Interview with writer, educator and artist Anita Havens - uses Blues poetry to motivate reluctant readers

"Everyone can relate to the Blues. Everyone has experienced sadness and they feel connected…drawn to others who share their feelings. Not to mention, the sound of Blues is so unique and will draw you in!"

Anita Havens: That’s Why We Sang the Blues

Anita Havens is a Blues writer and artist from Mississippi--birthplace of the Blues! She is also an elementary school teacher in Oxford, Mississippi, and uses Blues poetry to motivate reluctant readers.

Anita Havens was born in 1957 is a native Mississippi writer promoting the cultural heritage of the south by preserving oral histories handed down by seven generations of Mississippians. Havens is currently working on a three-year writing project involving school children from all 50 states--a collection of inspirational essays to help fight childhood obesity. Anita Havens and Wendy Daughdrill are a mother--daughter writing team promoting the cultural heritage of the south by preserving oral histories handed down by seven generations of Mississippians.

Her book That's Why We Sang the Blues (2014) is a collection of poems and the authentic Depression Era photographs that inspired them. All photographs were taken in the South between 1935 and 1944 and have captured the hard life that gave birth to the Blues in poignant, still images. This pictorial record brought back many memories of stories told by old grannies and inspired the author to retell their narratives with poems.

When I first came across the Farm Security Administration photograph collection, each one brought back memories of stories my grandparents told of hardships they endured during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was as if the photographs themselves began to speak to me, and I copied down each poem--sometimes getting up in the middle of the night and jotting down the verses on a scrap of paper towel. I wrote each word, just as I heard it, keeping the dialect intact, out of respect for the people who "sang the blues." There are over 200 poignant black-and-white images of sharecroppers and tenant farmers living the life that gave birth to the Blues. Other books co-written by Anita Havens are: Chicken Church Reunion (2007), College Bound Bay (2013) and The Terrorist (2013).

Interview by Michael Limnios

All photos © That’s Why We Sang the Blues - has over 200 authentic 1930s photos. All rights reserved

What has been the relationship between music and poetry in your life and writing?

Growing up in the late 50s and early 60s, I was greatly influenced by music.  Of course, this was an exciting time; first there was Elvis, and then came the Beatles. I distinctly remember their first tour in America in 1964. I was in the first grade, and my teacher would let a group of little boys come to the front of the classroom and sing Beatle songs for us. They held their little pretend microphones, and we squealed and clapped as if they were the real deal! The grownups, on the other hand, were scandalized. I remember my parents and their friends complaining about the “longhairs,” coming. They did not approve of their appearance or their music!

Reciting poems in the form of nursery rhymes is one of my first memories. Mama read from my Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes book to me every day, and I would beg her to read the same one over and over until I had it memorized. “Read it again, Mama!” I had the entire book committed to memory before I was four. I started writing poetry at an early age. I wrote “Tell Me a Story,” from my Blues book That’s Why We Sang the Blues when I was in high school back in the 70s. 

Blues musicians headed to play a juke-joint, Iberia, LA 1938; © photographer: Russell Lee

How important was music in your life?  How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

Music has always been an important part of my life. My grandfather, a Cherokee Indian sharecropper, would not miss the Grand Ole Opry. The entire family would gather in his tiny living room around an old black and white RCA television to listen. 

In his old age, he ran a little country grocery store for my father.  At lunchtime, farmers would bring truckloads of field-hands to East End Grocery for lunch. My grandmother would make sandwiches at a long meat counter in the back. She would slice thick slabs of bologna, liver-cheese, and other lunchmeats. The field-hands would take their lunch out back behind the store, turn old Coke crates on end for stools, and eat under an ancient oak tree. It had been used for a lunchroom for so long that not a blade of grass grew there—only red clay and sand. 

I ate lunch there every day with the field-hands, and one old black man would sing to me. He sang the saddest song about a little lamb lost from its mother. I would sit in his lap and listen, and then I would cry and cry, but I would ask for the same song every day. He was old, old—snow-white hair and skin leathery and wrinkled from a life of work in the sun. I thought he was so old that he had to be Moses.

Several weeks ago, my husband, Lynn, was reading the Mississippi Slave Narratives to me as I worked on my computer. As he was reading one from Lafayette County, he said, “Listen to this!  It is an old slave song!”  He started reading…

From the WPA Slave Narratives: 
Joanna Thompson Isom—Lafayette County, Mississippi

“"I hav' been midwife, an' nuss, an' washerwoman; when I wuz little my granny taught me some ole, ole slave songs dat she sed had been used to sing babies to sleep ever since she wuz a chile. I used to sing dis one:


"Little black sheep,

Where's yo' lam'


Way down yonder in de meado'


The bees an' de butterflies


A-peckin' out hiz eyes


The poor little black sheep


Cry Ma-a-a-my."

