Devil at the Crossroads: The Blues Diaspora in a Digital Age


In this paper we would like to present the preliminary findings from our year-long effort to interconnect the Blues communities of Tokyo, Japan and the Mississippi Delta. Our work is the first stage in a larger project that aims to create new systems of global interactivity through unique combinations of Internet and the Arts.

Profoundly local in its origins and character, Blues music nonetheless has a global appeal and has seen the growth of small though tightly-knit circles of musicians, fans, and aficionados in almost every major city around the world. We have begun to link these groups through their bars, festivals, schools, museums, civic groups and individual musicians. Our focus is not providing Internet access to the communities, but providing the virtual space and assistance for communities to interact with each other. The tools we have used to do this include text-based email, chat, and discussion boards, web-based applications for collaborative composition, submission of original work, face-to-face performing, and an archive of original blues-related material aimed to satisfy the interests of the target communities.

For certain these Internet-based methods generate an exciting interaction and pose valuable research questions in and of themselves. Used in isolation of more conventional low-tech strategies for bringing people together, however, they fail in the endeavor to create an inclusive global network. This is especially true when dealing with an art form created out of poverty and still maintained through the imaginative work of a mostly computer illiterate group of musicians. Hence a primary question that drives our work is the search for effective combinations of on-line and off-line methods of community building on a global scale.

We want to find out how a handshake, a hand-written letter, or a conversation over beer is interwoven with a shared musical performance over a low-bandwidth line, a discussion thread involving Blues scholars, or a competition for the web space to show off onefs mind. We want to find out how the interactive capacity of the Internet can include in a global community those worlds that may never use a computer or even fully understand what the Internet is.

Connecting these communities requires special consideration in both design and development of our site, where web and other applications are incorporated together to facilitate interaction. As stated above, these communities are usually linked using lower bandwidth, less computing power and only average technical skills among the people involved. Thus, in the process of designing and selecting tools, it has been quite important to implement applications that ordinary people can use and test how well they can be relied on to foster rich, widespread interaction.

Moving further, we envision a future when the currently hip categories of the gvirtualh and grealh, or on-line and off-line, are indistinguishable and disappear altogether. Our real and virtual work with Blues musicians and fans in Mississippi and Tokyo has enabled us to experience the merging of these categories, giving us the ability to anticipate the look of interactivity in our future and the dynamic between local and global realms.



Gretchen Schoel (

Keio University, SFC



Keiichi Kawai (

Keio University, SFC



Kunitarou Suzuki (

Keio University, SFC




  1. Frederick Douglass and the Digital Divide
  2. The Project OPENWIDE
  3. A Case Study: Blues Music Communities of the Mississippi Delta and
  4. Tokyo, Japan

  5. Methodology and Content of Activity
  6. Preliminary Findings
  7. Conclusion
  8. References


  1. Frederick Douglass and the Digital Divide

In 1841 the fugitive slave, Frederick Douglass, stood before a crowd of hundreds in Nantucket, Massachusetts and delivered one of the most noteworthy speeches of American history. It was a dramatic moment in time as the ex-slave shared his personal history with the audience, recounting his escape from slavery, his evolution from bondage to freedom. Standing before a crowd who, but for the matter of geography, might just as well have been his former masters, he appealed to the people of the North to bear down on the hateful crime that gleft [nothing] undone to cripple the negro intellect, darken his mind, debase his moral nature, [and] obliterate all traces of his relationship to mankind.h The audience was stunned at the eloquence of this ex-slave, and reports soon followed that gas a public speaker, [Douglass] excels in pathos, wit, comparison, imitation, strength of reasoning, and fluency of language.h (Douglass 247)

In looking back upon this event in his autobiography, Douglass mused: "The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down. I spoke but a few moments, when I felt a degree of freedom, and said what I desired with considerable ease. From that time until now, I have been engaged in pleading the case of my brethren." (Douglass 326) This is a crucial image in Douglass's narrative and one that I believe to be cogent to this gathering -- the image of the slave shedding his last fetter and becoming a man by first finding his voice and then, as surely as dawn follows darkness, speaking with "considerable ease." In one brilliant stroke, Frederick Douglass's quest for freedom, and literacy, implied from the start by the very title of his book, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Written By Himself (1845), is resolutely consummated.

Douglass confronted and overcame almost insurmountable divides. He traversed chasms separating slave from freeman, illiterate from literate, inarticulate from well spoken, and powerless from empowered. That he negotiated these divides, moving from beneath the overseer's whip to the forefront of a people's struggle to be free, is the most profound evidence available that the weakest among us can become strong, the unvoiced our greatest leaders, if only given the tools to learn to speak.

