A common love for music, chiefly the Blues, inspired a friend and me to explore America's Deep South, in particular the Mississippi Delta birthplace of the Blues. As a vocal and instrumental form of music based on its distinctive twelve-bar pattern, the Blues has often been portrayed as the "devil's music" and as a vehicle that incites violence and other destructive behaviour. In the early 20th century the Blues was considered by many conventional types to be an unrespectable form of entertainment, especially when it began to attract white audiences during the 1920s. Since that era, the Blues has grown and evolved to become a major component of the African-American and even the wider American and generally western cultural heritage, largely because it encompasses much more than music. It is noteworthy that Blues poetry continues to be inspirational even though the rural lifestyle from which it sprang for the most part no longer exists. Several academic studies have been based on Blues lyrics, exploring its cultural significance (e.g. "The Mississippi Delta Blues" and "American Culture" at George Mason University). They include facets of geography, history, African-American studies, literature, poetry, and art, as well as music. Scholarly papers have even been written asserting the Blues' influence on many poignant issues of the day, ranging from gender roles to Africanisms manifested by Blues instruments and rhythms.
So, how did the Mississippi Delta become so instrumental with respect to the birth and development of the Blues? The mighty Mississippi River created a delta richly suited for agriculture. Plantations that began as lumbering operations were transformed into farms as soon as the land was cleared. Planting, maintaining and harvesting cotton and corn crops required massive work forces, which drew thousands of Africans, Southern Europeans, Russian Jews, Lebanese and Chinese to the region. All of these ethnicities contributed to a unique way of life emerging in the Delta but it was mainly work songs of black field labourers that gave birth to the Blues. The plantation workers needed an outlet, a place to gather, relax, perhaps have a beer or two, which led to singing and ultimately the desire to create music. This place was called the 'juke,' a word of West African origins meaning 'wicked.' It was from there that the Blues evolved. Thus, the three important influences on the development of the Blues were the river, the plantation and the juke.
Blues pilgrims from around the world regularly visit the Delta and my friend and I were subtly pulled by the tunes and visited there several times. We commenced our journey at Clarksdale, home of the Delta Blues Museum (along with the surrounding Mississippi Delta region, known as the "land where the blues began"). Clarksdale is situated near the famous intersection of Highways 61 and 49, coined the Crossroads, where legend of a down-and-out musician meeting the devil around midnight to trade an un-tuned instrument for eternal greatness was conceived. One of the first Blues recording artists, writer/guitarist/singer Robert Johnson (king of the delta blues, who mysteriously died in 1938 at the age of 27) is said to have sold his soul to the devil at this intersection. We also visited a former slave cabin on Stovall's Plantation just outside Clarksdale. It was the home of McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters. Labelled the Father of Chicago Blues, Muddy Waters brought the electric guitar to the fore in the Blues world. He is also credited for inspiring the British Beat explosion in the 1960s and the format for what was to become the classic Rock & Roll combo: drummer, lead, bass and rhythm guitar.
Travelling onward from Clarksdale into the Delta, and frequently pausing at traffic lights to marvel at the cotton fields, certainly catapulted our imagination back into the past to a time when slaves suffered terrible hardships and expressed their feelings in musical form. To better understand this phenomenon, a visit to the Dockery Farm is a must. Dockery Farm was the quintessential Delta plantation. It was still wilderness in 1895 when Will Dockery started farming near Ruleville and Cleveland. This plantation employed over 2000 workers, several of whom were gifted with incredible musical talents such as Charley Patton and Willie Brown. Many consider this plantation as the true birthplace of the Delta Blues. Onward to Po' Monkey's Lounge in Merigold, Mississippi, one of the last surviving rural jukes, where we walked near-by cotton fields at sunset and could overhear the tunes echoing from its past. Slowly and ever so gently, as we reached the end of our journey through this marvellous delta, we took pride in having fulfilled our mission to visit each of its main icons. We had traced the mighty Mississippi River through some of its bends, toured the remains of the Dockery Farm and even experienced a juke in the cotton fields.
Like so many musicians also we had gone to Clarksdale and the vestiges of our Blues trip will haunt us (wonderfully) forever, as I am reminded each time I visit my musician friend’s house back in Sydney, where I get to hear a sample of the works that this journey has inspired in him.