Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues

Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues

by Steve Cheseborough


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781578066506
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
Publication date: 05/28/2004
Edition description: Updated
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 4.42(w) x 9.78(h) x 0.44(d)

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Chapter One


Blues Traveling through History

    Perhaps the first "blues traveler" in Mississippi was the Harvardarchaeologist Charles Peabody, who dug up an Indianmound near Clarksdale in 1901-1902. He looked up from theground and took careful note of the local black workers' songs.

    As Peabody reported in an article he wrote for a folklore journal,the workers sang almost constantly during the day and as theyrelaxed in the evening. They sang hymns, ragtime pieces, and(what most interested Peabody) "improvisations in rhythm moreor less phrased, sung to an intoning more or less approachingmelody." The lyrics of those songs were "'hard luck' tales (very often),love themes, suggestions anticipative and reminiscent of favoriteoccupations and amusements" If that wasn't the blues, itcertainly was close. Among the verses he recorded in his notes aresome that have become familiar blues lines:

They had me arrested for murder
And I never harmed a man

The reason I loves my baby so
'Cause when she gets five dollars she give me fo'.

Some have not entered the blues lexicon:

Old Dan Tucker he got drunk,
Fell in de fire and kicked up a chunk

Oh we'll live on pork and kisses
If you'll only be my missus.

    According to Peabody's description, the guitar accompanimentalso soundedlike the blues—"mostly 'ragtime' with the instrumentseldom venturing beyond the inversions of the threechords of a few major and minor keys."

    In 1903, W. C. Handy, an Alabama-born, African Americanband musician who had been touring the country for years, settledin Clarksdale to lead an orchestra of black musicians. Handy'sfirst exposure to the blues happened soon after that, while he waswaiting for a long-overdue train in the Tutwiler depot:

    A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar besideme while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes.His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, hepressed a knife on the strings in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitaristswho used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too,struck me instantly.

    Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog.

    The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself onthe guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard. The tune stayed inmy mind.

    It certainly did. A few years later, Handy would publish "TheYellow Dog Rag" (which he would rename "The Yellow DogBlues"), incorporating that line. And he would become known asthe Father of the Blues for pieces like that one and "The St. LouisBlues" and "The Memphis Blues"—songs written in standard notation,arranged for bands, and published nationally as sheet music,based on what Handy heard from anonymous guitar-plunkingMississippians like the man in the train station.

    Handy's compositions spurred the first blues craze. The word"blues" became nationally known and identified with the twelve-bar,AAB (sing line, repeat line, answer with rhyming line) format—aformat that does not apply, by the way, to much of thevery real blues of Charley Patton, Skip James, Fred McDowell,R. L. Burnside, and dozens of other genuine down-home bluesartists, past and present. But even today, if you ask a rock, pop, orjazz musician to play the blues, that standardized format is whatyou will get.

    The next blues craze began in 1920, when bandleader-composerPerry Bradford persuaded the Okeh record companyin New York to make the first recording of a black blues singer.That first recorded singer was not a scraggly, self-taught, guitar-totingsouthern man of the sort Handy had heard in Tutwiler,though. It was Mamie Smith, a well-dressed woman with a professionallytrained voice, singing before a full orchestra. Smith'svoice is smooth, lacking what we now consider bluesy effects.Still, blacks who were hearing such a sound on records for thefirst time were thrilled. It was a huge hit. Smith's recordingwould be followed by those of other sophisticated blueswomen,or "Classic blues" singers, as they are known, eventually includingthe great, rougher-voiced Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.

    It wasn't until the mid-twenties that the companies wouldrecord the kind of person Handy had seen in Tutwiler and whomwe still consider the quintessential blues singer: a self-accompaniedmale singer. Among the earliest were the banjo-playing (andnot scruffy at all) Papa Charlie Jackson of New Orleans, the southeasternguitar virtuoso Blind Blake, and the most popular and influentialof them all, the Dallas street singer Blind LemonJefferson. Jefferson traveled widely, recorded prolifically, and becamethe first superstar of the country blues. He showed recordcompanies that there was lots of money to be made in recordingmale, rural, southern, self-accompanied blues singer-guitarists. Sothe companies combed the South, auditioning everyone of thatdescription they could find and giving the promising ones ticketsto recording studios in the North. Soon they hastened the processby sending the recording equipment south and setting up temporarystudios in hotel rooms.

