La Center, Kentucky to Jackson, Mississippi
Kentucky is rarely thought of as a river state, but in the corner that touches the Mississippi, in a small rural church, we find the Boundless Love Quartet, singing in the Blackwoods Brothers style that influenced country and rock singers from Hank Williams to Elvis Presley. We visit a singer at her job in a local school, and see how their music fits into the life of the community.
One of Elvis's first appearances outside Memphis was at the King of Clubs, a highway honky-tonk roadhouse in northern Arkansas. Owner Bob King reminisces about those days, and presents longtime local star Sonny Burgess, one of the original Sun Records rockabillies. While his labelmates went on to fame and fortune, Burgess has continued to chop out rock and country for the Saturday night dancers at clubs like this. His energy undiminished by the years, he raves through his classic "Red-Headed Woman." Later, he takes us on a tour of the area, a wide-open county that was a center of gambling, booze and music for all of Arkansas, and a heartland of early rock 'n' roll.
Coming into Memphis, we start with a montage of African-American social dancing and rhyming (Memphis community music). Small children in a school yard play clapping games that hark back to Africa. Out behind the Katie Sexton Community Center, girls in spangled costumes perform intricate drill team maneuvers to the accompaniment of a high-energy team of drummers. Then, on the University of Memphis campus, a tuxedoed team of step-dancers throw down an immaculate set of steps to a hot rhymed chant, advertising the elegance and prestige of their fraternity.
Beale St. was once the center of black Memphis, and it remains a magnet for music-loving visitors to the city. The dean of Beale St. is Rufus Thomas, the blues singer and humorist who introduced B.B. King and dozens of others to the local scene and who, more than 30 years after his "Walking the Dog" helped establish Stax Records, continues to bill himself as "The World's Oldest Teenager."
Memphis was one of the most productive recording centers of the 1950s and '60s, and we hear about those days from the definitive studio duo, Andrew Love and Wayne Jackson, The Memphis Horns. An inter-racial team that is the most-recorded horn section in the world, they show the underpinnings of the "Memphis sound" and talk about the racial mix that created it. They are joined in their session by Ann Peebles, the Memphis soul queen best known for "I Can't Stand the Rain." Peebles and the horns perform a blues, backed only by piano, showing their deep roots in the jazz and blues tradition, then put on their headphones to lay down a smoking soul track.
At the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, we meet Robert Lockwood, Jr. among the last of the great Delta bluesmen. Lockwood was a stepson and protégé of Robert Johnson, and he talks about the golden age of the Delta blues. Sitting with an acoustic guitar, he shows us how he mastered Johnson's style, then adapted it into his own music.
That night, we sail on a riverboat, with a band featuring two local masters, Levon Helm and James Cotton. Helm is best known for his work with The Band, but he started out here and he recreates those days with a hot band of his old Arkansas buddies. The music mixes Band classics like "Up on Cripple Creek" with classic blues tunes, and Helm talks about the music scene of his youth, and the blend of black and white styles that came together in rock 'n' roll.
We cross the river to find Jack Johnson fishing on a muddy creek. He stayed behind in Clarksdale, Mississippi when many of the blues greats went north to Chicago and beyond, and he's kept alive the raw, heartfelt sound of the Delta. Jack sits in his back yard with an acoustic guitar, talking about how the old-time blues fill his eyes with tears, then shows how he stretches the guitar's strings to make it sing. We follow Jack as he heads out into the stark, flat country of the Delta to a crossroads juke joint. A general store by day, the room turns into a dance hall on Saturday nights, and Jack is there with his longtime partners, Frank Frost and Sam Carr, better known as The Jelly Roll Kings, the hottest down-home band in Mississippi. Crowded together in the stuffy room, they play a raucous, roadhouse set.
Back in town, at a Clarksdale elementary school, Johnny Billington is taking the blues to the schools, trying to instill pride in the city's heritage among the young. He tells the kids how blues players used to the best-dressed people in town, and teaches them what it means to have the blues.
In Greenville, we see how the blues has changed, and yet kept those roadhouse roots. In a classic "chitlin circuit" club, the Flowin' Fountain, we meet Little Milton, leading his uptown, horn-powered, soul-blues band. Milton is a singer and guitarist who rivals B.B. King for sheer power and artistry, but he has remained on the black club circuit, outselling King but never quite crossing over to a mainstream audience. He talks about his early years in Greenville, introducing us to Li'l Bill Wallace, a guitarist who was one of his teachers, and discusses the evolution of the blues. Onstage, he ranges from blues to soul hits, and is joined in a wild finale by another chitlin' circuit star, Arkansan Bobby Rush.
In Vicksburg, at the southern edge of the Delta, we find the congregation of Greater Jerusalem Baptist Church, singing the old-time spiritual style that preceded gospel. The minister preaches in a singing shout, and the congregation moans with camp-meeting fervor. Following a church member, we drive up to Jackson for a performance of The Mississippi Mass Choir, contrasting the old and new sounds of gospel's choir style. Formed by auditioning the top African-American church singers from throughout the state, the Mass Choir has consistently been the top-selling choir in gospel music, and their trademark blend of innovative arrangements and shouting traditional church passion are unmatched.
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