Mississippi: The River of Song and more...

Smithsonian Institution
Americans Old and New1: Americans Old and New2: Midwestern Crossroads3: Southern Fusion4: Louisiana: Where Music is King


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Artists In This Region

With this section, the Mississippi flows into the deep South, the heartland of the blues and prime breeding ground for rock 'n' roll and soul music. This is by far the most culturally cohesive area of the river. It is farmland, home to cotton plantations that have in recent years turned more and more of their acreage over to rice and catfish farming. Memphis, the regional metropolis, is far less distinct from its rural surroundings than Minneapolis, St. Louis, or New Orleans. Much of its population retains strong country roots, and its musical history has been made less by locals than by folks from the surrounding small towns who came into the city to record and sell their music, just as the cotton plantation owners came in to sell their has been made less by locals than by folks from the surrounding small towns who came into the city to record and sell their music, just as the cotton plantation owners came in to sell their bales to national brokers.
       The plantation system, built with the labor of African slaves and later worked by African-American sharecroppers, spawned a population in which blacks were the majority and, though their political power was brutally curtailed, they were a dominant influence on music. All the musicians to come out of this area, whatever their race, have been deeply affected by black traditions. Also, despite segregation, this is an area where black and white musicians have traded tunes and played together for generations, from the days when Mississippi John Hurt was working at dances with the white fiddler W. T. Narmour to the Stax studio scene that produced the Memphis Horns.
       The mixing was by no means easy, and in no way negated the racial problems that surrounded it, but it made for a unique musical world of white blues singers, from Jimmie Rodgers to Elvis Presley, and black country musicians, from the Mississippi Sheiks to Charley Pride. While their music was often marketed in separate catalogues, classified as "race" or "hillbilly," in reality the styles always overlapped. Every black musician we talked to in the Delta spoke of listening to white country music, and every white musician gave credit to the overwhelming influence of the blues. The result is a true fusion music, shared with variations by different generations and ethnic mixtures of players.
       One thing that made the Mississippi Delta uniquely productive in terms of music was its relatively new prosperity. It was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that much of it was drained and cleared for farming, and the black workers that streamed into the region formed a younger, less rooted population than in other parts of the deep south. As a result, it was fertile soil for a new musical trend called the blues. The proportion of major blues figures who came out of the Delta was incredible, and the area's style came to define the music's development in the 1950s and 1960s, through the electric work of native sons like B. B. King and Muddy Waters.
       The earliest local blues artists still had strong country dance roots, but by the 1930s a new generation had arrived. The blues guitarist and singer Robert Johnson has come to exemplify this generation's music, and his sound has been carried on in its pure form by his protegé, Robert Lockwood, Jr., as well as being adapted into an electric style by Lockwood, Waters, Elmore James, and others. Lockwood became a major influence in the area when he teamed up with Sonny Boy Williamson (Aleck "Rice" Miller, not to be confused with John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson) and started a daily live broadcast from Helena, Arkansas, sponsored by King Biscuit flour. The King Biscuit Show, which Williamson would continue until his death in 1965, blanketed the area on both sides of the river and helped shape a Delta style that went on to flourish in Memphis, Detroit, and, most famously, Chicago.
       The first generation of electric bluesmen were electrifying a style formed in acoustic groups, but by the late 1950s a new style had been born, blending the harsh Mississippi sound with smoother instrumental work and vocal techniques adapted from gospel music. Little Milton, who grew up in Greenville, was one of many performers who moved to Memphis and had his first records on Sam Phillips's Sun Records, before heading to Chicago and stardom as Chess Records' soul star of the early 1960s. Milton exemplifies the later development of a blues/soul music that continues to attract a large audience in black clubs throughout the southern states. Meanwhile, the Delta has continued to breed a rootsier, rougher sound exemplified by artists like Big Jack Johnson, who learned the classic, acoustic Delta style from his father, then blended it with flavors adapted from artists he heard on the radio. Playing for most of his life in rough Delta "juke joints," he kept a hard, edgy sound that is an interesting contrast to the work of more urbanized blues players.
       Blues and the Delta have become virtually synonymous in many people's minds, but the white country tradition was also around, especially on the airwaves. Both Johnson and Milton speak of listening to the Grand Ole Opry as kids, and admiring the singers they heard there. This was part of a long process of cultural cross-fertilization in which, for example, the eastern Mississippian Jimmy Rodgers imitated black blues singers like Bessie Smith, then was imitated in turn by black singers like the Mississippi Sheiks. The music came to a common meeting point in the 1950s, with black singers like Chuck Berry, who was considered a "hillbilly" singer by his St. Louis compatriots, and the wave of white rockabillies.