 

I stopped working and squealed, “That’s it!  That’s it!” I had forgotten all but the one line about the bees and the butterflies pecking out his eyes.

Of course, Lynn had no idea why I was so excited. “That’s the song old Charlie used to sing to me when I was a little girl!” I explained, tears in my eyes.

I find, still today, that I am moved more by sad songs! I am not sure why, because my life has not been a hard one. 

What started thought for book That’s Why We Sang the Blues?

Several years ago, I ran across a collection of old black and white photographs from the 1930s.  These poignant images of sharecroppers and tenant farmers brought back childhood memories of stories my grandparents told—stories about the hard life they lived during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  It was as if the people in the photographs actually started talking to me, and I would get up in the still of the midnight hours and write down their words, exactly as they spoke them, for fear that the verses would be gone from me with the morning light. I wrote about all of the everyday hardships which were the roots of Blues music…the hard life experiences that caused the musicians to be blue in the first place! The book focuses on the cotton culture lifestyle rather than on the actual Blues music history. 

Why do you think that Blues music generates such a devoted following? 

Everyone can relate to the Blues. Everyone has experienced sadness and they feel connected…drawn to others who share their feelings.  Not to mention, the sound of Blues is so unique and will draw you in!

Are there any memories writing the book that you would like to share with us?  Which memories make you smile? 

When I found the collection of old FSA photographs, each one brought back a story that my grandfather, the Cherokee Indian sharecropper used to tell. I remember how excited I was! Just remembering the stories! And I remember when I realized that I had to write them down. It seemed like such an important job—preserving his memory.

He farmed for a landowner near Paris, Mississippi—up in the hill country. Once when I was a small child, he was telling me his old stories and he said, “Sugar Sack;” he called me his sugar sack, and I called him Pepaw. Pepaw said, “Sugar Sack, if the Good Lord offered to let me go ‘round again, live this ole life over, I’d just have to tell him no thank you!” It broke my heart. 

Pepaw’s father moved into Mississippi shortly after it was acquired from the Chickasaw Indians, and they helped clear the flatwoods around Pontotoc. My grandfather told me that they cut down the huge old trees with crosscut saws and plowed around the stumps until they were rotten enough to dig out. He came from a large family, about ten children, and he said that his grandmother lived with them to help his mother out. He told me that almost every night he could hear the old spinning wheel whizzing until the wee hours of the morning; his granny was making socks for the family. He said when he awoke every morning there would be a clean pair of socks on the foot of his bed. 

My Pepaw also told me that the old tenant houses that they lived in were sided with rough sawmill lumber with cracks between. He said that many a winter morning that they would awake with a dusting of snow on the bed quilts where it had blown in the cracks between the planks. It was as cold within as without. 

I felt compelled to tell his stories, to record them for future generations. Stories tell history in a way that a traditional history book never can.

(sharecropper family - Arkansas 1935; © photographer: Shahan, Ben)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with the poetry and continue to the art of photography?

Well, there are many examples, but one in particular comes to mind.  I ran across a photograph of a negro woman nursing a newborn baby. She and her husband sat on the front porch of a shabby Delta shack, and you could see the desperation in his face. But the woman, there was a glint of determination there—and I thought, That could very well be Robert Johnson’s mama. So I wrote “Blues Mama” for her. Here are a couple of lines from the poem… 

I sit here in this rickety old chair,

My baby at my breast.

I pray for him to be a music man,

Not a sharecropper like me

With calloused hands.

 

On that hot, muggy, Delta day,

How was I to know,

That one lonely, dark midnight,

To the crossroads he would go,

To make a deal with a man in black,

The hoot owls hootin’ low?

Of course, Robert Johnson is one of the most famous Blues musicians of all time.  It is said that he met the devil at a crossroads at midnight in the vicinity of the Dockery Plantation and made a deal—his soul for the gift of becoming the greatest Blues musician of all time.  Allegedly, the devil took his guitar, tuned it, and played a few songs.  Then he returned the instrument to Johnson, and the rest is history…or legend.

You are also a schoolteacher in Oxford, Mississippi.  Do you think the younger generations are interested in the blues?

Absolutely! I play Blues for my fourth graders all of the time, and they love it. They are fascinated by the old photographs and will stay in and give up their recess for the chance to recite the poems from That’s Why We Sang the Blues. I took a group from my class to several events two years ago. They recited for the Fine Arts Fair in Oxford and for the Double Decker Festival. One child, Kiana Burt, recited “Memories” for a group of visiting professors at the University of Mississippi’s Storyfest in 2012.

