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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 17, 1979. Interview C-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The Mississippi Blues and intersections between race and popular music

Turner describes her experiences with popular music of the 1920s and 1930s. Beginning with a description of a man she encountered on a train bound for Memphis, Turner talks about the Mississippi Blues, explaining that she first heard it when she was visiting Meridian, Mississippi. According to Turner, Mississippi Blues was very distinct to its region, which she asserts by drawing comparisons to popular music as it was performed in Durham, North Carolina. Throughout, Turner draws intersections between race and popular culture.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 17, 1979. Interview C-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

WALTER WEARE:
That was the Jim Crow car?
VIOLA TURNER:
Oh, yes. Oh, yes, definitely. That was Jim Crow all the way. And they would have anything and everything. Although, if you can keep a sense of humour, there's always something funny. I remember on that train from Oklahoma—I believe that old man came all the way to Memphis. He was sitting on the far seat with a guitar. And he played the guitar and sang all along. Then he'd get rest and after a while, he'd sing again. And everytime the train would stop—and it may not have been local, but it stopped at many stations—and a person would get on, he would ask you where you were going. I remember when I got on, he said, after a while, "Daughter, where you going?" Well, I told him that I was going to Georgia. He said, Well, he didn't know nobody over there in Georgia. And he just went back to singing. The next person he asked, I believe he was going to Texas. Either he was coming from Texas or he was going to Texas. And if he's going to Texas, evidently he had to get to Memphis and then take off somewhere. But he must have been coming from, because it seems to me he should have been going the other way if he was going to Texas. But at any rate, Texas was the thing he said to the old man. The only man stopped and he said, "Texas. Uh huh. Do you know Joe?" The man said, "Who?" "Joe! You know, I never did know the rest of his name, but he's from Texas. I just figured you might know Joe." The man said, "No." He didn't think he knew Joe. Well, I thought I would die. I sat back there and I thought that was the funniest question I had ever heard. Joe from Texas. And to the old man it never seemed funny. He just thought. "Joe. I never did know Joe's other name, but he's from Texas."
WALTER WEARE:
Was that a musician, you think?
VIOLA TURNER:
No, no, he was just a. . .well, I say ‘no, no’ but that could be wrong. But one of these itinerant players. The only place I'd ever seen it was Mississippi. When I was in Clarksdale I was awakened one night with this music. I didn't know what in the world it was. I jumped up and tried to find wherever it was coming from, and finally discovered that they were outside of my window—three men with their guitars or banjos or whatever—playing and singing. And the lady, where I was living, had gotten up, you know, and so, of course, I'm full of questions, what this is all about. And she said that they travel around like that and they stop and sing, and if you have anything to give them: money, or even sometimes food, you just pass it out to them. And they entertained you. But the interesting thing about that was, some of the music those people sang that night, I've heard on T.V. with the musicians of the day, making fortunes out of it, even to the words.
WALTER WEARE:
Blues. Mississippi blues?
VIOLA TURNER:
That's right. I don't remember all of it, but a part of it went: "standing on the railroad track, honey won't you take me back?" You know, and all the verses went on, but always there was this "railroad track". And the same beat and the same sort of harmony, and you hear it right today. I say, yes, you've all been down there and picked it up.
WALTER WEARE:
Do you remember at the time how you felt about that music, having been trained in classical music, but having this temptation for ragtime?
VIOLA TURNER:
I like it, I like it. Not only that, I'll tell you another thing. I say to myself and I kid people when it comes up. I say, I know perfectly well that there's definitely African blood. I've got African blood, there's no question about that. Because drums set me going. I love them. I just love the sounds of drums. And when somebody really can do drums well, my foot's just going, and going and going. I like the sound, I like the tempo. I like that kind of music.
WALTER WEARE:
Did you ever feel kind of restrained then, from working at the Mutual, where things were kind of. . .well, let me ask it this way. Were these kind of street musicians—blues people, jazz groups in Durham—were there, do you recall?
VIOLA TURNER:
Not that I knew anything about. The only place I ever saw or heard that kind of music, you know, just out played for the public, was in Mississippi. And that seems to have been the characteristic; they did it all around in that area. As a matter of fact, did I say Clarksdale? Because it was not Clarksdale, it was Meridian, Mississippi where I had that experience. But the lady where I was living said that that was customary. They expected, usual. They travelled all through the state in that area of the country and played that music, and you handed them out. But I never saw anybody do that here. I hear the music here. Anywhere where there are blacks, you're going to hear somebody who plays that type of music, there's no question. And good. They usually do a good job. I think it's a natural thing.
WALTER WEARE:
You mentioned Bess Whitted yesterday, and the piano and so forth. What kind of music was played at the forum at the Mutual?
VIOLA TURNER:
Oh, we played some of every type of music. Not the blues and that sort of thing, no. We had a glee club. We sang spirituals; we liked spirituals , but anthems. I was trying to think of one that was one of my favorites because of the young man who sang the solo part. "Bells of Saint Mary", that was one of the things we sang a lot. There was this Italian street song. We had very good soloists and we did all of the "zing, zing, zing" sort of thing. So we did all types of music, but no blues, no jazz. No kind of the kind of music that we might go that evening to party, and there was somebody there who could plunk it all out on the piano and all of gather around and hear him sing every one of the verses, you know. And loved every minute of it. But the music she used was good music.
WALTER WEARE:
But at private parties, though, there might be blues singing, or jazz?
VIOLA TURNER:
There would be plenty of it played, and usually—he's dead now, but he was one of the professors over here at North Carolina Central—Dr. Brown. Brown was a young fellow here, and he was teaching. I wish I could remember his first name. But any rate, I can't right this minute. He taught. But he could play some of the bluest blues you have ever heard. And he had some of the bluest verses going with those blues. And he could play other music as well. But he really could play that sort of thing. And he'd sit down there, and he had all sorts of verses, probably some he made up, and plenty that he picked up, because they are here. A lot of people know many, many, many that have been handed down and handed down. This fellow that I said had such a beautiful voice, he used to sing a real—what was that thing? Really, it was a song that you didn't even let the older generation hear you listen to him sing that one. I can't remember the name of it now. Of course, in today's time, it would be called mild. But for that time, we were really being wild when we set down and let John Allen play his number and say his verses. Because they were all inuendo or suggestive.