Presented in his autobiography is a personal narrative documenting the process by which a quest for literacy and the simultaneous comprehension of freedom can lift a man up, free him from oppression, and raise him, not only to the status of participating citizen, but to the status of spokesman for a people. Douglass's story should be our guide as we come together to discuss developing new systems of global interactivity. His example demonstrates the way in which individuals can negotiate -- and be helped to negotiate -- the ever-widening disparities separating online and offline worlds, techno haves and have-nots, info-rich and info-poor, the local and the global. His example should remind us as well, that we have an obligation to see that no one is left behind as a new, ever-increasing divide continues to form on the digital horizon.

As we enter the 21st Century, who will participate and who will be left in silence? Who will have access to the new literacy? Who, like Douglass, will be forbade to learn? Who will be the slaves and who will be the masters in our "Digital Age?" Are we to find ways in which the gaps can be narrowed, or, better yet, eliminated? How can the new tools be utilized so that everyone is included?

II. The Project OPENWIDE@

Grounded in a deep belief that there is value to be found in every voice, potential to be tapped in every mind, and rooted in a desire to see the digital age become an age for all, not simply an age for the privileged few, we created OPENWIDE, a Keio University project begun in 1999. The primary mission of OPENWIDE is to generate interactivity at the grassroots level among diverse peoples and cultures around the globe through unique combinations of Internet and the Arts.

This mission is based on two premises. The first, culture is not innate; rather, as anthropologists repeatedly show, it is learned through socialization (interaction with others) and observation. Cultural differences need not divide and exclude, but on the contrary if engaged openly and understood to be malleable can work to unveil and accentuate common attributes of humankind. Again informed by the experience of Frederick Douglass, when he recalls how he grew to "hear," then understand, the songs of the slaves and how that "hearing" provided illumination along the path from slavery to freedom:

"I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension." (Douglass 263)

It is this promise of understanding "the deep meanings" through interaction with "those without" that drives our project, OPENWIDE.

A second premise of OPENWIDE lies in the words of Ossie Davis _ actor, director, and cultural critic _ who, when asked to explain the value of artistic expression for contemporary African-American people, said simply that "art was at one time the only voice we had to declare our humanity. When we were described as barely above cattle, certainly not human, it was our art that we had to show the rest of the world c that possibly we were humans. Art therefore is the basic fundamental element of human expression for any people and it moves across linguistic and socio-cultural boundaries to let voices ring out in universal unison." Hence it is our contention that the expressive capacity and universality of art combined with new and powerful interactive technologies will produce a dynamic combination for generating a common language, or shared expression, a vehicle by which people can join the global interchange that is fostered by the Net and thereby explore their full potential in the digital age.

  1. A Case Study:
  2. The Blues Music Communities of the Mississippi Delta and Tokyo, Japan

    The complexity of testing these premises and developing appropriate methodologies for achieving the goals of our project requires that we begin with narrow case studies that have well-defined sets of research objectives. We decided that most challenging of these objectives would be our plan to link grassroots communities together as opposed to universities and corporations _ the more conventional tech-rich participants in the digital age who enjoy increasing access to established communications infrastructure. Our interests focus on those parts of the population that have to a large extent been excluded from what has been referred to as the "Information Superhighway." We want to explore the problems that emerge in trying to get everyone on that highway. Toward this end, we are currently establishing links between two technologically "disconnected" communities separated by vast distances in time, language, culture, and space. We are examining how this link may serve to generate global interactivity _ interaction that reaches beyond virtual space to include existing offline worlds. In order to initiate this connection, though, we needed a common language _ a common expression that bridges differences.

    Blues music became that language. Profoundly local in its origins and character, Blues music possesses a global appeal and has fostered the growth of small though tightly-knit circles of musicians, fans, and aficionados in almost every major city around the world. Distributed globally and always recognizably gBlues,h each diasporic Blues community cultivates a distinct local identity in terms of attitude, style, sound, and musical venues. Blues music is an art form that has developed a global following, spanning distances as well as social and economic distinctions. Though its audience is often affluent, the daily practice of Blues creation usually takes place in locales traditionally identified as impoverished and disadvantaged, the Deep South of the United States, for example. Thus while Blues music presents us with a common cultural expression by which various communities can come together with shared interests, there are still innumerable unique differences to be explored and exchanged.

    In selecting participants for our initial experiments, we wanted to choose two communities that would really challenge our abilities to get them "connected." Geographically, this was a bit of a natural. Our campus is located near Tokyo and we were aware of several locations in the area that provided a Blues venue. While Blues music in Tokyo is still very new and live presentations still limited to a handful of nightclubs, Tokyo has become an important stop for Blues musicians on the international circuit who are attracting a growing following of Japanese fans. Tokyo, therefore, offered an exciting opportunity as a site for our experiments. If you were to draw an imaginary line through the earth originating in Tokyo, you would end up fairly close to our second site: the Mississippi Delta in the northwestern half of the State of Mississippi in the U.S.A. As the birthplace of the Blues in the early 1920s and thus a major attraction in terms of its rich Blues heritage and culture, we were of course drawn to work in this area.

