This year’s award for the most glaring irony in American folklore goes to the title line of this song:
“Michigan water tastes like sherry wine.”
Jelly Roll Morton’s lyric metaphorically summed up the central dream of the “great migration” — that black Americans could escape bad times down south for good times up north. It was not all that different from the dream that made a lot of poor Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans brave the dangers of steerage in search of streets paved with gold — or that made Okies leave the dust bowl for California, where you could pluck peaches off the trees.
Of course, none of those destinations were as pretty as they were painted, and racial discrimination made migration a more effective solution for some people than others. But for a lot of black southern expatriates, for quite a few decades, working for Ford or Chrysler provided a hell of a lot better life than sharecropping in Mississippi.
These days, things aren’t so clear. I recently heard an NPR interview with James Young, the black mayor of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were lynched during the Mississippi Summer of 1964, and it sounds like a lot has changed down there. Meanwhile, up in Michigan, the news has mostly been about water that by no means tastes like sherry wine.
I first heard this song either from Dave Van Ronk or on a Jelly Roll Morton album I borrowed from Dave. At the time, I doubt I gave much thought to its historical context, but looking through the program of the educational concert I gave at the India Institute of Technology in New Delhi back in 1981, I find that I juxtaposed the black and white southern working class experience in the early 20th century by playing this back-to-back with a version of Jimmie Rodgers’s “California Blues” that included a similar verse comparing the water in Georgia and California.
I hadn’t been playing this much in recent years, but the Flint situation brought it back to mind, and I was pleased to hear Jerron Paxton, my favorite current folk/blues/pop artist, sing it this summer with a new verse referring to the news… which, of course, I promptly stole. He plays it on piano, like it should be played, and if you don’t know his work, I strongly recommend checking him out, because he’s a monster on numerous instruments and a singularly compelling and entertaining performer.