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The music of America was born in the Mississippi Delta. It was firmly rooted in the alluvial topsoil that the "Father of Waters" spewed across the land as it regularly overflowed its banks wreaking havoc on anything in its path. After mankind learned to tame the mighty river with levees, they realized the bounty the rampaging Mississippi had given them.  This land is one of the richest agricultural areas in the world. Almost anything will grow here; cotton, soybeans, corn and vegetables of almost any kind. Once upon a time, in the not too distant past, the Mississippi Delta ran on a system where the richest people in the country owned the land and the crops and some of the poorest worked the fields to produce their bounty. In that era, cotton was king. But this system produced one other important product, American music.


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This is the land where the Blues were born. And from the Blues, evolved so much more of our other music. Country, Rock and Roll and even Motown and Jazz were all influenced by the Blues. The Civil War and 13th amendment might have legally freed African Americans but economic slavery and gross inequality was still the way of life. The Blues were a cry from the soul of men and women who worked the fields from “cain't to cain't” referring to “cain't see in the mornin' 'cause it's too early 'til cain't see at night 'cause it's too late." They had little recourse from the law when they were misused and abused by their employers and any other white men who felt the need to "prove their superiority" at the expense of the lowly cotton pickers or farm workers. So they poured out their souls in music on the fields and in the ramshackle jook (later evolved into juke as in juke box) joints where they took what pleasures they could at night after their day's labor.

 Blues Trail signs recognizing Memphis Minnie 

Today, the portion of Highway 61 that runs from St. Louis, Missouri to Memphis, Tennessee, through the Mississippi Delta, and on to New Orleans is known as "The Blues Highway." The state of Mississippi has created a Blues Trail with over 150 markers and growing to honor those who contributed to the birth of the Blues. (They also have a County Music Trail that often overlaps.) As you drive into Mississippi from Memphis you soon find the markers. One of the first we visited was the grave of Memphis Minnie. It's located in Walls at the New Hope Church Cemetery. Memphis Minnie, whose real name was Lizzie Douglas, moved to Walls as a teen. She followed the lure of fame to Memphis and gained prominence as one of the few female Blues guitar players.

I have visited the Delta twice and  found museums and heritage centers that celebrate the Blues unique musical expression. One I especially enjoyed was the Gateway to the Blues Museum located at Tunica Visitors' Center. Any music lover will adore this museum and even those with only a mild interest will be fascinated.

 

It is filled with artifacts that tell the story of how the Blues began. There are lots of guitars tracing the history and evolution of the instrument. It has exhibits with images and instruments for most of the better known Mississippi Delta Bluesmen such as Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Son House, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Reed, one of the few white Bluesmen, and many others. You can spend hours there. It's great fun and so enlightening. One of my favorite options this museum offers is a chance to record your  own Blues song. Go there and record you own Blues like I did. Hopefully you can sing better than I do.

Some of the Blues legends and their artifacts displayed at Gateway to the Blues Museum

The Blues has features of its African heritage and the slave songs, work chants and field hollers,  sung on the plantations by a people yearning for freedom. It also has a form of the Call and Response consisting of a 12-bar pattern with an AAB format that was a common practice in African cultures.  AA, the call, is repeated in the first two lines of the song sometimes with some variation, and B is the response. A perfect example of this format is found in Robert Johnson's "Crossroads Blues"

I went to the crossroad fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above "Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please."

 

One of the best known legends about the Blues is the story of how Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil to  become a talented Blues Musician. The story goes that Johnson saw the Blues as a way out of the poverty of a subsistence farmer. He became a follower of Son House, already a legendary Bluesman, House told Johnson he showed no talent with his guitar playing. Johnson left for a few months. Got married and moved to a farm.  When he returned to see his mentor again, he was a fantastic player and no longer had a wife. Son House offered the explanation that Johnson must have "sold his sold to the devil at the crossroads" in exchange for his newfound talent. (You will find a marker to Son House at Tunica.)

The legend sites several places where the transaction took place. Of course, we had to go look for ourselves. The generally accepted spot where the deal with the Devil took place is the crossroads of Hwy 61 and 49. There is a Blues Marker there and a great photo op with the crossroads sign.

