The Mississippi Delta is not the same as the Mississippi River delta. The Mississippi River delta is in southern Louisiana. The Mississippi Delta is in northwestern Mississippi.
As one leaves northern Alabama and enters Mississippi heading west the hills become less steep. The land more rolling. Small farms, often with fields abandoned, dot the landscape. Tiny towns mark the intersections of state highways with US 278. Every 30 or 40 miles a town has managed to become large enough to support some big box stores and auto dealers. Then about two thirds of the way across the state the land changes quite suddenly as if God had taken a flat iron to the hills. They are gone and the land is flat. Really flat. The farm fields are huge. Hundreds of acres per field and every field is followed by another. Each ploughed or harvested depending on the crop. We have reached the Mississippi Delta. This is a long roughly triangular area of northwestern Mississippi bounded by the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. An area that’s been flooded by the Mississippi River for 10,000 years. Each flood leaving a perfectly flat layer of silt. It is some of the richest farmland in the country and once required thousands of slaves and later sharecroppers to tend the fields. As agriculture mechanized those people were no longer needed. Some moved north to Memphis and Chicago but many stayed as if attached to the land their forefathers toiled on. The Mississippi Delta has a strange attraction even if it has few jobs. It is often referred to as the poorest region of the poorest state.
It was here that tens of thousands of enslaved Africans toiled under there white masters. When they were freed they had nowhere to go and so they became sharecroppers, indentured to the sons and daughters of the slave holders. But with freedom they could travel and intermingle and form a culture unique in America. And one of the ways they expressed that culture was through music. A type of music that developed from Black gospel songs, field work chants and African rhythms. It would be called the Delta Blues. Having little knowledge of the accepted way to organize music they developed their own instrument tuning, chord progressions and lyric style. Instrumentation consisted of what they could afford, guitar, banjo and harmonica.
Little is known about the style prior to the 1920’s when recording studios found an audience for Black musicians. But the popular musicians came from Louisiana, Tennessee and Georgia. The Delta region remained an isolated backwater and only a few recordings exist form this area. But on those early recordings we hear a unique regional style of music called the Delta Blues.
Through the Delta, paralleling the Mississippi River runs a highway, US Highway 61. It begins near New Orleans and ends in Duluth but the portion of it from New Orleans to Memphis was used by itinerant Black musicians to travel from town to town, earning money on street corners and in juke joints and learning from and teaching one another. It was this part of US 61 that became known as the Blues Highway. It is this section of US 61 we are heading for. Before we get there we though we are going to make a brief stop in Tupelo, Mississippi.