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Blues Traveling

Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues, Third Edition

Steve Cheseborough
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Blues Traveling
    Book Description:

    At a crossroads in the Mississippi Delta, Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the Devil so that he could become a guitar virtuoso and King of the Delta Blues.

    Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blueswill tell you where that legendary deal was supposed to have been made and guide you to all the other hallowed grounds that nourished Mississippi's signature music.

    Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Memphis Minnie, Jimmie Rodgers, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Howlin' Wolf, B. B. King, Little Milton, Elvis Presley, Bobby Rush, Junior Kimbrough, R. L. Burnside-the list of great artists with Mississippi connections goes on and on.

    A trip through Mississippi blues sites is a pilgrimage every music lover ought to make at least once in a lifetime, to see the juke joints and churches, to visit the birthplaces and graves of blues greats, to walk down the dusty roads and over the levee, to eat some barbecue and greens, to sit on the bank of the Mississippi River, and to hear some down-home blues music.

    Blues Travelingis the first and only guidebook to Mississippi's musical places and blues history. With photographs, maps, easy-to-follow directions, and an informative, entertaining text, this book will lead you in and out of Clarksdale, Greenwood, Helena (Arkansas), Rolling Fork, Jackson, Natchez, Bentonia, Rosedale, Itta Bena, and dozens of other locales that generations of blues musicians have lived in, traveled through, and sung about. Stories, legends, and lyrics are woven into the text so that each backroad and barroom comes alive.

    Touring Mississippi withBlues Travelingis like having a knowledgeable and entertaining guide at your side. Even people with no immediate plans to visit Mississippi will enjoy reading the book for its photos, descriptions, and lore that will broaden their understanding and enhance their appreciation of the blues.

    Steve Cheseborough is an independent scholar and blues musician. His work has been published inLiving Blues,Blues Access,Mississippi, and theSouthern Register.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-328-0
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-1)
    (pp. 3-21)

    Is the blues still a vibrant tradition as we listen and explore in the twenty-first century? Or is it fading away?

    Let’s ask George Messenger, the trim sixty-eight-year-old who owns Messenger’s Pool Room, the café his grandfather opened more than a hundred years ago on Fourth Street (now Martin Luther King Avenue), the heart of Clarksdale’s black community.

    “There were businesses all up and down this street,” Messenger says, thinking back to his childhood. “On Saturday night the whole area was crowded, food was cooking—barbecue, fish, tamales. The sharecroppers would come into town to have a good time. But...

  5. Chapter 2 MEMPHIS
    (pp. 23-53)

    The railroads, the highways, and the river all lead to Memphis—and bring the people and the music. Although it is in Tennessee, Memphis functions as the cultural and economic capital of North Mississippi.

    Memphis has long been one of America’s great music cities, where the blues, rock ’n’ roll and soul all were nurtured, although it has never managed to polish up its music heritage and turn it into a major industry, the way Nashville has done with country-western.

    For almost a century, Memphis’s Beale Street was the focal point not only of the Mississippi Delta but of black...

  6. Chapter 3 DOWN HIGHWAY 61
    (pp. 55-79)

    Thus sang Mississippi Fred McDowell. Other versions put the starting point in Detroit and have it end at the border of New Mexico. Actually, it extends past Duluth, Minnesota, up to Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, and down to New Orleans. Highway 61 runs the full length of the Mississippi Delta, Memphis to Vicksburg, passing through or near most major towns.

    Big Joe Williams and Howlin’ Wolf sang of the other main Delta highway: “I’m going to get up in the morning, hit Highway 49.” Since most bluesmen were rambling types, their songs often mention 49, 61, or 51, which skirts...

    (pp. 81-104)

    When the railroads supplanted the river as the area’s main artery, inland Clarksdale’s importance surpassed that of older riverside towns like Vicksburg and Natchez. Clarksdale’s location became even more strategic when the highways came in. The Illinois Central Railroad and highways 61 and 49 all intersected here, helping make it the richest town in the Delta, the cotton capital.

