An American Pilgrimage, Part 2
How history and culture gave rise to the blues.
By Renée S. Gordon
We have been exploring the Mississippi Delta Blues Trail, following the footsteps of the bluesmen. They were born, formed and developed their distinctive styles here based on the musical roots of Africa, cultural traditions and social conditions. Part 1 of the journey was posted last week; we pick up our story…
“White folks hear the blues come out, but they don’t know how it got there.” — Ma Rainey
Greenwood, which is smack in the center of the Mississippi Delta, has claimed most of its fame as the place in 1938 where Robert Johnson met an end as shrouded in mystery as his talent. Johnson was living in Baptist Town, a poor black community, when either a lover or a lover’s husband at the Three Forks Store allegedly gave him poisoned whiskey. He died after several agonizing days at 109 Young Street.
Johnson’s estate was not settled until June 15, 2000 when C. L. Johnson was declared his son and sole heir, though he only saw him once as a baby. The estate records, E-380, are available for viewing at the Leflore County Courthouse. Personal documents are included in the file.
To round out the experience visit the Back in the Day Museum, 204 Young Street. It meticulously recreates the type of rooms a bluesman would have occupied. Because of vagrancy laws they faced possible arrest if they moved around during the workday.
There are three possible locations for Robert Johnson’s gravesite, Little Zion Church in Greenwood’s outskirts, Payne Chapel M. B. Church in Quito and Mount Zion M. B. Church in Morgan City. Mount Zion has emerged as the site of choice and a large tombstone indicates his place in the cemetery. The monument includes photographs and a huge amount of text. There are always offerings from international fans adorning the grave.
Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Park is dedicated to one of Mississippi’s greatest civil rights activists. She learned, at the age of 44, that blacks could vote and set out to register. After being turned away she “set her sights” on voting. In 1963 she was nearly beaten to death in Winona, Miss., but she continued in the struggle until her death.
The 10,000-acre Dockery Plantation was listed on the National Register in 2006 and is recognized by many as the birthplace of the blues. Approximately 2,000 laborers lived in this insular environment with its own store, school, churches, jukes and rail stop. The plantation became known for the skill of its musicians starting with Henry Sloan who mentored Charley Patton. Patton taught and nurtured younger musicians including Son House, Robert Johnson, “Howlin” Wolf, Honeyboy Edwards and Roebuck “Pops” Staples.
Dockery Farms remains the most perfect example of the physical layout and aura of a farm of the era. One can stand near the still-visible tracks and visualize the train coming in at week’s end bearing the sartorially splendid bluesmen, guitars in hand. They would play in the makeshift clubs where tired workers had never seen anyone looking so pretty or sounding so good. The Dockery family established and supports a research foundation to preserve the blues legacy.
Railroads began to change Delta culture in the late 19th-century and many bluesmen would take the train to points north. Riley King was one who left in 1947 and went on to fame. His story is told in Indianola in the B. B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. The museum, with 20,000-sq. ft. of space, is the largest in the world dedicated to one musician. The $14-million facility is built around the only brick cotton gin in the state and one in which King worked. The museum captures the essence of the Delta blues and the soul of B. B. King. Allow several hours for the self-guided tour.
Your experience begins with a brief orientation film and continues through King’s life and career with the creative use of memorabilia, video, artifacts, dioramas, models and audio. The story of his iconic guitar Lucille is not neglected. In the ’50s King was playing a club in Twist, Ark., when two men began to fight over a woman and accidentally set the club on fire. King escaped before realizing he had abandoned his guitar. He risked his life retrieving it, found out the lady in question was named Lucille and ever after called his Gibson guitars “Lucille” to remind him to never fight over a woman.
King has claimed Indianola as his home since he moved there in 1938 to live with relatives. In 1986 he placed his signature and hand and footprints in cement on 2nd and Church Streets where he once played for coins. He returns yearly to perform a free concert for the city.
In the Mississippi Delta, the blues have a history and a future.
– Photos by Renée S. Gordon
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.