Most diehard fans of rock & roll will also tell you a taste of the Blues wets their appetite from time to time. This is because the two genres are kissing cousins.
The Blues originated in the deep-south before it crept its way into larger cities like Chicago. It all started in the sleepy Mississippi Delta where it was played in ramshackle dive bars and on the front porches of dilapidated wooden shacks. Nearby Memphis, just to the north, caught on pretty quickly as the bluesmen of yesterday headed to the city in hopes of putting more coins in their pockets. Memphis became the Blues capital of the world and still is to this day.
How Did We Get Here?
It took legendary blues masters like John Lee Hooker, Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson to stoke the embers of the bonfire which would erupt once their music began receiving widespread distribution. They had new and interesting guitar licks never before heard outside of their limited audience. Simplified yet soulful. Every note heartfelt.
Guitarists everywhere began mimicking their sound, but you have to live it to play it, so their interpretations were usually flavored with their own style of playing. Over time these interpretations gained a strong voice, but they had changed. There was no longer anything bluesy or soulful about them. As a result, this new music needed its own genre. Thus, Rock & Roll was spanked into existence.
Knowing all this, wouldn’t it be cool to see where it all began and how it’s doing today? Get an up close and personal glance? You can, so what are you waiting for?
Mississippi Blues Trail
Since this important part of our American heritage falls under “the arts,” it has never received the emphasis it deserves. So, if you’re as hardcore about your music as you claim to be, you’re going to have to learn some things on your own. Point your hood ornament toward Mississippi.
There is no trail per say; tidbits of important history are scattered throughout the Delta region so you’ll need to know where to go and what not to miss.
Charley Patton is considered the Father of Delta Blues. Along with two other legends, Willie James Foster and Asie Payton, Patton’s gravesite is in Holly Ridge. While you are there, visit the marker depicting where blues giant B.B. King made his very first A.M. radio appearance when he was still, Riley King.
Be sure and stop at the Blues museums in Leland and Clarksdale for a fairly thorough education. There aren’t many places where CD’s of the legends can be purchased but you can find them at either one of these places. Their displays include guitars and harmonicas, clothing worn by the artists, and a variety of other items that should crank the tractor of any music buff.
Do not under any circumstances leave Mississippi without going to Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale. You will hate yourself forever. Guaranteed. It happens to be owned by none other than Mr. Morgan Freeman and he’s been known to drink a few there on occasion. With or without him, if you want to hear authentic delta blues, and of course you do, go there. Even at lunchtime.
If you happen to be in Jackson when the sun goes down, grab a hotel and head to either Hal & Mal’s Red Room or the 930 Blues Café. Maybe hit them both.
Now, if you are done with Mississippi, point that same hood ornament north. You’re going to Memphis. It’s a short drive.
As Nashville hit songwriter Craig Monday wrote, “Memphis Ain’t no Place to Lose the Blues.” It’s everywhere. You can’t lose it. From back alley dive bars where you hear the good stuff to high-dollar nightclubs where you also hear the good stuff, Memphis offers a plethora of the best Blues musicians anywhere. Many of them are just happy to be playing on a stage. Their music is pure with no outside genre influences, and it hasn’t changed for a long, long, time.
Beale Street is where it’s happening. You can get your fill of live music without getting lost or beat up. Memphis didn’t make the list of the top 10 safest cities in the U.S. Bear this in mind.
Major legends like Muddy Waters, Albert King, Memphis Minnie, and B. B. King, played up one side of Beale St. and down the other. Just going in some of these places is a walk through history. In his younger days in Memphis B.B. King went by “the Beale Street Blues Boy.”
Make sure to visit the W.C. Handy House. Some people claim Handy created the blues but this has been the subject of debate. At any rate, Handy wrote Memphis Blues, St. Louis Blues, Yellow Dog Blues, and Beale Street Blues, using the Pee Wee Lounge on Beale as his inspiration, and his office.
Conveniently located on Beale Street, the Old Daisy Theater is where many legendary blues players performed for live audiences back in the day.
Because you also like Rock & Roll, and you happen to be in Memphis anyway, visit Sun Records where Sam Phillips first recorded a nervous teenage kid from Tupelo, Miss. by the name of Elvis Aaron Presley. You can hold one of the original microphones and stand in the very spot where this pimply faced teen recorded “That’s Alright Mamma.” What the heck, go to Graceland. Phillips later took a chance on a school teacher with coke-bottle glasses by the name of Roy Orbison. That worked out pretty well for him also.
For a comprehensive dive into the history of Memphis music, the Rock N’ Soul Museum is an important stop. In 2017, Roy Orbison, Maurice White of Earth, Wind, & Fire, Blues guitar legend Frank Stokes, the Queen of Gospel Music, Cassietta George, “Cowboy” Jack Clement, and The Memphis Horns, were all inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.
Now you’ve accomplished all of this, you can go home. If you want to. Chance are, you won’t.