The Mississippi Delta Welcomes You
Welcome to the Web site of The Delta Blues Foundation (Delta-Blues.org), a premier interdisciplinary organization that focuses on the humanities and environmental sciences as they relate to the geography, history, literature, arts, and last but not least the Blues music, Blues history and Blues culture of the Mississippi Delta.
“The Blues are the roots, the rest are the fruits.”
~ Willie Dixon
As the basis for American music, the rhythms and musical progressions of Blues music has had a public following since the early 20th century. As time progressed, the sounds of Blues music have been altered, expanded, and often renamed. The basis of rock 'n' roll, hip hop, rap, heavy metal, and jazz all have a genesis in Blues music.
“The Blues is the first music that was here. It was born with Adam and Eve in the Garden. It is the one that tells the story.”
~ John Lee Hooker
To ensure the continued survival of an audience for Blues music and expand the financial opportunities for Blues and its life blood festivals we are committed to the process of outreach and a search for methods to present Blues to a wider public.
Our mission: “To preserve Blues heritage by sustaining the living Blues of today...” Our vision: “To ensure for current and future generations an understanding, appreciation, and passion for the Mississippi Delta Blues experience.”
“The Blues is an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstances, whether created by others or by one's own human failing.”
~ Ralph Ellison
Blues music -- sometimes sad, lonely and mournful, but in other cases fully energized and bursting with electric-guitar-fueled vigor. Blues is one of the most powerful, influential and popular musical styles to have risen during the last few centuries.
The song structure is simple -- much of classic Blues is based around a three-chord, 12-bar progression that leaves room for boundless improvisation -- and it serves as a foundation for much of today's popular music.
“Behind the Blues, there is really a bit of hidden gaiety. There's a spirit of willingness to go on living despite all the sorrow and weariness the singer feels.”
~ Nat D. Williams
Today it's still being picked on the front porches of tar-paper shacks, but it's just as frequently fired up loud and proud in front of a barroom or, for that matter, stadium crowd. In either case though, it remains a music that reflects hardship, trouble and strife, but also perseverance and strength of character -- to know the Blues is to be in touch with your true spirit and soul.
“The Blues is in my blood, you know? I can't play, can't sing nothin' else. And I don't want to -- 'cause the Blues is for me. It's like a shoe, ...you take a number eleven shoe; you sure can't wear a size six. You wear the one that fits. The Blues fit me.”
~ Muddy Waters (in "Jazz Monthly," Jan. 1959)
The Mississippi Delta is a region on the rise and embracing development through technology. We encourage you to look at all the sections of this
Web site and to visit the Delta region so that we can share with you the
place we call home.
Embracing the Economic Blues
2009 Hall of Fame Inductees Announced
The Blues Foundation has announced the inductees for the Blues Hall of Fame in 2009, including "Soul Queen of New Orleans" Irma Thomas and multiple GRAMMY Award winner Taj Mahal, as well as late Chicago bluesman Son Seals and the Reverend Gary Davis.
Austin club owner Clifford Antone, discographer Mike Leadbitter and radio programmer and producer Bob Porter will be the non-performers inducted this year. The book I Hear You Knockin' by Jeff Hannusch was selected as a Classics of Blues Literature. The induction ceremony will be held at The Blues Foundation's Charter Member Dinner on Wednesday, May 6, at the Memphis Marriott Downtown in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before the 30th Blues Music Awards. Taj Mahal and Irma Thomas will both attend the induction ceremony.
The following singles or album tracks will be inducted during the ceremony: "Boom Boom" by John Lee Hooker; "Caldonia" by Louis Jordan; and "Sitting on Top of the World" by the Mississippi Sheiks. These albums were also chosen for induction: Amtrak Blues by Alberta Hunter; T-Bone Blues by T-Bone Walker; and the 2-CD set Blues With a Feeling (Newport Folk Festival Classics) by Various Artists.
The Hall of Fame committee, consisting of scholars, record producers, radio programmers, and historians, is chaired by Jim O'Neal, founding editor of Living Blues.
On May 7, the night after the Blues Hall of Fame inductions, The Blues Foundation will present the Blues Music Awards for the thirtieth time, and will return to Memphis after staging last year's events in the Mississippi Delta for the first time. Performers, industry representatives, and fans from around the world will celebrate the best in Blues recording, songwriting and performance from the previous year at the Memphis Cook Convention Center in downtown Memphis, the city where the Awards have been held since their 1980 inception.
The presenting sponsor will once again be The Gibson Foundation. BMI, Casey Family Programs, Eagle Rock Entertainment, FedEx, Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company also sponsor the Blues Music Awards.
Reverend Gary Davis
Rev. Gary Davis was one of the foremost guitarists in acoustic blues, gospel and folk music, a spirited performer who not only dazzled audiences with his virtuosity but who also served as a mentor and personal instructor to generations of guitar pickers. A self-taught musician, the blind Davis often played the streets for tips in the Carolinas and New York before he became a sought-after festival performer and private teacher during the 1950's and 60's. Born in Laurens, South Carolina, on April 30, 1896, Davis made his first recordings in 1935 under the name Blind Gary, performing both blues and gospel songs. As Rev. Gary Davis he later devoted his public performances to gospel singing, although there was still plenty of blues, jazz, and ragtime influence in his instrumental work, and students or producers might coax a few blues out of him at home or in the studio. Renowned as the master of fingerpicking styles, Davis was such a wizard that he only needed to use his thumb and forefinger while chording complex figures with his left hand. His students ranged from Blind Boy Fuller to Dave Van Ronk, David Bromberg, Ry Cooder, Jorma Kaukonen, Taj Mahal, Philadelphia Jerry Ricks, and Ernie Hawkins. Davis died in Hammonton, New Jersey, on May 5, 1972.
Taj Mahal may have explored more farflung corners of African-rooted musical traditions than any other performer, but he has always returned to the sound at the core of his journeys, the blues. Born Henry St. Clair Fredericks on May 17, 1942, in New York, and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, Taj chose his exotic stage name well in advance of his world travels when he was at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. After relocating to California, he rose to national prominence with the release of his Columbia album "Taj Mahal" which was highlighted by his modern-day reworkings of vintage tunes by the traditional blues masters, many of whom Taj had gotten to know during the folk-blues revival era. Taj's brand of blues was embraced by rock audiences and over the years inspired a number of younger African-American performers as well. His recordings have featured him on guitar, harmonica, piano, bass, banjo, mandolin, fife, and other of the 20 instruments he plays. When he delved into reggae and other Afro-Caribbean sounds, he was no stranger to the culture, since his father was a West Indian from the island of St. Kitts and his stepfather was Jamaican. Taj also recorded zydeco, New Orleans creole music, childrens' songs, folk tunes, gospel, soundtracks, and rhythm & blues, and did sessions with musicians from Africa, India, and Hawaii. But it all revolved around and interacted with his blues, and audiences continue to be treated to inspiring performances by one of the genre's most eclectic and charismatic performers.
Irma Thomas has reigned as "The Soul Queen of New Orleans" since the 1960's and remains not only a hometown favorite but also an international legend in the annals of rhythm & blues. Born Irma Lee in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, on February 18, 1941, she always loved to sing -- at home, in church, in school, in talent shows, and finally in the nightclubs and recording studios of New Orleans. She even lost jobs by singing in clubs when she was being paid to waitress, but that led to one of her first professional breaks, when the bandleader at the Pimlico Club, Tommy Ridgley, hired her and took her on the road. She was a teenaged mother of four when her first record, Don't Mess With My Man, hit the charts in 1960. Her biggest hit was the soul-baring, self-penned Imperial single Wish Someone Would Care in 1964, but the best-known song she recorded was the flip side of another 1964 Imperial 45, Time Is On My Side, which became a rock 'n' roll classic for the Rolling Stones. A series of less successful records followed, along with a period of semi-retirement from music when she moved to California after Hurricane Camille devastated the Gulf Coast in 1969. Irma has been a fixture on the New Orleans scene since returning home in the 1970's, and began to win wider acclaim again after recording the first in a long series of albums for Rounder in 1985. She and her husband ran a club, the Lions Den on Gravier Street, until another hurricane -- Katrina -- flooded the premises and sent her away from the Crescent City again, but this time only as far as Gonzales, Louisiana. Thomas has been a perennial nominee and frequent winner in the Blues Music Awards, and is in the running again this year for Soul Blues Female Artist of the Year and Soul Blues Album of the Year.
Son Seals' fiery, hard-driven electric blues renewed the gritty Southern roots of Chicago blues during the 1970's and 80's, an era during which many of his contemporaries were molding their blues around the rhythms of funk and soul music or the excesses of rock 'n' roll. Frank "Son" Seals, born August 13, 1942, in Osceola, Arkansas, grew up with the blues at his father's juke joint, the Dipsy Doodle. He learned from his father, Jim Seals, and from musicians who played at the club, especially Albert King, who drove a truck in Osceola, and Earl Hooker. As a guitarist he led his own band, the Upsetters, in Arkansas, and as a drummer he toured with both King and Hooker. King remained his foremost influence, and sometimes Seals would do entire sets of Albert's material, but he could deliver them with raw fury and a harsh tonality that gave him a sound all his own. Seals' approach exemplified the term high-energy blues in its purest form and proved to be a great match for the promotions and productions of the label he spent most of his career with, Alligator Records. Health problems slowed him down in later years, but even after he was shot in the jaw and had a foot amputated, he did his utmost to generate sparks whenever he took the stage. Seals died of complications from diabetes on December 20, 2004, in Richton Park, Illinois.
Clifford Antone transformed Austin, Texas, into a major blues center in the 1970's and 80's after he founded a nightclub called Antone's to book the legendary bluesmen he loved. Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Albert King, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, and many more discovered a friend and patron in Antone, who even housed musicians such as Hubert Sumlin and Pinetop Perkins for months at a time. Young Austin musicians such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds were on hand not only to perform, but to soak up the music of the masters -- the club was sometimes as much a training school as it was an internationally renowned performing venue. Antone also launched a record label to further promote artists such as Sumlin, Perkins, Cotton, Lazy Lester, Angela Strehli, Sue Foley and Jimmy Rogers, and opened a record store as well. Antone was born in Port Arthur, Texas, on October 27, 1949. He attended the University of Texas and later returned to teach blues courses there. He died in Austin on May 23, 2006.
Mike Leadbitter was hailed as the world's foremost authority on postwar blues during his years as editor of the pioneering magazine Blues Unlimited in England. Leadbitter, was born in India on March 12, 1942, but grew up in England. In 1962 he and fellow blues enthusiast Simon Napier formed the Blues Appreciation Society, and in 1963 they founded the first English-language blues periodical, Blues Unlimited. Leadbitter, Napier, and longtime Blues Unlimited contributor John Broven had all attended Bexhill Grammar School, and Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, became known to blues fans worldwide as the address of the magazine. Leadbitter led the way in documenting the careers and recordings of artists from across the spectrum of the electric blues era, but especially those from Memphis, Mississippi, Houston, Louisiana, and Chicago. He and Neil Slaven co-authored the groundbreaking discography Blues Records 1943-1970, and Leadbitter also edited a collection of Blues Unlimited articles published in book form as Nothing But the Blues in 1971. In addition, Leadbitter compiled albums for various record labels and coordinated research efforts among a wide network of international blues aficionados. He was at work on a book on postwar Delta blues when he died of meningitis at a London hospital on November 16, 1974. His manuscript is being updated for publication by a team of colleagues.
The authoritative voice of Bob Porter is familiar to radio listeners across the country from his syndicated broadcasts of Portraits in Blue, the in-depth series he launched at WBGO in Newark, New Jersey, in 1981. Porter, one of America's leading experts on the blues, and especially on the junctures of blues with jazz, has also produced, preserved, and documented the music in the recording studio, in print, and in presentations at festivals and seminars. Born in Wellesley, Massachusetts, on June 20, 1940, Porter has produced jazz and blues sessions for Prestige, Muse, and other labels since the 1960's in addition to compiling and annotating extensive reissue sets for companies such as Atlantic, Savoy and Rhino. Porter has also donated his energy and knowledge to organizations such as the Blues Foundation and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. He has worked with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Big Joe Turner, Helen Humes, Roomful of Blues, Hank Crawford, Gene Ammons, Charles Earland, and others in the studio, and is authoring Soul Jazz: A History of Jazz in the Black Community 1945-1975 for Oxford University Press.
CLASSICS OF BLUES LITERATURE
I Hear You Knockin' -- Jeff Hannusch
No writer has done more to chronicle the vibrant sounds of New Orleans rhythm & blues than Jeff Hannusch, a transplanted Canadian who made the Crescent City his home. In his first book, I Hear You Knockin': The Sound of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues, published in 1985, Hannusch weaves together the stories of the city's key singers, musicians, producers, record companies, and venues, as told by those who were there as the music developed during the 1950's and 60's. Chapters on Professor Longhair, Dave Bartholomew, Allen Toussaint, Roy Brown, Guitar Slim, Irma Thomas, Earl King, Ernie K-Doe, and other artists are complemented by the tales of music business veterans such as Johnny Vincent of Ace Records, producer Marshall Sehorn, and pioneering African-American DJ Vernon "Dr. Daddy-O" Winslow. The book was published by Swallow Publications, Inc., an arm of Floyd Soileau's legendary Cajun music operation in Ville Platte, Louisiana.
CLASSICS OF BLUES RECORDING: SINGLES AND ALBUM TRACKS
"Boom Boom" John Lee Hooker (Vee-Jay, 1961)
Vee-Jay Records of Chicago came up with an unlikely formula to put John Lee Hooker on both the rhythm & blues and pop music charts with the catchy original version of his bad-man theme, Boom Boom. Prior to this 1961 session, Hooker had scored his first hits in when he recorded by himself in Detroit, playing guitar and stomping his feet. But this time the stomping rhythm was provided by none other than the cream of the Motown label's session men, later known as the Funk Brothers -- including bassist James Jamerson, drummer Benny Benjamin, and pianist Joe Hunter. Boom Boom made it to No. 16 on the R&B charts in 1962 and hit No. 60 in the pop field. It was the last John Lee Hooker single to make the charts, although he would enjoy renewed success with his albums in the 1980's and 90's when a host of rock stars helped him boogie to the end.
"Caldonia" Louis Jordan (Decca, 1945)
Louis Jordan was the biggest African-American star of his era thanks to his infectious, good-time, boogie-based blues performances, in the studio, in person, and on the screen. Jordan has been called the father of rock 'n' roll, rhythm & blues, jump blues, and rap. In 1945 his humor and energy propelled Caldonia to the top of the Race Records chart, as it was known prior to the introduction of term Rhythm & Blues in 1949. Caldonia, recorded by Jordan with his Tympany Five for Decca Records in New York on January 19, 1945, has been covered by B.B. King, James Brown, and many other Jordan followers. Authorship of the song has always been attributed to Jordan's wife, Fleecie Moore, although Jordan claimed that he wrote the number and used her name for contractual reasons.
"Sitting on Top of the World" Mississippi Sheiks (Okeh, 1930)
One of most enduring songs of pre-World War II blues, Sitting on Top of the World was recorded by the duo of singer-guitarist Walter Vinson and fiddler Lonnie Chatmon, who performed as the Mississippi Sheiks. The song's classic declaration of survival through hard times and lost love has inspired many others, from Howlin' Wolf and Ray Charles through Cream and Bob Dylan, to sing the lines, "But now she's gone, I don't worry, I'm sitting on top of the world." The Mississippi Sheiks' version was recorded on February 17, 1930, in Shreveport, Louisiana, for OKeh Records.