However, that might be too simple. There are many other theories as to the actual crossroads of Robert Johnson's life. We visited the Tunica Museum and met Dick Taylor, the executive director. The museum has a lot of exhibits representing the way of life that produced the Blues. My favorite is Sally the Mule.  You have to see Sally to appreciate Dick's story about her origins.

Sally the Mule represents the importance of the mule to Delta farmers.

Dick had his own opinion about the site of the actual crossroads. He stated, "Robert Johnson grew up around here. I was lucky enough to know people who knew him as a child. Wayne Cooper who lived and worked and grew up with Robert Johnson said for the most part the story is true but the Crosstown Cemetery is the actual place where Johnson made his deal."

Dick also pointed out that the Devil would usually be found near water and this cemetery is right near the Mississippi River at the intersection of Crosstown Road and  Bonny Blue Road, not too far from the museum so we trekked out there.

Dick had told us every one he sent out there came back with a strange story. They varied from car radios  changed and played stations the owner had never heard before, car air conditioners went out. My own experience was my camera battery going dead at that point and repeating the  problem at several spots related to Robert Johnson.

Johnson went on to be called the "Father of the Blues." He used various aliases and pretty much had a woman in every town to which he traveled.  Johnson's life was cut short at the age of 27 when he was reputedly poisoned while playing a jook joint by a jealous husband. 

 

Much of Johnson's life is obscured with myths. Even his exact burial place is debated. There are three gravestones around the area claiming to be his final marker. On a previous trip I visited one grave that the locals believe is the actual site. There was an eyewitness to Johnson's burial here, one of his former girl friends. It is located in Little Zion Baptist Church Cemetery. The Blues Trail marker is located nearby. His birthplace marker is located in Hazlehurst.

 

Clarksdale has much more of the Blues heritage besides the infamous crossroads sign. The Rock ‘n’ Blues Museum is filled to overflowing with memorabilia covering over 50 years of music. Theo Dasbach, museum owner and himself a musician, fell in love with the Blues as a child in Luxemburg, Netherlands. If you want to examine everything in the museum you could be there for days.

 

Another Clarksdale must see spot is the Delta Blues Museum. It is filled with information and artifacts of the legendary Blues musicians and many lesser known ones. For me the highlight of the museum is the cabin where Muddy Waters lived when he worked as a sharecropper and tractor driver at Stovall Farms. It was on the front steps of this very cabin that Alan Lomax, the ethnomusicologist credited with saving many of the songs of the Delta, recorded Muddy on the front porch of this shack for the Library of Congress in 1941. Muddy Waters has markers at the site of the cabin's original location on Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale and at his birthplace in Rolling Fork.

 

Want a unique place where you can stay, dine and hear some great Blues musicians? Ground Zero has it all. (See more )

 

While we were visiting Clarksdale the Juke Joint Festival was in full swing. (For more about this see Street Party)

 

Clarksdale considers itself the epicenter of the Blues. It has nine Blues Trail Markers including one for WROX at 257 Delta Avenue, the site of Clarksdale's first African American radio station. WROX featured the famed "King Biscuit Show" and musicians like Ike Turner and Robert Nighthawk.   Ike Turner was born in Clarksdale.  Performing with his former wife, Tina Turner, they achieved worldwide fame and have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ike is also in the Blues Hall of Fame. His marker is in Clarksdale at the site  of Hotel Alcazar, where Turner worked as a youth.

 

If you are interested in the typical life of the earlier Blues players,  Dockery Farms, midway between Clarksdale and Indianola, is the place to visit. It was the home of many of the Blues greats. Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson Howlin' Wolf, Pops Staples and Honeyboy Edwards all resided and worked at Dockery Farms at one time. This was a typical plantation of  the time. It has a marker on the Blues Trail. You can visit and do a self tour or request a guided tour.

 

One famous Bluesman who is just passed is legendary B. B. King. Indianola is where most of the markers related to him can be found. The greatest find there is the B. B. King Museum and Delta Interruptive Center. This museum chronicles King's life from his childhood through his days as a sharecropper and tractor driver to becoming "The King of Blues." It's a must see stop on the Blues Trail.

