Got those Mississippi Delta blues

Between Vicksburg and Memphis lies the heart and history of black American music. Richard Knight travels Highway 61

In 1903 a certain WC Handy sat waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi. A man sat down beside him. Handy watched as this "lean, loose-jointed Negro" commenced plunking a guitar. "His clothes were rags," wrote Handy, "his feet poked out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings... and the effect was unforgettable." WC Handy had discovered the blues.

In 1903 a certain WC Handy sat waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi. A man sat down beside him. Handy watched as this "lean, loose-jointed Negro" commenced plunking a guitar. "His clothes were rags," wrote Handy, "his feet poked out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings... and the effect was unforgettable." WC Handy had discovered the blues.

In the Mississippi Delta, where at the turn of the last century blues grew from plantations as surely as did cotton, music has defined a people and its culture. Black Americans, trapped by debt, toiled on white-owned plantations. The blues developed as a way to escape that painful life – if only for a few hours in a rowdy juke-joint on a Saturday night. As Southern blacks travelled north along Highway 61, the Blues Highway, in search of jobs and better lives, so blues moved with them.

The 200-mile Delta stretch of the Blues Highway starts in Vicksburg, Mississippi. According to blues lore the Delta, not a geographic entity but a cultural one, is bound by Catfish Row in Vicksburg to the south, and the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis to the north.

Willie Dixon, perhaps the greatest blues composer of all time, was born and raised in Vicksburg. But Mississippi has been reluctant to wake up to the richness of its cultural legacy, and blues clubs can be hard to find. As local club-owner Kathy Singleton-Green told me: "There's no blues in Vicksburg now – even though we all still live the blues every day."

Yet driving deeper into the Delta, with Frank Frost singing from my stereo, I could see blues all around; in every dusty low-rise town, every crossroads and every rusting railroad wagon. No music better reflects its environment.

In Jackson, Mississippi's state capital, one street dominated the early years of blues recording. Farish Street, in the heart of the black side of town, was a lively strip of stores, bars and studios where Robert Johnson, Elmore James and many others cut records. Like so much of the Delta, Farish Street is a run-down, ragged place that oozes blues. One man, Greg Woodcox, has worked to preserve the street and its illustrious history by opening the Farish Street Blues Museum – one of the few places in Mississippi where African-American music history is chronicled. Woodcox's motive was simple. "I wanted local kids to know Elmo' James came from their neighbourhood," he says, "and I wanted them to know what that means."

Jackson still has a lively blues scene, if you know where to look. On a long residential street of rickety timber shotgun houses, the Subway Lounge opens for business just as other bars are closing. Tables crowd around a small stage where, under a canopy of fairy lights and cigarette smoke, local bands rip into the night with pounding electric blues. Blues is music to dance to and everyone at the Subway knows it. The partying is fuelled by liquor sold through a hatch in the house next door.

From Jackson I drove back towards the Mississippi River to Greenville, passing through a series of dusty towns: Avalon, where Mississippi John Hurt is buried; Morgan City, where Robert Johnson, the most revered name in blues history, is buried; and Three Forks, an exposed crossroads where Johnson was killed. David "Honeyboy" Edwards, a legendary Delta bluesman whom I later met in Chicago, was with Johnson the night he died. "At the end he was crawling around like a dog and howling," he says. Johnson was poisoned by a jealous husband.

In Greenville, a clumsily sprawling river-town, I ran into another old-time musician, Eddie Cusic. In a low Mississippi growl, Cusic described his own experience of growing up in the rural south and finding blues. "We was poor – I mean it was hard. I used to go to school sometimes but I liked the sound of music so, one day, I put me up one string on the side of the cotton house and I held it with a couple of bricks. You know, I could play pretty good like that with one string. They used to say 'that boy, he gonna go some place'. I worked, got me some money and ordered a guitar. My mother said 'if you learn how to play that thing I don't want you to play no blues'. But me, I thought the blues solved a problem."

Cusic's mother was echoing the majority view. Seen as "Devil's music" by many hard-working, church-going African-Americans, blues has never shaken its subversive edge. In Cleveland, a small town between Greenville and Clarksdale, I found a juke-joint which would have done little to placate Cusic's mother. No more than a shack in the middle of a cotton field, Po' Monkey's is, without doubt, the real thing. I drove out across the fields looking for this club whose name I had heard whispered throughout the Delta. It was a clear, still night and I heard Po' Monkey's before I saw it.

Juke-joints are black clubs in a part of America where whites aren't often seen as friendly; so my heart was beating fast as I yanked open the heavy wooden door and waded in. Within seconds a big lady grabbed me and asked her friend to take a photo of the two of us. "I ain't never seen no white boy in no juke-joint before," she screamed, delighted, in a way which drew attention from every corner of the room. Po' Monkey himself, a massive tractor-driver in giant dungarees, strided over and put his mighty arm around me. "Come on in," he said, "y'all will be all right."

Meandering slowly alongside the muddy Mississippi, Highway 61 rolls through Clarksdale, a cradle of blues from where John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Ike Turner bought railroad tickets north to join the "Great Migration" of Southern blacks. Clarksdale's Delta Blues Museum, the finest and most sympathetic blues exhibition in the States, has recently been renovated and the town, unlike most in Mississippi, seems ready to recognise its musical pedigree.

From Clarksdale, Highway 61 threads through Tunica. This was the poorest county in America until squadrons of casinos were built on stilts in the river, before it slows to meet Memphis, Tennessee.

In Memphis, bluesmen were recorded and their music distributed far beyond the South. Here blues met country music and gospel to melt into rock 'n' roll. As I relaxed in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel, the northern tip of the Delta, I could hear tourists talking about the lively blues clubs of Beale Street – the one-time black ghetto where Memphis blues grew up. Renovated and gentrified, it feels like a blues theme park to anyone who has travelled through the Delta. A nervous world comes to see blues in a safe and clean environment – a far cry from Po' Monkey's or the Subway Lounge.

The Memphis music scene is undeniably impressive and Beale Street is busy every night of the week. But to soak up the roots of blues, only the Delta will do. Blues grew from cotton-pickers' shacks under a vast, unpredictable Mississippi sky and only later travelled to Memphis along Highway 61 – a wide open road stretching on forever.

 

There are no direct flights between the UK and Memphis. The best deals for travel in November are likely to be from Gatwick or Manchester on US Airways via Pittsburgh or Charlotte or Delta Airlines via Atlanta or Cincinnati; expect to pay something less than £300 return. Richard Knight is the author of 'The Blues Highway: New Orleans to Chicago' (Trailblazer, £12.99), from bookshops and www.blues-highway.com.

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