Tag: blues

6. Highway 61, Indianola, Miss., The Kings

From Clarksdale south along 61 to Indianola where in 1948 a 23 year old black man named Riley King with a back ground similar to Muddy Waters’ is leaving sharecropping and the juke joints behind to seek his fortune in Memphis. Shortly after he arrives in the city he gets a job writing advertising jingles and occasionally performing on WDIA, Memphis’ all Black radio station. It is here he takes on the name B. B. King. Soon King is playing the clubs on Beale Street. It was here that King developed is trade mark sound backing up is guitar and singing with horns, saxophone and piano. He began recording in 1949.

1949 was the year RCA and other recording studios dropped the term race records for recordings marketed to Blacks. The new term for race targeted recordings would be Rhythm and Blues. B.B. King had his first Rhythm and Blues hit in 1952 with his 1950 recording of “3 O’Clock Blues”.

In 1953 Elvis, senior in high school is frequenting Beale Street enamored of the flashy clothes of the bluesmen. It is on Beale Street that Elvis Presley and B. B. King meet.  King has already recorded 2 albums at Sun Records in Memphis. He suggests Presley might find work there. In August of 1953 Presley goes to Sun and pays for a few minutes of studio time perhaps hoping to be “discovered”. He records two songs on a single acetate disc which he gives to his mother. Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun, writes in his notebook “Elvis Presley, Good ballad singer. Hold”.  Elvis is not “discovered” and gets a job driving a local delivery truck.

Sam Phillips continues to run his recording studio often telling people “If I could find a white man who had the negro sound, the negro feel, I could make a million dollars.” In June of 1954 Phillips invites Presley back into the studio. “Sing everything you know.” He says to Presley. After the session he asks Presley to come back in a week. He’ll be singing his songs with 2 local musicians backing him up.

Presley returns on July 5th and works with guitarist Scotty Moore and upright bass player Bill Black. The session was not fruitful. As they decide to call it quits Presley picks up his guitar and starts into the blues number “That’s Alright (Momma)”.  Recalls Moore, “All of a sudden Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool. Then Bill picked up his bass and started acting the fool too, so started playing along with them.”

Sam Phillips sticks his head out of the recording booth and says, “I don’t know what you boys are doing but back up, find a place to start, and do it again.” He turns on the acetate recording machine. Two days later he’s delivering acetate copies of the recording to Memphis dj’s. Within days the questions are coming into the Sun Records studio. Who is this guy? Is he Black? Can I get him for an interview?

Elvis Presley’s career was launched. He was on his way to become the King of Rock and Roll but he didn’t forget his roots. In 1956 he returned to Memphis to see his friends and support WDIA the all Black radio station.

Elvis Presley and B. B. King at WDIA. 1956
Elvis Presley in the studio with Sam Phillips. 1954
The original recording of “That’s Alright”. 1954

B. B. King would later say, “When Elvis appeared at the WDIA fundraiser for Negro children he was already a big, big star. Remember this was the Fifties so for a young white boy to show up at an all Black function took guts. I believe he was showing his roots and seemed proud of those roots.”

“All our [Elvis and mine] influences had something in common. We were born poor in Mississippi, went through poor childhoods and we learned and earned our way through music. You see I talked to Elvis about music early on and I know one of the big things in his heart was this: Music is owned by the whole universe. It isn’t exclusive to the black man or the white man or any other color. It is shared in and by our souls.”

For B. B. King the journey to stardom would take longer. In 1956 the South was segregated by law and the rest of the nation segregated by custom. By then King touring the so called chitlin’ circuit, a collection of Black clubs in the South that stretched from Atlanta to San Antonio. King had developed an interpretation of the Blues that featured himself backed up by a big band sound consisting of horns, sax and keyboard. He managed to acquire a bus to move the whole band from club to club. While Presley was staying hotels King had trouble finding a hotel that would allow Blacks. Often the band members rented rooms in Black family’s homes as no hotel would allow them.

Even the restrooms were segregated. King recalled how he would drive the bus up to a gas station and say to the attendant. “Put 100 gallons in.” As soon as the attendant lifted the gas pump nozzle he’d say, “Can I use your restroom?” If the answer was ‘Its out of order.’ He’d reply, “Never mind the gas. I’ll head down the road to one that is in order.”

But the miles wore on King. He was often on the road 300 days a year. He was popular among middle age Black audiences. He was making a living but he couldn’t expand his audience. Soul music had captured younger Blacks attention and Whites made up a tiny fraction of his audience.

B. B. King singing “It’s My Own Fault” 1964

Then in 1966 a promoter called from San Francisco. He wanted B. B. King to play the Fillmore. B. B. had played the Fillmore years before when it was a major dance hall in the Black section of the city but urban renewal and gentrification had changed the neighborhood. B. B.’s manager agreed.

