By Renée S. Gordon
“The history of a people is found in its songs.”
There is no region in the country that is more distinctive and descriptive of a significant African American experience that impacted on the history of the entire nation than the Mississippi Delta. In myth the area begins in the lobby of Memphis’ Peabody Hotel and ends at the levee on Vicksburg’s Catfish Row. In reality, the Mississippi Delta, not to be confused with the Mississippi River Delta in Louisiana, is an alluvial plain situated between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers in the northwestern section of the state of Mississippi. The region encompasses portions or all of seventeen counties. www.visitthedelta.com/maps/default.aspx
The first blacks were brought into MS, a French territory, when colonization began and in 1719 the first large shipment of slaves arrived. By 1724 the black population was so large that they enacted a stringent Code Noir, Black Code, to regulate every aspect of the slaves’ lives. MS entered the US as a slave state on December 10, 1817 and on January 9, 1861 it became the second state to secede from the Union. At that time, the state had 436,631 slaves, 55 percent of the population, and 773 freedmen.
In 1865, the reconstructed government of MS legislated the Black Code of November 1865 that established vagrancy laws, made it illegal for a freedman to rent or lease agricultural land and necessitated a license or contract for freedmen to work, all with the goal of maintaining the status quo. This government was replaced in 1867 by a US military government but the constitution adopted in 1869 did not guarantee black rights.
Development of the Mississippi Delta was delayed until the 1840s because of a poor system of levees and it was not until the post-bellum period that the “plantations” were lucrative for the owners and were worked by sharecroppers and tenant farmers. In this system, owners leased land to workers in return for a percentage of the crop. Traditionally the owner supplied all the needs of the worker and his family, often paying them with scrip. The problems are evident, the owner kept the books, the worker was at his mercy, and many were tied to the land because they would end up in debt to the owner and faced arrest if they tried to move without payment. By 1910, 90 percent of the overall population and 95 percent of the Delta’s tenants were African American.
Ironically it is these conditions, from slavery to this new form of “freedom,” that fostered the development of an entire musical genre, the blues. No one knows exactly where the first blues song was sung but we do know that, though there is no exact equivalent in Africa, the blues employ African song characteristics such as a strong rhythm base and emphasis on individual improvisation.
Musicians have always been central to black culture. They entertained, helped us grieve, registered our displeasure, set the work pace, called out to God and the ancestors and preserved and transmitted our culture. The Mississippi Blues Trail follows the path of the most renowned of the legendary bluesmen along with several important Civil Rights locations. This is a journey everyone needs to undertake. www.blueshighway.org
Tunica, MS is most recognized as a casino city and, because of the huge number of accommodations it is an ideal starting point for this tour. It is 35-miles south of Memphis, TN and an equal distance on the Blues Highway 61 from one of the Delta’s most important Blues’ cities, Clarksdale. www.tunicamiss.com
The first marker you pass is at the location of the boyhood home of Robert Johnson, “King of the Delta Blues, ” the Abbay & Leatherman Plantation. He lived here with his mother and stepfather in a shack starting in 1916 at the age of five.
Highways 61 and 49, the two main routes through the Delta, and the Illinois Central Railroad, all met in Clarksdale. The point at which 61 and 49 intersect has come to be known as “The Crossroads” and legend has it that this is where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for the ability to play the guitar. The site is marked with a 20-foot sculpture of crossed blue guitars and the numbers 61 and 49. www.visitclarksdale.com
A tour of the Delta Blues Museum in the 1918 Old Freight Depot is mandatory. The self-guided tour begins with a mandinka kora, an African stringed instrument, and continues through a series of displays of photographs and memorabilia that honors bluesmen and woman. A number of display cases are devoted to individuals but the focal point of the individual displays is Muddy Waters’ original cabin complete with a life-sized figure of the artist playing the guitar. Other significant artifacts include John Lee Hooker’s guitar, Little Walter’s Hohner harmonica and a “Muddywood” guitar. www.deltabluesmuseum.org
Downtown Clarksdale’s Walk of Fame pays homage to its citizens who gained international fame such as Sam Cooke, Ike Turner and Tennessee Williams.
The Riverside Hotel is of particular interest to fans of the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith. On September 26, 1937 she was brought here to what was then the G. T. Thomas African American Hospital, after a car accident that badly injured the singer. She died there at 11:30 AM. Later, a hotel, that has housed many iconic bluesmen and even J. F. K., Jr.
You can’t leave town without a stop for a meal and to sign the wall in Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club. It is open for lunch and dinner and presents live music on a regular schedule. www.groundzerobluesclub.com
True blues aficionados make the pilgrimage to the Stovall Plantation and the original site of Muddy Water’s cabin. The Stovall’s have owned the property since the 1840s and in 1918 3-year-old McKinley Morganfield went there to live with his grandmother. Muddy began as a harmonica player but took up the guitar after seeing Son House at a local jook joint and being impressed by his skill. In 1941, folklorist Alan Lomax was directed to Muddy’s cabin and he recorded his first song, “Country Blues.”
On a visit in 1983, ZZ Top took pieces of cypress from the then derelict cabin and crafted “Muddywood” guitars. One was donated to the Delta Blues Museum in 1988. Though the cabin is today exhibited in the museum fans visit the site to scoop up a vial of “sacred soil”.
Leaving Clarksdale via Hwy 49, your next stop is Tutwiler. In 1930, while waiting at the station for a train, W.C. Handy was introduced to the Blues. In his biography, he recounts hearing a black man accompanying himself on the slide guitar and singing a blues song about the railroad junction in Moorehead, MS where the “Southern Crosses the Dog,” a railroad intersection. A little over a year later he committed the Blues to paper and would become known as the “Father of the Blues.” A marker designates the spot of the train station and nearby is a series of murals that depict the meeting at the station and several other scenes,
A marker indicates the location of the funeral home that prepared the body of Emmett Till for transport to Chicago.
The 15,000-acre Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, is symbolic of African American history in the state. Though it did not open until 1905 it played a pivotal role in 20th-century musical and cultural events. The prison was designed to be a self-sustaining work farm, not unlike a pre-war plantation, with its own livestock, sawmill, food crops and thousands of acres of cotton. Prisoners were leased to individuals, railroads, corporations and municipalities and in its first year of operation it turned a profit of $185,000. By 1917 90% of Parchman’s internees were black, 38% serving life.
Folklorists entered the Delta with portable recording equipment in the 30s in search of authentic folk music with roots that could be traced back to Africa. They recorded in the fields and at the cabins, the most famous of which is the recordings by Muddy Waters made at Stovall Plantation and those documented inside Parchman. Alan and John Lomax’s recordings for the Library of Congress in 1933 are the most well known. Such bluesmen as Son House, Bukka White, Alabama Stewart and several female inmates recorded by David Cohn are archived in the Smithsonian.
On June 15, 1961, Parchman Farms became the jail to the first Freedom Riders to enter the state. They were incarcerated on Death Row.
Travelers are not allowed to stop on the roads that run pass the 46-square mile prison but you can catch glimpses of the iconic jail.
We have been following the Delta footsteps of the bluesmen. They were born, formed and developed their distinctive styles here based on the musical roots of Africa, cultural traditions and social conditions. There are more stories to tell. Meet me here next week to hear them.
“There’s no way in the world I can feel the same blues the way I used to. When I play in Chicago, I’m playing up-to-date, not the blues I was born with. People should hear the pure blues – the blues we used to have when we had no money.”
I wish you smooth travels!