   They found the richest mine of bluesmen—and a fewblueswomen—in or near the flat, fertile cotton lands of the MississippiDelta: Charley Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, LouiseJohnson, Skip James, Tommy Johnson, George "Bullet" Williams,Rubin Lacy, Memphis Minnie, Kansas Joe McCoy, the MississippiSheiks, Kid Bailey, Bukka White, Robert Johnson, Mattie Delaney,Geechie Wiley, Ishmon Bracey, Mississippi John Hurt, WilliamHarris, Eugene "Sonny Boy Nelson" Powell, and many others.These musicians went to Memphis or all the way up to Chicago orGrafton, Wisconsin, to sing and play for a few bucks and thechance to become immortal. As producer Frank Walker said ofthose sessions: "You might come out with two selections or youmight come out with six or eight, but you did it at that time. Yousaid goodbye. They went back home. They had made a phonographrecord, and that was the next thing to being president of theUnited States in their mind."

    Commercial country-blues field recording peaked in the late1920s. By the thirties the record companies, hurt by the Depression,were releasing records only by proven artists, most of whomwere southerners transplanted to Chicago, such as Big BillBroonzy, Memphis Minnie, and Tampa Red. But down in Mississippi,people continued to play the down-home blues in jookjoints and on street corners, even if they weren't making it ontorecord as often.

    The blues just might have been born in Mississippi. On theother hand, it might not have. The first blues may have beenplayed somewhere else in the rural South. There are early reportsof blues in east Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, and even Missouri.

    What is clear is that the blues, since its beginnings, has alwaysfound a home here. Mississippians have always made up a largeproportion of all blues singers and an overwhelming proportion ofthe finest blues singers. That includes the whole Chicago bluesscene from the 1930s to the present—nearly all its stars have beenMississippi-born. And that is true of both the prewar acoustic periodand the later electric period, when Mississippians like MuddyWaters, Elmore James, B. B. King, and Little Milton set the standard.

    Mississippi was more rural and agricultural, with a greaterconcentration of cotton planting, than other states. And it had alarge, poor, strictly segregated black population, which was overwhelminglyrural and working in agriculture. In other words,Mississippi has long been more southern than the rest of theSouth, and that goes double for the Mississippi Delta, which hasbeen dubbed "the most southern place on earth" So the conditionsthat fostered the blues throughout the South were intensifiedin Mississippi, especially in the Delta.

    When people speak of the delta of a river, they usually meanthe area where it washes into the sea or a lake. But the MississippiDelta is hundreds of miles upstream, in northwest Mississippi (ithas a mirror image in northeast Arkansas, but "the Delta" usuallyrefers just to the Mississippi side, and that's how we'll use it here).It's a flat, leaf-shaped expanse of seven thousand square miles,with the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers on its curved sides andMemphis and Vicksburg at its tips.

    Thousands of years of Mississippi River floods left the Deltawith a thick, dark layer of fertile topsoil. In its natural state, theDelta was a jungly place full of swamps, large trees, vines, and animals.Nineteenth-century settlers quickly perceived its economicvalue, however. The area was cleared, and it became first a hugelumber camp and then a huge cotton plantation. Both the lumberand the cotton operations were labor intensive, as was the buildingof levees to protect the settlers and their farms from the regular,gargantuan floods. So tens of thousands of blacks werebrought in to work the Delta—first as slaves and later as leveegangs, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, or transient day laborersfrom the hill country.

    Today, the Delta is a sparsely populated, generally quiet place.But back in the twenties and thirties, before the mechanization ofagriculture, its fields and now-sleepy towns were alive with people.The crowds and the money attracted musicians (many Delta bluesartists were actually born in the hills) who interacted, competed,and innovated. As ethnomusicologist David Evans has explained,the Delta, despite its rural nature, functioned like an urban area,pulling in people from widespread places with diverse musical traditions.In this environment, the famed Delta blues developed.

    Outside the Delta, Mississippians also played the blues. TheNorth Mississippi hill country is home to a droning, hypnotic varietyof blues exemplified by Mississippi Fred McDowell, JuniorKimbrough, and R. L. Burnside, among others, as well as to relatedtraditions including African American fife-and-drum bands. Thestate capital, Jackson, has long been an important recording center,with plenty of live music as well. There and in nearby towns,Bo Carter, the Mississippi Sheiks, and others practiced theirsmoother blues styles. Bentonia is the birthplace of Skip Jamesand Jack Owens, two artists with styles so similar to each other'syet distinctive from anyone else's that some scholars consider thetown a unique blues "school." Jimmie Rodgers, the white singingbrakeman whose yodeling versions of black blues songs were thestart of country music, came from Meridian, in east-central Mississippi.And Memphis, Tennessee, has always attracted Mississippians,among them musicians who played on Beale Street andheavily influenced that city's sounds.