    In addition to these issues, we also believe that Tokyo, Japan and the Mississippi Delta are ideal locations for us to explore the ways in which online communities can merge with existing offline groups in new forms of interactivity. The Mississippi Delta, for one, could be considered one of the most "disconnected" regions in the United States. It lists in almost every single category of America_s info-poor statistics: entirely rural; extremely low-income with a 20.9% poverty rate, 10% unemployment, and per capita income only 60% of the nation_s average; and over 45% African-American. Rural, poor, and black. These are factors that we see as obstacles in fostering a new digital literacy required for full participation in the information age. Similarly, while Tokyo is the second richest city in the world and possibly the most high tech, only 10% of households are connected to the Internet and few if any Tokyo Blues fans surveyed had ever interacted with members from other Blues communities.

    The majority of Blues activities in both areas ordinarily take place in locations such as bars, outdoor fields, or concert halls. Both communities, while numerous, are diverse and disjointed. The Tokyo Blues districts are centered along major train lines, such as the Chuo Line or Tohoku Line, each district is distinct in character and only loosely connected with the others. The Mississippi Delta is similar in that its major Blues centers, such as Clarksdale, Greenville, or Greenwood, seldom interconnect and have little to do with one other unless competing for the title of being the originating locale of the Blues.

  3. Methodology and Content of Activity
  4. Our initial hope was to create a virtual Blues community whose activity and enthusiasm would emanate forth into the offline local networks in both locations. We began to link Blues groups on both sides through their bars, festivals, schools, museums, civic groups and individual musicians. The early tool we used to do this was only email, but as our website progressed we built chat and discussion boards as well as a small archive of blues material to attract interest. These Internet-based methods generated some interaction, but we quickly found that any interest in the virtual space we were trying to create was not spreading beyond a select few. So we changed courses radically and forged a comprehensive program of both online and offline networking.

    Over the past year, we developed a three-stage process that we believe fosters a global network inclusive of those with or without Internet access. The process combines ethnographic field work methodologies with digital archiving and interactive Internet applications.

    The first stage of this process involves preliminary social mapping and ethnographic field work, combined with the gradual emergence of a community-designed web space. Team members are sent out into the field, into the existing communities of both locales, Tokyo and the Delta. These members become ethnographic field workers, developing contacts in the subject community, building friendships, and gaining information about the communityfs history, organization, social hierarchy, and shared values. In Tokyo, for example, this meant finding the most frequented bars and returning to them regularly to keep in touch with the activities, owners and patrons. This work is crucial as it enables individuals in the community to get to know project members, and enjoy an environment of trust and mutual respect. A primary responsibility of team members through this on-site, face-to-face interaction is to identify the leaders whom others in the community typically look to for guidance and cultivate partnerships with these leaders in anticipation of future work. Finally, one of our most important tasks is to work with community citizens to collect local cultural data ? including interviews, surveys, area photographs, performance schedules, and so on ? in order to create with them a digital archive that represents the ideas and interests of the citizens and their culture.

    The actual linking together of the subject communities, Tokyo and the Delta, online and in real time constitutes the second step in the process. The August 1999 gInternet Blues Festivalh represented this stage. ( The gInternet Blues Festivalh was a three-day, web-based Blues festival that coincided with the annual Sunflower River Blues Festival in Clarksdale, MS. Our goal in conducting this online festival was to enable Tokyo citizens to participate in the Sunflower River Festival through broadcast events of the festival, inviting Tokyo comments for festival fans and musicians through a chat board, and creating a virtual tour with scenes of Clarksdale for Tokyo to enjoy. For several weeks prior to this festival, community members on both sides of the project had a chance to get to know one another through the emerging website of local Tokyo and Delta Blues information. One week prior, OPENWIDE supplied a computer, Internet access, and on-site Network training at key community venues in both countries. In Tokyo, the subject site was a popular Blues bar and in the Delta, the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, MS, networked for us by the Clarksdale On-Line office, served as our field work location. The culminating moments of the three-day "Festival" were two real-time Internet Video Conferences during which musicians on both sides played for and with each other as well as asked questions to one another about their respective cultures. Because these events occurred on location at venues common to each Blues community, and this is important, these real time events plus the entire three days of close-knit cooperation between Blues people encouraged participation from a wide spectrum of community citizens who normally would not access the Internet, nor interact with members of other communities outside the parameters of their normal activities.