 

The marker on the corner of Second and Church Street in Indianola where B. B. King would hang out and play for tips as a teenager is sort of the grandfather of the Mississippi Blues Trail. It along with a sister marker at Club Ebony later replaced by the "official" Blues Trail Marker, was done as an effort to convince the state of Mississippi to move forward with a Blues Trail project.  Besides the marker, B. B. King had  engraved his handprints and name into the cement. There is also a image of his guitar, Lucille, and a portrait of young Riley B. King before he went to Memphis and acquired the name he is known worldwide by today, B. B. King. The "B. B." was short for Blues Boy, a nickname he earned while playing in Memphis. 

 

This marker was placed in June of 2003, well before the first official marker for the Mississippi Blues Trail was  installed on December 11, 2006. You will notice this marker is slightly different from the others and refers to a "Mississippi Delta Blues Trail" that the project was originally conceived to be. B.B. King along with then Governor Ronnie Musgrove attended the unveiling.

 

There is a marker for Church Street itself which was then the center of African American life. Ironically there is another marker in Indianola for Club Ebony. Club Ebony was a highly influential venue for African American musicians. It was also where he met his second wife, Sue Carol Hall, the then club owner's daughter. B. B. King later purchased the club so that it would always keep the tradition alive.

 

Before he went to Memphis and achieved a name for himself, B. B. King played with St. John's Gospel Singers of Inverness broadcast on Sundays from WGRM in  Greenwood. There is a museum dedicated to the life and death of Robert Johnson, The Greenwood Blues Heritage Museum. The marker commemorating WGRM stands just outside Delta Bistro. I can vouch for the great food and unique atmosphere there. It's a great place to dine after your Delta travels. Have the Tin Roof Sunday if you can save enough room for dessert.

The Albert King Blues Marker in Indianola WROX Radio Marker in Greenwood

We finished off our Delta Blues tour with a bit of wine at the Winery at Williams Landing. This is the only winery in the Delta. Lonnie Bailey, the owner and winemaker, uses mostly Mississippi products. Four of his wines, the Harmony Series are named for and celebrate the heritage of the Blues. My favorite is an unusual fig wine called Delta Dew.

 

There is little doubt and much evidence that Country Music was highly influenced by the Blues. Jimmie  Rodgers, known as the "Father of Country Music" also had another nickname, "The Blue Yodeler." Much of his music had elements of the Blues. There is even a Jazz connection as Louis Armstrong played trumpet in Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel #9." (for more about Jimmie Rodgers) Rodgers was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2013. This blending of generas ran both ways.  Howlin' Wolf  tried to copy Rodgers but  admitted, "I couldn’t do no yodelin’, so I turned to howlin’.  He did quite well with that.

No question that Rock and Roll grew out of the Blues. "Rocket 88" is often credited with being the first Rock and Roll song. (Others credit Elvis's rendition of "Blue Moon of Kentucky.")  The vocal was Jackie Brenston, Ike Turner's saxophone player in Turner's  Kings of Rhythm. Ike Turner was unofficially the writer of  "Rocket 88" but  the recording was credited "Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats" because Sam Phillips, the producer who later founded Sun Studio, wanted to release a different record credited to Turner.

The Blues are responsible for another form of music. Many of the African American Bluesmen and women migrated north to find work in factories. They brought their music with them but here in big cities where they played to large audiences, the sound needed something more. The acoustic guitars gave way to electric guitars and singers now used microphones. One city with an abundance of factories was Detroit. No one can deny that Motown Music of the 50s and 60s had elements of the blues. (For more about Motown music see
http://www.americanroads.net/renees_route_winter2015.htm)

Everyone should visit the Delta at least once and follow the Blues Trail. It's said that in the Delta, the wind blows all the time. If you listen carefully you may hear notes of the Blues in the rustling of the tree leaves and stirring of the long grasses. Perhaps the spirit of the long gone Bluesmen still echo there.

For more info:

http://www.msbluestrail.org/

http://www.tunicatravel.com/things-to-do/the_blues/gateway

https://www.deltabluesmuseum.org/

http://www.blues2rock.com/Blues2Rock/Home.html

http://www.dockeryfarms.org/

http://www.bbkingmuseum.org/

http://www.groundzerobluesclub.com/

 

 

 

 

 


 

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