    Mississippi blues reemerged as a national phenomenon in the1940s, after the young Mississippian Muddy Waters caught the trainnorth, bringing his slide-guitar-driven music style with him. Hiscollaborators and competitors who also made the trip included fellowMississippians Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Rogers,Big Walter Horton, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, and Otis Spann.

    The image of Muddy Waters leaving Mississippi and taking theblues with him is a powerful one, but it is not quite true. For onething, when he arrived in Chicago, the blues was already there—althoughhe did usher in a harder, electric version of it. And, foranother thing, Mississippians didn't stop singing the blues afterMuddy left.

    Popular attention focused again on Mississippi blues—notjust on its Chicago outpost—in the folk and blues revival of the1960s. Young white northerners went south to scout out the oldblues records of the twenties and thirties and, in some cases, theold people who had made them. Son House, Skip James, andMississippi John Hurt were among those found alive and wellenough to enjoy new performing and recording careers latein life.

    That blues boom faded out soon enough. But there would beyet another in the nineties, kicked off by the rerelease of RobertJohnson's complete output as a double-CD box set that turnedout to be a smash hit. That set was the first, and is still the only,million-seller by an original country-blues artist. A few years later,the Robert Mugge film Deep Blues showed that there still weredown-home Mississippi blues artists in real life, not just on oldrecords. Other fairly recent developments include Living Bluesmagazine moving its offices from Chicago to Oxford; RoosterBlues and Fat Possum record companies opening in Clarksdaleand Oxford, respectively, to record a new generation of the state'sbluesmen; several major Mississippi blues festivals beginning orpicking up steam; and blues museums opening in Clarksdale andRobinsonville. Finally, Mississippi blues was enjoying a renaissancethat extended even into Mississippi.

    But that doesn't mean the Mississippi blues is the same as itwas in 1929—or 1969. For one thing, you just don't hear much ofthe complex, solo, acoustic-guitar style that characterized Mississippiblues of the prewar period, except maybe in the hands of ayoung revivalist in Memphis or Oxford. But then you might hearsuch a revivalist in Seattle or New York, too. Don't expect to heara Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, or Memphis Minnie playing ona corner or in a jook joint in Mississippi.

    Yes, blues in Mississippi, as elsewhere, generally means electricblues. But even electric blues, sadly, is not easy to find. The bestway to get your fill of live music is to schedule your visit around ablues festival. Besides the music at the festival, many local clubs,which otherwise use jukeboxes or deejays, will schedule live performances.When it's not festival time, look for live blues at clubsin the bigger towns and at concerts. Many of the old country jookshave closed or converted to recorded music only.

    The physical remains of the old-time blues, such as ever existedat all, also are precarious things. Blues singers were mostlyrambling sorts who didn't leave behind much in the way of estates,memoirs, letters, or other personal papers or belongings.They left their music, fortunately, and some sketchy details of theparticulars of their lives. So you might not find the house whereyour favorite blues artist grew up or the joint where he first playedyour favorite song.

    On the other hand, looking at things in a different way, there ismuch to see. The blues world hasn't changed as rapidly as the restof the country—in fact, in many ways it hasn't changed a wholelot in the hundred years since the blues began. There are still cottonfields,shacks, and barbecue spots. There are courthouses andjails where defendants—many of them poor and black—receivesome kind of justice. There are the roads, narrow, twisting, dark,and poorly marked, leading through fields, woods, and morefields, past cotton gins and over creeks. There are trains. And thereis always the river—the Big River, the continent's Main Drain,with its boats, birds, fish, fishermen, levees, and bridges, its precioussilt, its threat of flood.

    There are old storefronts and depots, in front of which thecrowds gathered on Saturday afternoons to listen to Charley Patton,Robert Johnson, or another of the hundreds of blues singers,most of them unrecorded and now unknown, who sang theirhearts out as they passed through. And there are places where peoplestill laugh, dance, drink, and listen to the blues.

    This book will help you find what is left in the Mississippi bluesworld. And it will help you remember and visualize what is goneand to pick up clues from the songs, the landscape, and literature.Let's go.

Planning Your Blues Tour

    Unfortunately, the days of local train service to little Mississippitowns are long past. You will need an automobile to get tomost of the places in this book.

    Chapters 2 through 10 form a rough circle beginning and endingin Memphis. So if you want to see it all, just follow the chaptersin numerical order (or reverse numerical order).