    Naturally, the music followed. “I made more money in Clarksdale than I had ever earned,” W. C. Handy boasted. “This was not strange. Everybody prospered in that Green Eden.” A cultural hot spot even in Handy’s day, Clarksdale was already an...

  8. Chapter 5 THE MID-DELTA
    (pp. 105-129)

    Tutwiler is where W. C. Handy had a blues epiphany. While waiting for a train here in 1903, he heard a “lean, loose-jointed Negro” play knife-slide guitar and sing, over and over, “Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog.” Handy considered that “the weirdest music I had ever heard.” He soon wrote and published some of the first compositions based on the blues and using the word “blues” in the title. One of those was “Yellow Dog Blues,” incorporating the verse of his anonymous depot-mate.

    One mural depicts Handy’s magic moment. Another is about Sonny Boy Williamson II, and includes...

    (pp. 131-149)

    The welcome signs note that Greenwood is the Cotton Capital of the World, and a billboard labels the town “Home of Mississippi’s most productive workforce.” To blues fans, this town of twenty thousand on the eastern edge of the Delta is where Robert Johnson sang his last song and died so young.

    The Civic Center, Highway 7 at Carrollton Avenue, sometimes hosts soul-blues concerts, including a Cotton Capitol Blues Festival in October. The River to the Rails festival, held in April or May in downtown Greenwood, includes blues. The Alluvian Hotel, 318 Howard St., features music regularly in its lobby,...

    (pp. 151-181)

    The Delta’s largest city, Greenville has a long blues heritage centered on its infamous Nelson Street. It also hosts the region’s biggest and oldest blues festival. In recent years, spurred by the development of waterfront casinos, Greenville nightlife has heated up. The music scene has moved, however, from authentic-but-decaying Nelson to the newly redeveloped Walnut Street, closer to the casinos.

    Among the must-see Greenville-area blues musicians is Eddie Cusic of Leland, who took a young Little Milton into his band in the 1950s, then later set down his electric guitar to become a powerful solo acoustic singer-guitarist. Electric guitarist T-Model...

  11. Chapter 8 THE JACKSON AREA
    (pp. 183-212)

    The state capital, being outside the Delta, does not conjure up “blues” in the popular imagination the way other Mississippi locations do. Even those on the Library of Congress field-recording trips largely ignored Jackson, presuming that it was too urban to have real folk singers.

    But, as Sam Chatmon observed, the town actually has a strong blues tradition, one that goes back a long way and continues today. Being a big city, it has always attracted musicians. Chatmon reported seeing Memphis Minnie playing on the streets of Jackson in about 1910, when she was in her early teens and already...

  12. Chapter 9 EAST MISSISSIPPI
    (pp. 213-225)

    Although it is on the opposite side of the state, the area between Meridian and Tupelo resembles the Delta in some places, with soybeans and sometimes cotton growing on flat prairies. A handful of great musicians come from this region. And the residents of this area seem to recognize their musicians as heroes, with monuments and other tributes. (Refer to map in Chapter 1.)

    Mississippi State University’s WMSV, 91.1 FM Starkville, broadcasts the blues 6 to midnight on Sundays.

    This rough, funky old town has railroad tracks everywhere and a cool-looking (but not lively) art deco downtown. Although it is...

    (pp. 227-250)

    The great folklorist Alan Lomax described what he heard in North Mississippi in the 1940s and 1950s as “an early phase of African-American music—not only that, but a clear revival of African tradition, kept alive in the Mississippi backwoods … we have found instruments, musical styles, and dancing that link the black South to the black Caribbean and, no question of it, to the dance of Africa as well.”

    In the hills, Lomax found such oddities as panpipes (also known as quills), fife-and-drum bands that used handmade cane fifes, and wall-mounted one-string guitars made from broom wire and played...

    (pp. 251-252)
    (pp. 253-258)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 259-276)