CLASSICS OF BLUES RECORDING: ALBUMS
Amtrak Blues (Columbia, 1978) Alberta Hunter
Alberta Hunter was in the midst of one of the great comebacks in musical history when she recorded Amtrak Blues in 1978. Hunter, then 83, had become the darling of the New York jazz /blues club scene, after decades away from the music she had recorded as a young diva in the 1920's. Amtrak Blues, released in 1980, featured her in the company of such veterans as Doc Cheatham, Vic Dickenson, Gerald Cook, Frank Wess, and Billy Butler. Bessie Smith biographer Chris Albertson contributed the liner notes and John Hammond served as producer. Hunter penned the title track herself as well as I'm Having a Good Time -- a song that certainly summed up the irrepressible spirit of her final years.
T-Bone Blues (Atlantic, 1959) T-Bone Walker
T-Bone Walker is best remembered as the father of electric blues guitar, the icon who paved the way for B.B. King, Albert King, Otis Rush, and the rest. His work on his 1959 Atlantic LP T-Bone Blues left no doubt that he was a guitar master, but in his liner notes on the original release, famed critic Ralph J. Gleason wrote: "But it is as a blues singer that T-Bone will be remembered." As a vocalist and as a guitarist, Walker was at a peak on this beautifully recorded album, which was compiled from an April 21, 1955, Chicago session (where the band included Junior Wells and Jimmy Rogers) and Los Angeles dates from December 14, 1956, and December 27, 1957. Joining him in L.A. were sidemen such as Lloyd Glenn, jazz guitar legend Barney Kessel, and Walker's nephew R.S. Rankin Jr., aka T-Bone Walker Jr. Walkers reprised some of his classics like Call It Stormy Monday and Mean Old World and let the sparks fly when jamming with Kessel and Rankin. A 1990 CD release added four previously unissued tracks to the 11 original LP cuts, including Why Not from the Chicago session, a predecessor to the blues classic that Jimmy Rogers recorded the following year as Walking By Myself.
Blues With a Feeling Newport Folk Festival Classics (Vanguard 2-CD set, 1993) Various Artists
The Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island, played a crucial role in introducing the music of Son House, Skip James, Bukka White, Robert Pete Williams, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt, and others to the folk-blues audience of the 1960's. Performances by all those artists and more are featured on the two-CD Vanguard compilation Blues With a Feeling, culled by producer Mary Katherine Aldin from the 1963, 1964, 1965, and 1968 festivals. Vanguard was one of the most significant record labels during the 1960's blues revival and folk music boom, and over the years the company has released a number of different Newport blues albums, but this set -- released as a double CD in 1993 and as two individual CDs in 1997 -- was judged by the Blues Hall of Fame committee to be the definitive collection. The first CD begins with an introduction by Dick Waterman, the promoter who brought Son House out of retirement, and proceeds to the stirring music of House and the others, as the thrill of discovery fills the air for performers and audiences alike.
HALL OF FAME INTRODUCTION
The 2009 Blues Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will be May 6 this year in Memphis, Tennessee.
The Blues Hall of Fame is a historical record of those who have made the Blues timeless through performance, documentation, and recording. Since its inception in 1980, The Blues Foundation has inducted new members annually into the Blues Hall of Fame for their historical contribution, impact and overall influence on the Blues.
Members are inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in five categories: Performers, Non-Performers, Classics of Blues Literature, Classics of Blues Recordings (Songs), Classics of Blues Recordings (Albums). Acccordingly, individuals, recordings and literature are included in the Blues Hall of Fame.
There is no submission or nomination process for induction in to the Blues Hall of Fame. Rather, each year in the fall, a distinguished panel of blues scholars begins the process of discussing who they believe should be given consideration for induction into the Blues Hall of Fame. After some back and forth, they vote in each of the five categories. The number of nominees in a year may vary.
2009 Blues Foundation Music Award Winners
The soulful blues lady, Janiva Magness, guitar great Buddy Guy and legendary bluesplayer B.B. King were among the big winners at the 30th annual Blues Music Awards held Thursday night at the Memphis Cook Convention Center.
Although last year's ceremony was held in Tunica, Mississippi, organizers decided to bring the ceromonies back to its Memphis, Tennessee, home to celebrate its three decades mark.
Renamed from the W.C. Handy Awards, the Blues awards are staged by the Memphis based Blues Foundation and voted on by the organization's 3,000-plus membership.
Presenters and performers, including blues icon King and rockstar Steve Miller, gathered for the music-filled ceremony lasting into the late morning hours. Inducted into the Hall of Fame at the awards dinner were Blues Hall of Fame of New Orleans great Irma Thomas (who also won best Soul Blues Album for Simply Grand), Grammy-winning guitarist Taj Mahal, Chicago six-string star Son Seals (1942-2004) and iconic country bluesman Rev. Gary Davis (1896-1972).
The Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year is: Janiva Magness
The B.B. King Entertainer of the Year is: Janiva Magness
The Traditional Blues Male Artist of the Year is: B.B. King
The Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year is: Koko Taylor
The Traditional Blues Album of the Year is: One Kind Favor, B.B. King
The Song of the Year is: "Let Life Flow," Kenny Neal
The Band of the Year is: Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials
The Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year is: Buddy Guy
The Contemporary Blues Album of the Year is: Skin Deep, Buddy Guy
The Album of the Year is: Skin Deep, Buddy Guy
The Best New Artist Debut is: 2 Man Wrecking Crew, Cedric Burnside & Lightnin' Malcolm
The Acoustic Album of the Year is: Mississippi Number One, Eden Brent
The Acoustic Artist of the Year is: Eden Brent
The Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year is: Bobby Rush
The Soul Blues Female Artist of the Year is: Etta James
The Soul Blues Album of the Year is: Simply Grand, Irma Thomas
The Rock Blues Album of the Year is: Mess of Blues, Jeff Healey
The Historical Album of the Year is: Albert Collins, Live At Montreux 1992, Eagle Records
The DVD of the Year is: "M For Mississippi: A Road Trip Through the Birthplace of the Blues," Broke & Hungry Records, Cat Head Blues & Mudpuppy Recordings
The Instrumentalist of the Year -- Harmonica -- is: Billy Gibson
The Instrumentalist of the Year -- Banjo -- is: Otis Taylor
The Instrumentalist of the Year -- Bass -- is: Mookie Brill
The Instrumentalist of the Year -- Guitar -- is: Sonny Landreth
The Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year is: Marcia Ball
The Instrumentalist of the Year -- Horn -- is: Deanna Bogart
The Instrumentalist of the Year -- Drums -- is: Willie "Big Eyes" Smith
Pinetop Perkins' 80-Year Career Still Going
Noisy crowds in smoky bars don't bother 96-year-old bluesman Pinetop Perkins.
It's all part of his job. Most nights, after he snuffs out his menthol cigarette, Perkins slides onto the piano bench in some club and eases into a wail about hard times and treacherous women.
Perkins is believed to be the oldest of the old-time Delta bluesmen still performing. In an 80-year career, he has traveled through juke joints, nightclubs and festival stages shared with the likes of John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters.
In a recent interview after a gig at a jazz club in Oakland, Calif., the old bluesman summed up his performance simply: "Looks like the folks loved what I was doing last night."
And he's not done yet.
The two-time Grammy winner is at work on another album, due out in 2010.
"I thank the Lord for me being here all the time. I play any piano with a good tune," Perkins said.
He's outlived most of his contemporaries, though time has slowed his steps and impaired his hearing. His colleagues say the musical sagacity acquired from a lifetime in the blues remains strong.
"Perkins is appreciated in 2009 not just for his survival, but for being a classic Chicago bluesman," said guitarist Bob Margolin, a former Muddy Waters band member. "While many younger musicians pay tribute to that music, Pinetop is that music."
Perkins comes from the generation of artists who worked their way from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, stopping in Memphis and St. Louis along the way. They eventually fused a new sound of country twang and urban grit that became known as Chicago blues.
Perkins wasn't formally taught on the piano. He learned by watching others, and he still can't read sheet music. Yet his style has influenced rock icons like the Rolling Stones and Ike Turner.
"I didn't get no schooling. I come up the hard way in the world," Perkins said.
With age comes faded memories and blurred details, and Perkins has difficulty recalling his experiences with Waters and other bluesmen.
However, when asked about his longevity during a break at a recent music tribute to him in Clarksdale, Perkins replied: "I always try to do something different all the time."
The Pinetop Perkins Homecoming was held in October at Hopson Plantation, where Perkins worked as a tractor-driver in the 1940s.
About a dozen blues players performed before a crowd of hundreds while Perkins sat quietly at a table, smoking cigarettes, a habit he picked up at age 9. He'd played the day before at the annual Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival.
"It's simply amazing for a 96-year-old man to still be able to perform on a piano like that. He just lays back and relaxes and seems like the music just pumps out of his fingers," said Jimmi Mayes, a drummer who plays in the band of another Muddy Waters band alumnus: Willie "Big Eyes" Smith of Chicago.
In addition to playing the blues, Perkins seeks to nurture them. The Pinetop Perkins Foundation was created to help young blues artists. The foundation received a $3,500 grant last week from Morgan Freeman's foundation to provide scholarships for a blues piano workshop planned for next August in Clarksdale, said Perkins' manager, Pat Morgan.
Perkins and Smith are wrapping work on "Pinetop Perkins-Willie Smith Joined at the Hip" for the Telarc International label. The record, expected to be released next spring, includes mostly original songs written by Smith, Morgan said.
Perkins, whose real first name is Willie, was born in 1913 in Belzoni, Miss. He's lived the evolution of blues music, spending his early years playing in the Delta. In the 1940s, he performed with Williamson on the popular King Biscuit Time radio show broadcast daily on KFFA in Helena, Ark.
Perkins backed slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk on an early Chess Records recording and toured with Turner in the 1950s. Later, Perkins joined Muddy Waters' band to replace pianist Otis Spann in 1969.
For more than half a century, Perkins was content being a blues sideman.
"He may not have been a front man all those years, but he was there in the middle of it. He was skilled enough to be able to stay and do it all of his life, and move from one big band to the next and do it all as times changed," said Brett Bonner, editor of Living Blues Magazine.
"Boogie Woogie King" was Perkins' first solo record in 1976. Beginning in 1992 with "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," he released a string of 15 albums in as many years.
He won a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2005, followed by the 2007 Best Traditional Blues Album for his collaboration on the "Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas."
With an ailing heart, Perkins moved to Austin, Texas, in 2004. He has no family, and lives with Barry Nowlin, a Morgan associate.
"He got into a different environment and he started feeling better and got out of his health risk," Nowlin said. "Then, he won his lifetime Grammy award, and after that he got up and decided he wanted to keep playing music and performing."
The Blues: American History in the Present Day
The Origins of the Mississippi Delta Blues
The origins of the blues in the Mississippi Delta are as deep, wide, and muddy as the river that gives the area its name. These origins are the culmination of hundreds of years of slavery, pain, prosperity, and revolution, and dealing with many races and creeds.
This essay covers the years 1890 to 1930 which is the most exemplary and explosive time period for the birth of the Mississippi Delta Blues. The regional focus will be on the area known as the Mississippi Delta, both colloquially and analytically. This does not include the entire Mississippi Delta Basin, but only a few hundred square miles of the alluvial plain. The main counties to be looked at will be Coahoma and Sunflower, with a peripheral use of Washington, Bolivar, Humphreys, and Yazoo counties.
The origins of the blues in the Mississippi Delta can be studied in a scholarly fashion by examining the historical and socio-economic conditions of the area, musical and lyrical influences of the early Delta Blues, the genesis of the Delta Blues, and the Age of the Delta Bluesman. In looking at the topic in this way, one can come to a better understanding of the many stimuli that brought about this distinct style of music.
The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta (henceforth termed as the Mississippi Delta) is approximately two hundred miles long and seventy miles wide at its widest point. This area is a flat, roaming terrain of vast acres of agricultural fields, swamp, and curving water bodies. The land traditionally considered the "Delta" begins just below Memphis, Tennessee and runs along the East bank of the Mississippi River to the port of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
The first Europeans to navigate this area were the Spanish under Hernando Desoto in 1539. The land was a thick quandary of impenetrable canebrake and mosquito swarmed swamps lined with small runs of hardwood trees. After the Spanish exploration, little was thought about the area until after the Revolutionary War. When sufficient Americans settled in this western region, the Mississippi Territory was organized in 1798.
Statehood came in 1817 and the trickle of settlers began to increase more rapidly, coming to a stronger pace after the Indian removal of 1820. This step brought a small influx of settlers down the Ohio and other rivers into present-day Washington County. Initial settlement spanned out from Lake Washington into the surrounding countryside in small stages.
The environment for early settlers of the Mississippi Delta was very arduous to say the least. Fever and malaria ran rampant through both slaves and whites alike. To be able to farm the rich, alluvial soil, slaves were forced to reclaim the burly wilderness acre by acre. This caused extremely high mortality rates among slaves. The main transportation was via the Mississippi River, with principal staples of subsistence being brought into the area by boat.
The land was settled day by day, and the counties known today were created. The population for the area was sparse, with the 1829 population of Washington county showing 1,184 slaves, 792 whites, and one "Free Man of Color." With settlement spreading out from a mere foothold, the dominant socio-economic system of the age, the plantation system, came into being. Most small farms simply could not survive. They had neither the workforce, nor the capital to sustain the initial stages of agriculture in the area.
The plantation system that forged the life and culture of the early Delta is quite simple to understand. Wealthy planters hired a small hierarchy of white men as overseers, who in turn watched over the crowds of working slaves. The slaves planted, cared for, and picked the valuable cotton crops. The plantation system gave the Delta a neo-feudalistic stratification that worked wonderfully for the white elite until the onset of the Civil War.
The low-lying land allowed for easy absorption of rainfall and water runoff from the hills to the North, East, and South. Seasonal winter flooding allowed insect and weed reduction, while replenishing the soil. Delta Plantations usually ranged from 750 to 2,000 acres in size. The entire livelihood of the inhabitants (with exception of the white elite) hinged on the ability to grow their own food along with the cotton crop.
By 1850, the Delta counties (Bolivar, Coahoma, Issaquena, Sunflower, Warren, Washington, and Yazoo) had over 306,000 improved farm acres, with a total population of 51, 864 (38,711 slaves, 13,153 whites). The golden age of the plantation system would subside with the Civil War. Plantations were marginally run during the war period, but not on the scale as before.
The Union sweep through the Delta began in late 1862 with Coahoma County, and then moving downward towards Vicksburg. The Delta was basically a Union-controlled area until the end of the war, with only minimal Confederate partisan activity. The post-war economy was initially comprised of new, northern landowners, freed slaves, and a residual of former plantation owners.
The formation of the Freedman's Bureau in 1865 gave a small amount of freedom to former slaves in the region, but the subsequent "Black Codes" enacted by the Mississippi legislature from 1865 to 1867 virtually destroyed these changes. The southeastern United States "Black Belt", running from Virginia along the East and Gulf coasts in a crescent, would re-absorb the freedmen back into the post-war economic structure. The old plantation system gave way to a different, yet archaically similar device, the tenant farmer system.
