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Blind Mississippi Morris breathes new life into the blues

The blues, some pundits would have it, are dead. But that tired chorus speaks out of nostalgia, as though the blues were sealed forever in the days of Jim Crow, the Depression and the great juke joints of Chicago. No, there will never be another Robert Johnson, but we do an injustice to the blues if we forget that it is art, and in the end, art is so much more than history.

Case in point: Morris Cummings, a.k.a. Blind Mississippi Morris. Born in the archetypal Delta town of Clarksdale, Morris counts Willie Dixon and Robert and Mary Diggs, of the legendary Memphis Sheiks, among his cousins. "Every time Robert and Mary would leave home I'd sneak in and get into their stuff," Morris explains from his Memphis home. "They didn't want me bothering their instruments, but I wanted to play. I'd find a harmonica in a box, and I'd play it. I did it all on the sly, though. When they first heard me play it was a shock to them."

Yes, Morris was born poor and lost his eyesight at the age of four, but his take on the blues eschews all pathos. His harmonica style, as instantly recognizable as Junior Wells' or Sonny Boy Williamson's, tears a trail of raging glory through the lowest of low-down grooves and rises above everything you think you know about contemporary blues. When he blows the harp, or when he growls out one of his originals -- along with guitarist Brad Webb, Morris has written more than a few essential, if little-known, blues songs -- you know you're hearing the real thing. "My first harmonica was a gift, really," he says. "I was a boy, sitting on the steps of a store in Clarksdale, where I was born, on the steps that lead down to the train. A man was talking to me, he didn't know I was blind, but I told him, and he felt so bad, that he gave me fifty cents. I took that and bought a harmonica."

In the early '70s Morris spent time in St. Louis, gigging around the East side at parties and barbecues, and even playing the Regal. His last visit to the river city found him recording with Henry Townsend, Fred Sanders and the late Willie Foster. His own records are all but impossible to find, but they show Morris as a master of both wide-open electric blues and back-porch scorchers. "Playing the blues harmonica, it all depends on the band," he says. "The harmonica player can only play as well as the band. If you have a band that sucks, you're gonna have to play harder not to suck yourself." The Pocket Rockets most emphatically do not suck. Featuring guitarist Webb, bassist Danny Cochran, drummer Tony Adams and keyboardist Russell Wheeler (who has also worked with Buddy Guy), the Rockets are a solid and serious outfit, matching Morris' imposing presence muscle for muscle, but also smoothly navigating some of Morris jazzier harp lines.

"Harmonicas make such sweet music," he says, as though his own music weren't all the evidence his audience would ever need. "They're more compassionate than anything else. It's the most feeling instrument that touches the soul."

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