LEXINGTON -- In his great poem "For Sidney Bechet," Philip Larkin describes New Orleans, a city he's never visited but that his imagination and ears inhabit. A municipality of global extent, it exists wherever Bechet's soprano saxophone can be heard. "My Crescent City," Larkin calls it, full of "the natural noise of good."
Margo Cooper might speak of "My Mississippi," a place full of a related natural noise and one no less good. It extends far beyond Highway 61 and the Delta to take in Chicago, New England clubs like Harpers Ferry and Johnny D's -- anywhere the blues is played, listened to, or photographed.
Cooper, who lives in Arlington but has spent much time in the real Mississippi, celebrates the music and those who love it (on either side of the microphone) in the 38 black-and-white photographs that make up "Deep Inside the Blues." The show runs through June 5 at the National Heritage Museum.
There are numerous shots, many of them memorable, of blues musicians performing. It's hard to top Irma Thomas, singing in Salem in 1998. Cooper shows her -- arms flung out, mouth open wide -- as the embodiment of exaltation. Cover Thomas with feathers, and there's so much energy in her she might just flap her arms and fly. The harmonica player Frank Frost holds his instrument so that a thumb supports its weight, the four remaining fingers rigidly splayed out: as forceful as exclamation marks, as threatening as knives. Elation fills the face of B.B. King, captured in mid-song. (Splendid as King's singing or guitar playing is, what's most amazing about him is that magnificent, moonstruck face.)
Just as often, Cooper's images remind us that the blues is as much attitude or way of life as art form. Her photographs place the performances in a larger, richer context of trailers and cigarettes, overalls and pick-up trucks, garish jewelry, and bad teeth. And if such elements aren't necessarily surprising, who would expect to find pictures of John F. Kennedy on Delta walls, cauldrons steaming with goat stew, or, in "Thursday Night Club Scene," what would appear to be the world's biggest bottle of Bud Light?
Cooper is as interested in audiences as performers: the blues as community. It's no coincidence that young people keep cropping up. Cooper, who started taking these pictures in 1993, says, "I want people to know that the blues . . . is still alive." She sees herself as an advocate for the music, a celebrant, but not an apologist. Clearly, her photographs are a labor of love -- but who knows more about a beloved's foibles and failings than a lover? She does nothing to disguise the sadness, and sometimes ugliness, that can surround the music.
Mostly the sadness is implicit. It's one thing to see a photograph of a famous bluesman or -woman, such as King or Thomas, Buddy Guy, or Junior Wells. The blues for them is about success and escape. It's something else for the two musicians in "Sam Carr and Shine. They cradle their electric guitars -- beautiful, pared-down things, like greyhounds or swords -- as if they were babies. And when those babies cry, watch out.
It's worth noting that "Deep Inside the Blues" caps a standout year for musical phototography hereabouts. It began with "Artist to Icon," also at the National Heritage Museum, continued with Henry Horenstein's "Honky Tonk" at the Photographic Resource Center, now "Deep Inside the Blues."
Seeing is believing?
Sometimes, seeing can be hearing, too.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Deep Inside the Blues: Photographs by Margo Cooper" is at the National Heritage Museum, 33 Marrett Road, Lexington, through June 5. Call 781-861-6559