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The blues is a quintessentially American art form, yet one whose early masters have mostly passed away. The genre relies on each succeeding generation to renew and reinvigorate it. In Clarksdale, Mississippi, 21-year-old guitarist Christone “Kingfish” Ingram is taking up that mantle. Special correspondent Tom Casciato reports for our American Creators series and arts and culture coverage, Canvas.
Now to the blues, a quintessentially American art form, one whose early masters have mostly passed away.
The genre relies on each succeeding generation to renew and reinvigorate it.
Special correspondent Tom Casciato looks at one standout who demonstrates that the youngest generation will not disappoint.
The story is part of our American Creator series, and ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.
In Clarksdale Mississippi, the spiritual home of the Delta Blues, COVID-19 has done its best to hush the vibrant music scene.
But on this autumn afternoon, at the Delta Blues Museum, a local guitar hero has agreed to play a few tunes. With a command of his instrument and a firm grasp of tradition, Christone "Kingfish" Ingram represents the next generation of great American blues artists.
You might say he grew up here in the museum, where he took guitar lessons and learned blues history. He scrutinized the masters on YouTube to learn their techniques.
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram:
Playing to different tunes, like some of the old blues standards, and Muddy Waters, Albert King, Otis Rush, Son House, everybody.
When you were a young kid, you were listening to the blues while a lot of other kids were listening to other more popular kinds of music.
Did people think you were peculiar?
Very peculiar. Like, they thought it was strange as heck, man. They used to come up to me, man. They was like, what you doing listening to that boring stuff, old stuff?
And I'd be like, man, this is our history. And I'm doing this for the culture.
Do you still know any of those people? And do they now understand what you were talking about?
I doubt it.
Others have understood very well. Ingram was heralded a prodigy as a teenager, showing skill and confidence at just 15, playing at the White House, where the Delta Blues Museum received an Arts and Humanities Award.
Here he is at 17 burning up the frets like a seasoned pro. Now just 21, he says he's grown as a player.
Around that time, I was listening to a lot of Eric Johnson, and a lot of Eric Gales, and a lot of fast, like, blues, shreddy type of things.
And I just felt everything that I played had to be like 1,000 miles a minute. So, yes, these days, I have incorporated more feel and more slowness in my solos. But I still you know try to get the youthfulness and attack and the speed of notes every night then.
For those who might wonder how such a youthful man can play the blues with such authority, there's this.
I wasn't in a troubled childhood, but I did have my share of troubles, you know, people in school trying to pick at you because of your appearance and stuff like that.
And not only that. Going through things. There's no secret. I saw my parents. They got a divorce, and me and my mom became homeless for a minute. And that's actually when I started to — I started to dig, like, a little bit more deeper into the blues and guitar.
All of that was just a big, like, melting pot for my blues. I didn't have to deal with my woman leaving me until like later.
Ingram's 2019 debut release, "Kingfish," garnered a Grammy nomination, as well as five of this year's American Blues Awards, including album of the year.
But he says none of that might have happened had not an older legendary blues master stepped in to kick-start his recording career, Buddy Guy.
We get this call: Mr. Guy wants to work with you. He wants to produce an album on you, because I didn't have a record.
Were you completely blown away by that?
Most definitely. I didn't think it was going to happen at first, because, at the time, the reason why we didn't do a record was because we just didn't have the funds. So, he even put the funds up.
An enduring relationship was born.
Sometimes, I would rather hang around older people and soak up the wisdom from talking to them, than just hanging out with kids my own age or something like that.
I'm digging deep to look at the music that our ancestors paved the way for us to play, and we should — we should take that and embrace it.
Early this year, Kingfish got up on stage at Buddy Guy's Legends club in Chicago. There, an audience video captured a telling moment.
The younger man had been taking a solo, when suddenly his guitar rig malfunctioned. The older one stepped in, passing Kingfish his own guitar, or maybe that was a torch he was passing. If so, it was to a musician who plans to keep the flame burning.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Tom Casciato.
Remember the name, Kingfish Ingram. We are going to be hearing about him for a long time.
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Tom Casciato is an Emmy award-winning director, writer, producer and television executive who has created critically acclaimed nonfiction projects that have appeared on PBS, ABC, NBC, TBS, Showtime and more. He recently directed and produced two stories within episodes of the second season of the Emmy Award-winning climate-change series, "Years Of Living Dangerously." His 2013 film with Kathleen Hughes and Bill Moyers for Frontline series, "Two American Families," was called by Salon “... one of the best and most heartbreaking documentaries” of the year. Tom previously worked at WNET from 2006 until 2012, serving variously as director of News & Current Affairs and executive producer of two PBS series, "Wide Angle" and "Exposé: America’s Investigative Reports."
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