The psyche of the Deep South is influenced by the waters of the Mississippi River. And everything is nurtured into life by this river and the incredibly hot, sticky weather that the summer brings. On a Mississippi River Steamboat voyage this last summer, I experienced first-hand how the river feeds the music.
Arriving into Helena, Arkansas, I am seduced by the lush countryside and the meandering of the Mississippi River as she flows lazily downstream towards the Gulf Coast. It is early morning, yet already warm as we disembark and climb up the riverbank. Several of my compatriots and I are embarking on a quest to hear some truly great music.
We are going to a good ol’ fashioned gospel service at the local Baptist church. Afterwards, we will tour Clarksdale where many blues musicians hail from and where this style of music flourished.
The choir members at the 19th Street Baptist Church have taken time off work to perform for us.
A service sheet is distributed and the programme starts with a prayer and short message by the pastor. Then the choir kicks into gear. They bellow out songs with a passion and force that puts professionals to shame. Beautiful, stylish it may not be but it moves me to the core. I switched my recorder on as a mother and her two daughters’ belt out an a’cappella number that shakes the rafters. Soon everyone has their hands in the air and are dancing in the pews. The music and the rhythms are contagious.
After this uplifting experience I am soon travelling on to visit Clarksdale home of the delta blues. We cross back over the river and, low and behold, have left Arkansas and are now back in Mississippi! We head straight for the famous crossroads of US Hwy 61 and US Hwy 49; where Robert Johnson is reputed to have sold his soul to the devil so he could play the blues. There is a marker with a guitar to show the famous spot.
Clarksdale is also where Tennessee Williams, whose famous books and plays are legendary, spent a significant part of his childhood. Many of his characters, including those in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, are based on childhood acquaintances and people he knew from Clarksdale.
But the most fascinating place to visit is the Delta Blues Museum. Founded in 1979 and based near the old railroad tracks, there are dozens and dozens of displays dedicated to blues musicians from all over the U.S., with everything from posters, to records and guitars to clothing. A truly unique and comprehensive selection of artefacts.
It’s the exhibits celebrating the music of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Charles Musselwhite – all local musicians – that engage me. They have even erected the cabin Muddy Waters grew up in with his share cropper parents to give visitors an idea of the poverty many musicians grew up with.
Directly across the street is Ground Zero Blues Club, opened, and still run, by film actor Morgan Freeman. Serving up delta blues music and southern fried food, this is one hoppin’ joint I must say. I listened to a fantastic act; a singer, songwriter and blues piano player named Lala. She couldn’t hold a candle to Janis Joplin but she kept me entertained while I tucked into fried green tomatoes. Yum!
All images: Lynn Houghton
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