The Blue Tide of History: Music, Family History, and the Healing Power of Blues

By Jesse Hagopian

Before there was a vaccination, the only COVID medicine I had for the isolation of the lockdown periods was making music with my oldest friend, Daniel Rapport. We have been playing together — first with toys, then later with instruments — since we were born, formed a band in high school, and now have an acoustic blues duo, The Blue Tide, that bears the same name as our high school band. We have long drawn inspiration from the Mississippi Delta blues, with Daniel playing acoustic and slide guitar and me on harmonica. During the lockdown, we survived by writing and recording an album we titled Plague Blues, which speaks to the separation, fear, and struggle of the early days of COVID — as well as the overlapping pandemics of racism and climate change.

As I continued to work on our album over the summer of 2021, my dad, Gerald Lenoir, made a stunning discovery: He located where our family had been enslaved. Through meticulous genealogical research, he found out my great-great-grandfather, Thomas H. Lenoir, was born into slavery on the Lenoir Plantation in Morgantown, Marion County, Mississippi, in March of 1844. He also found evidence of Thomas’ mother, Tempi, having been enslaved and leased out to another Lenoir plantation in Lawrence Country, Mississippi. Not long after, he made another revelation that stirred my soul: The legendary blues artist J.B. Lenoir’s ancestors were likely enslaved on the same plantation as ours. In the days following my dad’s revelation, I took his last name and used my initials to adopt the stage name “J.D. Lenoir” for The Blue Tide.

J.B. Lenoir, a blues hall of famer, is one of the most prolific social commentary blues artists of all time, with songs about police violence, lynching, and the Vietnam War. He even had a song about President Eisenhower that the record company refused to release. Yet J.B. never got stuck in one genre of blues, and as one of his songs attests, “I Sing Um the Way I Feel”; and he did just that, singing about joy, pain, politics, and playing everything from electric guitar big band blues, to solo acoustic guitar, and even creating a unique blues sound he called “African hunch rhythm” with his incorporation of African drums. J.B. also had a flair for showmanship and often performed in a zebra-striped tuxedo jacket, complete with tails. When J.B. died — after not receiving proper care and being released from the hospital prematurely after being hit by a car — blues great John Mayall memorialized him with the classics The Death of J.B. Lenoir and I’m Gonna Fight for You J.B.

At the time of his death, J.B. was employed as a dishwasher because, like many Black artists before him, he was fleeced by the record companies who profited off of his work but didn’t fairly compensate him. Because of this, even though he played with some of the biggest names in the blues — such as Muddy Waters, Memphis Minnie, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Elmore James, and Sunnyland Slim — and even toured Europe with legends such as Big Mama Thornton, he wasn’t able to support himself financially with music. One of J.B.’s most famous songs is one that he is credited as co-writing with Willie Dixon: “You Shook Me.” It has been covered by Led Zeppelin and Jeff Beck, among many others.

It was unbelievable to me that as I was writing songs about the breakdown of our society, challenging those in power, and the power of love, I found out my ancestors came from the same place as the best to ever do what I was attempting. This revelation inspired me to write the lyrics to our new song, “Where I Got My Name (Down in Mississippi).”

“Where I Got My Name” also features commentary from my Uncle Ivan “I.T.” Lenoir.  I recorded the interview the first time I saw I.T. after a long quarantine and he offers his raw reaction to learning about where the family was enslaved. My brother, Jamana Lenoir, of Magnum Opus Publications, produced the music video that includes archival photos provided by our dad. 

The video begins with a photo of Laura Lenoir that Gerald has safeguarded for many years, the only image that remains of one of our enslaved family members. Laura was my great great grandmother and she was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1852 and died the year my father was born in 1948. Laura was 13-years-old when slavery ended — the same age as my older son, when I learned of where she had been enslaved. She was married to my great-great grandfather, Thomas Lenoir. Laura birthed 15 children, including my great-grandfather, York Alonzo Lenoir. I had known about Laura and York before, but when I began to write this song, I needed to find out more about who they were, and I developed a much deeper appreciation for their struggles through conversations with my dad. These discussions brought my enslaved family members to life for me in a way that I had never experienced before, and I finally felt like I had a connection to them.  

In June of 2023, I got to travel with my dad and brother to Morgantown, Mississippi, and set foot on the land where my family had been enslaved. In January of 2024, The Blue Tide got to travel with my dad to play shows in Mississippi, including in J.B. Lenoir’s hometown of Lawrence County, Mississippi. There, we played our song, “Where I Got My Name,” as a tribute to J.B. Lenoir. I am taking my wife and kids to Mississippi to install headstones at Thomas and Laura Lenoir’s gravesite at the end of this month. 

Throughout these trips, we are filming a documentary about exploring our family history and we already have a short version people can preview. Deepening my connection to the land, family, and music has proved to be the best therapy for healing from the historical trauma of slavery.


Jesse Hagopian is a teacher in Seattle, an editor for Rethinking Schools, and the author of the forthcoming book, Teach Truth: The Struggle for Antiracist Education. Jesse is on the leadership team of the Zinn Education Project and is the co-editor of the book, Teaching for Black Lives.