Mississippi – Long Read

River of the blues

The forests around Aliceville, Alabama  come alive with the sounds of Willie King’s annual Freedom Creek Blues Festival. Though Willie himself passed away in 2009, the celebration is now held in his memory by the Rural Members Association.

Photo by Alessandro Gandolfi

Mississippi – Long Read

River of the blues

Hello Mississippi, the river of the blues. It was around its delta region – an area known for extreme poverty – that great local musicians and storytellers gave birth to the great musical genres of jazz, gospel and blues. Traveling along America’s greatest waterway, you will encounter a world where traditions are still strong, and blues-men still sing about the reality of their own lives.

Alessandro Gandolfi
Alessandro Gandolfi Travel Writer

Greenville, Mississippi, sits midway between Memphis in the north and New Orleans in the south, a city of 40,000 that hugs one of innumerable bends of the river referred to by many as the “Mighty Mississippi.” The Walnut Street Blues Bar, just a few steps from the banks of that river, puts on jam sessions every afternoon and at the bar you will often find one of the richest men in the country: Howard Brent. “Sixty percent of the grain in these parts is still transported by ship,” he tells me over a beer. “And nearly all those ships are mine.”

Howard is the father of Eden Brent, one of the most talented blues singers in the region. Though young by blues standards, Eden’s story is already on display in the Highway 61 Blues Museum in Leland. Here you will learn that this petite woman, with a characteristic whiskey-smoke voice that sounds like a mixture of Janis Joplin and Norah Jones, played for years with American blues pioneer, Boogaloo Ames. She earned her nickname of “Little Boogaloo” for the undeniable talents she lets loose when she sits at a piano.

The city of Greenville is not only on the banks of the great river, it is also on the equally mythical Route 61, the only true Blues Road. Often referred to simply as the “Blues Highway,” it is described in detail in the Leland museum, where they also tell the stories of the tragicomic lives of bluesmen such as T-Model Ford, Alex ‘Little Bill’ Wallace, and Mississippi Slim. And now, Eden Brent.

The Mississippi Delta, in reality, a floodplain rather than an actual delta, is the name given to the patch of land between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. Though the true origins of the blues are somewhat hard to trace, the general consensus is that this land is where it was born nearly a century ago, drawing on the daily hardships and bittersweet realities of life as a muse. Malarial and flood-prone, it was occupied only by the downtrodden African American laborers contracted to construct dams, dig canals and build the railroads.

Considered by many as the origin of popular American music, the Delta blues was sung in the sawmills, in the shipyards along the river, and in the cotton fields, often accompanied only by little more than a guitar, a harmonica, and the voice of a singer who was no stranger to heartache. Since it first began being professionally recorded in the early 1920s, the influence of the blues has become so wide-reaching that it has been credited with giving birth to everything to from jazz to rock and roll, although many blues purists today still lend their fingers, ears, and voices to the old sounds born on the delta.

Still, life was far from easy

By the end of the American Civil War in 1865, an estimated 90 per cent of this land remained undeveloped, in spite of the wide-reaching social and cultural expanse of the plantation system that had ruled this area in the century before. Men and women who, some 60 years earlier, were confined to the barbarism of slavery were now able to own the land they worked on.

Still, life was far from easy. Former slaves and freedmen who had staked their claims to the land in the wake of the war had, by the 1920s, largely lost their land titles due to the general poverty and debt incurred with the plummeting price of cotton at the time. Turning instead to share-cropping and tenant farming, it would not be altogether unreasonable for some of the people of this land to be plagued by the “blue devils”: sadness, melancholy and depression. So it came to pass that, somewhere out of this hardship, with the ubiquitous guitar and harmonica in hand, the blues emerged not only as a musical means through which to give word to emotion, but as a culture and way of life that is still strongly felt.

Back in present-day Mississippi it is notable that time appears to have stood still. The land remains amongst the most fertile in the world, but misery is widespread. Many towns in the delta dating from the early 1900s are often run-down places where unemployment is rife, and where there are those who still have to fish for catfish in order to survive from day to day.

Nevertheless, the Mississippi Delta, an area roughly stretching for more than 300 miles from Memphis to Natchez, remains the ideal conduit of an ancient musical tradition, made up of musicians and storytellers from Charley Patton to Robert Johnson and from Muddy Waters to Blind Willie McTell (born William Samuel McTier). Some of them spent time in Parchman Farm, Mississippi’s oldest penitentiary, which housed various bluesmen behind its walls, nearly all of whom appear today in the colorful murals scattered throughout nearby Clarksdale and other towns that have grown up alongside the Mississippi.

Back in Greenville, Howard Brent insists on showing me his house, a white villa with a garden just outside of town where Eden sat at the grand piano, trying out songs from her new album. The piano is surrounded by books, scores and a photo of her late mother alongside one of Mississippi’s most famous native sons: Elvis Presley. Eden is called the “Queen of the Mississippi” and critics have said of her songs that you can hear “the ghosts of the river duetting with the future of the blues”. They also say “it is Boogaloo teaching us how to make real boogie-woogie”. Described as blues for eccentric pianists, uptempo boogie-woogie was played during the evening at juke joints the dance halls where many of the region’s laborers went at the end of a long workday for a little fun.