The tenant farmer system revolved around a microcosm of the same facets as the plantation method, but with a few differences. With physical slavery gone, economic slavery came into the equation. The newly resurgent lineage of the antebellum elite had to have a labor force to make crops, and the newly-freed African-Americans had a dire need for income, so the tenant system emerged. The Delta plantation owners combined organization and supervision into this distinctive economic system.
The plantation owner gave the tenant housing, tools, seed, fuel, and limited plantation store credit, in return the tenant worked a set acreage of land from planting to picking. At the end of the year, the owner subtracted the debts from the tenant's gross revenue and made arrangements for the coming year. This system usually ended in the tenant owing money to the plantation owner, thereby perpetuating the tenant's subjugation to the land. The use of labor contracts consolidated tenant immobilization even further, and brought the African-American majority into an updated form of slavery. This would play an integral role in the origins of the Mississippi Delta Blues.
Transportation advances also greatly affected the region during this period. The Mississippi River was still the primary means of trade, but the backcountry waterways were quickly taking a backseat to the railroads. The introduction of railroads into the Delta began at the end of the 1870's with the Columbus and Greenville Railroad, and by the 1880's the Louisville, New Orleans, and Texas Railway had solidified this transportation method. The railroads revenues boomed, and small "whistle stop" communities rose along the lines.
The benefit brought by railway commerce was sublimated by the problems it caused concerning labor. The mobility of this transportation allowed African-American tenants to leave their plantations with considerably more ease. From 1910 to 1920, Mississippi's African-American population decreased by 74,303. The majority of these moved north along rail routes to Midwestern urban centers such as St. Louis and Chicago. Italian and Mexican immigrants arrived into the Delta at the end of the nineteenth century. Few in number, immigrants evened out the labor gap somewhat, but the tenant system began to crumble. By the beginning of the 1950's, the system would be all but dead.
The Delta Blues is a product of the history of the Mississippi Delta. The early settlement, plantation, and tenant farmer systems all laid the building blocks for the emergence of the genre. There would be no blues without slavery, physical and economic, or the transportation explosion of the late nineteenth century. The genre is an indication that grand culture can come out of horrible conditions, and consequently flourish.
The Delta Blues' deepest roots lay in the music of Africa. The music made its way to North America through the culture of the 15 to 20 million slaves brought during the 300 years of the slave trade. The majority of the slaves entering the Mississippi Delta were from West African tribes: Bantu, Yoruba, Ewe, and Akan. The music of these people is different, but do have recurring themes in all of them. The music is participative in call and response, drenched in oral history and tradition, and rhythmic pitch-tone fluctuations.
While the vocal theme and methodology is primarily West African, the majority of the instrumentation has its beginnings in the savanna and Sahel zones of the Western Sudan. The main instrument of the West African coastal tribes was the drum, but the use of drums was outlawed during the early days of North American slavery, so the adaptation of savanna-derived string instruments came into prominence.
The instruments were easily adaptable to English and Scot folk music, since all three relied on stringed instruments. These instruments were mainly two-string bowed and plucked lutes, griots, bania/halam, beta, and earth bow. Melodic lines are plucked by finger with these, in varying speeds and tone, to simulate the accompanying story being sung or chanted. The instruments crafted from local wood, and the string made from the gut of animals. This allowed for the relatively easy translation of instrumentation into early slave life. String instruments, at least of a certain type, were easy to make from local materials.
The tone and timbre of African music also reflects a great influence on the early blues. These aspects of the music centered on the playing style and accompaniment articles. Flattened notes and fluctuated tone, played to an upward drive in accordance with the drum rhythms, sound strikingly similar to pentatonic and heptatonic scales.
The lyrical and song structure of African music also plays a large role in the early blues. The first major correlation is song content. West African music is steeped in oral tradition and religious imagery. The tribes kept their history through long ritual chants with repetition and loud calls and chants. This allowed the thematic information in the song to be learned more easily. The music was used to celebrate marriages, rituals, funerals, and even recreational activity. The flow of words helped to dictate rhythm, and the speed corresponded to the type of activity subject in the song. The words were then copied in the movement of the dancers to add more thematic presence to the song topic.
The topics of the songs fit the act being done, work songs dealt with the ritualistic imagery of the crop or soil, historical songs would concern the tribe's migration, movements, or ethnic endowments, and religious songs centered on the power of specific deities and their prowess. The religious songs lent themselves well to the Trans-Atlantic Diaspora.
The African concept of the "devil", the gods Esu and Legba, were more tricksters than creators of evil. This was somehow translated into the Judeo-Christian concept of Satan, because of the themes of deceit and temptation. All of this, in conjunction with the rhythmic and repetitious themes in African music, led to the initial traits of African-American music and subsequently early Delta Blues.
The first slaves transported to North America faced nothing but hardship and relentless toil in an alien environment. The experience brought the need for the oral and musical traditions of Africa to mutate into a form of cultural communication to give hope and a sense of historical roots with their homeland.
Slave ship captain Theodore Canot described the sound of the slaves on one middle passage voyage: "During the afternoons of serene weather, men, women, girls, and boys are allowed while on deck to unite in African melodies which they always embrace by extemporaneous tom-tom on the bottom of a tub or tin kettle."
The slaves were keeping the music alive to plant in their new homes. At the same time, African slaves would allow the culture of those dominating them to seep into their traditions, creating a melting pot of cross-cultural pollination. This is how the first African-American music came about.
The earliest form of African-American folk music is the "cry" or "holler". These vocalizations were almost spontaneous exclamation of feeling concerning the slave's new environment. The "cry" usually reflected pain or disorientation in its subjectivity. The cry could be answered by others with a choral refrain, or simply repeated by the initial singer with rhythm or no rhythm supplied by the other workers.
The cry, also termed "call" by white witnesses, had loud tone volume, high pitch, and could almost be mistaken for a yell. Cries were mainly centered on pain, but in some cases they could address relaxation, complaint, or some iconoclastic image. The shout, a version of cry sung after work in the slave quarters, was accompanied by trance dances derivative of African religious rites. Shouts were rarely seen or recorded by outsiders because of their critical commentary on white culture, but some did survive into the early 1930's by way of field recordings.
Work songs were another early form of African-American folk music. These were much like hollers or calls, but the song was always sung in the working environment and had accompaniment. The work song involved the entire working unit as an instrument. The lead singer or singers announce a beginning verse line, and the rest of the laborers stomp, swing tools, and refrain in rhythmic accompaniment. The work theme can be seen well in "Ain't No More Cane on this Brazos." This song typifies the slow, easy rhythm of a cotton chopping work song. The type of work would dictate the speed and nature of the song. A railroad work song would move much faster than one used for agricultural maintenance.
Religious themes are also used to create an identifiable dynamic between the workers and biblical themes. Short, sporadic melody lines, and long, melodic lines with loud chorus refrain characterize the work song. Guttural tone and use of "oooh" and "hmmm" by the chorus of laborers solidify the collective ideology that harkens back to the African roots. Instrumentation relied heavily on the collective laborers voices and the work tools used. A railroad work song would have the syncopated rhythm of the hammers hitting steel, while a tree chopping work song would use the axe connecting with wood as cadence.
The duple meter of these songs would have a strong influence on spirituals, and eventually, the emergence of the blues. Spirituals arose out of the early African-American indoctrination into Christianity and rose sometime between the slave voyages of the 1600's and the antebellum period. These songs mixed the retained tradition of African water rites with the imagery of Pentecostal Protestant teachings. The spirituals linked such themes as the Jewish captivity with African-American enslavement. This can be seen in the words to When Israel Was in Egypt Land:
When Israel was in Egypt Land, Let My People Go,
Oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let my people go;
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt Land,
Tell ole Pharaoh, Let my people go.
The song expresses the identification of the white owners (Egypt, Pharaoh) and the African-Americans (Israel, Moses) with the biblical imagery. The songs replace the old African gods with the monotheistic idea of God and messianic Jesus. The spiritual gave the slaves a glimmer of hope, if not on earth, then in the afterlife. The white owners saw these types of song as soothing, and the biblical themes could be associated with the adherence to Christian ideology.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers were black vocalists that mixed popular songs of the day with spirituals, and gained widespread acclaim from 1866 to 1898. They toured the continental United States and Europe, playing to mainly white audiences, and did much to bring the genre of music into acceptance. The historical and cultural qualities of the music fit easily into the African oral tradition. The spirituals provided the singers with a sense of unity, and segued African ideas into Western.
The technique and instrumentation were performed in major, minor, and slight variant mixtures of scales. The accompaniment, when used, would use I, IV, V, chord structure to give more foundation to the already structured singing. This is very much like the chord patterns of twelve and eight bar blues. The instrumentation would focus on the vocal arrangement, with whatever device that could be found to back up the vocals. Banjo, harmonica, fiddle, and when available piano or organ was used, but the primary focus was on vocalists.
The ornamentation of spirituals centered around triplets with bended and sustained notes for added emotion. This allowed the singer to express individuality in a culture full of restraints set by the white hierarchy. The form of lyric structure was integral in blues beginnings. The spiritual used one lyrical line sung three times in succession, and second differentiated line at the end of the verse. Blues lyricism uses the same form. The legacy of the musical and lyrical components of spirituals left a lasting effect on the later birth of the blues.
Minstrel songs, or minstrelsy played the next role in the evolution of African-American music. Afro-American minstrelsy began in Africa and rose from the slave quarters to prominence after 1850.The popularity of minstrelsy from 1850 to 1900 is mainly because African-Americans or whites in blackface played the music.
The white performer who played for white audiences, copied gestures and action associated with black cultural stereotypes. The African-American performer played mainly for black crowds, unless the performances were of great skill and interest to white patrons.
The minstrel show was mix of music, jokes, and stories, all pulled together with connecting scenes and dialogue. This style of presentation would eventually mutate into vaudevillian music and "tin pan alley" compositions. The subject matter varied from lighthearted comedy numbers to darker, stern death ballads. The term Jim Crow is derived from a comedy song sung by white minstrels in mock caricature of African-Americans.
The instrumentation of minstrel songs relied on a varied collection of devices. Banjo, piano, gong, guitar, drums, winds, brass, and violin were all widely used in most minstrel shows. Musicians were found, as needed, town to town and then stayed for unspecified durations. Most minstrels could play numerous instruments and sing in a range of harmonic dispositions. Each traveling group was like an all-star band of sorts.
The most important form that the blues took from minstrelsy was the ballad. These songs romanticized certain aspects of cultural ideology and are drawn from courtier style, European poetry. The subject matter was not as refined as its earlier roots. Other ballads took historical or social inspiration and meshed them into song. One of the most famous of these was The Boll Weevil:
Oh, have you heard de lates',
De lates' of de songs?
It's about dem little Boll Weevils,
Dey's picked up bofe feet an' gone
A-lookin' for a home,
Jes a-lookin' for a home.
De Boll Weevil is a little bug
F'um Mexico, dey say,
He come to try dis Texas soil
En thought he better stay.
This particular song narrates the boll weevil's migration from Mexico into the cotton fields of the southern United States. Early blues musicians would later pick up the theme. Ballads subjects also brought in themes of folklore in such songs as "John Henry" and "Travelin' Man", both early blues repertoire staples.
Ballad form structure led directly to the materialization of standard blues structure. ABAB, AABB, and AAB chord progression style is seen in minstrel balladry, and this convention permeates blues songs. The ballad structure lent itself well to subject variation and individualized vocalization, so the early blues musicians were able to create new songs based on older traditional forms.
The African-American folk traditions built on the African influences, but with a decidedly Western twist. The music gradually evolved over the 300-year period between the first slaves until the end of the 19th Century. American Negro folk tales, biblical theme, African instrumentation influences, and economic servitude all blended to shape a new musical genre using roots in the past and stylistic representations of the period.
The musical influences of the early blues are not solely African-American. Slave culture did not grow in a vacuum devoid of Western societal influence. The slave owner's traditions segued into the past African and African-American stimuli to change the musical technique distinctly. All Western European ethnicities in the New World influenced the emerging genre's style.
The first blues used the guitar, an instrument Spanish in origin and, perhaps, introduced into the Delta by Mexican and Italian immigrants during the late 1890's. Spanish/Latino song practices came into serious involvement with the instrumentation of the first blues. Tenant housing on the Dockery Farms Plantation between Cleveland and Ruleville, Mississippi boasted this ethnic mixture during the beginning of the twentieth century.
The guitar perfectly suited the rural musician in an accompaniment capacity. Its small size and weight allowed mobility, while at the same time having a large and varied tonal range for different performance styles. The flexible rhythmic qualities of the guitar allowed the musician to add emotion and dramatics to each different song when warranted.
The 6 and 12 string arrangement of the instrument allowed for variable tunings. A popular tuning was the "Spanish" tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D) or open A. This tuning was primarily used for slide guitar compositions. This tuning is similar to a standard banjo tuning, so adaptation from one instrument to the other was easily learned. The tonal composition was more fluid and orchestral than a standard E tuning. This allowed for a fuller, extra textural sound during performance.
Anglo-European influence can also be seen in the surfacing of the Delta Blues. The first popular African-American musicians were trained to play classical European music. Waltzes appear in most accounts of minstrel shows. European folk tunes and hymns from the British Isles found their way into black music in such songs as "Greensleeves", "Lord Randall", and " The Golden Vanity".
The nuances of the folk tunes would mix with whatever ethnicity was predominant in the region. Caucasian country music would arise from these in some areas while zones with Afro-American majorities started the blues. The musicians' methodology was much less segregated than conventional society, with genre styles intermingling with one another freely.
Charlie Patton, and subsequently country artists like Jimmie Rogers and Hank Williams, held no constriction to a genre mentally, just in playing capability. Patton's "Going To Move To Alabama", is a prime example of this integration. The song is the basic blues form, but the fiddle accompaniment adds the distinct sound of a white country song. Hank Williams's "Move It on Over" is an almost blatant copy of Patton's song.
The structure of most ballads was almost identical to that of early blues, with the AAB form, and differed in the minstrel type in that the blues concerned bawdier, less publicly performed subjects. The Anglo-European style was already apparent in most minstrelsy, so picking up on the structure was relatively easy for most blues musicians.
The subject matter dealt with in ballads is also echoed in the blues. Ballads dealt with themes of love, locations, people, and events. The ballad almost always took the narrative form, relying on the iconography of the subject matter to help produce greater imagery in the song.
The main division between African-American and Caucasian styles of balladry is the degree to which the topic matter was taken. The "black" ballad venerated outlaws, tricksters, and folk heroes its "white" relative would never touch, and at a much faster, call and response oriented rhythm. Figures such as John Henry, Long Jim or John, Stackolee, and the Grey Goose permeated the storylines of most of these songs.
"John Henry", the black railroad worker who wins the Pyrrhic victory over the steam engine and consequently dies, represents the conflict between white and black, and even the fight against industrialization. "John Henry"-type songs were performed in minstrelsy, but not with the same character content shown in this type of ballad. The occupation of John Henry could be changed to fit any form of work the African-American was engaged in.
"Long John" or "Long Jim" were aphorisms for the downtrodden worker or prisoner who rebelled against his master successfully.
"Stackolee" or Stagger Lee was a "bad nigger" who completely disregarded the society that held him captive and murdered or committed violence against others. "Stackolee" is so unstoppable that in some versions he dies and then battles the devil in Hell and wins.
The "Grey Goose" was a sign for indestructibility and defiance in the face of an almost insurmountable enemy. The goose is shot, skinned, and eaten, but is seen once again flying over its killers.
