But what grows there, far below the endless alluvial plains shaped by thousands of years of fresh, but muddy river floods, is not the stuff that grows at the surface. It is not the cotton or the rice or the soybeans that have been the sustenance of these agricultural communities for generations. What grows in the dark is something that can, at times, be too deep to measure. What grows there–way down, beneath the feet, beneath the surface of the land, and beneath the surface of a sometimes misunderstood Delta culture, is American music.
Described as “the birthplace of American music,” the state of Mississippi makes a claim that might seem exaggerated by those who have never really explored the origins of jazz, rock, and other genres that are so influential in American popular culture. But these roots — pushing down, pushing up, sonically forcing a musical spirit up through the Coahoma and Sunflower mud–are on display in the Mississippi Delta, just as they were when blues was created by enslaved vocalists tied to plantations of fecund soil and sometimes frightful history.
The main thoroughfare — the one sung about, cried about, and traveled upon by many blues greats — is Highway 61. On 61 you’ll meet up with the famous half-true, half-mythological tale of blues musician Robert Johnson, reputed to have sold his soul to the devil to gain a musical prowess that is now considered legendary. Visitors can see the unassuming crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49 where the questionable deal was supposedly made. Blues and jazz aficionados can visit another site, the Riverside Hotel, where Bessie Smith died after an auto accident on this same fateful road and where Ike Turner lived and wrote music. And fanning out like a music history constellation, from Clarksdale to Indianola to Greenwood and then on to Greenville, over to Helena and up to Memphis, there are numerous sites on and near Hwy. 61 that mark the past and inspire the future.
In an effort to connect this past to our present, tourism authorities in the Delta region of Mississippi and Arkansas as well as the blues metropolis of Memphis have teamed up to create “Bridging the Blues.” This concept, which unites various communities that brought forth America’s indigenous music, connects them in a tourism handhold for several weeks of concerts, festivals, museum showings, and other music and history related events. Primarily taking place along the Blues Highway of U.S. 61, the scheduled events look back at the significance of the historic road while pointing forward to the musicians standing in the trenches today.
“The Bridging the Blues idea is that the literal bridges are the bridges between Mississippi and Memphis and Arkansas. But it is also blues being the bridge to all other forms of music… and it all came outta here,” said Wesley Smith, Executive Director of the Greenville-Washington County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and originator of Bridging the Blues.
He tells of how the concept came about. “We have a B.B. King Museum, we have a Blues Trail…we have arts councils that are doing blues photography exhibits and we have tourism… If only we could get everybody to do what they’re already doing, but get it into one week,” recalled Smith.
That week begins with the Mighty Mississippi Music Festival/Highway 61 Blues Festival in Greenville, both beginning on October 4 and running throughout the weekend. The week “ends” with the King Biscuit Blues festival, held in Helena, Arkansas beginning on Thursday, October 10. Between the two festivals, and for several days on either side, are various performances by local musicians, museum exhibits, and tours by preservationist and Delta heritage expert, Luther Brown.
Hopefully, visitors will return home understanding how the blues is itself an old and well-traveled bridge, a true American byway of a music tradition that is found time and again in other musical forms. While King Biscuit has a strict blues focus, Smith indicates the festival in Greenville will have a blues emphasis–as Hwy. 61 has had for years–but will combine that with performances from other types of music that find their origins in the rich music of the Delta.
“We have some country, some rock… the music will be broader. There will be a Hwy. 61 Blues Museum stage and a Main Stage, which will be rock, country, and a variety of things,” said Smith.
All music, however, reflects the local vibe. “Everybody would love for you to have The Stones, of course. But really they want you to have T-Model Ford or they want to come because it’s authentic,” said Smith.
Understanding the influence of the blues is what it’s all about. Just as the Mississippi shaped the fertile flatland, blues shapes and floods everything around it. It is like the Great River of music, taking a couple of sorrowful minor chords here, taking a hopeful melody there. Letting them drift. Mixing them with some other flotsam and jetsam, perhaps from brass musicians playing out of New Orleans or with bluegrass singers coming from somewhere in Tennessee. The original roots music of this country fanned out from the fields of the Delta generations ago, and it has meandered down to places like New Orleans–and up, even against a powerful flow–to St. Louis, Minneapolis, and beyond.
“It really is message music,” said Amanda Gresham, creator of the Delta Music Experience, which provides immersive tour experiences for music fans. She describes the original purpose of the blues, which finds its deepest roots in the slavery of the old south and, later, in the sharecropping system devised in the post-Civil War years. The system created a life of hardship for black tenant farmers, who were often tied to the land with little chance of seeking better opportunities outside the Delta. “On the plantations, you couldn’t give messages directly, so they would sing,” explained Gresham. “‘Sarah had a baby, Sarah had a baby.’ And they would sing this across the plantations. I think it [the blues] is a way to relay messages today as well.”
Clearly, the messages are spreading far and wide. Thanks to people like Gresham, blues fans from the world over are now able to travel the Delta and see it through the eyes of some of those most revered: musicians. Offering everything from three-hour cruises to five day land tours via rail or bus, Gresham’s tours embody the essence of the Bridging the Blues concept. Often covering a route that takes participants through the geographic and cultural history of roots music, the Delta Music Experience offers what few tours can provide: close and personal contact with the musicians, who ride alongside participants in the bus, or on the train, or onboard a paddlewheeler headed down the Great River.
From October 1-21, Gresham will offer the “Rockin’ the Rivers, Roads and Rails” tour, which partly takes place during Bridging the Blues events. The tour, with options for trips of varying lengths, begins in Memphis, takes visitors through the Delta, and ends in one of the first places where blues made it’s mark, the jazz mecca of New Orleans.
