Flat as a flapjack, with some of the richest bottomland in the world, the Mississippi Delta is so fertile it birthed and then gave everlasting voice to the blues. Resting along the border with Louisiana to the east, stretched between Vicksburg, Mississippi, on the south, and Memphis just north across the state line in Tennessee, the leaf-shaped Delta floats between the mighty Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, both of which fed the cotton fields that lushly spread across this ancient alluvial plain in the decades prior to and following the Civil War.
During the post-war Reconstruction era, sorely tempted by plantation owners’ claims of better pay and a better life, emancipated slaves throughout the Deep South journeyed to the Mississippi Delta, only to find much of the frightful same, but with a major difference: the choice to stay or go.
Already prone to rambling, some bluesmen left the Delta with the first of two notable African-American migrations north, in the early 1900s and due primarily to an infestation of boll weevils that nearly decimated cotton country. That situation was immortalized in 1929 in song by Charley Patton, considered the Delta’s (and the genre’s) most influential bluesman. In his first recording, “Mississippi Boweevil Blues,” Patton sang: “Well, I saw the boweevil, Lord, a-circle in the air. Next time I see’d him, Lord, he had his family there.”
But it was the second mass migration, beginning just prior to World War II and continuing in the years afterwards, that took many of the blues pioneers out of the Delta to endpoints in Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago. By the 1950s, those who had made it to Chicago recording studios were amplifying their music in a style that became known as rhythm and blues, the precursor to rock ’n’ roll, with sounds that resonated with white youths, who in the mid-1960s had to be re-introduced to their own country’s slave-born blues by the British Invasion. Famously influenced by the Delta blues, the Rolling Stones took their name from Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone” (his 1950 interpretation of “Catfish Blues” by Delta musician Robert Petway).
The rest is modern music history, but the real story of the birth of the blues as it arose from postbellum Mississippi blessedly remains within the Delta. It resides in locations throughout the Magnolia state—along the Mississippi Blues Trail, a ten-year-old, meandering, living tribute to “music in its purest form,” as Steve “Sleepy Boy Hawkins” Franz, longtime host of the radio show Blues Unlimited and author of The Amazing Secret History of Elmore James, says: “Like hydrogen, the blues is irreducible. You can’t break down the elements of music further than that.”
Here are some of the highlights, each commemorated with an official marker, on the Delta leg of the Mississippi Blues Trail:
The Blues Highway
Two hundred miles long and roughly 70 miles across, the Delta boasts, at last count, 83 historical markers. Most are clustered around such cities as Clarksdale, Vicksburg, and Greenwood along Highway 61, the “Blues Highway” that slices through Mississippi on its way north. Highway 61 is the main route traveled by visitors to the Delta. It’s a long stretch of blacktop cutting across the flat landscape with the Mississippi River occasionally in view to the west. The highway rates two markers: In Tunica in the north Delta, the marker celebrates what it, or any road, symbolized and what bluesmen longed for—a way out, of troubles or literally, the South; the second marker, in the town of Leland, where Highway 61 once intersected Highway 10, pays homage to street corners, specifically a favorite haunt, from the early 1900s through the 1960s, for blues buskers on busy Saturday nights.
Leland has six markers, including one for Ruby’s Nite Spot, a prominent Delta blues club in the 1940s and 1950s, founded and operated by Ruby Edwards. Performers at Ruby’s included such nationally known blues and R&B acts as T-Bone Walker and Ray Charles. Several Delta bluesmen have Blues Trail markers of their own near Leland: Sonny Boy Williamson, the plantation-born musician considered one of the region’s greatest harmonica players, has a marker in Glendora; Elmore James, the King of the Slide Guitar, has a marker planted at the Newport Missionary Baptist Church cemetery in the east Delta town of Ebenezer; and David “Honeyboy” Edwards, known as a true rambling bluesman, who traveled with consummate traveling man Robert Johnson, has a marker in Shaw, Edwards’ birthplace.
Homage to the King of the Delta Blues
Ruby’s daughter Sue married the Delta’s most famous and celebrated bluesman, B.B. King. Born in the Delta (his birthplace marker is at Berclair), Riley B. King, a child of sharecroppers, is alternately known as the “Ambassador of the Blues” and the “King of the Blues.” Either way, he was, as his marker notes, “probably the most influential musician in the history of the blues.” Following a funeral procession in Memphis after his death in May 2015, King’s body was driven down Highway 61 to Indianola, his hometown, where he was laid out at the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, two black Gibson guitars flanking his open casket. He is buried on the museum grounds, a fitting last resting place for a king.
What’s All the Hollerin’ & Howlin’ About?
The blues got its voice from the everyday holler, a common form of rural communication in the days before the telephone. In the South, the expressive sounds rose from field workers and those unlucky enough to be shackled to chain gangs. Called “field hollers,” these sounds could rattle the windows, but in other hands—or throats—they created music. The most powerful blues vocalist was Son House, who, as his marker in Tunica reads, “plumbs the emotional depth of the blues perhaps more than any other Delta blues artist.” House, influenced by his contemporary, Charley Patton, was a major influence on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters.