These influences melded the Western with the African, and changed music forever. The infiltration of the European styles into the Afro-American cultural lexicon produced an inherently new and distinct genre. The drawing from these different roots would make the blues startlingly new, but with historically recognizable oral, social, and ethnic themes. The European styles picked up by the musicians would be the final ingredient to the emergence of the early "Downhome" blues.
The instrumentation type used in the early beginning of the early Delta (or Downhome) Blues was integral to its popularity and song style. The guitar became by far the most important instrument used by the initial bluesmen.
As previously stated, the instrument's mobility and vast sound capability allowed the musician a veritable mobile orchestra, and at the same time had a rudimentary structure close to that of the banjo. The burgeoning artists could have just as easily picked it over the guitar. They both use the same "claw hammer" picking style, and the five-string banjo has only one less string than a regular guitar. The banjo was also a traditional African instrument, and held a prominent role in minstrelsy.
The main reasons the guitar overtook banjo are price and sound. Guitars became available to most people, even the extremely poor, around 1890 with its listing in the Sears-Roebuck catalog at a minimal price. This gave the musician a well-built, quality instrument and did not pull too much out of his already tight budget.
The sound capabilities were also an important factor. The banjo relies on the tightness of the drum-like centerpiece to draw sound from, whereas the guitar has an open sound hole and larger body to create a higher volume. The guitar's string distance in relation to the fret board allowed slides, bottlenecks, and knives to use to mimic human voice and machine noises.
Alan Lomax notes: "The bluesmen's skill with the guitar gave them great power among their music-and- dance mad brothers. The six-string, to one who understands its resources, (is) capable of sounding several parts at once. It backs up and responds to the mordant wit of the singer, and at the same time provides dance music for a roomful of people. The lone bluesman could pocket the fee for a whole orchestra."
The guitar was the bluesman's most prized possession, his livelihood and cathartic mechanism all in one. The musician suited the style of playing, fingerpick or slide, to the type of music being performed. A slow, meditative drag about a lonesome train whistle would be accompanied by a mimicked slide guitar line, just as a fast, up-beat dance number would be quickly finger picked to give a jovial feel.
The harmonica would also be used in accompaniment. This small, cheap instrument was centered on an ascending (or descending) major or minor scale. The lone guitarist played the harmonica provided he had a neck rack; otherwise another musician would play the instrument. The highly mobile adaptability and relative playability of these instruments made them ideal for the blues genre.
The early Delta blues gained most of their artistic power from the lyrics and themes used in the songs. They are used to create a bridge between the musician and the audience by imagery. The primary narration method used was first person, with a smaller number using the third person. The Bluesman usually tried to portray the song as autobiographical, with the singer as the main protagonist or antagonist. Feeling was always emphasized over structure. The singer may take the persona of the character in the song, but for that short time period he was the character.
The imagery in the songs most often pertained to religious, journey, or relationship themes. The religious themes are highly derivative of the spiritual roots of the blues. The idea of a better afterlife was a way for the African-American to retain hope in hopeless surroundings. These songs mixed personal and collective memory to entrench their theme into the audience psyche. The songs continued the African oral tradition while at the same time updating it for the modern culture.
The transportation themes, usually in the form of a train, gave the idea that there might be a way out of the turmoil in the African-American existence. Charley Patton's "Down The Dirt Road" echoes this theme:
Every day seems like murder here,
Every day seems like murder here,
I'm gonna leave tomorrow, I know you don't bid my care.
The theme of man/woman relationship problems is also shown in the majority of most blues songs. The singer may want to kill or maim his lover, and at the same time be heartbroken for her company. This is often attributed to the African-American's feeling of pain, loss, or alienation by the cultural climate of the times.
The songs could also be grand allusions to a person's sexual prowess or whimsy. The singer, in either mode of song theme, was still sublimating the current sexual mores and standards of mainstream society. The metaphor and simile used was often missing to the white ear, but to the more colloquially astute African-American audience, double entendre abounded. Another Patton song illustrates this:
Everybody have a jellyroll like mine, I lives in town,
I-ain't got no brown, I-an' want it now.
My jelly, my roll, sweet mama, don't let it fall.
"Jelly Roll" was period slang for the male sexual organ, and this song illustrates the singer's promiscuity and potency with flare. The darker themes of the early Downhome blues focused mostly on the idea of enslavement and economic servitude.
The earliest documentation of the Mississippi Delta Blues comes from two decidedly divergent sources, Charles Peabody and W.C. Handy.
Peabody was an archaeologist excavating Indian mounds in Coahoma County around Stovall Plantation during the summers of 1901 and 1902. The African-American workers he hired to do the manual labor constantly sang. Peabody noted the lyrics and subsequently printed them in the Journal of American Folklore. He transcribed such lyrics as:
The reason I loves my baby so,
'Cause when she gets five dollars she give me fo'.
They had me arrested for murder
And I never harmed a man.
These lyrics show that if Peabody was not hearing the blues, then it had to have been some very late precursor to them.
W.C. Handy was an African-American bandleader traveling from Memphis to Clarksdale to take up residence as the local "Negro" orchestra's supervisor. One night in 1903, Handy became stranded in the small town of Tutwiler by a late train. He fell asleep and was awakened by:
"A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar ...the effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. "Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog," the singer repeated three times, accompanying himself on guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard."
This account is the definitive starting point for the early Delta Blues as known today. The lyrics "Goin where the Southern cross' the Dog" refer to Moorhead, Mississippi, where the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad (Yellow Dog) intersected with the Southern Railroad. The man Handy saw was simply identifying his destination in song.
Handy received yet another blues revelation when performing in Cleveland, Mississippi, the same year. Handy's band of seasoned musicians was blown offstage by a rag-tag group of local "blacks" whose music attained a "disturbing monotony". The almost all-white crowd subsequently rained dollars and quarters on these bluesmen, and from then on Handy would only play a "polite" version of the men's blues. Handy eventually became nationally known, wealthy, and then poor. These initial accounts of the blues genre would steadily increase year by year.
By 1910, the golden age of the Mississippi Delta Bluesman had cemented itself firmly in the regional culture of African-Americans. No Saturday night "juke", barrelhouse, or holiday function was complete without blues musicians. The early bluesmen worked traditional routes throughout the Delta, using trains and dirt roads.
The musicians played in small groups or alone at any social event that would pay them, either in food, lodging, money, or alcohol. Saturday was the day of relaxation and celebration for the African-American worker. Gambling and drinking, along with barbecue for the children, started during the mid-afternoon. The children would be sent to the older relatives at sunset, and the adults (17- to 40-years old) made their way to the "juke joint" for the evenings entertainment. These raucous affairs often included violence, sex, and heavy dancing.
In an interview with Robert Palmer, Joe Dockery, the owner of the Dockery Farms Plantation between Cleveland and Ruleville during the mid twentieth century, told this anecdote: "There's a story about a psychologist from up North who comes down here and asks this big buck (Black male worker), "Why do you work hard all week long and then get drunk and throw your money away and have a scrap and get put in jail?" And the buck says, "Boss has you ever been a nigger on Saturday night?"
This type of statement signified the white idea of Afro-American celebrations. The more violent partygoers were bailed out of jail by the plantation owner on Sunday, and resumed normal work on Monday. This type of lifestyle gave the bluesmen their ideal and mode of operation. The musicians would pack up on Sunday and then leave for another venue to perform a few miles away.
Charlie Patton has come to reflect the strange icon the early Delta bluesman became. Patton's life and work were a wealth of contradictions and stereotypes that most bluesmen would come to characterize.
Charlie was born to Bill and Annie Patton in Hinds County sometime between 1884 and 1889. The Patton's moved to the Dockery Farms Plantation around 1897. This was where a young Charlie most likely began to learn guitar. Most accounts have Charlie coming under the tutelage of Henry Sloan, an early blues musician.
Little is known of Sloan, but he may have been one of the very first bluesmen. Two of Patton's later accompanists, Tommy Johnson and Son House, both stated Charlie "dogged every step" of Sloan's. This was to great chagrin of Patton's father, and by 1906 Charlie was on his own.
From this time on, Charlie constantly moved and played, never staying in the same town for more than two years. Patton somehow gleaned a decidedly different yet traditional sound during the initial years of his wandering. All sources account that Patton never did field work, and etched out life from female admirers and his performances. He lived all of his life, with the exception of two recording trips to Indiana in 1929 and New York in 1934, in the Delta between Tunica and Yazoo City. Patton's primary performing area was a triangle between Clarksdale, Indianola, and Cleveland.
Patton was an amiable man to most, playing with just about any musician available, which could account for his characterization as leader of the "Drew" group of four bluesmen. These men played almost any function in the area and eventually became local stars to the African-American workers.
Patton was somehow a breed apart from his counterparts. His playing style and disdain for even seasonal labor gave him the persona of a blues prince. Patton's music was much harder and propulsive than others, and he set the standard for which the other musicians composed songs.
Patton used altered speech, slide nuance, and picked bass runs to increase the effect of his songs. Whereas other early blues musicians emphasized beat over lyrics, Patton emphasized both. Patton was a peerless dance singer, but he never allowed the form to overcome his lyrical content. He had an eye for great story compositions, such as "Tom Rushen Blues", a laughable song about the sheriff of Merigold, Mississippi circa 1927.
Patton's songs greatly influenced the "Drew" group of Tommy Johnson, Son House, Willie Brown, and Kid Bailey. The tone of Patton's music greatly changed after 1930, when his throat was cut in a knife fight. His later works proved to be more religious, like he somehow knew his death was soon to come. Patton died on April 28, 1934 in the small town of Holly Ridge, Mississippi.
Patton's legacy seemed to eclipse him in his own time, because as his popularity waned, the novices he "learned" to play became more prominent. Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown, Son House, and Kid Bailey would all take the music they learned from Patton and market it to the other burgeoning musicians.
Johnson and Brown were Patton's primary accompanists, backing him on rhythm guitar. House and Bailey were students of Brown and Johnson's who would eventually go on to teach Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Robert Johnson. The early fathers of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis would subsequently pick up their albums.
This type of synchronistic influence gave America the basis for most of its present musical culture. Johnson and Brown most likely met Patton near Rolling Fork, Mississippi around 1915. They would then follow him off and on for the next two years as students.
Their primary area of performing was in the Drew-Cleveland-Indianola area, hence the name the "Drew" group. Their music is much less abrasive than Patton's, but still holds many of the characteristics.
Brown left Patton around 1917 and was not heard from until he took Robert Johnson under his wing in 1926. Brown was the most likely source for Johnson's "Devil" persona, where he told audiences of trading his soul to Papa Legba at the crossroads for his guitar abilities.
Kid Bailey was more of a peripheral figure, playing with the group when they were in the Itta Bena area only. Bailey's style was much less serious than Patton's, but has a definite Patton influence.
Son House learned his style from Brown and Tommy Johnson, and then went on to accompany Robert Johnson at barrelhouses. House would prove to live the longest of this group, lasting until the 1960's. The traditional form of the early Delta Blues effectively died with him. Younger artists such as Robert Jr. Lockwood and Son Thomas keep the music alive, but it is not the original.
The early Delta Blues and the musicians that formed this unique style will never fade from the consciousness of history. These men may seem like a minor speck in the timeline of other major events, but they are responsible for much of the music being heard today.
The early Delta bluesmen unwittingly took deep African musical traditions, African-American cultural customs, and European form to create the basis for American popular music. The roots of all this are set in the frenzied past of slavery, war, and economic servitude.
Charlie Patton is the starting point for the bluesman, and his influence has shaped all blues music since.
The cultural underdog, no matter what the conditions, has given some of the most resounding gifts to society. The early Delta Blues are a resounding testament to how diverse influences can come to gain worldwide prominence in the course of a history.
Delta Blues by Ted Gioia
Ted Gioia is a superb storyteller, and Delta Blues is a fabulous read. Here's how the book opens:
"The Delta region of Mississippi is an expansive alluvial plain, shaped like the leaf of a pecan tree hanging lazily over the rest of the state.
Stretching some 220 miles from Vicksburg to Memphis, it is bounded on the west by the Mississippi River, and extends eastward for an average of 65 miles, terminating in hill country, with its poorer soil and different ways of life, and the Yazoo River, which eventually joins the Mississippi at Vicksburg.
For blues fans, this is the Delta..."
Mississippi Blues Trail
Tourism professionals say it's easy to sell the Mississippi Delta Blues.
"There's not enough money to buy the branding we own," said Bill Seratt, president of the Mississippi Delta Tourism Association. "Our musical legends have left us with a soundtrack to a way of life that is unique to the world. The hardships and suffering and celebrations of the region have all been documented in our music.
"Who else can say their heritage comes with a soundtrack?"
And where else but the Mississippi Delta can you find a blues icon buried in three places?
"Robert Johnson died on August 16, 1938, and was buried the next day," recalled Luther Brown, director of The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University. "He was apparently poisoned by strychnine that had been dissolved in his whiskey, possibly by the owner of a juke joint who became suspicious that his wife was involved with Johnson."
Although Johnson was a recorded performer, his passing went largely unnoticed, and even the location of his grave was lost for decades, although his death certificate states he was buried at Zion Church in Leflore County. The earliest gravesite ascribed to Johnson is near Quito on Highway 7. Soon after this unmarked site was described in Living Blues magazine in 1990, the rock band, The Tombstones, placed a marker nearby.
"Unfortunately, the church involved is the Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, not Zion," said Brown. "The search for the 'real' grave continued."
Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City became the second gravesite for Johnson. In 1991, a new monument was erected there through the generosity of people across America...." In 1992, a Chris Hunt documentary featuring John Hammond Sr., suggested that Little Zion Church on Money Road, just north of Greenwood, was the real gravesite. Blues historian Steve LaVere subsequently found an eyewitness to the burial, and placed a marker at this site, explained Brown.
Out of Poverty and Racism...
"The Mississippi Delta has one fascinating story after another about the heritage of the blues," said Seratt. "It's difficult to quantify a dollar amount on blues heritage travel, but if you talk to the CVB (convention and visitors bureau) directors around here and look at their registration books, it's like reading something from the United Nations. Last year, for example, at the Mississippi Delta Blues & Heritage Fest, we had visitors from 28 states and six countries."
The Delta Blues Museum, located in a former freight depot at I Blues Alley in downtown Clarksdale, which is celebrating its 27th anniversary this year, has hosted several world-class blues exhibitions. The Mississippi Delta, An Intimate View: Photographs by Birney Imes, author of "Juke Joint," will be displayed there through July 5, featuring works ranging from cotton farming and pastoral landscapes to glimpses of classic Delta juke joints in communities such as Panther Burn, Darling and Nitta Yuma.
"It's a culture that grew and flourished in a climate of racism and poverty," explained Imes. "It grew not so much in spite of this oppression, but in response to it. This is the culture that spawned the blues."
Also on display at the Delta Blues Museum through July: a photo exhibit by journalist Panny Flautt Mayfield depicting the vibrant blues scene in Clarksdale and the Delta area over the last two decades. Even though the exhibit includes photographs of celebrities Robert Plant and Charlie Musselwhite having fun in blues clubs while paying tribute to the roots of their music, the exhibit primarily focuses on local bluesmen - Big Jack Johnson, Super Chikan Johnson, the Jelly Roll Kings, C.V. Veal, Terry Williams, the Wesley Jefferson Band and others - performing before friends and hometown audiences.
