Michelle Vignes is a documentary photographer
and photojournalist who lives in San Francisco.
Here she presents selections from
two of her ongoing bodies of work.

The Oakland Blues

This is an essay about the vivid atmosphere of Oakland's music. Oakland still reigns among the primary capitals of the music world, although here, as elsewhere, its sounds have gone underground. Music born of the sweat of black slaves working on the plantations in the South, a century later became the music of black workers in the factories in the North and West.

Music followed those migrations and was electrified by the cities. It was the birth of Urban Blues. The evolution of this music in Chicago is very well known, due to the enormous impact of Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Little Water, Howling Wolf and others.

What happened at the other end of the country on the Pacific coast is much less well known. Although several bluesmen came though the West in the '30s, it was only after the arrival ten years later of Ivory Joe Hunter, Floyd Dixon and Lowell Fulson that the blues settled definitively in this area.

Lowell Fulson and guitarist K.C. Douglass developed a very special style that became known as Oakland Blues, mixing the varying influences of Hawaiian and Mexican music, as well as ballad and pop.

All these traits began to emerge at the end of the '60s in a new generation of musicians: Troyce Key, J.J. Malone, Cool Papa, Mississippi Johnny Waters, Sonny Rhodes, singers Little Frankie Lee and Little Joe Blue and the legendary guitarist from Detroit, Johnny Lee Hooker.

The blues, which gave birth to jazz, rock 'n roll and soul, and influenced most other forms of contemporary popular music, is declining in popularity in most regions of the U.S. However, it is holding fast in Oakland, and indeed it seems to be enjoying a revival of sorts, as a new generation of blues performers plays on.

My Road With
Native People

"If a man loses anything and goes back and looks carefully for it, he will find it, and that is what the Indians are doing now"
Sitting Bull, Lakota Sioux

"Each person upon this earth had ancestors who lived in close harmony with all of nature. For too many, this basic tie between man, spirit and creation has been forgotton. The spirit, the very blood cries out for us to re-examine ourselves in relation to our environment and to one another.

The Indian occupation of Alcatraz island was an attempt of Indian people to awaken the nation and show the owrld that the Indian spirit would live for ever." --Peter Blue Cloud

I went for the first time as a photojournalist to document this event on Alcatraz. This was also the first time I realized that we all live on Indian land, and I was taken within the sacred hoop, what we call a circle. From this point, I followed the attempts by Indian people to show the reawakening of their pride, re-educating non-native Indians to these changes.

I went to Wounded Knee and to many historical events that became part of the circle. There are things happening in the present day which have a link to the past. Non-Indians would say it is only coincidence. Indian people say that is is the completion of a circle. This view of the sacred hoop makes history especially important to native people.

The history I am showing also centers around women. I learned that the First Woman is the most powerful among the spiritual figures, because she represents regeneration. The Earth is the mother, and the Moon is the grandmother.

It is also through a return to spirituality that Indians work to protect their cultural heritage, their pride of their origins and culture. This struggle is not only important so that Indians can survive, but for all of us. We need to hold on to the culture and sense of values that we are losing.

Through these images I chose to penetrate more deeply in daily life, both in reservations and in the city, showing the reality of native American life and its daily struggles, as well as their changing role in our society. I have attempted to stay away from the romantic version of Indian life that exists only in white society's imagination.

"Today we sing what we believe others have believed and trust the past for the future. Our song of peace and timeless myths may bring all men together with a good energy to live. In the language of the Anishinabe the word 'wanaki' means to leave somewhere in peace. Now we sing 'wanaki'"
--Gerald Vizenor (Anishinabe)

Michelle Vignes may be contacted through e-mail:

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