Chester Arthur Burnett—better known as Howlin’ Wolf—took the holler to a higher level. With a naturally raspy voice and tendency to howl, as his marker relates, Wolf developed his trademark vocal sound “by trying to imitate [country singer] Jimmie Rodgers’s signature yodels.”
As for hollering’s influence on the blues from a chain-gang perspective, the infamous prison Parchman Farm, also known as Mississippi State Penitentiary, has a marker, too. As does singer-guitarist Booker “Bukka” White, who did a two-year stint at the still-in-business prison, inspiration for his “Parchman Farms Blues.”
Birthplace(s) of the Blues
Dockery Farms is a Southern institution—a plantation, but of another kind, almost progressive, as developed by the Dockery family, who turned their vast cotton operation into a self-contained community, with a school, churches, stores, railroad, doctor, even a cemetery. The impact of Dockery Farms on the Delta blues is summed up on its marker, which ponders, “Birthplace of the Blues?” and replies, “The precise origins of the blues are lost to time, but one of the primal centers for the music in Mississippi was Dockery Farms.” That designation is, in large part, due to one of its famous residents—Charley Patton, born in the late 1800s and generally acknowledged as “founder of the Delta blues.” Patton’s two markers commemorate his birthplace in Bolton, outside the Delta, and his gravesite in the Delta’s Holly Ridge.
On the other hand, and as the story goes, in 1902 the bandleader W. C. Handy was waiting for a train in Tutwiler, where his marker is placed, when he heard a man playing a slide guitar with a knife singing, “Goin’ Where the Southern Cross the Dog.” At first, Handy was reportedly aghast at the ragtag nature of these new-style bluesmen, but he came around, publishing “Yellow Dog Blues,” his adaptation of the song the busker was playing. Many more blues orchestrations later, Handy was deemed the Father of the Blues, and Tutwiler, as its marker states, is celebrated as yet another candidate for the “birthplace of the blues.”
Gospel or Muddy Blues?
Patton lived and worked at Dockery Farms along with his parents and siblings. Bluesmen from all around—like Roebuck “Pops” Staples, patriarch of the Staple Singers family group—stopped by to gig with Patton or just listen in awe. The late Staples now joins a choir of other Delta bluesmen celebrated in one of the most recent markers, “Gospel and Blues,” erected in October 2015 in Cleveland along Highway 61 between Clarksdale and Greenville.
Muddy Waters got his start as a gospel singer. Born McKinley Morganfield, Waters was not only a premier bluesman, he transformed the genre into an electric Chicago-style blues that, as his marker notes, “paved the road to rock ’n’ roll.” He has two markers on the Blues Trail, one at his birthplace in Rolling Fork, the other at his home—or cabin—in Clarksdale, where music historian Alan Lomax twice recorded Waters and other local musicians, in 1941 and 1942. Waters’ cabin had fallen into disrepair when tourists first began to journey there to pay homage. In 1987, Z.Z. Top guitarist Billy Gibbons had “Muddywood” guitars made from the planks of the house, which were later used to help raise funds for the Delta Blues Museum. The museum, located in Clarksdale, added a Muddy Waters wing in 2012.
In keeping with his legendary status, Robert Johnson has three markers, one for his birthplace outside the Delta in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, another for his gravesite in Greenwood, and a third in Rosedale, which gained fame when the rock trio Cream added the verse “Goin’ down to Rosedale” to its version of Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues.” (Cream guitarist Eric Clapton called Johnson “the most important blues singer that ever lived.”)
An iconic bluesman, always ready to ramble, Johnson, who was heavily influenced by Son House and Charley Patton, is popularly known for the claim that his “powerful and poetic” blues playing was a gift from the devil, who took his soul in return when the two met at a Delta crossroads, generally believed to be at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49. Dismissed as myth on the marker at Johnson’s gravesite, there is no official Blues Trail marker for that devilish crossroads, either. There is, however, a marker with two crossed guitars in Clarksdale, near where the intersection used to be, to advertise the encounter.
R.I.P. Po’ Monkey’s
The idea that the devil made him do it isn’t far-fetched, at least to the faithful. Like the bohemian Beats and longhaired hippies before them, bluesmen in the early days weren’t looked upon kindly by an older, church-going generation, nor were their hangouts, the “jookhouses.” Jookhouses—which morphed semantically into juke joints with the popularization of jukeboxes—were simply the homes of tenant farmers transformed into social clubs at night with food, homemade booze, dancing, and, of course, nonstop blues. The authentic jookhouses that dotted the Delta landscape eventually disappeared—all but Po’ Monkey’s. Located in Merigold north of Cleveland, Mississippi, it was opened in 1963 by Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry and became a destination for blues aficionados long before the Blues Trail put it on the map.
Seaberry died in July, and Po’ Monkey’s is no more; the doors are shuttered, but in the Delta, the blues lives on.
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.