Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

A Visit to the Blues

Photographer Michael Loyd Young documents Delta music

Michael Loyd Young is a Texas photographer who has traveled around the world since 2001 with the goal, as he writes at his website, of “documenting cultural symbols and what impact they have on the daily life of the cultures I photograph.” His quest has taken him to Latin America, Africa, and Asia, where he has turned his attention most often to diverse expressions of faith, from Day of the Dead observances to Buddhism. Blues, Booze, & BBQ brings Young a lot closer to home, documenting rituals of a much earthier sort. He traveled the blues circuit from Memphis, Tennessee, to Greenville, Mississippi, photographing the musicians, the juke joints, the grimly beautiful Delta landscape—and, yes, the barbecue. Images of meat on the grill add a rich sensual element to Young’s visual essay, although his celebration of roasting flesh could give a vegetarian nightmares.

The seventy-plus images in Blues, Booze, & BBQ range from casual snapshots taken on the fly to carefully composed, almost abstract studies. This multi-faceted approach is ideal for capturing the complex character—at once raucous and spiritual—of Delta blues. There are candid shots of weary festival vendors, excited kids, and revelers in various states of sobriety. Blurred images of musicians and dancers in rapturous motion convey the primal joy of the music, while stark street scenes and landscapes give a sense of the poverty and troubled history that inspired it. In his more carefully composed photographs, Young seeks out islands of light in shadowy scenes, drawing our attention to the cold glow of a neon sign in a dark club, or a bright beam of sunlight bouncing off the polished surface of a guitar. He seems to be suggesting a visual metaphor for the music and its ability to sustain the spirit through tough times.

Young’s portraits of performers like Mississippi Slim and Pat Thomas are among the best photographs in the collection, artful and yet wonderfully human. He captures Thomas as an iconic image of the rural bluesman, with the sun dappling his face through the weave of a straw hat, his bandaged fingers caressing the neck of his guitar. Legendary juke joint owner Willie Seaberry, famous for his vast wardrobe, is depicted as a slightly jaded monarch, leaning back in his chair with a plaid suit draped across his hefty torso and a baby-blue fedora serving as his crown.

Young clearly has a tremendous affinity for his subjects in Blues, Booze, & BBQ, and he creates a rich world with his camera. In his photographs, the musical artistry of the blues is inseparable from the rest of Delta life—the land, the food, the faith, and the alcohol-fueled pleasures of the juke joint. As acclaimed Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey writes in the book’s introduction, “Mike lived and breathed and listened and learned the blues and has managed here to let all of us have a visit.”