"Travelers are now looking for family-oriented, slow-paced, entertaining educational destinations where, along with having fun, they'll leave with a better knowledge of another time, place and culture," said Kappi Allen, executive director of the Coahoma County Tourism Commission.
Visitors are also intrigued with local eateries, such as the "must-see, must-eat" restaurant Abe's BBQ in Clarksdale, said Allen.
"The BBQ, Big Abe Chili Cheese Burgers and hot tamales can't be beat," she said. "Ground Zero Blues Club serves the real deal when it comes to a Delta, low-cookin' lunch menu complete with turnip greens, blackeyed peas and cornbread, hot tamales (fried, nonetheless), fried grits, okra and green tomatoes. Makes my mouth water!"
Madidi Restaurant offers the best in upscale dining with a fabulous selection of wines that can be enjoyed while viewing art from the collections of owners Bill Luckett and Morgan Freeman, said Allen.
"Our festival season begins in April with the Jukejoint Festival," she said. "April and May bring folks out of their house from the winter's cold to enjoy the casual atmosphere of the free concert series: Friday at the Stage. Delta Jubilee BBQ Cookoff is offered each June, with this year's event being the 24th annual. August brings the world famous Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival. This event run entirely by volunteers brings three days of music education and blues and gospel music. Mini-festivals are held throughout the year at venues including Cat Head Blues and Folk Art Store and at Hopson Planting Company's Commissary."
The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University is collaborating with the Mississippi Blues Commission to develop a system of heritage markers, way-finder markers, brochures and interpretive maps, in celebration of the Mississippi blues.
The inaugural set of markers includes the following sites:
In Coahoma County: Muddy Water's homesite at Stovall, and the Riverside Hotel, where Bessie Smith died, and numerous bluesmen later stayed.
In Bolivar County: Peavine Railroad, as commemorated in Charley Patton's famous song, and the Rosedale-Riverside Line, as remembered in Robert Johnson's lyrics.
In Washington County: Nelson Street, the historic black entertainment district in Greenville, and the historic intersection of old Highways 10 and 61 in Leland.
In Sunflower County: Charley Patton's gravesite, and Little Milton's birthplace in Inverness.
In Leflore County: Robert Johnson's gravesite at Little Zion Church, and WJPR radio station, where B.B. King first performed on the air as a member of St. John's Singers.
"Even though the Mississippi Heritage Blues Trail does not focus entirely on the Mississippi Delta, it's an integral part of the program," said Seratt. "With the blues, we have an international treasure that happened throughout the state and the South at the same time it was happening in the Delta. It's important that we work statewide to make sure it is a Mississippi Heritage Blues Trail."
Luther Brown's List of Blues Sites You Should Visit Before You Die
All three of Robert Johnson's graves. Johnson apparently died broke, and was buried close to Greenwood, where he was taken after being poisoned. The Little Zion Church was the closest graveyard that took African-American indigents, and is the most likely site. However, Blues pilgrims visit all three sites, bearing small votive offerings, coins from around the world, half-pints of whiskey, guitar picks and other gifts to the spirit of Robert Johnson.
The Riverside Hotel, located at 615 Sunflower Avenue in Clarksdale by the Sunflower River. Originally known as the G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital, Bessie Smith died in the emergency room in 1937, now known as Room #2 and preserved as a shrine in her memory.
B.B. King's hometown and the site of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, located in downtown Indianola near the courthouse. The King of the Blues grew up near Indianola, and played on a street comer opposite the courthouse. The soon-to-be-built multimillion dollar B.B. King Museum promises to become a major Blues and heritage interpretive center in the Delta.
Icons of the Blues: Muddy Water's homesite, Delta Blues Museum, Red's and Ground Zero Blues Clubs. Even though he was born in Rolling Fork, McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters) moved to the cabin site on Stovall Plantation at the age of about three, around 1918. The cabin site is marked with a historic plaque, and usually decorated with mementos left by Blues pilgrims. His nickname came from his playing in the nearby -Little Sunflower" slough. He took the blues to Chicago in 1943.
The Birthplace of the Blues. Dockery Farms, located on Highway 8 between Cleveland and Ruleville. Will Dockery started clearing the Delta wilderness and farming in 1895, and rapidly built a town named Dockery. The town supported hundreds of people with its gin, rooming houses. U.S. post office, doctor's office, railroad station. commissary, riverboat landing and other necessities. Charley Patton. Son House, Willie Brown and Henry Sloan all lived here for parts of their lives, and these men taught the young Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf, among others. No less an authority than B.B. King has said of Dockery, "If you had to pick one single spot as the birthplace of the blues, you might say it all started right here." Dockery is still owned by the heirs of Will Dockery and is private land, although the historic grounds and historic marker can be seen from Highway 8.
The Crossroads. Even though Robert Johnson was popularly viewed as having sold his soul to the devil during his own lifetime, the legend of having done the deal at a Delta crossroads apparently didn't spread until the early 1960's. Today, at least four counties claim to be the site of "the" crossroads, and journal articles, magazine stories and even a feature film (focused on Abe crossroads in Beulah), have tried to explain the soul sale by invoking the Yoruba trickster god Legba, the voodoo gate-keeper of the spirit word Pappa Legba and Delta myths and legends. Others have argued that Johnson himself used the crossroads simply as a metaphor for his choice to become a bluesman, performing "the Devil's music," and that there is no "real" crossroads at all. In any case, check out all of these sites, especially around midnight: White's Cemetery in Tunica, the intersection of Route 49 and Highway 61 in Clarksdale, Old Dockery and Old Highway 8 located one mile south of Dockery Farms, Beulah Road and Highway 1 in Beulah, Greenwood and Saxon Streets in Tate County's Crenshaw, and Highways 61 and 82 in Leland.
"The Father of the Delta Blues." W.C. Handy was a popular bandleader in the early 1900's that had two epiphanies in the Delta, both occurring during the time he lived in Clarksdale and played with The Colored Knights of Pythias. The first occurred in 1903, at the Tutwiler train station. Late at night he was awakened by "the weirdest music I ever heard," he said, referring to the blues. The singer sang about "where the Southern Crosses the Dog," a reference to Moorehead. Handy was intrigued enough to record the event and lyrics in his journal, but didn't think of the blues as a marketable style until 1905, during a paid appearance with his band on the courthouse grounds in Cleveland. When his own band took a break, a group of local men started playing the blues. They were showered with more cash than Handy's band made for their "professional" appearance. The blues had found its first professional promoter. While in Tutwiler, make sure and stop by the great blues harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson's grave.
"The Real Father of the Delta Blues." Widely viewed as one of the most important "Fathers of the Blues," Charley Patton lived on the Dockery Farms Plantation at the same time as Henry Sloan and Willie Brown, and taught the younger Son House and Howlin' Wolf. Patton recorded 52 known commercial recordings between 1929 and 1934, including many of his own blues numbers, but also including ballads, spirituals, religious songs and songs reflecting Tin Pan Alley influences. Many of Patton's songs refer to people or places in the Delta, including Belzoni, Lula, Rosedale, Sunflower, Clarksdale, Sumner, Parchman and Greenville; Will Dockery, Bertha Lee, the last of his numerous wives, Sheriff Tom Rushen of Merigold and Mr. Webb, the sheriff of Belzoni. Charley Patton died of heart failure April 28, 1934. He was living in Holly Ridge at the time with Bertha Lee, who had once stabbed him in the neck. He is buried next to the Holly Ridge gin. The boxed set of his lifetime work won three Grammy Awards in 2003.
A Classic Rural Juke Joint. On the outside, Po' Monkey's Lounge is a shanty. Inside, it's Disney Land, featuring TVs, strings of Christmas lights and rope lights flashing on and off, a disco ball wildly reflecting colors off walls that are either covered with foil or papered with loud floral prints. Year round, large cutout letters spell out "Season's Greetings" and tinsel in multiple lengths and shapes hangs from the ceiling. Walls are carpeted with photographs of almost any image, from school graduation and weddings to boudoir shots. It is arguably the most famous building in the Delta.
A Classic Urban Blues Club. Club Ebony, an historic restaurant and club in Indianola, has seen performances by Count Basic, Ray Charles, James Brown, Ike Turner, Little Milton, Willie Clayton, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Bobby Bland, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, Bobby Rush, Denise LaSalle, Sir Charles Jones, Rufus Thomas, Mickey Rogers, Barbara Looney and a host of other lesser known performers. It is the premier black nightclub in the Delta, and has held that position since 1974, when Ruby Edwards bought it from B.B. King's former mother-in-law. Open every Sunday evening, Club Ebony features David Lee Durham and the Lady's Choice Band.
Excerpts From A Blues Pilgrim's Travel Journal
For decades, Clarksdale has been more famous for the musicians who left than for anyone who stayed. The electric blues masters Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, the rhythm and blues pioneer Ike Turner and the soul man Sam Cooke are just a few of the refugees who made a hard turn onto Highway 61 north and never looked back. They sought greater opportunity, but also were fleeing poverty and the Jim Crow South.
Want and hardship still haunt Clarksdale -- those shotgun shacks are not for nostalgic show -- but the Clarksdale-Coahoma County Tourism Commission beckons visitors with a blue guitar and two highway signs that mark the mythic crossroads where, it is said, the bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to ol' Scratch in exchange for a few otherworldly guitar licks. Clarksdale's downtown is just a few square blocks -- fine for a city of about 20,000 -- but its legend, as a kiln for shaping the blues, resonates worldwide. (And you never know when you might stumble over the ghost of Faulkner or Tennessee Williams.)
Unless like some of the locals you pilot a crop duster, you'll fly into Memphis. The drive south will take you through cotton fields and cypress swamps and is dotted with small towns -- Lula, Robinsonville and Tunica, which is among the top five spots in the nation for casino revenue.
An old diner there, the Blue & White (1355 Highway 61 North, Tunica; 662-363-1371), serves sublime onion rings in a delicate but crunchy batter ($3.99 for a large order) and homemade pies. Allow a leisurely hour and a half for the 75-mile drive. When you find yourself swaying to the soulful sounds of WROX (1450 AM and 92.1 FM), you're getting close.
Picking Cotton Not Required
The Hopson Plantation is where the mechanical cotton picker was unveiled in 1941, and it is again on the cutting edge -- this time with cultural tourism. The Shack Up Inn, above, consists of six former sharecropper shacks, each transformed into a guesthouse that sleeps three or four. Yes, there is indoor plumbing (and kitchenettes).
The contrast of the shacks' down-at-the-heels histories and their contemporary coziness can, at first, feel presumptuous and like a form of exploitation. One guestbook comment read: "Negrophilia: Commodification: Everything but the burden. Thanks!" But the silence and the breeze sneaking through the shacks' open doors make them a profound way to experience the Delta. The Cotton Gin Inn recently opened on the same site: five hotel rooms built into an old cotton gin building.
The Clarksdale Redemption
Just as you've become accustomed to the sense of being somewhere else, step into Madidi (164 Delta Ave, 662-627-7724; http://www.madidires.com),
a restaurant and cosmopolitan oasis. The Levingston salad ($6) -- baby arugula cloaked in cucumber and blue cheese -- refreshes, and the spicy catfish cake ($8) is a comfort. Striped bass is served with cardamom and coriander on grilled green tomatoes ($23). Madidi is partly owned by the actor Morgan Freeman, who lives in nearby Charleston.
After dinner, stroll through the small downtown to Mr. Freeman's other venture: Ground Zero Blues Club (364 Delta Ave, 662-621-9009; http://www.groundzerobluesclub.com). A former cotton warehouse, Ground Zero is Clarksdale's top blues spot. The local favorites in Clarksdale include Super Chikan, Jimbo Mathus (former leader of Squirrel Nut Zippers), the Deep Cuts and that cantankerous sweetheart, T-Model Ford.
Breakfast at the Delta Amusement Blues Cafe (348 Delta Ave, 662-627-1467) isn't anything you can't get on a grill elsewhere, but the sense of small-town intrigue is straight out of Eudora Welty. You can hear the laughing and cursing over poker and dominos even when the games aren't being played.
Walk out the back door to the Delta Blues Museum (1 Blues Alley, 662-627-6820; http://www.deltabluesmuseum.org). Alluringly low-tech, it delivers not only the music but also the culture that produced it. A former freight depot, the museum houses Muddy Waters's childhood cabin, above. Step inside and feel the blues falling down like rain.
Nearby is Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art (252 Delta Ave, 662-624-5992; http://www.cathead.biz), stuffed with Southern creations.
My Meal Is Red Hot
Robert Johnson sang about them in "They're Red Hot," and you can savor the heritage of hot tamales at Hicks Tamales & BBQ Shop (305 S. State Street, 662-624-9887). Creamy cornmeal mashes with spicy beef centers, they're simmered for hours inside a cornhusk. Unwrap, eat, then whoop.
For barbecue, locals favor Abe's (616 N. State Street, 662-624-9947; http://www.abesbbq.com) and Big Jim's (1700 N. State Street), a shack the size of a pickup where the delicacy is the Southern sweet pickle: cucumbers steeped in cherry, grape or strawberry Kool-Aid (50 cents).
Of Indians and Desire
Even for those who know Clarksdale well, Robert Birdsong's tour ($60 for three hours, custom tours available; 662-624-6051) gives the place new life. Standing on the bank of the Sunflower River, where two Indian trading paths met, Mr. Birdsong lectures on an 1880 landslide that exposed a tribal burial site, attracting a Smithsonian excavation team.
He then ties those events to the town's founder, John Clark, and his daughter Blanche Cutrer, whose homes are nearby. Ms. Cutrer, an eccentric party-giver, fascinated a young neighborhood boy named Tom Williams, who one day became Tennessee and the writer of "A Streetcar Named Desire." Blanche, of course, remained accustomed to the finer things.
A Fine Mess
Hightail it 15 miles north to Friar's Point, a blocklong town that peaked in the early 1900's but has clung to life like morning dew on sweet potato vines. The North Delta Museum (700 Second Street, 662-383-2233; $4), at the base of the curving Mississippi River levee, comes across as the family attic given a rarefied name. Holdings include Civil War and World War I memorabilia and American Indian displays. Across the street is Hirsberg's, an old-time dry-goods store organized in a similarly cozy rat-packing manner.
Faulkner, Twitty, Crayfish
In the middle of somebody's nowhere, you are near an unusual fine-dining experience for anybody. In 1926, an Elk's Lodge was built on Moon Lake in Dundee, attracting local gamblers. The place was frequented by William Faulkner and owned by Tennessee Williams's family and later by relatives of Conway Twitty.
Since the mid-70's, it has been Uncle Henry's Place (5860 Moon Lake Road, 662-337-2757; http://www.unclehenrysplace.com), run by George Wright, its chef, and his mother, Sarah, the resident historian. The food reflects their Louisiana roots, but their talk is local. The crayfish étouffée ($20.95) is rich, and the crabmeat au gratin ($21.95) is plentiful and delicate.
Rust Never Sleeps
It's a 25-minute drive back to Clarksdale, and time to check in at Red's Lounge (395 Sunflower Ave) for some deep local flavor. Red's Lounge, owned and managed by Leroy "Red" Paden, is one of Clarksdale's remaining original juke joints. The outside is strewn with rusted grills. And inside, the live music will push you toward abandon.
Sunday, Coming Down
Another comment from the Shack Up Inn guest book: "Great fried shrimp at Ramon's. T-Model Ford at Red's, Wiley and the Checkmates at Ground Zero. Try fried grits with honey. Learn to take it slower." Sound advice and, faced with Clarksdale's blue laws, you don't have much choice.