    If you are flying in from out of state to see Mississippi bluessites, you probably will arrive in Memphis, where you can rent acar and begin the tour. Note that Memphis—not New Orleans—isthe most convenient major city from which to begin a Mississippiblues tour. The Mississippi Delta and most other areas of interestto blues lovers are in the northern half of Mississippi.

    But if you happen to be in New Orleans and want to tour Mississippiblues sites, that's okay, too. Just be sure to figure in the extradriving time of about three hours from New Orleans toJackson, where you would begin this tour (or you could take thetrain to Jackson and rent a car there). Start with chapter 8 andthen follow the circle in either direction, looping from 10 back to2 or vice versa. Other starting points work just as well. Jackson hasan international airport, and there are regional airports in Tupelo,Greenville, and Meridian.

    Of course, you don't have to do the whole tour. The places describedin this book are close enough to one another that you canget from any spot to any other in four hours or less (in many cases,much less). So you might want to read through the book beforestarting your trip, and draw your own route. Whatever youchoose—take your time, keep your patience and sense of humorhandy, and have fun!


    There is still one passenger line that might be of interest to bluestravelers: Amtrak's City of New Orleans. It runs daily from New Orleans,with stops in Hammond, Louisiana, McComb, Brookhaven,Hazlehurst, Jackson, Yazoo City, and Greenwood in Mississippi, andthen Memphis. It continues north to Chicago. Call Amtrak (800-USA-RAIL)for schedules, reservations, and more information.

    Sonny Boy Williamson II and Willie Love rode the line fromJackson to New Orleans in April 1953, on their way to Houston fora recording session. On the train, the bluesmen danced, sang, andtold jokes to the other passengers. When they got to Houston, oneof the songs they recorded was Sonny Boy's "City of New Orleans"(different from the 1970s pop tune by Steve Goodman):

I heard the City of New Orleans gonna run today

I got to find my baby before she get too far away.

    Bukka White's 1940 "Special Streamline" also celebrates thistrain line, re-creating the sounds and feelings of riding it out ofMemphis, headed for New Orleans.

    Amtrak gives passengers a good dose of New Orleans cultureon the trip, with a jazz band playing in the lounge car and Cajun-inspiredcooking in the dining car. The company has not yet offeredlive blues (or barbecue and moonshine) while the trainpasses through Mississippi, however.

    Amtrak also plans to take over the Kansas City Southern as apassenger line. That train runs between Shreveport, Louisiana,and Meridian, Mississippi.

Guidelines for Good Times

    Traveling the back roads of Mississippi, you might sometimesfeel you've wandered into a foreign country or a differentera. Here are some guidelines to help you get along and stay outof trouble.

Feeling the Rhythm

    If Mr. Turner doesn't feel like playing right now, or if the goatis sold out, or the deejay won't play the kind of music you were expecting—relaxor come back tomorrow or next year. And if youwant to shoot pictures or video, ask permission and don't blockothers' views or dance-floor space.

    This may be your dream vacation—perhaps you have plannedand saved for years, and traveled many miles. But to the local peoplenext to you, it may be a hard-earned night of fun before theyhead back to work in the morning. So don't expect them to deferto you or entertain you or pose for your picture.

    Don't show up with the insulting attitude that this food anddrink may be good enough for the locals, but not for you. Evenif you eat steamed grains and organic vegetables at home, considertrying the barbecue if that's what's served—or at least don'tturn your nose up at it. And even if you drink microbrews backhome, have a regular old American mainstream beer. And enjoyit. You can resume your diet and your highfalutin tastes afteryour visit.


Excerpted from BLUES TRAVELING by Steve Cheseborough. Copyright © 2001 by Steve Cheseborough. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1Looking for the Blues3
Blues Traveling through History3
Planning Your Blues Tour10
Guidelines for Good Times11
Chapter 2Memphis21
Beale Street21
Away from Beale Street35
Chapter 3Down Highway 6147
Highway 6147
Helena, Ark57
Chapter 4The Clarksdale Area67
Chapter 5The Mid-Delta89
Mound Bayou98
Chapter 6The Greenwood Area113
North of Greenwood117
Itta Bena121
Blue Lake122
Morgan City125
Chapter 7Greenville to Vicksburg131
Holly Ridge145
Panther Burn155
Rolling Fork155
Chapter 8The Jackson Area159
Yazoo City180
Crystal Springs181
Renfroe Valley182
Varnado, La.183
Port Gibson184
Chapter 9East Mississippi189
West Point194
Whites (White Station)197
Chapter 10North Mississippi Hill Country203
Water Valley207
Holly Springs208
Gravel Springs218
Recommended Reading223
Recommended Listening225

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