A collection of dazzling black-and-white photographs and in-depth interviews that illuminate the lives and times of three generations of blues musicians
The blues stands as a legendary music genre, its origins steeped in the mystical depths of human experience. Born from the crucible of pain, it emerged as the voice of marginalized communities, predominantly those of early 20th-century black musicians hailing from the Mississippi Delta and Chicago regions. Yet, its resonance transcends mere musical expression; it embodies a profound narrative of struggle, resilience, and redemption.
Margo Cooper stands as a guardian of this vanishing world, her lens capturing moments frozen in time, preserving a legacy threatened by the relentless march of progress. In her photographs, she immortalizes not just the music, but the spirit of an era—a testament to the human condition and the enduring power of the blues.
In the early 1960s, a seismic shift occurred when the youth of England embarked on a journey of exploration into a world far removed from their own. They found solace and inspiration in the haunting melodies and poignant lyrics of the blues, idolizing the musicians who bore their souls through their music. These wandering troubadours, relegated to the dimly lit corners of seedy bars, found unexpected adulation as their songs resonated with a generation hungry for authenticity and raw emotion.
For decades, the blues remained a humble companion, traversing the dusty roads of obscurity, yet never losing its power to stir hearts and minds. It was the music of the common man, his guitar serving as a conduit for the depths of his experiences, from joy to despair, from love to loss.
Influenced profoundly by the soulful melodies of a Buddy Guy and Junior Wells album that resonated with her during her high school years, Margo embarked on a journey through the blues clubs scattered across New England in the early nineties. Enthralled by the raw emotion and gritty storytelling of the blues, she immersed herself in the vibrant scene, capturing the essence of this rich musical tradition through her lens.
In her quest to unravel the mysteries of the blues, Margo crossed paths with legendary figures such as Jimmy Rogers, Hubert Sumlin, and Jr. Wells, as well as other luminaries from the Muddy Waters era. Each encounter fueled her curiosity, prompting her to delve deeper into the history and culture that birthed this genre.
Margo Cooper has her mojo working full-time with Deep Inside the Blues!
Yet, amidst the pulsating rhythms and impassioned performances, Margo found herself pondering the untold stories of the blues musicians and their families in the heartland of Mississippi. She yearned to understand the realities of life during the tumultuous days of segregation and sharecropping, contemplating the hardships endured and the resilience displayed by those who paved the way for the blues to flourish.
With her camera as her compass, Margo embarked on a journey of discovery, seeking to capture not just the music, but the essence of a bygone era. Through her photographs, she aimed to immortalize the struggles, triumphs, and unyielding spirit of the blues community, shedding light on the profound impact of this musical heritage on the fabric of American history.
Margo diligently documented her dialogues with musicians hailing from the region and its surrounding areas, meticulously capturing their stories and insights. These invaluable conversations were meticulously transcribed, serving as a rich repository of oral histories that she eagerly shared with the wider audience through the pages of Living Blues, a prominent magazine based in Mississippi. Margo unfolds the lives and experiences of these musicians, illuminating the vibrant tapestry of the blues culture rooted deep within the soil of the Mississippi Delta. Each transcription was a labor of love, a tribute to the voices that had shaped and defined the musical landscape of the region.
Margo not only preserved the oral traditions of the blues but also provided a platform for these musicians to share their perspectives and insights with a broader audience. Her efforts served to bridge the gap between past and present, ensuring that the rich legacy of the blues remained alive and thriving for future generations to appreciate and learn from.
As society hurtles forward, propelled by the relentless march of time, it is imperative to remember and cherish the soul of the blues, for it is a beacon of light amidst the darkness, a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. It is a legacy that must be safeguarded and passed down through the generations, a reminder of our shared humanity and the transformative power of music.
The essence of the blues has long been rooted in the tradition of passing down songs from one musician to another, a sacred ritual that echoed through the hallowed halls of time. However, the purity of this tradition was tainted when the mainstream music industry, predominantly led by white performers, seized upon the raw authenticity of the Mississippi Delta blues, transforming it into a profitable commodity. It was a double-edged sword: while it brought newfound recognition and financial opportunities for some of the original blues musicians, it also marked a departure from the grassroots essence of the genre.
In the face of exploitation and appropriation, it’s understandable that Mississippi Delta musicians sought their share of the lucrative market they helped create. After years of toiling in obscurity and facing systemic oppression, who could begrudge them for wanting a piece of the pie they had inadvertently helped bake?
Through her lens, Margo has borne witness to the indomitable spirit of these musicians, whose resilience in the face of adversity is reflected in every note they play. Her photographs serve as a poignant testament to the enduring power of music as a source of solace, strength, and defiance in the face of exploitation and hardship. In capturing their stories, she immortalizes not only the struggles and triumphs of these artists but also the broader narrative of human endurance in the face of adversity.
Deep Inside the Blues collects thirty-four of Margo Cooper‘s interviews with blues artists and is illustrated with over 160 of her photographs, many published here for the first time. For thirty years, Margo has been documenting the lives of blues musicians, their families and homes, neighborhoods, festivals, and gigs. Her photographic work combines iconic late-career images of many legendary figures including Bo Diddley, Honeyboy Edwards, B. B. King, Pinetop Perkins, and Hubert Sumlin with youthful shots of Cedric Burnside, Shemekia Copeland, and Sharde Thomas, themselves now in their thirties and forties. During this time, the Burnside and Turner families and other Mississippi artists such as T-Model Ford, James?Super Chikan? Johnson and L. C. Ulmer entered the national and international spotlight, ensuring the powerful connection between authentic Delta, Hill Country, and Piney Woods blues musicians and their audience continues.
In 1993, Margo began photographing in the clubs around New England, then in Chicago, and then in Mississippi and Helena, Arkansas. On her first trips to Mississippi in 1997 and 1998, Margo had the good fortune to photograph Sam Carr, Frank Frost, Bobby Rush, and Otha Turner, among others. The blues come out of the field,? Ulmer told Margo. Seeing those fields and the old juke joints, country churches, and people’s homes inspired her. She began recording interviews with the musicians, sometimes over years, listening and asking questions as their narratives unfolded. Many of the key blues players of the period have already passed, making their stories and Margo’s photographs of them all the more poignant and valuable.
Who is inside the book:
Part I. Chicago Called
1. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith
2. Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith
3. Calvin “Fuzz” Jones
4. Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson
Part II. The Delta
5. Sam Carr
6. Robert “Bilbo” Walker
7. James “Super Chikan” Johnson
8. Joshua “Razorblade” Stewart
9. Betty Vaughn
10. Joe Cole
11. Irene “Ma Rene” Williams
12. David Lee Durham
13. “Cadillac” John Nolden
14. Bill Abel
15. Monroe Jones
16. “T-Model” Ford
17. Eddie Cusic
18. John Horton Jr., aka “Farmer John”
19. Mary Shepard • Club Ebony
20. Eden Brent
21. “Mississippi Slim” (Walter Horn Jr.)
22. Mickey Rogers
Part III. Beyond the Delta
23. L. C. Ulmer
24. Willie King
25. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes
26. Bud Spires
Part IV. Hill Country
27. Remembering Otha Turner (Photo Essay)
28. Abe “Keg” Young
29. Calvin Jackson
30. Earl “Little Joe” Ayers
31. Kenny Brown
32. Garry Burnside
33. Calvin Burnside
34. Cedric Burnside
Margo Cooper is a photographer and oral historian working in the classic documentary tradition. She is a longtime contributing writer and photographer for Living Blues magazine. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times Lens blog.