Bar News - June 17, 2015
Practitioner Profile: A Labor of Love: Nashua Lawyer Chronicles the Blues
By: Carol Robidoux
When she’s not rushing off to the Superior Court in Nashua, serving as a lawyer and guardian ad litem, or preparing cases for court, Margo Cooper is likely working on her epic photo-documentary project, now 20 years in the making.
And there’s a strong possibility she’s listening to the blues while she’s at it.
Her project, “Deep Inside the Blues,” is a genuine labor of love, one she hopes will translate her own passion for the history, culture and music of the Mississippi Delta into a published work and traveling exhibition, including photographs, text and audio.
Since 1997, Cooper has been compiling a series of photographs, short essays and audio recordings that capture indelible images and priceless oral history accounts of blues musicians – some of them never-before told experiences – with a particular focus on musicians from the Delta and Hill Country of Mississippi.
She has been going back again and again to chronicle the life stories of some of the most notable blues talents – B.B. King, Sam Carr, Bobby Rush, R.L. Burnside, Honeyboy Edwards, Otha Turner, T Model Ford and Muddy Waters’ sidemen and many others.
Her dual life, as a lawyer, GAL and former public defender and as a documentarian, is not so divergent. Cooper has found many common threads between being a legal advocate for those in need of a voice, and chronicling the stories of those who have found their voices through song; those who’ve persevered through some of life’s most difficult circumstances, not only in courtroom settings or the deep South, but also through another documentary project set here in rural New England.
“I feel really lucky that New Hampshire is the state where I’ve practiced my entire career as a lawyer. The Public Defender Program, with David Garfunkel and Jim Duggan, was an incredible training program – the best training in the world,” says Cooper. “It was one of the best experiences of my life, and actually provided most of the training I needed for my documentary projects.”
The skills are transferable, says Cooper, whether she’s preparing to capture the essence of a blues musician, whose life story is one of hardship against all odds, or working as a lawyer with a client whose future is uncertain.
“In both instances, you’re learning their backstories and in your mind, shaping the story of their lives, getting to know what happened that got them from one point to another,” says Cooper. “In both instances, a person’s life is in your hands, whether serving as a trial attorney or proposing a plea to a prosecutor; it’s all related.”
Part of the beauty of practicing law in Nashua, she says, is that attorneys there get to know the judges personally, which helps during her planned trips to the Delta that she makes several times each year.
“It’s a rich experience for me, and the judges know how equally devoted and passionate I am about the work I do outside of my practice. I’ve shared some of my published stories in Living Blues with some of the juvenile court judges. I have been able to say, ‘I’m going to Mississippi for these two weeks,’ and still carry on a solo practice while doing my documentary work,” says Cooper.
She says it will still be another two or three years before “Deep Inside the Blues” is completed. It’s a slow process, in part, because Cooper works with black and white film and insists on the solitary, hands-on process of developing the film, printing the photographs, transcribing the audiotapes, and crafting the stories. It’s a process that mirrors the project’s intention and integrity, says Cooper. There is no rushing the blues.
“That’s the beauty of documentary work; you can’t focus on too many things at once. For me, the best way to maintain a private practice is to stay with the stories I’ve been working on. Working on long-term documentary projects allows me to build up an intimacy through the experiences over time. In Mississippi, I’ve spent time with grandparents, their children and grandchildren. It’s been wonderful to watch some of the children and grandchildren carry on the music they’ve learned from their families and neighbors.”
She got her start as a documentarian early on.
“As a little kid, I would sit with each of my grandmothers and parents who had taken pictures and or preserved family albums. I’d ask them questions about their lives, the lives of our ancestors, and I asked them to identify the people in the photographs. I reveled in these times. I’ve always been curious about the human condition and lives of others,” says Cooper, who has spent countless hours documenting her own family history.
After leaving the NH Public Defender Program, Cooper’s professional trajectory took her to Maine, where she supplemented her college photography skills with a three-month photography course. That is where she connected with several teen mothers, which evolved into another long-term documentary project. Cooper has maintained those relationships and returned often, to follow the lives of these mothers and their children and now some of their grandchildren.
Around the same time that Cooper returned from Maine to establish a solo practice in Nashua, she started going into blues clubs around New England to photograph the musicians. Her love of the music led her to want to know more about the musicians and their lives down South. What was it like to have been a sharecropper? What was it like to grow up during the days of segregation? She knew the only way to answer her questions was to go to Mississippi and find out for herself.
A number of the musicians she’s written about have died since she launched her project. But she believes the words and images she’s captured will help tell their stories, and add some personal details to a part of our American history that needs more first-hand accounts.
“There’s no better way to understand it than through their stories. I call this project a love letter to those who befriended me,” says Cooper. “It’s been an incredible experience, going down there initially not knowing anybody and then to have had, over the years, dialogues with individuals about their childhood, their families, schooling, discrimination, segregation – we talk about everything. It’s intimate and personal, and quite an account of what really happened in Mississippi in the 20th century.”
Through it all, Cooper has forged lasting friendships. She has chronicled the lives of blues musicians, their families and homes, their neighborhoods and festivals, family picnics, gigs and practice sessions, for a first-person experience of the hardships as well as the joy that the music brought to the musicians of Mississippi and to their community.
“I’m having the greatest time in the world. I loved being a public defender; I feel so lucky every day to be doing the meaningful work I’m doing. And at the same time, I’ve spent 19 years doing something so personally incredible, getting to know the intimate lives of some of the greatest blues musicians we’ve known,” says Cooper. “Every encounter enriched my life.
You can find more on Cooper and her work at www.margocooper.com.