It became one of Hinton's most popular songs and was the beginning of a life-long musical collaboration and friendship between Hinton and Lightnin'. Hinton was still singing it when I met her earlier this year, just two months shy of 86 years old. She is probably the last recorded Piedmont Blueswoman with us today.
Hinton's housefire was one of many chapters of hardship: She grew up working the fields of a former slave plantation, persisted through a difficult marriage only to lose her husband in a car crash, and single-handedly raised seven children and countless adopted ones. But she was resilient, with a mischievous sense of humor and a reputation for hosting music and dance parties. Folklorists learned about Hinton's family in the late 1970's, decades after her style of acoustic Piedmont Blues had gone out of fashion, and since then an occasional musician or documentarian – usually White – makes a pilgrimage to visit her.
In July 1983, Alan Lomax, the famed collector and arbiter of "authentic" roots music, showed up with a PBS crew to film one of Hinton's parties in Johnson County. Hinton may have spent all that week harvesting tobacco in 100-degree fields. But in Lomax' footage, she has a calm regal air, dressed in well-fitting jeans, a high-necked blue blouse, tap shoes, and huge sunglasses. From her porch swing she delivers a rendition of "Step it Up and Go", known to many as a Bob Dylan rockabilly tune but originally recorded by the Grandfather of the Piedmont Blues, Durham's Blind Boy Fuller.
Me and my baby, walking down the street
Dealing everybody, but the chief of police
Gotta step it up and go
Get it Mae, get it, the partygoers urge Hinton as she trades off role of guitarist, rhythm keeper, and dance partner. In other clips, men showcase their rhythmic acrobatics on a wooden plank and make raunchy moonshine-laden toasts in rhyme. Hinton and fellow musician John Dee Holeman buckdance – a syncopated dance style from which tap and Appalachian clogging descend – and at one point Hinton drops to all fours, chest skyward, and does what can only be described as a breakdancing move. The first time I watched these videos I was astonished by her palpable coolness, steady and graceful as a thumb on the bass string of a Piedmont Blues guitar tune.
Does wanting to preserve the Piedmont Blues suggest a sentimental nostalgia, or is there something still worth celebrating and revitalizing? If the Piedmont Blues evoke an era of hard labor, racial violence, and generational poverty, why would we even mourn its passage? What of the Blues should we gladly lay to rest, and what of it should we insist on remembering?
As I leave Hinton's house, she exhorts me to find Lightnin' and ask him for stories and songs. "Lightnin' know how to tear it up," she laughs fondly.
When I arrive at his house, Lightnin' is learning a tune on his nylon-stringed banjo from a 1920's recording. That's how he makes his living: by reinvigorating and performing old songs at festivals and in schools. Lightnin' is in his 60's, with curly grey hair, a soul patch, and a habit of wearing colorful button-up t-shirts. He lives alone and is in what he calls an "awkward" transition between being a talented revivalist and an official elder. It's a liminal stage that describes many roots musicians who came of age and learned from the masters in the 1960's and 70's. When Hinton passes, Lightnin' will be one of the closest sources to the mythical roots of the Piedmont Blues, an interpreter who we call upon to remember what good times and violent histories formed the blues.
"How would you describe Algie Mae's music?" I ask, hoping Lightnin' will explain the genre's technical particularities. But just as with Hinton, a discussion about the music quickly becomes a discussion about the people who made it. He begins to reminisce:
"[The Hintons] made me part of their family.
"I've hung around Algia so much that the kids now have grown to think of me as an uncle or something," he said. "That's probably more important to me than the music. I'm not like, 'Hey, I learned this from Algia'; I don't take their music out and exploit it that way. It's just—it's a part of my heart."
The more I talk to Lightnin' and read from archival interviews with Hinton, the more I wonder whether Hinton's evasion of my questions, her insistence on talking about Lightnin' rather than her own accomplishments, is not simply a reflection of an aging brain's failure to remember, but rather, the way that the Blues is embedded in and subordinate to human connection. For Hinton and Lightnin', a Blues devoid of friends with whom to play and dance isn't worth talking about. It might not even be worth preserving.
"What's happening to the Blues?" I ask Lightnin'. "Is it going to leave us?"
Lightnin' gazes at his shelves of old LP's and the tobacco fields beyond his living room.
"I think it is; I mean it'll be there, but in different forms. And in a lot of ways that's a good thing. You look at the old hardcore blues guys—There's one that lived 20 miles from me but what a sad sight to see! He lived as a tenant farmer in a shack, drank cheap wine and died in his 40's. That made 'real blues' but do we need the conditions that made real blues anymore?"
Lightnin' exhales as if in resigned prayer.
"No, we don't."
Lightnin' welcomes the notion of Blues as an art form in constant evolution. And despite our desire to view Hinton as a symbol of the old ways, her Blues was also in a regular cycle of reinvention. After our interviews, I learned that contrary to the popular story, Hinton didn't actually compose "Goin' Down this Road" in response to the fire after all. It turns out that she had already been singing a version of it for years, drawing inspiration from the melodies of white country music and domestic woman's blues alike. She added new verses as life delivered new hardships.
I'm goin' down this road, feelin' bad; If I don't get you baby, I don't want nobody else.
I'm goin' down this road, I'm feelin' bad; Ain't got my house, it's burnin' down on me.
It seems appropriate that like the Piedmont Blues itself, Hinton's best-known song defies our attempts to chronologize the genre. It is full of contradictions: jubilant and heartbreaking, traditional and original. It is born of relationships that flow from and wind back into themselves like some traceless tributary. When I listen to it now, when I wonder what of this region's incredible music will survive, I think of the bonds of intimacy that undergirded Hinton's music and have kept Lightnin' a part of her family for almost forty years. Blues as a relational art, as an evocation not just of hardship but of the love that helps people to endure it: that, to me, seems worth preserving.