Try breakfast at the Shady Nook (16774 Highway 61 North, 662-621-1525), a truck-stop cafeteria on the north side of town. And be sure to chat with other guests passing through the shacks' lobby, which is the owner Bill Talbot's living room.
Take Me to the River
The Quapaw Canoe Company (291 Sunflower Ave, 662-627-4070; http://www.island63.com), named for a regional Native American tribe, does for the Mississippi River what Mr. Birdsong does for the city. Trips can vary from an outing of a couple hours to several weeks.
John Ruskey, Quapaw Canoe Company's owner and one of its river guides, lives in a house once owned by the Wingfields, where the missus was known for her menagerie of glass animals; it's also the Catalpa House bed-and-breakfast (110 Catalpa Street, 662-627-5621; $50 a night).
If you go
Rent a car at the Memphis airport, tune the radio and drive south on Highway 61 to Clarksdale.
The Shack Up Inn and the Cotton Gin Inn, above, are considered the places to stay in Clarksdale and cost $65 a night. Both are at 001 Commissary Circle, 662-624-8329; http://www.shackupinn.com.
Upstairs from the Ground Zero Blues Club are the Delta Cotton Company Apartments, available nightly or longer term (on Blues Alley, 662-645-9366; $75 to $105 a night; http://www.groundzerobluesclub.com/apartment.php).
Clarksdale is devilishly hot in summer, and the Comfort Inn's small pool is very refreshing (818 South State Street, 662-627-5122; rooms start at $65 a night).
The Big Pink Guest House (312 John Lee Hooker Lane, 662-645-1815; http://www.bigpinkguesthouse.com) is an old icehouse and, in the 1950's, it was a swinging soda fountain. In the heart of downtown, its rooms are $100 to $125.
The Riverside Hotel is a historic hotel in Clarksdale, Mississippi, founded by Z.L. "Momma" Hill on August 11, 1944 and in operation ever since. It was the fourth marker placed on the Mississippi Blues Trail. Famed for providing lodging to many blues artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Sam Cooke, C.L. Franklin, and John Lee Hooker who stayed in Room 6 and used to practice on the front steps of the hotel.
It was in Room 2 of this building, then known as the G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital, where Bessie Smith, "The Empress of the Blues," died on September 26, 1937 after a fatal car accident near the Friar's Point turnoff on Highway 61. Ike Turner lived in Room 7 for a number of years and wrote and rehearsed the song "Rocket 88" here. Robert Nighthawk left his suitcase in his room there just before he died.
The Riverside Hotel is just one of many historical blues sites in Clarksdale, Mississippi. It is still operated by the original family owners as an actual hotel and still welcomes visitors from all around the world (615 Sunflower Avenue, Clarksdale, MS 38614; rooms from $40; call Frank "Rat" Ratliff, Proprietor, at 662-624-9163).
Full Moon Lightnin'
Culturally, the Mississippi Delta has been home to large cotton plantations worked by black slaves and later, sharecroppers. Much of the Delta was cleared after the Civil War when large levees were built on either side of the Mississippi River. Life in the levee and sawmill camps had a frontier aspect, with men working in gangs, protecting themselves with weapons, and spending their hard-earned money on gambling, women, and itinerant musicians. By the turn of the twentieth century, railroad gangs began laying track to connect the Delta with larger cities. The river promoted trade with New Orleans by providing a means of transporting cotton to market.
If, as David Cohn writes, the Delta begins in Memphis, its heart lies in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Venerable Memphis bluesman Gus Cannon, who lived in Clarksdale at the turn of the century, claimed to have first heard a musician playing in a blues style circa 1900. In 1903, bandleader W.C. Handy moved to Clarksdale. Two years later, while waiting for the train in Tutwiler, Handy heard a man playing a guitar and singing along with the low, mournful sound made by sliding a knife along the strings. This prompted Handy to start writing blues music, marking the beginning its popularity.
As Robert Palmer describes the music in his book Deep Blues, "The Mississippi Delta's blues musicians sang with unmatched intensity in a gritty, melodically circumscribed, highly ornamented style that was closer to field hollers than it was to other styles of blues. Guitar and piano accompaniments were percussive and hypnotic, and many Delta guitarists mastered the art of fretting the instrument with a slide or bottleneck that made the instrument 'talk' in strikingly speechlike inflections."
Most Delta blues musicians were itinerant loners who occasionally teamed with other musicians to play parties, sawmill camps, train stations, and anywhere people with spare change congregated. Often the lumber and levee camps had pianists who played a two-fisted, eight-to-the-bar style called barrelhouse, the name given to a camp's barroom. Three of the most famous Delta pianists were Roosevelt Sykes of Helena, Clarksdale native Sunnyland Slim, and Little Brother Montgomery of Kentwood, Louisiana. All were masters of the barrelhouse style and played extensively in the lumber camps of the Delta. Good pianists like these could make better money with fewer occupational hazards in larger cities, and these three moved to cities like New Orleans, St. Louis, and even Chicago during the 1920's and 1930's.
Many of the great recorded Delta blues guitarists, including Tommy Johnson, Son House, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson, and Howlin' Wolf, learned from guitarist Charley Patton, who lived on the Dockery Farms Plantation. It's been speculated that blues music was born in the vicinity of this large, self-sustaining cotton plantation near the Sunflower River. Patton's records sold well, unlike those of many of his contemporaries, and provided him with fame and ready cash that were widely envied by his peers. The records of many of the Delta's greatest bluesmen failed to sell in large quantities, leaving a recorded legacy that is splintered at best. Skip James and Son House in particular were hampered by working with Paramount Records, a label that went bankrupt during the 1930's.
In 1927, the National String Instrument Company attempted to increase the guitar's volume by creating a resonating aluminum-bodied instrument. The National Resonating Guitar was perfect for cutting through the noise in juke joints, creating a stir on street corners, or defending oneself from assailants. Delta bluesmen Bukka White, Son House, and Shreveport, Louisiana, bluesman Oscar "Buddy" Woods used these booming guitars to create devastating slide guitar effects with knives or bottlenecks.
Slide guitar is easily the hallmark of this period of Delta blues, and its acknowledged master was Robert Johnson. Unlike slide guitarists Patton and House, Johnson crafted his songs to fit the three-minute format of 78 rpm records. His songs were conceived as concise stories rather than rambling narratives or free verse associations. Even as Johnson was recording his classic records in the late 1930's, Delta blues had started changing. During this period, solo blues performers were edged in popularity by rhythm-driven combos that would define Delta blues in the 1940's and 1950's.
The blues bands of the 1930's were as different from the solo performers who preceded them as they were from Handy's brass bands. These groups relied upon drummers and bassists to provide rhythm in the small juke joints where bluesmen increasingly made their money. The introduction of vocal microphones and amplified guitar pick-ups allowed bluesmen to create a new vocabulary of sounds to fit their music.
Helena bluesman Robert Nighthawk recorded his blues in Chicago during the late 1930's for the Bluebird label, setting a high standard with his sweet, liquid, amplified guitar tone. Harmonica genius Sonny Boy Williamson and jazz-influenced guitarist Robert Jr. Lockwood started broadcasting a radio show touting King Biscuit flour from Helena in 1941. Williamson's amplified harmonica and vocal effects, together with Lockwood's single-string electric guitar leads, influenced a large audience of younger Delta musicians, including Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Joe Willie Wilkins, and B.B. King. Upon his discharge from the Navy in 1945, a young guitarist named Elmore James returned to the Delta and played an amplified slide guitar with a slashing style that became his hallmark.
The Illinois Central Railroad played an important part in the migration of blacks to higher paying jobs in northern factories and stockyards. The Great Depression had effectively ended the record companies' practice of sending field recording teams to Memphis, New Orleans, Dallas, Atlanta, and other southern cities to record local talent. During the depression, Delta bluesmen took the train to Chicago to record for major labels like Bluebird. Many of the Delta's best musicians, including Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, and Sonny Boy Williamson, moved to Chicago in the late 1940's and early 1950's to be near the recording studios. The Chicago blues sound that has become world famous came whole cloth from the Mississippi Delta.
Founder of the Delta Blues
Charlie Patton, better known as Charley Patton (b. July 12, 1885 ? - d. January 27 ?, 1934) was the first great Delta blues man; from him flowed nearly all the elements that would comprise the region's blues style. Patton had a coarse, earthy voice that reflected hard times and hard living. His guitar style -- percussive and raw -- matched his vocal delivery.
He often played slide guitar and brought slide technique to prominence in Delta blues. Patton's song lyrics went beyond mere narratives of love gone bad. Patton often injected a highly personal viewpoint into his music and explored issues like social mobility ("Pony Blues"), imprisonment ("High Sheriff Blues"), nature ("High Water Blues"), and morality ("Oh Death") that went far beyond the traditional male-female relationship themes.
Recent research suggests that Charley Patton's birth date may have been as early as July 12, 1885, giving even more credibility to his billing as the "Founder of the Delta Blues." If accurate, when combined with the evidence that he began playing at the age of seven, it means Patton learned to play in the 1890s, when the first recognizable blues such as "Joe Turner Blues" and "Frankie and Johnnie" were making the rounds in the South. As a youngster, he learned from the people around him, with his most significant teacher being the unrecorded Henry Sloan, a fellow resident at Dockery Farms between Cleveland and Ruleville, Mississippi.
Part of the lore of the Delta is that Sloan may have been the unnamed slide guitarist W.C. Handy memorably described hearing at the nearby Tutwiler train station in 1903 -- a true landmark in the history of the blues. Patton also played with members of the Chatmon family, who would go on to form the highly influential Mississippi Sheiks string band, best known for the 1930 recording, "Sittin' on Top of the World."
Patton's preacher father -- who beat him with a bullwhip when he first showed interest in the "devil's music" -- presented him with the first instrument he could call his own at age 14. Like many country bluesman of his generation and later, Patton was conflicted between a calling to the "cloth" or the "bar," and he responded by performing the sacred, as well as the profane. He had begun playing professionally at dances when he was ten, and, by 1910, was so accomplished that he was the one influencing the players around him. More than most, he also played regularly for white audiences, giving them the unadulterated blues, as well as the popular numbers of the day.
Patton carried his guitar everywhere, including out in the fields where he rarely worked. Later in life, he would own three guitars, taking such great pride in them that he would decorate his main "box" by affixing gold coins to it. Patton had Cherokee blood in his veins, as well as a penchant for clowning-like playing the guitar behind his head or overhanding (fretting piano-like with the palm over the low-E string). This type of showmanship was once an expected highlight of the bluesman's act, and the latter trick can be seen demonstrated in a recently released full-body photo of Patton.
In 1929, Patton was discovered by H.C. Speir, the prescient white talent scout who held auditions for local blues cats in the back of his furniture store in Jackson, Mississippi. In June, he cut 14 sides for Paramount Records, and Speir once told researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow that it took Patton two hours of steady drinking and playing before he "hit his stride." With fiddler Henry "Son" Sims accompanying him on selected titles, Patton waxed such future classics as "Pony Blues," "Banty Rooster Blues," "Bo Weavil Blues," "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues," "A Spoonful Blues," and the spiritual "Prayer of Death."
His music was keenly focused on rhythm, and his muscular, unwavering drive with box beating (Son House's term for rapping on the top of an acoustic for a percussive effect), is featured throughout. "Pony Blues," in standard tuning and featuring first-position E chord licks, is a masterpiece of bass runs, chords, treble fills, and dynamic box beating. "Banty Rooster," in open G, was likely patterned after "Roll and Tumble Blues" by Hambone Willie Newbern, and the slippery bottleneck work functions as a second voice to Patton's commanding growl. Its tempo is that of the slow drag, a "contact" rhythm, described as "dry screwin'" by Johnny Shines, that was favored by black dancers from the turn of the century through to the 1940's.
Paramount introduced Patton as the Masked Marvel, and asked listeners to guess his identity as a marketing ploy. "Pony Blues"/"Banty Rooster" became his biggest seller at more than 10,000 copies. He was an instant star for Paramount -- as well as the first Mississippi bluesman of note to record -- which cleared a path for Son House, Robert Johnson, and Howlin' Wolf to tread.
In 1930, Patton participated in a legendary session in Grafton, Wisconsin, with Son House, Willie Brown, and a young boogie pianist and singer named Louise Johnson. With Brown chording on second guitar, Patton gave some of the most powerful performances of his career on "Some Summer Day" (his take on "Sittin' on Top of the World"), "Bird Nest Bound," "Dry Well Blues," and "Moon Going Down" (where his line "Oh, the smokestack lightnin' shinin' just like gold" would appear in Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightnin" in 1956). Unfortunately, Patton and House did not record together.
When Patton completed his last session for Vocalion Records in New York City in early 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, he had added the classic "High Sheriff Blues" and "Revenue Man Blues" (a recording that shows his undiminished chops) for a total of 52 songs. "High Sheriff Blues," one of his last compositions and a mournful variation on his earlier "Tom Rushen Blues," is based on an actual experience when Patton and his woman, Bertha Lee, were imprisoned in Belzoni, Mississippi. They were rescued by American Records Company producer W.R. Calaway in time for the session, and Lee would sing along with Patton on "Troubled 'Bout My Mother" and the eerily prophetic "Oh Death."
Patton died shortly thereafter, on January 27, of a heart condition after 49 hard years that included having survived a gunshot wound in 1924, a slit throat (courtesy of a jealous husband) in 1933 that damaged his vocal cords, and the ravages of indiscriminate alcohol use and wanton pursuit of women. Patton's resting place remained unmarked until 1991, when a handsome stone was placed near Holly Ridge, Mississippi, with financial backing from John Fogerty.
Patton's ethnicity is the subject of minor debate. Though he was most likely African-American, because of his light complexion there have been rumors that he was Mexican, or possibly full-blood Cherokee (Howlin' Wolf endorsed this theory).
The Land Where The Blues Began
“The Real Father of the Blues”
Some believe Henry Sloan to be the Father of the Blues. Is it true?
Is Henry Sloan the Father of the Blues? New research points to the possibility that Sloan may be the hobo that W.C. Handy observed at the Tutwiler train station in 1903 playing those old blues with a knife for a slide.
More details -- those that are known anyway -- of Henry Sloan, the personal guitar instructor to Charley Patton and others:
Henry Sloan (b. January 1870 - d. ?) was an African American musician, one of the earliest figures in the history of Delta Blues. Very little is known for certain about his life, other than he tutored Charlie Patton in the ways of the blues, and moved to Chicago shortly after World War I. There are no recordings of him.
According to researcher David Evans, Sloan was born in Mississippi in 1870, and by 1900 was living in the same community as the Patton and Chatmon families near Bolton, Mississippi. He moved to the Dockery Farms Plantation located between Cleveland and Ruleville about the same time as the Pattons, between 1901 and 1904. Patton received some direct instruction from Sloan, and played with him for several years. Two of Patton's later accompanists, Tommy Johnson and Son House, both stated that Patton "dogged every step" of Sloan's.
Although he is not recorded, several other musicians -- Tommy Johnson being one of them -- go so far as to say songs such as "Pony Blues" and others were actually Sloan songs, which Patton picked up barely changed.
Some research now points to Henry Sloan being the mysterious hobo observed by musician W.C. Handy playing guitar at the Tutwiler train station in 1903. If this research proves to be true, which is hard to prove, it will cast light on the exact time and events that possibly surround the birth of the blues. Some believe the blues was born at Dockery Farms, and this adds credibility to that belief.