In February 1967 B. B. was backstage at the Fillmore waiting for the first band to finish. He took a peak between the curtains at the audience. He quickly found his manager. “I think we’re in the wrong place.” he exclaimed, “The audience, they’re White.” Yes they were in the right place he assured him.

“Then I started to get nervous. I’d never played before a White audience except when they had White night down on Beale Street. I decided to just do my best. When I walked onto the stage the audience was on their feet cheering and clapping for a full minute. There were tears running down my cheeks when I began to play. Well I guess we did alright because we got four standing ovations that night.”

He was on his way to become King of the Blues. There are no recordings of that concert. Here is a recording of a live concert in 1973 at Sing Sing Prison.

The Filmore concert changed B. B. King’s career. Before the bus could make it back to the chitlin’ circuit calls were coming in from venues in Chicago, New York and London asking if they could schedule the King of the Blues. He would go on to perform around the world with some of the biggest names in music. Before he was done he had performed for royalty, the Pope and the President, won multiple Grammy Awards, been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.

He became known as the Ambassador of the Blues for his willingness to help other musicians and his gentle kindly demeanor.

He continued to perform until a year before his death in 2015 at the age of 89. He was buried at the B. B. King Blues Museum in his hometown of Indianola, MS.

“The Blues? It’s the mother of American music. That’s what is is – the source.” B. B.  King

Well that’s it. From Indianola we’re on to Vicksburg and Natchez.  There the land is broken up by a series of bluffs and ravines and is no longer part of the Mississippi Delta region. A region that has had a powerful impact on American culture yet few take he time to explore it. Not only Blues singers but many important events in the early days of the Civil Rights movement occurred in the Delta. One could spend weeks exploring the region. We unfortunately only had four days.

5. Highway 61, Clarksdale, Mississippi

Driving into Clarksdale, MS is a bit like driving into the Great Depression era. The gas stations and fast food joints quickly give way to empty brick buildings with faded signs and logos. We stop in an empty lot to get our bearings. An older pickup truck pulling trailer pulls in and back up to a door at the side of the adjacent building. The door opens, greetings are exchanged and the men begin hauling out appliances and throwing them on the trailer, each appliance crashing onto the others.  We are discussing how to get to the Blues Museum.

“It’s down this road few more blocks. Then turn toward the railroad tracks.” Lorraine says looking at the miniature map on the cell phone.

The pickup truck with its trailer mounded with white metal cubes pulls out on to the street and disappears around the corner. We follow, heading into town.

Well we have found it but there is no place to park and it doesn’t look like it’s open. Lorraine doesn’t like the feel of the place. I look around. There’s no one around except for three Black men working in the park across the street.

“I’ll go ask them.”

I walk across the street. They look up. One is holding a running weed trimmer.

“Excuse me.” I say to the biggest man who is apparently the de facto leader of the group, ”Can you tell me if the Blues Museum is open?”

The man holds his hand up to his ear.
Louder I say, “Can you tell me if the Blues Museum is open?”
The man looks at me, shakes his head and turns to the one with weed trimmer.

“Will you shut that damn thing off?” he bellows in a voice that could be heard over most any machine.

“I’m sorry sir. Could you repeat what you were sayin’?”

“Thank you, Yes. Can you tell me if the Blues Museum is open?”

“Well, to tell you the truth I cannot. We’re not from around here. Ya see, we’re the prisoners. Go ask that man over there. He’s free.”

“You mean you’re not doing this voluntarily?” I say pointing at the weed whackers.

“No sir, we are not!”

I go ask the free man who directs us down an alley which leads to the back of a bank and then to the parking lot. As I return to the truck I notice the 3 black men are all wearing the same striped pants.

Alan Lomax arrived here in August 1941. It is here that he learns from Son House that Robert Johnson is dead. Son suggests he look up an up and coming player named Muddy. “Go out to Stovall Plantation and just ask for Muddy. They’ll know who ya mean.”

McKinley Morganfield was born in Rolling Fork in 1913 or 1915. No one is quite sure. His mother died shortly after he was born and he was raised by his grandmother as a sharecropper at Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale. His grandmother insisted he attend church and it was here he learned music in the Black gospel tradition. It was also his grandmother who gave him the nickname Muddy for his propensity to return home from playing along the creek covered in mud.

He began playing harmonica in his early teens and at the age of 17 sold the  family’s horse. He gave half the money to his grandmother and with the other half purchased a guitar from Sears & Roebuck for $2.50.  Soon he was playing the juke joints on Stovall Plantation and learning from the touring blues musicians who stopped by the Plantation. This was his life when Alan Lomax came asking for Muddy.