       The rural areas around Memphis were as fertile for rockabilly as for blues, and Sun Records became the style's defining label with Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and a host of other young, white country boys who had fallen for the lure of r&b rhythms. In Newport, Arkansas, a wide-open strip of bars featured booze, gambling, and hot bands like Sonny Burgess and the Pacers. Like many of his peers, Burgess plays an eclectic mix of material, from country-tinged r&b and blues to blues-tinged country and the occasional gospel song.
       Sun Records had a brief heyday, but Memphis really made its name as a recording center ten years later. In the mid-1960s, it became the heart of southern soul music, the virtuoso mix of r&b and gospel that swept the country, but reached its highest expression in the converted movie theater that was home to Stax Records. Wayne Jackson, a white trumpet player, and Andrew Love, a black saxophonist, were part of the uniquely interracial crew that built the Stax sound. (It was a mix that only gradually emerged from the studio. The first Stax hit, "Last Night" by the Mar-keys, was recorded largely by black players, but when the Mar-keys-a name invented for the session-went on the road, the touring group was all white.) The Stax house band, Booker T. and the MGs, was mixed, as were the songwriting and production teams, though all the singers were African-American.
       Jackson and Love went on to play at the other studios that soon cropped up to capitalize on the wealth of talent streaming into town, before christening themselves the Memphis Horns and taking their talents out to wherever the work was, becoming the most-recorded horn section in history. In the 1970s, they were regulars at Hi studios as it built another Memphis soul empire on the talents of singers like Al Green, Otis Clay, and St. Louis native Ann Peebles. Peebles continues to live in Memphis, writing songs, playing festivals around the world, and recording new material, and she and the Horns work together to carry on the southern soul tradition.
       A lot of talent remains in the area, but it has been some twenty years since Memphis was the center of a major recording scene. The economics of the music industry have changed, and the sort of artists that once came to Memphis in search of national success now head for New York or L.A. The people who have stayed are here because they like the slower, more relaxed pace, or just because it is home. Rufus Thomas, for one, has become so identfied with the town that it is impossible to imagine him living anywhere else. He has become the sage of Beale Street, witness to six decades of musical history, and still plays host to visitors who want to learn about Memphis's rich African-American heritage.
       Surprisingly, the recording center for the area has moved south to an area with little history in the music business. In Jackson, Mississippi, Malaco Records has built a black music empire. Its blues artists include Little Milton, but the biggest seller these days is not in "the Devil's music," but on the side of the Lord. The Mississippi Mass Choir has capitalized on the incredible wealth of talent in Mississippi churches to bring together the most popular choir on the current gospel scene. Mississippi Mass draws on the full-throated, searing vocal style that has always been a local specialty, putting some of the state's hottest soloists in front of a huge and tightly rehearsed ensemble, and has dominated the choir field since it's inception a decade ago.
       Along with Malaco, the area's other big musical news in recent years has been the rise of regional festivals throughout the Delta. After a century of exporting its talent, the region is finally learning how to bring tourists in to support the artists at home. Greenville, Greenwood, and Clarksdale have all been hosting regular blues fests, but the best known of them all is across the river in Arkansas, where the memory of Williamson's and Lockwood's radio show is carried on in the King Biscuit Blues Festival. A free event that draws local families and tourists from around the world to multiple stages, King Biscuit also helps to tie the generations of blues and gospel talent together. Older pioneers alternate with hot, young stars, and favorite sons and daughters return to visit. Levon Helm, who normally fronts the Band, comes every year to get together with old playing buddies and relive the days when he was first hearing blues, trekking in from his home place in Turkey Scratch to sit in the radio station at the feet of the great Sonny Boy.
       Though the years have brought a lot of changes, it feels as if there is something timeless about this region. This impression is to some extent illusory -the sleepy, small-town ambiance is in part the result of the mass emigration that depopulated the area after the introduction of mechanized cotton farming -but some is very real. This is still a place where music, food, and life in general have remained close to the earth, and new ways are slow to penetrate. If this is sometimes regrettable, and hard on local residents, it has preserved intact a culture of unique depth and power, and music that no other place on earth can match.

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