Mississippi’s cultural contributions are outsized in many areas — our literature, cuisine and agronomy go toe-to-toe with any state in the country. But if there’s a singular gift we’ve given the world, it’s music. The blues was born and grew to maturity in Mississippi, before heading upriver for electrification in cities like Memphis and Chicago. Even there, it was frequently Mississippi natives penning and performing songs, burning up the charts and laying the foundation for rock and roll.
The Mississippi Blues Trail is a series of hundreds of historical markers scattered across our state, honoring musicians and landmarks that formed the backbone of the blues. Mississippi’s robust network of state highways makes a Blues Trail road trip essential to appreciating and understanding the soul of our state.
My Home is in the Delta
W.C. Handy, Tutwiler
Our circumnavigation of the state begins at a train depot in the Delta, where the blues first percolated into popular consciousness. Like many brands of folk music, the early history of the blues is fogged by the era’s lack of recording technology and the illiteracy of its initial practitioners.
Clarksdale-based composer W.C. Handy drew inspiration from the singing and slide guitar-playing of an indigent bluesman he encountered in Tutwiler. Handy sampled both the lyrical and melodic content in his “Yellow Dog Blues,” bringing the blues in off the streets and polishing a raw indigenous music for concert-going audiences.
All Night Long
Hill Country Blues, Holly Springs
Two hours northeast, up Highway 61 and through the woods of central Mississippi, a mutated, truncated, inebriated brand of blues developed around Holly Springs. This is Hill Country blues, and it can make the music of the Delta sound refined by comparison. Artists like Fred McDowell and juke joint owners Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside distilled the blues to its bare elements: a thumping drum, a churning one-chord guitar riff and rusty, growling vocals.
Hill Country blues had been documented sporadically since the mid-60s, but experienced a resurgence in the 90s when Oxford-based Fat Possum Records was formed to unearth previously-unheralded Mississippi blues artists. Burnside became one of the label’s most prolific artists, and Kimbrough’s recordings inspired garage rock titan’s The Black Keys. The Dayton duo even released an EP composed solely of Kimbrough covers, titled Chulahoma (2006).
Three Hundred Pounds of Joy
Howlin’ Wolf, West Point
East Mississippi may have a lower density of blues heritage than the rich soil of the Delta, but there was nothing light about West Point’s Chester Arthur Burnett, commonly known as “Howlin’ Wolf.” Burnett left home when he was thirteen, settling on the other side of the state in Ruleville, where he learned at the feet of blues originators like Charley Patton. After a stint in the Army, Burnett settled in West Memphis, Arkansas, forming a band and gaining the attention of legendary Memphis producer Sam Phillips.
Recordings for the Chess Record label in Chicago brought Wolf worldwide fame and inspired an avalanche of rock musicians, including The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
In 2005, West Point opened the Howlin’ Wolf Museum on Westbrook Street, honoring the life and legacy of their native son.
Hub City Blues
Mississippi Jook Band, Hattiesburg
We’re now headed south to Hattiesburg, and back in time to the early days of recorded music. The 1936 Hattiesburg sessions of the Mississippi Jook Band, featuring Blind Roosevelt Graves, his brother Uaroy and pianist Cooney Vaughn, have been referred to by music historians as the first rock and roll on record.
In addition to inventing rock and roll, the Graves brothers, both Mississippi natives, recorded some scintillating gospel tracks in a 1929 session for Paramount. This blend of the sacred and profane was a common theme among that era’s musicians, who were expected to be versed in everything from Tin Pan Alley pop to ass-shaking blues. Church music was no exception.
Edwards Hotel, Jackson
Mississippi’s capitol was a crucial recording location during the birth of the blues — with all the major recording companies based in the North, temporary recording studios served to prevent resource-poor blues musicians from traveling. Labels like OKeh Records and the American Record Company relied on Jacksonite H.C. Spiers to scout talent and arrange recording sessions.
Frequently these sessions occurred at the Edwards Hotel (now the King Edward Hotel), a few blocks from Spiers’ phonograph store on North Farish Street. Sessions in 1930 and 1935 yielded recordings from Bo Carter, the Mississippi Sheiks and Isaiah Nettles, aka “The Mississippi Moaner.” Spiers also recruited several white Mississippi string bands, along with banjo pioneer (and creationist propagandizer) Uncle Dave Macon.
Charley Patton’s Grave, Holly Ridge
It’s highly appropriate that, after six hundred miles of road and dust, we’re nearly back to our starting point in the Delta. The blues is cyclical. We’ve made the journey from its birth to its death.
Planted in Holly Ridge are the bones of Charley Patton, the archetypical Mississippi bluesman. Itinerant, promiscuous and supernaturally talented, Patton roamed the Delta (and eventually the whole country) until his death in 1934. Direct descendants of his musical style run in an unbroken chain to the present day, from Robert Johnson to B.B. King to Jimi Hendrix to Jack White. His gritty vocals inspired everyone from Muddy Waters to Captain Beefheart, and he’s the origin point of many of the genre’s most memorable guitar idioms.
Mississippi’s fundamental contribution to popular music arose from poverty, oppression and lack of opportunity. Many early blues musicians were disabled or otherwise disadvantaged, leaving a life in the arts as one of their few chances to earn a living. Most if not all were further exploited by record companies, radio stations, sheet music publishers and white musicians, who often appropriated their music without songwriting credit or acknowledgment.
Honoring these men and women, understanding how their art fits into the great quilt of American culture, is a source of pride for Mississippians. It’s proof that amazing things can arise from horrible circumstances and that Mississippi’s greatest resource has always been its people.