When Morganfield heard a white man was asking for Muddy he almost ran away thinking that they’d discovered he’d been selling whiskey on the side but he decided to stay and face the man. When he found out that Lomax wanted to record him he took him to his cabin and played by trunk of Lomax’ car into a recording machine. On hearing the recording played back he realized he could actually play music. “I can do it. I can do it.” He shouted gleefully.  Lomax returned in 1942 and recorded a second session. That second session gave Muddy ideas. The following year he headed up Highway 61 to Chicago with the aim of becoming a professional musician. Along the way he adopted the name Muddy Waters and in Chicago he discovered something new, the electric guitar.

Working in a factory during the day and playing the clubs at night Muddy Waters saved enough money to buy an electric guitar two years later. It was in the Chicago clubs he developed a style and sound that would change music. By the early 1950’s he was the charismatic star of an electric band that displayed a mystical, sexual persona with songs such as “I Want to Make Love to You”, “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Rollin’ Stone” and “I Got My Mojo Workin’”.  The success of Muddy Water’s style was not overlooked by a skinny young white boy from Tupelo, now living in Memphis and looking to hit the tour circuit and make his mark.

In 1958 Muddy Waters toured Britain. In the audience were young musicians just starting out. Among them Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Mick Jagger. Jagger would name his group after Muddy’s song “Rollin’ Stone”.

Here is Muddy Water’s 1955 recording of his song Mannish Boy.

Once we are inside the Blues Museum we are led to the one room cabin Muddy Waters grew up in. Nothing but boards nailed to a frame with newspaper glued to the walls to cover the cracks.  It was impoverished sharecroppers living in quarters like this that developed a new  and distinctly American form of music. Probably because no one had told then the right way to play music.

We leave Clarksdale on Highway 61 heading south, passing the crossroad where Robert Johnson is reputed to have made his bargain with the Devil. We are going on to Indianola to find the story behind the Kings.

4. Highway 61, Dockery Farm

We’re on our way to Cleveland, Mississippi a town on Highway 61 about 150 miles south of Memphis. For 8 miles outside of Cleveland is Dockery Farm and that farm is sometimes referred to a the birthplace of the Blues. The year is 1929 and Dockery like other farms is raising cotton on the share crop system. Mr. Dockery owns the land and the Black families that live there and labor in the fields to raise the cotton get to “share” the crop with him. But he does one thing different from the other farms. On Saturday night the tenant sharecroppers can use the barn for their own entertainment.  Not only that they can invite the sharecroppers from other farms. Dockery Farm become a place where Black musicians can gather, perform, and exchange ideas.

One day a young man named Robert Johnson showed up. He could play harmonica but barely knew how to play guitar. He got a few lessons on guitar from Son House but left after a few weeks. A year later he returned and could outplay any man at Dockery.  With techniques they’d never seen before. How did he do it in such a short time. The gossip was he had sold his soul to the devil down at the crossroads for the ability to play and sing.  Robert Johnson never denied it and he hit the road with a reputation and talent. Making money on street corners and juke joints his reputation grew  through the Delta and beyond. At the age of 27, while performing in Texas he was invited into a studio where he recorded 29 of his songs. Those recordings are the reason we know of him for in 1938 at the age of 27 he was dead, poisoned by his girlfriend’s  jealous husband.

Robert Johnson

1937 recording of Robert Johnson playing the song Crossroads

Those recordings drew the interest of someone else far from the Delta. Alan Lomax had begun traveling the country recording local music with a recording studio he had built in the trunk of his car. After hearing the recordings Lomax, in 1941, made plans to visit the Mississippi Delta. But for that part of the story we’ll have to head north on Highway 61 to Clarksdale. It was the at crossroads outside of Clarksdale where legend says Robert Johnson made his pact with the devil.

2. Highway 61, The Mississippi Delta

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.

1. Highway 61, The Cotton Gin

While travelling on a side road just off Highway 61 we came across a cotton gin. I’d been wanting to photograph some cotton bales and they had plenty in the yard. We pulled into the yard. It was clear from the noises and the cars in the yard this was an operating gin. I figured I’d better go to the office and ask permission.

“Hello ma’am.” I said to the lady behind the desk. “Would it be alright if I photographed the cotton bales outside. You see I’m from New England and, well, we’ve never seen anything like this.”

“Well of course you can. But don’t get in the way. They’re working out there. “

“Come to think of it I’m not busy right now and you folks from up north always want to see this. Y’all want a tour of the gin?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Y’all go get your wife or whatever and get right back in here.”

Well that’s what goes on at a cotton gin. All that machinery only runs about 3 months out of the year. Carolyn was quite proud of how well they tracked the cotton from field to the cotton mill. She also pointed out several times that they pay time and a half. At peak harvest season they’ll run a 12-15 hour shift. “They can make a lot of money working here. That’s why our workers come back year after year.”

“A lot of folks have a bad impression of Mississippi. But it’s not like it was years ago. Everybody’s equal now. More folks should come here and see how it is.”

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