2:19pm

Sun February 24, 2013
Music Interviews

In 'Fulton Blues,' Corey Harris Resurrects Memories Of Southern Neighborhood

Originally published on Sun February 24, 2013 8:53 pm

A new album by bluesman Corey Harris pays tribute to one Southern neighborhood with a particularly haunted past.

Fulton Blues is named for a district in Richmond, Va., that was once home to a large number of the city's middle class African-American families. But by the 1960s, Fulton had fallen on hard times. Its scenic views of the James River and easy access to downtown made it a target for "urban renewal," as it was euphemistically called in the Virginia Statehouse. The residents of Fulton were evicted and the neighborhood was razed.

When Harris moved to Richmond a few years ago, he began to learn about its history and set to work on writing his latest collection.

Listen to a selection of his music and Harris' interview with Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, by clicking the audio link at the top of this page.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FULTON BLUES")

LYDEN: A new album by bluesman Corey Harris pays tribute to a Southern neighborhood with a painful past.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FULTON BLUES")

COREY HARRIS: (Singing) Well, Fulton, Fulton, what done happened to you.

LYDEN: The section of Richmond, Virginia known as Fulton was once home to a large number of the city's middle-class African-American families. By the 1960s, Fulton had fallen on hard times. Its scenic views of the James River and easy access to downtown made it a target for urban renewal, as it was euphemistically called in the statehouse. For the residents of Fulton, it was an eviction. The neighborhood was razed and its residents scattered to the wind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FULTON BLUES")

LYDEN: Corey Harris moved to Richmond a few years ago and began to learn about its history. The McArthur Genius Grant winner set to work on writing his latest collection which he named after Richmond's Fulton neighborhood.

HARRIS: Before it was Fulton, it was called Rocketts, which was the name of the landing on the James River. And that is where the enslaved Africans were taken off the ship and marched the couple miles into Shockoe Bottom to the slave market.

LYDEN: Can you give me an idea of how the land was confiscated?

HARRIS: From what I know, it started with people in the newspaper saying things like, well, we have to do something about this community, calling it blighted, that sort of thing. And then afterwards, developers came in with the help of the city and then took it over. The same thing happened in Vinegar Hill, which is a neighborhood in Charlottesville, which, if you've ever been, they have a downtown mall. And the Omni Hotel sits on Vinegar Hill now but it was...

LYDEN: I've been to that hotel. Mm-hmm.

HARRIS: Yeah. Similar thing happened in Charlottesville, too, where land that was seen to be valuable was taken away from the people who had occupied it for generations.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FULTON BLUES")

HARRIS: (Singing) Well (unintelligible) I do down in Richmond town. Mm (unintelligible) down in Richmond town. (Unintelligible)

LYDEN: I'm speaking with blues musician Corey Harris. His newest album is called "Fulton Blues." And, you know, we were talking about the history of that name, Fulton. Lots of the songs on this album are informed by the rougher, sadder parts of the past. You've got one called "Lynch Blues," for example.

HARRIS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

LYDEN: Can we talk a little bit about that piece?

HARRIS: Yeah. That song was inspired by a true story. I had an uncle named Wade Fiddmont who lived in Arkansas, and he had done some work for a white man. And the man was very tardy in paying him, looked like the man was not intending to pay Uncle Wade, so he went and confronted the man.

And as so often was the case in the South, whenever a black man would stand up to the system, then he would be eliminated. So that's what happened. They captured him, and they lynched him because of him demanding to be paid for the work that he had done.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LYNCH BLUES")

HARRIS: (Singing) What do I see here hangin' 'neath the trees. What do I see hangin' 'neath the tree. Well, why they hang you is you don't bend at the knee.

That was something that resonated in me. And I feel very strongly, you know, when bad things happen, a step towards healing, a step towards knowing the history and knowing what happened is to write a song to express it creatively in some way. And so my way is by music.

LYDEN: Well, this is what blues has really always done, it seems to me from the beginning, is give us stories. You know, it's not just about the human experience but also about personal history.

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, I say it often. The blues is a book of life. So everything that happens in life is expressed in the blues, and that includes personal history, collective history. It includes what's happening right now. It includes the sadness, the joy, the pain, everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LYNCH BLUES")

HARRIS: (Singing) But I never did know what old people do, what the old people told me. But I never did know, is the good book said you got to reap what you sow.

LYDEN: Let's talk about Africa, really going back into the ancestral past and the roots of blues.

HARRIS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

LYDEN: You have been really interested in the late Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure. Did I say his name right?

HARRIS: That's right. You said it very well.

LYDEN: Ali Farka Toure...

HARRIS: Yeah.

LYDEN: ...who died several years ago back in 2006.

HARRIS: Yes.

LYDEN: You wrote a book about him.

HARRIS: Yes.

LYDEN: And you played with him. What was that partnership like?

HARRIS: Well, Ali Farka Toure was someone that I will never forget. He had a profound impact on my outlook and on my music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALI FARKA TOURE: (Singing in foreign language)

HARRIS: He was probably the first amazingly great musician who did not describe himself as a musician that I met. When you meet him, he's like, I'm a farmer. Look at my hands. And his hands were not soft. He really was a farmer. And he played music because he wanted to share that with other people. He wanted to entertain. But more so, I think he wanted to educate.

He was always talking about ideals in his songs, talking about Malian history when he was already an established guitarist in his own style. He encountered the blues of John Lee Hooker and, you know, the R&B Wilson, P. Kidd and Johnnie Taylor and Otis Redding and Bobby Blue Bland and all those people, and so that put another layer onto his music.

So he was really like the missing link for me. And to go to Mali and to encounter this elder who knew so much about the music and the history and culture that my parents came from really was profound to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: (Singing) People the same no matter where you go. They give into the (unintelligible) stealing from the (unintelligible). Mm, that's why I'm going to the ground, going to the ground. I'm going to the ground, going to the ground, going to the ground.

LYDEN: That's Corey Harris. His new album is called "Fulton Blues." You can sample a few tracks at our website, nprmusic.org. Corey Harris, thank you so much.

HARRIS: Thank you, Jacki.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And tonight, head over to npr.org for complete live blog coverage of the Oscars ceremony. We're back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening. Have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.