Kiana Burt - University of Mississippi 2012 Storyfest. Blues Poetry website

What was the journey from the field, railroad to porch to juke joint?

The call and response pattern of the Blues started in the cotton fields of Mississippi—slaves singing to pass the time as they worked. The rhythm also helped as they swung the hoe keeping time to the beat. Another hoe gang, farther out in the field would pick up the lines and repeat them.

The blues as we know it were actually born out of sharecropper labor in theses same cotton fields in the late 1920s and 30s. Sharecropping was a method of leasing land. The sharecropper worked land owned by a landlord for a share of the profit from the crops when they were gathered and sold. The sharecropper owned nothing of his own—no equipment, no mule, not even a hoe. Sharecroppers charged all of their supplies for making the crop (seed, equipment, fertilize) as well as other necessities at the company store or commissary. They paid the tab when the cotton was gathered in the fall.  Usually, after all of the accounting was complete at the store, the sharecropper was “in the hole” or still owed money to the landowner. Each year his debt grew, and it was almost impossible to escape the arrangement. Many ran away and escaped to northern cities such as Chicago. The railroad was their transportation out of the south…Here is a line from “Mama’s Rub-board,”…

I’m singing the Blues,

And we’re headed for Chicago

Leaving Leland far behind,

Following that ole Illinois Central Railroad line. 

The front porch was the only place cool enough to survive in the hot Mississippi evenings. Of course, there was no electricity in sharecropper shacks, no TV, no fans, and certainly no air conditioners. Everyone enjoyed music and would sit on the front porch in the evenings and sing…play music until the house cooled off enough to sleep.

Saturday and Sunday were free days—no work.  Most were paid on Friday afternoon.

Saturday afternoon and night the sharecroppers went to juke-joints to unwind. The juke-joint may have originated on Delta plantations during slavery times. The Plantation owner usually build rooms for the workers to get together and socialize. They went there to dance, drink, gamble, and listen to music. Since black people were banned from most white businesses, they needed a place to unwind from a hard week’s work. The juke-joint provided such a place.

Here is a short poem from That’s Why We Sang the Blues.

Juke-Joint Jitterbug

By Anita Havens

Pickin’ dat cotton,

Draggin’ dat sack,

Come Saturday night,

I ain’t lookin’ back—

Gonna dance

De juke-joint jitterbug

On a Clarksdale Saturday night.

 

Eatin’ sardines from a tin can.

Makin’ eyes at my main man.

Gonna shake dat field dust

Off’n my feet,

Twist and strut

Down Clarksdale’s streets,

 And dance de juke-joint jitterbug,

On a Clarksdale Saturday night.

(Jitterbugging in juke-joint Clarksdale, MS 1939; © photographer: Wolcott, Marion Post)

Let’s tke a trip with a time machine. So where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day?

This question is so hard to answer. I grew up at the tail end of the cotton culture here in Mississippi. It was a different world, and I miss it. Everything was slowed down to what would seem to be a snails pace by today’s standards. I remember the old country stores, the cold Coca Cola’s in the green glass bottles—everyone sitting around talking and enjoying each other’s company. Dinnertime underneath the trees in the cotton patch. Even though they sang the Blues, I believe that everyone was much happier back then. As a child, they seemed to me to be. I would like to go back to that little country store that my grandfather ran. I would like to ask all of the questions that I was not wise enough to ask back then. I would like to hear old Charlie sing to me about the little lost lamb one more time and ask him… “Charlie, are you happy? Or are you Blue? Tell me…Explain everything to me.” But of course, time machines are only for our imagination…the reality is…all of that culture which produced the Blues is lost to us forever…and that truly makes me Blue.

In the 1930s, the Farm Security Administration sent a team of photographers to document the full impact of the Great Depression on farmers in the rural South. The images they captured present another face of Black History, but one that is no less real and valuable. The people in these photographs were not educated, famous, or accomplished. They were not the first to do anything. Their great achievement was survival. They lived, loved, and raised their families in the face of grinding poverty and bitter injustice. Yet, theirs was a rich and vibrant culture that gave birth to the Blues, the wellspring of all American music. And though history will not remember their names, theirs was the true American dream: that by their hard work and sacrifice, their children inherited a life and a world far better than their own. This book is respectfully dedicated to them.

All photos © That’s Why We Sang the Blues - has over 200 authentic 1930s photos. All rights reserved

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