W.C. Handy wrote in his autobiography of being awakened by "... a lean, loose-jointed Negro [who] had commenced plucking a guitar beside me 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, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar... The effect was unforgettable... The singer repeated the line ("Goin' where the Southern cross the Dog") three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard."
The Man Who Made the Blues
"W.C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues" by David Robertson; Knopf (288 pages, $27.95)
When I was growing up in the Mississippi Delta, the go-to big city was Memphis, a city that in the 1950's was starkly divided along black/white, rich/poor lines. So how was it that a statue of a nattily dressed black man, frozen in the act of moving his cornet into play, stood sentinel over Memphis' Beale Street? "Oh, that's Mr. Handy," said my father, as if I should already know. The question of how a black musician came to be enshrined in the memory of a white-dominated city remained, for the time being, unanswered.
Fifty years later, "W.C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues" answered my questions.
Many musical biographies are technical, verbose and inaccessible. But "W.C. Handy," the story of the musician, composer and bandleader who brought the blues to American ears, is an overdue recounting of a life story for whom the phrase "the power of positive thinking" seems to have been coined, and a readable history of how the music of black field hands powered into the American mainstream.
Born in 1873 in a log cabin in Florence, Ala., William Christopher Handy was encouraged by his minister father to take up education or the ministry, the only sure path to success for an educated black man of those times.
Instead, Handy jumped the rails. The small-town preacher's boy bought a cornet for $1.75 (payable in installments) from a circus performer stranded in Florence and desperate for money. Handy served his musical apprenticeship in traveling brass bands. Though the money was generally good, his signature "St. Louis Blues" -- I hate to see that evening sun go down -- was inspired by a low time when Handy was jobless, homeless and "reduced to sleeping in the open air upon the cobblestone levees of the city's Mississippi River docks."
He traveled as a minstrel musician. Author David Robertson, an Alabama native, advances the theory that though minstrel music appeared to be a debased form of racist buffoonery, black minstrels were slyly mocking the racist attitudes of their white listeners. Minstrelsy was the precursor to vaudeville and ragtime, "the final innovation of the minstrel show."
When a job as a bandleader in Clarksdale, Miss., in the heart of blues country, opened up, Handy discovered the music of black blues players, notably the "blue note," the minor-themed undercurrent in blues music that invariably strikes an emotional chord with its listeners.
Handy worked the bones of the blues into his formal compositions, and the music began to make its way into the white world. Though he did not really "make" the blues, between 1904 and 1920, Handy's "genius" "was his realizing the commercial potential of the Mississippi Delta blues music to reach beyond a regional and racial folk song and become part of mainstream American music," Robertson writes.
Handy left Mississippi for Memphis. He became a musical entrepreneur, a leader of several dance bands and a composer who eventually would give the world "Memphis Blues," "St. Louis Blues" and other American classics.
He suffered the indignity of being forced to sell the rights to "Memphis Blues" in 1912, in a period of economic straits, and lost thousands of dollars in royalties. But once he moved to New York City, his sheet-music company on Broadway was perhaps the largest black-owned business in the city in the 1920's and early 1930's. In 1940 he bought back the rights to "Memphis Blues." Aided by Wall Street attorney and music scholar Edward Abbe Niles, Handy made a good living off his music until his death in 1958.
In the 60's, when blues was being rediscovered by a new generation, it was fashionable to dismiss Handy's contributions to the blues form. Robertson sets the record straight -- W.C. Handy's musicianship propelled American music from the age of Sousa to the birth of jazz.
M for Mississippi
Helena, Arkansas, Home of the Blues
You can feel the blues in your bones, some old-timers in the Mississippi Delta say.
You feel them on the fading end of a muggy June breeze.
You feel them while cruising the pockmarked roads of eastern Arkansas, past fertile bottom-land soil, retired plantations and makeshift juke joints.
You feel them as the muddy Mississippi River rolls toward the Gulf of Mexico, bending around sagging cypress trees and winding around shacks whose shingles are so loose that daylight bleeds through.
Blues music began around the late 19th century in the gritty Delta regions of Arkansas and Mississippi as an interpretation of shouts, work songs and spiritual chants that were popular among African-American slaves.
Musicians built around these themes and eventually created their own unique sounds.
To fully understand blues music and its cultural history, a visit to the Delta is a must.
Like proud parents, two cities here, Clarksdale, Miss., and Helena, Ark., share the unofficial "Birthplace of the Blues" title.
While Mississippi has become synonymous with blues music through the years, blues experts are quick to note that Helena (pop. 6,500) has had just as much influence on musicians as its counterpart across the mighty river.
Terry Buckalew, assistant director of the Delta Cultural Center on Cherry Street in downtown Helena, says the city is just as crucial to "the blues story because Helena is where, as much as anywhere, acoustic Delta blues became modern amplified blues that later became the Memphis and Chicago style."
For decades, the callused streets of this Delta city have inspired raspy lyrics and jagged melodies about everything from heartbreak to prison.
Helena grew into a major blues hub during Prohibition because libations of all sorts could be enjoyed here without fear of government intervention, Buckalew says.
Dozens of top blues musicians from Arkansas and neighboring Mississippi played juke joints in this area during the 1920's and 1930's, enjoying liquor, women and all-night jam sessions.
Names such as Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, James Cotton and Robert Johnson were synonymous with the blues scene here in early 20th century.
"This really was the place to be if you were a blues musician," Buckalew says.
Each year, thousands of blues enthusiasts from all over the world visit Helena to soak in the deep spirit of the Delta.
A few visitors even trudge over Helena's levee to swirl their fingers in the Mississippi River. The river's water, some believe, holds the magic of the blues in its depths.
"We have had people come and ask us if they can take water from the Mississippi back with them," Buckalew says. "Of course we can't tell them no. They take it back to their native countries, and people act like it's holy water."
The cultural center chronicles the life and history of the blues. Like its counterpart in Clarksdale, the Delta Blues Museum, the cultural center's guest registry reads like a jet-setter's passport. Visitors from Germany, Holland, France, Britain, Australia and New Zealand have scribbled their names down and browsed through the memorabilia.
The registry also includes signatures from B.B. King and Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant, who has publicly credited blues music as one of his inspirations for becoming a musician.
Inside the center, handsome displays representing blues greats such as Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Lockwood Jr., Robert Nighthawk and Louis Johnson greet visitors. There's also an exhibit on son of Helena Harold Jenkins, who, before transforming into country superstar Conway Twitty, played blues and rockabilly-style music throughout eastern Arkansas.
After getting my blues name, "Hambone," from a computer kiosk at the museum's entrance -- just type in your name, and you'll be given a blues interpretation of it -- I'm off to immerse myself in blues culture.
Buckalew says he designed the exhibits so visitors would feel as though they're walking through narrow back alleys searching for one of the many juke joints that were once plentiful around Helena.
The juke joint was to blues music in the early and middle 20th century what grand palaces were to opera during the eras of Mozart and Puccini.
Though few exist today, juke joints were nothing more than sharecroppers' shacks on dusty back roads or hollowed out downtown buildings converted into music clubs.
A replica juke-joint-era storefront is the focal point of the center's main exhibit hall. Buckalew says the faux facade is part of his goal to offer an authentic look.
"I really wanted to give people a sense of what blues music is when they visit," Buckalew says. "This is such a special time in history, such a rich cultural time, and I think we give our visitors a dose of that here."
The highlight of my visit is a tour of the KFFA - 1360 AM radio studios by a man known as the "Voice of the Blues," Sunshine Sonny Payne.
Payne, 83, is host of the longest continually running blues radio program in the world, King Biscuit Time, which began broadcasting from the center about a decade ago, although the show is older.
At 12:15 p.m. Monday through Friday, he fires up his microphone and belts out the same line to listeners: "Pass the biscuits, 'cause it's King Biscuit Time on KFFA radio!"
Buckalew says KFFA is one of the most significant reasons blues music became a successful genre.
"KFFA radio brought the blues from the fields to the airwaves, paving the way for blues music to become the world's music." he says. "King Biscuit Time and other KFFA programs were influential to B.B. King and other bluesmen within radio range."
Payne began hosting the program in 1950 (the radio show's first broadcast was in 1941) and continues to spin records and CDs from legends such as King, who has made appearances at the cultural center, as well as local and regional blues artists.
Visitors are allowed inside the studio and can watch and listen as he produces his 30-minute show, which is broadcast worldwide via the King Biscuit Time podcast (http://www.kffa.com).
"I like to make everyone feel like they are a part of my program," says Payne, who might invite you to say a word or two on the air during your visit.
"I want everyone to know about the blues because they represent something really special. They're about feelings, about life. And they live here in Helena."
Consider visiting during the Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival (http://www.bluesandheritagefest.com), in downtown Helena. It's one of the largest blues festivals in the world.
The Delta Cultural Center is at 141 Cherry Street, Helena, AR 72342.
The center and more
"King Biscuit Time," the nation's longest-running blues radio program, is hosted by "Sunshine" Sonny Payne at the Delta Cultural Center's radio studio each weekday from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m. The public is welcome to attend. "Delta Sounds," hosted by DCC Assistant Director Terry Buckalew and Sonny Payne, is broadcast each Friday from 1:00 to 1:30 p.m.
The Delta Cultural Center is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and on national Monday holidays. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Admission is free. For more information, contact the Delta Cultural Center at (870) 338-4350 or toll free at (800) 358-0972, or visit the DCC online at http://www.deltaculturalcenter.com.
If you want to learn more about the history of Helena and the Delta, visit the Depot, a restored train station filled with artifacts dating to the Civil War. It's part of the Delta Cultural Center and is just around the corner at 95 Missouri Street.
One of the Delta Big Four
We call them the Delta Big Four. These are the guys who are the forefathers of the Delta Blues style. They were the first to record it, they were the major influences to both Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, and as such a direct line emanates from the 4 forefathers to the birth of rock and roll.
We are talking Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, Charlie Patton and Son House, of course. They all recorded in the late 20's and into the very early 30's, and to whatever extent it was possible back then, among the cottonfield workers, sharecroppers and juke joint world of them, these were the music icons of their day. (That day being the relentless Jim Crow era of the deep agrarian South.)
When they played, it was mostly on weekends, people came, usually on foot, some on muleback, others on carts, and any available cars filled with as many people as possible that could fit into them. Always they had a hell of a good time. All four lived less than a hour from each other, and two of them came from Clarksdale, Mississippi.
They certainly played together from time to time, but Willie, Charlie and Son likely played together more than all four of them. Especially in a juke joint on the Leatherman Plantation in Robinsonville, Miss., where a young upstart named Robert Johnson would try to sit in with them to little avail.
Back then, a juke joint could be a sharecroppers shack next to a cotton field, though more often the term conjures up thoughts of a ramshackle nightspot where black people could go to dance, drink, gamble, and otherwise get away from whites to have a good time. In the 1920's, Willie Brown and his friends were kings of this world.
Willie Brown (b. Aug. 6, 1900, Clarksdale, Miss.; d. Dec. 30, 1952, Tunica, Miss.) Little is known of Willie Brown, really. He only recorded three sides under his own name; there are no known photographs of him, but he was one of the most influential of the early Delta Blues guitarists. He could sing, but his extraordinary guitar playing led him to become one of the first sidemen of his era. More often than not he backed up Charlie Patton and Son House.
Click PLAY to listen to "Future Blues" performed by Willie Brown.
(Remember to adjust the audio volume according to your environment.)
"Future Blues" was recorded sometime between May 25 and June 14, 1930, at the Paramount Record Company's studios inside the Wisconsin Chair Company in Grafton, Wisconsin. The song is a classic, and its distinction is the descending-scale motive that Willie snaps off the low e-string with his thumb instead of strumming. It is particularly unique, that "snap;" it's amazing though to play a guitar like this almost 80 years ago.
The recording session that gave us "Future Blues" is considered by many to be the greatest country blues session ever. It featured Charlie Patton, Son House, Willie Brown and Louise Johnson, a Delta barrelhouse singer and piano player who often traveled with the Delta Big Four.
Edward Komara has done extensive research into this particular recording session, which was first read as a research document at the American Blues Culture and Heritage Conference in 1994, and later published as "Blues in the Round" in Black Music Journal by the Center for Black Music Research -- Columbia College Chicago and University of Illinois Press, 1997.
Clarksdale Rib Joint Has Long History
Pat Davis was just 10 years old when two black men came into his father's barbecue joint in the heart of the Mississippi Delta in 1947. A huge fuss ensued, with four racists shouting every name in the book.
"My daddy went over to their table and said, 'These are people who want to eat just like you want to eat. You don't bother them. You leave them alone.' "
Davis says, the incident seared in his mind six decades later. "They told Daddy he could lose his business by letting black people come in."
It's not unusual to find a barbecue restaurant in the South where the ribs are so good you want to run home and kiss your mom. But it's a rare find to discover the South's main delicacy cooked up by Lebanese immigrants in Mississippi, who defied segregation and who've been doing it since 1924.
Welcome to Abe's BBQ, a living testament to good eats and to good people, where civil rights were put to the test and won. In the end, racism took a back seat to slow-cooked pit barbecue. Today, Abe's remains one of the oldest restaurants in Mississippi.
It's named after founder Abraham Davis, who arrived in Mississippi from Lebanon in 1913 when he was 13 years old.
Abe's sits at The Crossroads, the landmark spot at Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale where legend has it that blues king Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. Two giant guitars jut into the sky marking the spot where the deal went down.
You might be pausing here. Lebanese in Mississippi? Defying segregation? Sounds like something out of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.
As you sit down with a platter of ribs this Labor Day weekend, this is one barbecue story you might enjoy over cole slaw, baked beans and beer.
The town of Clarksdale is located about 70 miles southwest of Memphis, Tennessee, with a population of about 20,000 people. It was once known as the "Golden Buckle in the Cotton Belt," complete with Lebanese, Italian, Chinese and Jewish immigrants along with local blacks and white plantation owners.
Much of the immigrant population has moved on. The town these days is perhaps best known for the Delta Blues Museum and for the nearby Ground Zero Blues Club, co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman. Blues purists may point you around the corner to Red's juke joint, a ramshackle place where raw Delta blues oozes from the walls. On this night, Eli Paperboy Reed and the True Loves brought the house down.
But it's Abe's that has stood the test of time. Abraham Davis started his pit barbecue as the Bungalow Inn in 1924. It moved to its current location around 1936, and Pat Davis renamed it after his father in 1960.
Davis says being an immigrant -- or in his case, the son of immigrants -- gives one a better respect for all people. "It was a humbling feeling, and we knew how the blacks must've felt," he says. "Being Lebanese, my parents weren't truly accepted as first-class citizens when they first got here."
Andrew Clark, a 58-year-old African-American, worked at Abe's from 1962 to 1990, beginning when he was 16. He says Abe's is a symbol of great barbecue and a shrine to the civil rights struggle.
"They didn't see us as colored. They saw us customers," Clark says. "It didn't matter whether you were white or black ... I never seen them turn down anyone."
Sometimes he'd hear racist comments from white customers. When that happened, Pat Davis always stepped in. "The whole family is really, really great people," Clark says. "This place really has good roots to it."
Pat Davis refers to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a prophet, "because any time you change things for the better, you've got to come from God." He says change didn't come easy. Many of the local blacks, he says, didn't want his family to be harmed, so they often followed segregation laws. It was when blacks from out of town came that things began to change.