    The final stage in the process involves a post-visit follow up to the field work sites, providing for maintenance of the website created through the collaborative activities in both communities, and the expansion of the project_s virtual space to include other Blues communities around the world. This stage is primarily intended to foster and solidify partnerships between participating leaders and/or their organizations. It is also meant to forward a new "content hub" of original Blues materials, with the goal of generating increasing interactivity among a wider and wider circle of Blues people in diverse locales. A concrete example of the website becoming a source for new kinds of interactivity is the use of its materials in classroom settings in both Tokyo and Mississippi and the website_s materials merging with the aims of the Delta Blues Education Programs that spread throughout the American South.

  5. Preliminary Findings

Our efforts to create an inclusive global network between these two "disconnected" grassroots communities have produced valuable results. Through the three-day Internet Blues Festival, a Fall semester collaborative classroom between Junior High School students in both countries, and a gradually emerging "Content Hub" offering original, locally-generated material, we have launched the development of new communities, both online and off as ongoing interaction between the two communities continues between citizens with no previous exposure to the Internet or to each other. In addition we have successfully initiated partnerships between musical, cultural, and administrative leaders in both communities who are now collaborating with us to build an extensive Blues archive featuring local history and talent.

Yet two events in particular speak the loudest to the value that our project has had in the effort to find effective ways to narrow the digital divide. Both took place during real-time networking events between the Tokyo bar and the Clarksdale festival site in August 1999.

The first involved a middle-aged black musician from Clarksdale who goes by the name of "Razor Blade." Inspired by the belief that an entirely different and distant culture could take such a deep interest in his world, Razor Blade became the local leader in our efforts to join our subject communities despite the fact that he had no previous exposure to the Internet or Japan.

Since our work in Clarksdale, we have received three hand-written letters from Razor Blade, sent to us all the way to Japan. Razor Blade_s interest in our project and his leadership in trying to bring other Clarksdale musicians in contact with the Japanese community demonstrates how the introduction to a new literacy and interaction can generate new possibilities for people. It is our hope that Razor Blade will one day be able to travel to Tokyo to visit his new fans and to jam offline with his new friends.

The second event I would like to speak to involves musicians playing for each other online _ creating new music as they interacted across the Net during one of our virtual meetings. It was amazing to watch as members from both communities naturally entered the matrix as the Blues formed a common bond between artists. One by one they began speaking together, not through words, but through their music. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, these musicians began to make decisions together about which songs to play, which notes to strike, which rhythms to form. Although separated from one another by an entire globe, they could play and create anew as one. (We are currently studying the material gathered from this event as we suspect as new form of Blues may have been generated out of this meeting.) [Brief video will accompany this section.]

These are the various categories outlining our preliminary findings (we will provide more detailed material following years two and three of the project):

  1. Conclusion

These findings indicate that technology can be a means for fostering new community development and interaction. In order to be an effective tool for change, however, a new literacy has to be woven into the fabric of a community _ so much so that it becomes just another part of daily life. Identifying areas of common expression is the first step. It makes interaction possible _ but even more important, it makes participation in the digital age relevant to the lives of people who may never have seen a computer keyboard. The field work described earlier provides us with snapshots from a different side of the digital divide _ a look at the new frontier, a world of possibilities where a new type of interaction is connecting communities around the globe.

Conventional thinking calls for Internet access to connect disadvantaged people to the Web _ to give them a ticket to the whole world. But connecting people is not enough. The power of this technology lies in its use as a tool for expression, learning, and empowerment. It wasn_t enough for Frederick Douglass simply to move further North, to those pathways that stood to lead him to freedom. He first needed to learn the language that would help him to navigate the divides he would have to cross. He had to gain a level of literacy that would allow him to participate and to achieve what he would have never dreamed possible _ to become a spokesman for an entire people.

Sure, searching the world for information is fascinating, but what can really make a difference is taking useful information about the communities in which people live in and using it to change that world for the better. It_s up to us to put technology to good use. If left alone, technology will reinforce the existing disparities of opportunity. A lot of people are saying that technology can level the playing field, that it can create opportunity. That doesn_t just happen by itself. It takes a lot of hard work. Our job is to realize that change for our community.

VII. References

1.Closing the Digital Divide

2. Davis, Ossie. Interview in Ifll Make Me a World, PBS Series, 1999.

  1. Douglass, Frederick. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An
  2. American Slave. Written By Himself (1845) in Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., The

    Classic Slave Narratives, Mentor Books, New York, NY, 1987.

  3. The Digital Divide Network at The Benton Foundation

  5. Office of Educational Technology, U.S. Department of Education

  7. OpenWide: A New System of Global Interactivity

  9. Tapscott, Don. Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation, McGraw-Hill,
  10. 1998.

  11. U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Commerce