Bars, Blues & Booze

Redacted from the fall 2016 Research Magazine

The inspiration for Dr. Emily Edwards’ second book is rooted in her youth. She grew up in the Deep South partying with a crowd that flouted social conventions and racial divisions.

“I knew that there was an important story here about music, about liquor laws, and about race relations and the crossroads there,” she says. She laughs, “I ran with a hippie crowd in north Alabama.”

Edwards, a professor of media studies at UNCG, has finally told that story in “Bars, Blues, and Booze: Stories from the Drink House,” published by the University Press of Mississippi. In the book, she interviews musicians, bar owners, and fans about life at the music-soaked margins of American culture, emerging with tales of juke joints and unlicensed liquor houses, cockfights and magic pouches.

Roberts, who has worked with artists like Stevie Wonder and Otis Redding, is one of Edwards' storytellers. [Photo by Mike Dickens]
Roberts, who has worked with artists like Stevie Wonder and Otis Redding, is one of Edwards’ storytellers. [Photo by Mike Dickens]
For years Edwards pondered the idea for the book, wrestling with whether she was the right person to tell the story and whether it was best told as a documentary film or in print.

A couple of things helped her decide: seeing great storytellers such as bluesman Ray “Sweet Daddy” Burnett die before anyone captured their tales, and working on her 1990 documentary “Deadheads: An American Subculture.” She didn’t have the funding she felt she needed to make a documentary about blues culture, and filming in dark, loud places can be problematic — especially when some of those places are selling alcohol without a license.

“If you’re going to drag a camera crew into a place where people are not doing what the law allows, it’s tough,” Edwards says.

So she settled for a decade’s worth of interviews captured on a Tascam digital audio recorder, beginning in 2006. She interviewed people in person and on the phone, in dressing rooms at bars, and outdoors at blues festivals. Social media helped her track down a lot of her subjects.

“I never would have realized how important Facebook was going to be as a research tool,” she says.

[Photo by Mike Dickens]
[Photo by Mike Dickens]
Edwards cast a wide net, talking to about 75 people altogether. She presents their stories in the book as a series of anecdotes.

“Together, they tell a bigger story about our integrated Southern party — with a caution,” she explains. “As ‘Stoop Down Man’ Chick Willis says in the book, ‘We can’t rely on music, good intentions, and a good time to make us all gentle and color-blind.’”

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“Bars, Blues & Booze” by Eddie Huffman originally appeared in the fall 2016 Research Magazine