Kind of Blue in the Mississippi Delta

Culture Facts

Where: Clarkstown, Mississippi Delta, Deep South USA
When: 1920′s and 30′s
What’s it about: Mix with the great ghosts who invented the Blues like Bessie Smith & Robert Johnson

The Mississippi Delta is the home of the sound that was once known as ‘the devil’s music’, the blues. Robert Johnson (b. 1911) was a master and seminal developer of its early form, and it is a body of largely his works as an impassioned lyricist, vocalist and guitar player that have since been re-interpreted by more recent musicians such as Eric Clapton, the Red Hot Chilli Peppersand Peter Green. Johnson alleged sold his soul to the devil in exchange for being able to play the blues at a place known as ‘The Crossroads’. The imagery and legacy of the crossroads is a strong part of modern blues.

History

It all started in the Delta fields with African-American cotton pickers yelling and singing at each other while they worked, so the Delta blues drew heavily on African negro spiritual traditions. The emphasis is on suffering and the cruelty inflicted on the oppressed slaves, which is why even today when you’re ‘feeling blue’ you’re kind of sad. The guitar was an intrinsic element of the music, and its own harmonies were developed which included the bended ‘blue’ notes of the 3rd and 6th of the scale, also found in Jazz.

In the late 20s, when the Depression set in, most people left the fields and went to the towns. They took the blues with them, travelling along the famous Highway 61. If the Mississippi Delta is the home of the blues then Clarkstown is definitely its heart.

Things to See and Do Today

If you’re into the blues in a big way then the place to stay in Clarkstown is the Riverside Hotel.People like Sam Cook, Ike Turner and Muddy Waters stayed there, and Bessie Smith died in the building when it was a hostel. Maybe that last fact’s not quite such a draw.

Wade Walten’s barbershop in the town is the last old-style shave joint in town. He’s shaved some of the biggest chins in the blues, for instance those of Clayton Love and Ike Turner. But if you’re already happy with your hairstyle and want, instead, to get a taste of the Clarkstown blues, head for a ‘jukejoint’. Back in the 20s, 30s and 40s, cotton pickers used to come into town for the partying, or, as they called it, ‘juking’.

The original Jukejoints were rough and sometimes violent, but from these music houses emerged some of the finest and most influential music of the 20th century. Now there are only a few jukejoints around and the best one of these is called ‘Reds‘. The blues nights at Reds aren’t advertised, but if you ask around you’ll get an experience unchanged since the blues began.

More Information

The Blue Highway
Blues Radio, chat room, articles, essays and shopping.

The Rhythm and Blues Music Primer
“for all shades of blue….” 

Blues Music Now!
Online webzine from the magazine with reviews, obituaries, gigs and articles

Robert Johnson
Delta Haze’s guide to the legend who sold his soul to the devil…

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