“Every musician on the Delta Music Experience has their own story,” said Gresham. “They share that with the passengers, and the passengers connect and relate to the part of that story that resonates with them most. Then they take that fact home with them and are able to share it with their friends, listen to the music, and relive the experiences.”
Gresham reports she has recently arranged for future use of B.B. King’s tour bus. When traveling in the royal carriage of an influential figure such as King, hitting a great blues road — a Hwy. 61 — is like burning some tread in the footsteps of history. What’s more, sitting in seats nearby are today’s musicians, people like Cedric Burnside, Bobby Rush, James “Super Chikan” Johnson, Kenny Neal, Lady “A”, or Dexter Allen, to serve as translators.
People on DME tours hail from all walks of life. “There is everything from somebody who’s just heard of blues music for the first time to a total blues aficionado,” said Gresham.
According to tourism officials, shop owners, musicians, and other middlemen who translate the true local experience for visitors, Gresham’s varied clientele is a common theme along the Blues Trail. From college kids to European tourists, blues music speaks to people the world over.
It is difficult to explain the reach of music that speaks truth.
“Blues is the oldest form of music, and music in general is the universal language. Regardless where you go, there’s no such thing as a Chinese C Flat or G Sharp,” said blues, soul, R&B and funk recording artist, Dexter Allen.
Clarksdale resident, painter and musician Stan Street defines the visitor’s relationship with the Delta in almost religious terms. As usual, the pull of the soil itself arises as a theme. “People come here just to walk the hallowed grounds of the bluesmen that played here,” said Street.
Mizz Lowe, lead dancer for blues performer Bobby Rush’s LOWEdown RUSH, touches on why the music holds fascination for so many people. Just as the bridges of steel and concrete connect banks of the Great River, blues music serves as a sonic conduit that all types of American music seem to feed off of and filter through.
“When you get into Greenwood, there’s nothing else that you really hear,” said Lowe. “Unless its the young kids…they might wanna hear this, they might wanna hear that. But still, the blues is still around it. That might be in the center, but at the outskirts of it is the blues…right here,” she says, pointing down at the pavement of downtown Greenwood.
Another Delta native who understands how the story of Hwy. 61 and surrounding communities is inseparably tied to the land is Madge Howell, of Clarksdale. When asked why people are drawn to this rural and often struggling corner of the globe, Howell sees the living and breathing earth as an attraction in and of itself.
“Even deeper than the blues is you get to the Mississippi Delta. I’ve lived all over the world and I’ve worked in lots of different places, and there’s nowhere else like the Mississippi Delta on this earth, for historical reasons,” said Howell. “And the blues play a big part of that, but our agricultural heritage and where we have come from…our racial history, and that whole culture that we have evolved through together…that’s so important and adds to the richness of this area. And the landscape is like none other you’ve seen. It’s flat everywhere, and it’s got all this open land.”
She believes that the real curiosity for tourists is being able to imbed for a few days in the agrarian lifestyle. “They [tourists] get to feel what that’s like, to be in an agricultural environment, which is where the blues was birthed,” said Howell.
The deep-rooted history that visitors will discover is only part of what brings people to the region. Another part–the special part–is about the people. Local property developer Bubba O’Keefe believes the people of Clarksdale are the main attraction.
“When you come here, It’s going to take a day or two to detox,” said O’Keefe. “What you do is: you’re in Sesame Street, and there’s a cast of characters right here, and you’ll get to know them. And now, all of a sudden, you’re connected with this town that has a pull that makes you wanna come back, like they’re friends and family.”
In the end, the full-circle embrace of people, land, river, and music creates a one-in-a-million world. The richness of dirt is echoed in the richness of roots music. It is this depth that is today felt in so many aspects of American culture. From a Top 40 hip-hop song to a southern rock classic, the airwaves are loaded with whiffs of the musical past that were all born on the poor and rural, but socially rich and creatively spirited Blues Highway.
“You can literally trace everything here, all pop culture. All music. And the musicians created the styles, what everybody wore, the early days of TV… everything,” said Wesley Smith.
Smith’s own passion for blues music is something that he can’t easily put words to. In fact, it is common around the Delta to hear people describe their beloved roots music as something that is simply “felt.” They often describe it as something akin to spirit, that reaches down without judgement into the dirty and joyous soul.
John Magnusson, who moved to Clarksdale from New Jersey four years ago, is one of those people who “gets” what is happening along the Hwy. 61/Hwy. 49 corridor.
“There’s this really cool vibe happening here. The best part about it is it’s this podunk little Delta town. But the entire planet comes through here, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year,” said Magnusson, speaking of Clarksdale.
“Clarksdale is not something you can fake, and people get that,” stressed Magnusson. “When they come here, they’re like, ‘This is cool.’ You can’t make this stuff up… this is real. You run into strange characters, strange situations that are always entertaining…it’s a cool little town. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but it’s got something… some kind of vibe.”
Wesley Smith speaks of the Greenville area with the passion that could be expected of a true blues fan. He grew up going to the King Biscuit, and now believes his Bridging the Blues project will allow visitors a glimpse of what is often impossible to relay without a direct, firsthand experience. Sometimes, all that is required is to kick back and listen closely to a place. The music coming from the Delta is a “message” music, and the land that bore it seems to be speaking messages as well.
“A lot of people leave and come back, and it’s for that same reason that people visit and come back,” said Smith. “It’s just a special place, and I’m not poetic enough to define it or tell you why, but it just kinda gets to you… and calls to you.”