Even St. Peter (Minn.) gets the Blues

Philip Bryant
Philip Bryant teaches in the English department at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. Bryant's latest book of poetry is "Stompin' at the Grand Terrace."
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

I like all kinds of music. But my favorite part about the Rock Bend Folk Festival has been the blues artists it's brought down to this quiet southern Minnesota town. Over the years, legends including Phil Guy and Mo Jo Buford have rocked not just the festival, but the whole river valley.

Being a native born Southsider from Chicago, hearing that music is like getting a care package full of down home cooking. And the best care package I ever got came in 2005. That's the year they brought Mississippi Delta bluesman Honeyboy Edwards here to St. Peter.

Typically, bluesmen live fast lives. They die young and make good-looking corpses, as the saying goes. Yet Honeyboy is still going strong now in his mid-90s, and he's one of the last great masters of Country Delta Blues.

He was born in Shaw, Miss., in the middle of the Mississippi Delta, in 1915. He grew up in wrenching poverty and untold hardship, not to speak of almost insurmountable discrimination and brutal racism.

His family was poor. They were sharecroppers. And that would have been his fate too, if he hadn't turned to music and found his life's vocation there.

Against great odds he became a master bluesman. He went on to play with some of the artists who invented Blues music as we know it -- Charlie Patton, Tommy McClennan and Robert Johnson, among many others. Together they perfected one of the only art forms to truly be born here in America.

St. Peter, of course, isn't the part of this country that gave birth to the Blues. Most of its people are descended from Swedes, Germans and Norwegians -- they never knew those particular southern hardships that inspired Delta blacks to create this music.

But those gathered here that beautiful fall afternoon in 2005 still rocked and grooved to Honeyboy's down-home Country Delta Blues. There's something in this music that speaks directly to what lies deep inside our human hearts and souls.

It speaks a universal language we all somehow understand. It's a language that honestly and forthrightly confronts all human joys, sorrows, triumphs and defeats. It affirms all that essentially makes us human.

Somehow this 90-year old treasure of American music and culture can uplift all of us as we celebrate our common humanity.

My fellow St. Peter townspeople may not have grown up with Honeyboy or the Delta Blues. But anyone who ever gets a little downhearted and blue feeling can appreciate a little taste of home cooking ... no matter where they call home.

----

Philip Bryant is a professor of English at Gustavus Adolphus College.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.