The Mississippi River, America’s great artery, rolls south from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. But in the first half of the 20th century, as the great barges and steamers headed downstream for New Orleans, another kind of traffic was moving north, along the railroad and highway which trace the river. This was the “Great Migration” of black workers who left the South in search of better lives.
They took with them jazz from New Orleans and blues from the Mississippi Delta and, as they travelled, they met other influences and created new sounds like rock’*’roll and soul. To follow the Mississippi today is not only to see the US in cross-section, but to trace the development of one people’s culture expressed through music. It was in the river’s lower reaches – from Memphis to its mouth – where that music was born.
Jazz was developed in New Orleans, a city like no other in America. Cultural collisions and delicious decadence – the very things which allowed African and European rhythms to come together in jazz – still permeate the city’s gilded streets.
The music, too, remains in the city’s blood. Go to cherished clubs like Tipitina’s (501 Napoleon Avenue; 001 504 895 8477; tipitinas.com), the Maple Leaf (8316 Oak Street; 001 504 866 9359; mapleleafbar.com) and Snug Harbor (626 Frenchmen Street; 001 504 949 0696; snugjazz.com) and hear for yourself.
Even if you don’t make it to Big Easy institutions like these, you’ll hear jazz seep from under the doors of almost every club, bar and hotel in the French Quarter. And, since this is New Orleans, where the good times always roll, all of it will make you want to drain your daiquiri and dance.
The Mississippi Delta
Driving into the Delta is a stirring experience for anyone who loves the blues. Cotton fields reach to the horizon, the road shimmers under the Mississippi sun, and every lonely crossroads evokes the names of some of the greatest musicians ever to emerge from America: Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and many more. The Delta Blues Museum (1 Blues Alley; 001 662 627 6820; deltabluesmuseum.org) in Clarksdale brilliantly reveals how music which would reach around the world emerged from a particular time and place.
Blues was always music to dance to, a way to forget your troubles in a dusty juke joint on a Saturday night. Some juke-joints still operate, but they are few. Po’ Monkey’s, just outside Merigold (there’s no address, it’s in a cotton field, ask around) has been open since 1963 and remains one of the most loved.
In Memphis, blues, country and gospel music fused to form rock ‘*’ roll. Much of the musical experimentation took place in the bars and clubs of Beale Street – and in church – but the most potent alchemy took place in a one-room recording studio. Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, discovered a truly astonishing roster of talent: BB King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and – most famously – Elvis Presley. Most towns of half a million or so people could only dream of finding so much talent but somehow, Memphis did it twice.
Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton opened their soul label, Stax Records (first called Satellite), in the old Capitol Theater in 1959 and over the next decade recorded the likes of Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and Booker T & the MGs. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music (926 E McLemore Avenue; 001 901 942 2535; staxmuseum.com) offers an imaginative introduction to music which reached far beyond America.
(thanx to Matthew Longhurst)