John’s Uncommon Denominators: Butterflies, Mail Order and U2

Welcome diversions during the pandemic shutdown

By John Matthews

Let’s have a little discussion about quantum physics, the Chaos Theory, Memphis and – with apologies to the rest of the planet – our world dominance of American music. 

Within the Chaos Theory there exists a concept commonly referred to as The Butterfly Effect. Not so simply stated, this is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. Simply stated, in theory a butterfly flapping its wings in West Africa can, through the power of compounding effects, ultimately end up weeks later as a Category 5 hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.  

Stay with me.

Ok, we know that small and seemingly insignificant actions can bring on powerful changes. Now let’s look at the one-time mail order behemoth Sears, Roebuck and Co. and how their catalog sales division changed American and ultimately world culture. 

Confused? Don’t be. For the first time, in the 1894 edition of the Sears Catalog, the publication offered musical instruments, including a guitar that could be purchased for four dollars and fifty cents. This marked the initial opportunity that a Mississippi Delta resident of a town such as Friars Point, Indianola, Rolling Fork and the like had access to a musical instrument. With a few bucks and the cost of a stamp, a kid who was mired in poverty and seemingly stuck in a dead end existence had, for the first time, a creative outlet. Music, the glue that held the African American communities together, was now literally in the hands of those wishing to express sonically their emotions.

The 1894 Sears Catalog (various sources)

With the advent of low cost and readily available guitars, what was known as “field holler music” or “levee camp holler music” was put to twangy steel-stringed rhythm. Lyrics that expressed longing and the pain of lost hope congealed into the genre now known as the Delta Blues.

This musical renaissance, in a part of the world that was bereft of economic opportunity provided a creative outlet and ultimately a paid way out of the malarial swamps and a hardscrabble existence that was the Mississippi Delta. With music as a means of escape, scores of talented Bluesmen yielded to the siren call of Memphis and Beale Street. Here, a raw art coalesced and ultimately was introduced to the world.

Variations of the music quickly developed. Using an electric guitar and adding a saxophone and some dude named Ike Turner on piano, a group known as Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats made it up Hwy 61 to record for Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service (later Sun Studio) which is considered the first rock and roll song, Rocket 88. A bluesman from Forest and later Clarksdale, MS named Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup penned a number called “That’s Alright Momma.” A few years later a soft-spoken route truck driver walked into Sun Studio and covered this song. And the rest, as they say, is history.  

Baby Boomers grew up being influenced by the driving beat of such super groups and influencers as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton – to name just a precious few. What many do not realize is that their music was quite simply an electronic extension of the Delta Blues. In fact, a great many popular rock and pop hits we all know are but direct covers of the songs written and originally performed by Blind Willie Johnson, Bo Diddley, Memphis Minnie, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Johnson – to name just a very precious few more.

The power, influence and societal reach of Rock and Roll music coupled with its offspring Soul, Reggae and Hip Hop is truly incalculable and is all a product of Memphis and the dusty fields of the Mississippi Delta. So the next time you see performers such as U2 or The Rolling Stones sell out an 80,000 seat venue, think back 120 or so years when some nameless and faceless Sears employee thought that it might be a good idea to sell cheap guitars by mail.  

Butterfly wings indeed! 

Adapted from John Matthews’ collection of essays:  WHITE GOLD, YELLOW FEVER AND RED HOT BLUES, Uncommon Denominators of America’s Coolest City.

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