"They would come through the front and inside," he says. "My daddy never refused anyone no matter what color, race or religion. That's my philosophy as well."
He says his father, who always carried a Bible written in Arabic, was "just doing the right thing."
A hand-painted mural on the wall of Abe's depicts a pig with a fiddle in his hand, a pork sandwich and beer at his side. The hog is grinning from ear to ear, much like Abe's faithful customers over the years. "He's satisfied even though he's eating one of his kinfolks," Davis says with a chuckle.
If you're in Clarksdale but not in the mood for barbecue (something's wrong with you, if so), then you'll want to head just up the road to an even more authentic Lebanese restaurant. Rest Haven dishes out kibbe, grape leaves and a host of other Lebanese delicacies, along with traditional American cuisine.
Chafik Chamoun, a first generation Lebanese-American, established Rest Haven in 1954. Like Abe's, Chamoun says he has always welcomed people of all races. He peddled wares to black workers on plantations when he arrived in the United States, and learned to see past skin color at an early age. "I made a living with the black people all my life," he says. "I never refused one of them."
"Most people tell me how glad they are that I serve them, that my business is here," says Chamoun, 75.
I pause and tell Davis and Chamoun that stories like theirs aren't celebrated enough in Mississippi, that "all we hear about is bad sh--" coming from these parts.
The men burst into laughter. They nod with approval. They say their message is one of love, honor and respect.
And, oh yeah, one more thing: Great food.
Downtown Clarksdale Revitalization
A sense of pride is growing in downtown Clarksdale. It's visible even though the Clarksdale Downtown Revitalization organization is less than one year old.
Working with the new motto of "Keeping It Real," the group's director, Mac Crank, is proud the program is moving as quickly as possible. The efforts are playing up the town's strengths of the Sunflower River, rich blues heritage and wealth of old buildings. "We're re-directing the focus from agriculture and manufacturing to cultural tourism as the primary economic engine," he says. "While the rest of the state expects a six percent decrease in tourism this year, Clarksdale has a 19 percent increase to date. We have a strong international tourism base."
Even if more tourists don't come, Clarksdale leaders hope those who do will stay one more day, something that means another $11 million annually. The old Greyhound Bus station that currently houses Clarksdale Revitalization will become a visitors' information center.
Crank points out that Coahoma County is the only county in the Delta that has no designation as an enterprise zone. Measures have been taken to change that situation.
"We were just a hole in the Delta that didn't qualify for any grants so we annexed downtown into another area to qualify for new markets tax incentives," Crank says. "That's a good program and carries tax credits with it. We're trying to get some private investors too."
The organization has begun a business recruitment program, hoping to attract mom-and-pop-style retail shops and boutiques rather than big box stores. A large section of downtown has been designated a historical district, opening up lots of possibilities and programs. Numerous buildings and an old cemetery qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
"It has been a deteriorating urban environment," he says. "We are trying to build everything simultaneously. We want to create activity so the community will start to realize something is going on and migrate downtown, and it will become the civic center of town."
Attorney Bill Luckett is a downtown property owner and heads Clarksdale Revitalization, Inc.'s nine-member diverse board. Although building occupancy varies from block to block, he estimates overall occupancy at 60 percent.
"There's a lot of interest and a number of buildings are undergoing renovation," he says. "Others are gutted and coming back to life. Clarksdale has been described as gritty. It was built out in the 1930's and 40's and doesn't have an Oxford square or a New England green. That's why "Keeping It Real" is such a good motto for us."
More residential units are being added downtown such as the Five & Dime Apartments on the second floor of the old Woolworth's building and the eight luxury apartments at the Hotel Clarksdale.
"The revitalization is moving along better than I thought it would. It's a work in progress, and I credit Mac with that," Luckett says. "Things are really hopping here."
Click PLAY to listen to John A. Elkington talking about "The Keys to the Success of Beale Street."
(Remember to adjust the audio volume according to your environment.)
Adding to the improved appearance are new trash receptacles, colorful banners and the removal of surplus overhead wiring.
Luckett is pleased with the growing number of restaurants. He counts five in a two-block area on a street that had only one ten years ago. That number includes the fine dining restaurant, Madidi, he owns with actor Morgan Freeman.
Charles Evans, a California real estate developer, owns 20 buildings in downtown Clarksdale. He became interested when a neighbor, harmonica player Charlie Musslewhite, asked him to take a look at a Clarksdale property Musslewhite was considering for purchase.
"I bought my first building five years ago. It was so cheap, it was cheaper than buying carpet," Evans says. "It's a diversification from one of the most expensive markets in the world to one of the cheapest."
The price was attractive and Evans liked the character of the building, a three-story brick building that was the former home of Delta Wholesale.
"Frequently someone from the outside sees things differently than those who live in an area and see them every day," he says. "As a blues fan, it's like going on vacation when I come here."
Evans' properties run the gamut from very poor condition to pristine. The Clark House, home of the town's founder, is the most pristine and will open in a few weeks as an eight-room inn.
Other of his properties house a variety of small businesses that include a hair dresser, insurance agency, local non-profit organization's thrift shop, leather goods maker, restaurant and night club.
"We're trying to make Clarksdale what it was. It was an extremely vital town into the 1970's," he says. "We have to keep working on it and cultivate the tourism industry that's here."
Chief among Clarksdale Downtown Revitalization's plans are capitalizing on the Sunflower River that runs through downtown. The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Joint Water Management District is involved with waterfront development.
"We're working to help build a low dam near the Highway 161 Bridge to hold more water and give the river more depth," says Dean Pennington, the District's executive director. "It's not a major change but will have less bare bank exposed and make it look better. It's mainly aesthetic but may also have some recreational uses."
Another part of the river development is intended to bring some extra flow through downtown, helping water quality by moving out more pollutants. Water may be stored in some lakes or wells north of town," Pennington says.
"We are also working with the city to look at ways the water quality can be improved," he says. "Clarksdale has a unique opportunity with a river running through downtown. We have committed staff time and some funding to the project."
Other Clarksdale Downtown Revitalization plans include a National Recreational Trails Grant which means construction of the trail should be initiated within the next 60 days.
Blues Festival Pays Tribute To Sam Cooke
More than 40 years after his tragic, violent death, Sam Cooke is still known as the legendary soul and gospel singer who penned "A Change is Gonna Come," which found a new audience with the election of America's first black president.
But Cooke's brother, L.C. Cooke, says the late singer should also be known for his pioneering business acumen that put him years ahead of his time in the music industry.
Cooke was among the first black performers to own the rights to his music and to form his own recording and publishing company. That's what L.C. Cooke will remind fans about when he attends a Mississippi music festival this weekend dedicated to the 1950's and 60's singer.
"If they look at it, Sam was first in everything," L.C. Cooke said in a telephone interview from his home in Chicago. "All his masters belong to Sam, and that was unheard of. He was Motown before Motown was even invented."
The Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival begins Friday in Clarksdale, a sleepy town in the impoverished Delta region -- the musical breeding ground that produced the likes of B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.
During the weekend-long Cooke tribute, a blues marker in his honor will be unveiled Friday at the New Roxy Theater. At Ground Zero, a blues club owned by actor and Mississippi native Morgan Freeman, an educational forum on Cooke's life will be held Saturday.
Many local performers at the festival will sing at least one of Cooke's hits, whether from his early gospel career with the Soul Stirrers or from his repertoire of pop music. Soul singer Bettye LaVette will headline Saturday night's show. O.B. Buchana takes the stage on Friday.
President Barack Obama's rhetorical nod to "A Change is Gonna Come" after his 2008 election victory was a testament to Cooke's enduring significance, said Anthony DeCurtis, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine.
"The language of the artistry coupled with a kind of vision of a better world is something the song stands for," DeCurtis said. "Certainly his influence extends to contemporary artists. It would be hard to think of people like Alicia Keys and John Legend without Sam Cooke."
Born Jan. 22, 1931, Cooke was son of a Baptist minister. His mother was a native of Mound Bayou, Miss., a town founded by two former slaves. Sam Cooke was 2 years old when his parents and six siblings boarded a Greyhound bus to Chicago.
Cooke began his writing and recording career with the "Soul Stirrers" in 1951, making albums at Specialty Records. Tall and handsome with a smooth, melodious voice, Cooke drew crowds of swooning young women at gigs in auditoriums and larger venues that included the Apollo Theater.
After six years, he made the leap to secular music with a sound that melded blues and gospel. He co-founded his own record label, SAR Records, in 1961, signing such artists as Bobby Womack, Johnny Taylor and Billy Preston.
L.C. Cooke said his brother had formed his publishing company around 1959. Sam Cooke's contract with RCA Victor stipulated that after 30 years all of his masters would belong to him, his brother said.
Contemporary artists would do well to follow Cooke's path, said DeCurtis.
"To this day, artists struggle with the business aspect of their work. He signed artists and he wrote for artists. He did it in a time when it was much more difficult for artists, specifically black artists," DeCurtis said.
Unfortunately, Cooke didn't live long enough to realize the significance of his breakthrough, said DeCurtis.
At age 33, Cooke was shot to death on Dec. 11, 1964, at the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles. Details of the shooting are still disputed, but the hotel's manager told police she killed Cooke because he threatened her.
An abbreviated life and the circumstances surrounding his death have not diminished his legacy. Last year, "Rolling Stone" ranked Cooke No. 4 on its list of the 100 greatest singers of all time, and he's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
L.C. Cooke recalled being stopped at an airport a few years ago by a disc jockey, who told him his brother's music gets more airplay than any other deceased celebrity.
"Somebody is always giving something in his honor, and they call me to give interviews," L.C. Cooke said.
Festival organizers Melville Tillis and John Sherman said it made sense to dedicate this weekend to Cooke. They said the annual festival usually draws about 25,000, but a larger crowd is anticipated this year because of the Sam Cooke tribute. Sherman said several Cooke fan club bus tours plan to attend.
"We're just trying to honor a Clarksdale native," Sherman said. "That's the bottom line."
“Clarksdale or Bussed”
For Big George Brock it's "Clarksdale or Bussed": "Clarksdale or Bussed" could be the new mantra for Big George Brock. Fifty years after the St. Louis-based Bluesman left a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta, he is returning home via an old-school "Blues bus." Brock is bringing his new bus down to the old Hopson Plantation in Clarksdale, Mississippi -- just south of Memphis. He'll be performing a concert there on Saturday, August 8th (10 p.m.) during Clarksdale's Sunflower River Blues Festival weekend. He will also perform at the Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art store on that Sunday, August 9th (noon).
Three years ago, after he retired his last tour bus, Brock started renting one as needed. Then, in May, he came across "a deal he couldn't pass up," vowing to buy it and make it "extra special" this time.
"One of my fans here in St. Louis said she'd paint it for me," Brock explained. "I want folks to see that bus, turn around and follow me down the highway to Mississippi. We'll give them a real Blues show down there -- not Rock or Rap -- just pure and natural Blues."
Brock's artist/fan is Carol Boss. She's spent much of the past month painting the new bus based on photos by another avowed Brock fan and BluesWax photographer, Joseph Rosen. Says Boss, "It's not every day that you get to paint a bus for a musician from the Muddy Waters generation. It was a true team effort and a lot of fun."
Five-time Blues Music Award nominee Brock is one of the last links to the first generation post-war Chicago Blues. In addition to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, Brock has performed with other music icons from Jimmy Reed and Albert King to Steven Seagal and Watermelon Slim. He's also toured overseas to England, Italy, Switzerland and France.
Ground Zero To Offer Video Streaming
While there is nothing which can substitute the experience of catching a live show at Ground Zero Blues Club, there is now a close second thanks to a partnership between Texas-based Evolution Fuels and Gary Vincent of Clarksdale's Vincent Productions.
Beginning this Friday and coinciding with opening day of the Sunflower River Festival, Ground Zero will be offering Web-based video streaming of all performances at the club.
Those accessing the Ground Zero Web site can grab their own virtual front row seat through the technology provided by Vincent and Scott Doucet of Vid BlasterUS.
Included in the set-up are three high definition cameras which will be able to capture sound and video images of the highest quality.
"In keeping with the club's rustic decor, the cameras have been placed where they are hardly visible, keeping the attention of the audience on the stage," Vincent said. "Every aspect of this is cutting edge, high-end technology."
Bill Luckett, who co-owns Ground Zero Blues Club along with actor Morgan Freeman and Howard Stovall, says it is exciting to know that blues fans from all over the world will now be able to experience the music.
"This is the next step for the club to offer our guests -- even those who can't be here in person -- the chance to participate and enjoy the music that makes this part of Mississippi so special," Luckett said.
Ground Zero Blues Club has been open in Clarksdale since May 2001 and offers live music Wednesday through Saturday nights.
The club has been featured on CBS's 60 Minutes, The Food Network, The Travel Channel and numerous other broadcasts. Every year since 2005, it has been named one of the "Top 100 Bars and Nightclubs in America."
A Friday night performance by local blues group Big T and the Family Band will kick off the Web cast.
Vincent Productions and Evolution Fuels are in the process of merging to form Evolution Media.
Sam Cooke Honored at Clarksdale Festival
When it comes to being a recognized aficionado of everything related to the history of Mississippi Delta Blues music few can top Roger Stolle, the proud owner of the renowned Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art shop in the heart of Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Stolle says of the blues, "It is universal and it's eternal and I think everybody, whether they know it or not, have had the blues at sometime and everyone, whether they know it or not, has heard music that either is the blues or strongly influenced by the blues."
It's the eternal allure of blues music which figures to help draw an expected crowd of nearly twenty-thousand to the Coahoma County town for this weekend's twenty-second Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival. As the stage was being prepared for the bevy of artists, who'll be performing beginning Friday night, some early arrivals, like Atlantan, Terrence Fitzgerald, were already sampling the wares of vendors, like former airplane mechanic turned "doo-rag" salesman, Gary Budlong.
Fitzgerald says, "First we went to Memphis then we heard about this and headed this way. Was on Beale Street and that wasn't hittin' it. So, I come down here."
Budlong says of his doo-rag business, "I began to find out that some of the craft fairs and musical events and even did drag-racing in Holly Springs two weeks ago. All those people still want this stuff."
Speaking of satisfying peoples' cravings, this year's Sunflower music festival has added a new wrinkle to its usual hard-core blues format. Yes, you'll get the usual ...Pinetop-Didley-Blind-Watermelon-Shade Tree Mechanic-Chitlin-Whiskey-soaked-Big Mama-done-me-wrong-Backdoor Man stuff.
But, this year the timeless music of a man with a smoother, but equally soulful sound will be featured.
Clarksdale native and musical icon, the legendary Sam Cooke, will be honored by local artists who'll be performing all of the late Cooke's hits that spanned his early gospel career to his ascension to 50's and 60's R&B and pop music. Stolle says Cooke, who began making music in 1951, had a meteoric career despite it being cut short by death in 1964 at the age of 33.
Stolle says, "Sam Cooke was phenomenal not just because he had a great voice, was a good-looking guy or had some hit records. I mean he wrote songs. He produced songs. He had his own record label and publishing. I mean it was amazing the things he did through time."
So, Clarksdale is hoping thousands will be ready this weekend to twist the night away downtown and the folks at Cat Head like that idea a whole lot.
Stolle concludes, "And if I can get them to turn a two hour visit to Clarksdale into an overnight stay? You know I go home smiling at night."