William Faulkner, Sanctuary
That Delta. Five thousand square miles, without any hill save the bumps of dirt the Indians made to stand on when the River overflowed.
“That Delta” is not in fact a delta at all; technically it’s an alluvial flood plain, a couple of hundred miles short of the mouth of the Mississippi. The name stems from its resemblance to the fertile delta of the Nile (which also began at a city named Memphis); the extravagant meanderings of the river on its way to Vicksburg deposit enough rich topsoil to make this one of the world’s finest cotton-producing regions.
The Delta is a land of scorching sun, parched earth, flooding creeks and thickets of bone-dry evergreens, best seen at dawn or dusk, when the glassy-smooth Mississippi reflects the sun and the foliage along the banks. Though the main thoroughfare south is the legendary Hwy-61, exploring is best on the backroads, characterized by huge, silent empty views interrupted only by roadside shacks, tiny churches and the sound of the blues.
The Delta blues
The Delta blues
As recently as 1900, much of the Mississippi Delta remained an impenetrable wilderness of cypress and gum trees, roamed by panthers and bears and plagued with mosquitoes. Bit by bit land was cleared for cotton plantations, but, though the soil was fertile, white labourers could not be enticed to work in this godforsaken backcountry. After emancipation, the economy came to depend on black share-croppers, who would work a portion of the land on a white-owned plantation in return for a share (often pitifully small) of the eventual crop. As a rule, this lifestyle ensured long periods of poverty and debt interspersed with occasional windfalls; but in the Delta the returns tended to be greater than elsewhere, and blacks moved here from all over Mississippi. In 1903, W.C. Handy, often rather spuriously credited as “the Father of the Blues” but at that time the leader of a vaudeville orchestra, found himself waiting for a train in Tutwiler, 15 miles southeast of Clarksdale. At some point in the night, a ragged black man carrying a guitar sat down next to him and began to play what Handy called “the weirdest music I had ever heard”. Using a pocketknife pressed against the guitar strings to accentuate his mournful vocal style, the man sang that he was “Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog’.
This was the Delta blues, characterized by the interplay between words and music, with the guitar aiming to parallel and complement the singing rather than simply provide a backing. Though a local, place-specific music – the “Southern” and the “Dog” were railroads that crossed a short way south at Moorhead – it did not simply appear from nowhere, but combined traditional African instrumental and vocal techniques with the “field hollers” chanted by slaves and the reels and jigs then at the basis of popular entertainment.
The blues started out as young people’s music; the old folk liked the banjo, fife and drum, but the younger generation were crazy for the wild showmanship of bluesmen such as Charley Patton. Born in April 1891, Patton was the classic itinerant bluesman, moving from plantation to plantation and wife to wife, and playing Saturday-night dances with a repertoire that extended from rollicking dance pieces to documentary songs such as High Water Everywhere, about the bursting of the Mississippi levees in April 1927. Another seminal artist, the enigmatic Robert Johnson was rumoured to have sold his soul to the Devil in return for a few brief years of writing songs such as Love in Vain and Stop Breakin’ Down. His Crossroads Blues spoke of being stranded at night in the chilling emptiness of the Delta; themes carried to metaphysical extremes in Hellhound on My Trail and Me and the Devil Blues – “you may bury my body down by the highway side/So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.”
Both Patton and Johnson died in the 1930s. However, within a few years the Delta blues had been carried north to Chicago by men such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, whose electrified urban blues was the most immediate ancestor of rock ’n’ roll.
In addition to towns such as Clarksdale and Helena (in Arkansas), blues enthusiasts may want to search out the following rural sites:
Stovall Road, 7 miles northwest of Clarksdale. Where tractor-driver Muddy Waters was first recorded; a few cabins remain, though Muddy’s own is now in the Clarksdale blues museum.
Sonny Boy Williamson II’s grave
Outside Tutwiler, 13 miles southeast of Clarksdale. Parchman Farm Junction US-49 W and Hwy-32. Mississippi State penitentiary, immortalized by former prisoner Bukka White.
Hwy-8, between Cleveland and Ruleville. One of Patton’s few long-term bases, also home to Howlin’ Wolf and Roebuck “Pops” Staples.
Charley Patton’s grave
New Jerusalem Church, Holly Ridge, off US-82 6 miles west of Indianola.
Robert Johnson’s grave
Payne Chapel, Quito, off Hwy-7, roughly 6 miles southwest of Greenwood, where he was poisoned.