Clarksdale is a place of pilgrimage

There are still a few juke joints along the Mississippi, and all have retained the slightly edgy atmosphere of those old shacks where bands used to play, back in the days when alcohol was sold illegally and where couples flocked to dance to the warbling rhythms of the blues. Po’ Monkey’s is still there in Merigold, just north of Greenville, though these days it is only open on Thursday evenings. There is the legendary Ground Zero, co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman, and Red’s at 395 Sunflower Avenue in Clarksdale. Then there is Do Drop Inn in Shelby, and the Ebony Club in Indianola, acquired from city native and blues legend Riley ‘B.B.’ King.

For those who love the music of the South, Clarksdale is a place of pilgrimage. Musical greats such as Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, and John Lee Hooker, among others, were all born here, in the land in which history seemingly walks hand in hand with the present. Muddy Waters lived and worked on the Stovall Farms plantation, some 20 miles to the south, and legend has it that, at the junction of Route 61 and Route 49, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his extraordinary guitar-playing ability.

Paying tribute to its musical roots, Clarksdale puts on a varied program of events at its Sunflower Festival every August, and makes the ideal base from which to explore the rich legacy of blues heritage in the vicinity.

No trip to Clarksdale would be complete without a visit to the Delta Blues Museum, housed in an old station close to the railroad. At the Ground Zero blues club, a former warehouse that looks abandoned on the outside but springs to life on the inside, Eden Brent is among the guests, having come to listen to one of the best blues duos around: James ‘Jimbo’ Mathus and Olga W. Munding.

Olga Wilhelmine Munding, originally from Austria, grew up in San Francisco and is now a permanent fixture off and on the stage, with Jimbo at her side. Together they have embarked on a musical quest to explore all aspects of the blues, old and new, but giving special attention to roots music in danger of extinction. The concert tonight at Ground Zero is vibrant, as Jimbo Mathus sweeps his hands up and down the neck of his guitar, and Olga passionately serenades the crowd with her distinctly deep voice.

Taking photos beside the stage, Bill Luckett, one of the club’s partners, explains during a quiet moment: “This is a land of great bluesmen, and most of them come here sooner or later. People like Guitar Mikey and Richard ‘Daddy Rich’ Crisman; or Fiona Boyes, the Australian from Portland; or the young Gina Sicilia from Philadelphia; or the Eric Hughes Band or shy Amy LaVere from Memphis.”

I love living in Memphis

To the North, along those meandering bends of the Mississippi, stands Memphis, Tennessee. In the city of Elvis Presley and Ecko Records, the company that recorded top blues acts such as Denise LaSalle, Rufus Thomas, Lee Shot Williams and Barbara Carr, it is young Amy LaVere, with her gypsy-blues, who is grabbing the headlines. “I sing like Billie Holiday, but my voice is not quite as potent,” she says as we sit in the small courtyard of Archer Records, her record company. “And I love living in Memphis, a city that forces you to keep trying to be creative and dynamic.”

The spirit of Memphis sails with the boats across the surface of the water, and vibrates in the crowded bars of Beale Street, the old road once frequented by black laborers and where a young Elvis went in search of his early, avant-garde fashions. Abandoned for years, Beale Street has recently been renovated and returned to its former splendor, and today it is one continuous strip of popular bars, music clubs and restaurants.

Anyone who loves the blues will want to visit Sun Studio, the place where Elvis recorded his first 45s. Also not to be missed is a trip to the second Ground Zero Blues Club, at 158 George W. Lee Street (a twin brother of the one in Clarksdale), and B.B. King’s Blues Club, at 143 Beale Street, where you can listen to music while sitting at restaurant tables that look out onto the street. Those looking to delve deeper into the musical history of the delta should head for the Memphis Rock N’ Soul Museum, where artifacts, photographs, and instruments of the old blues greats are on display, and where a searchable archive of original music is available to the public.

Although Memphis is the place most people associate with Elvis, “The King” was actually born in 1935 in a small city in Mississippi: Tupelo. Today, you can visit the small white house where he was born in the town where various other members of the Presley family, including a cousin of the singer, still live. Known popularly as The King of Rock & Roll, his real breakthrough was in bringing the sounds of the blues to audiences beyond the delta, a fact that earned him the praise – and criticism – of many music enthusiasts. Also based here is the Homemade Jamz Blues Band, probably the youngest blues outfit in the world. “These children play the blues with energy and talent,” B.B. King once said after listening to them, “and they have a great future in front of them.”

The joys and pains of all our lives

The Blues Highway continues down from Tupelo towards Alabama and ends in the middle of a forest, just west of Aliceville, at a tiny hamlet with a population of 33. This is Old Memphis, a town in the midst of a flat and unkempt landscape. In spite of its exceedingly modest appearance, this is where Willie King, the most famous bluesman in Alabama, organizes his personal Freedom Creek Festival every May. It is virtually a sacred event for lovers of the Delta blues.

For years, Willie has also taught youngsters via the Alabama Blues Project, a summer school of blue music for children. The idea was created by the late bluesman Johnny Shines and was carried on by musician Debbie Bond, who developed the idea over the years in association with King. “The blues should not just remain a legacy of the past,” Willie says, “but should be a language for future generations. A language that speaks about the joys and pains of all our lives.”