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Travel

Mississippi: A Deep South pilgrimage to the home of the Delta Blues

@TomTaylorFO

“That Mississippi sound, that Delta sound is in them old records. You can hear it all the way through.” – Muddy Waters. 

The moon swoops down a little lower, the buttered stars are scattered like pastry crumbs on a toddler’s black t-shirt, and the sweltering heat of daytime seems to take on a foggy chill like a milk bottle that has been left out for too long as the Hazlehurst graveyard is basked in the half-light. It was here that a significant page in the annals of modern music was written, and it was in the delta that slithers around the yard that the blues was born. 

The delta blues is a low-down, dirty shame blues,” David Edwards once said, “It’s a sad, big wide sound, something to make you think about people who are dead or the women who left you.” While perched in a graveyard the former comes to mind a little clearer than the latter, particularly in the louring Delta night.

The reason this particular graveyard is significant is that it is where one of the blues’ proudest sons and the forefather of much modern music earned his stripes: Robert Johnson. As an itinerant musician scorned by his past, Johnson travelled from Memphis to Helena and back again hoping the coax a dime with his tunes. Sadly, during the great depression even the pockets of city folk had dried up, his street corner shows drew fewer handouts, and his livelihood was in jeopardy.

His time as a second-rate city musician was becoming untenable. Famed delta players of the day like Son House, recall having to chase Johnson off their instruments for fear he would snap a string, but he was always a ubiquitous presence in the Juke Joints that they would play, that is until the day that he suddenly went away. 

The truth behind the year of no return is that he went back home to Hazlehurst, where he hooked up with local guitar hero Ike Zimmerman, (not a bad name for a guitarist). Ike taught Robert the only way to learn the blues, which may not include devilry, but it’s certainly mystical in its own right. He took Robert out to the graveyard every midnight where nobody would complain, and spirits aided the strumming. Under the stewardship of Ike, Johnson’s playing eventually blossomed, and his desire to conquer the guitar was finally met at painstaking but glorious ends.

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Now, the Mississippi cemetery remains almost eerily unchanged. The moon still hangs over it, illuminated the clawed hands of tupelo trees and the swirling stars like a nightlight through a child’s mobile. And out front, off of Highway 51, is a simple and suitably humble stone memorial honouring the star who learnt how to hone his blues into song there. 

Surrounding the site, Johnson’s well-furrowed path leaves more than a trail as the blues proves imperishable in these parts. There is a certain timeless fascination to the art form here and millions flock to bask in its evergreen glow. As Robbie Robertson once said: “I am fascinated by the places that music comes from, like fife-and-drum blues from southern Mississippi… It’s like the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll: something comes down from the hills and something comes up from the delta.”

One of the first places that Robert Johnson returned to once he began playing the blues with the ease of bird taking to flight was Clarksdale — one place of many with a shout at being the home of the blues in the south. It is here that you’ll now find the Delta Blues Museum — and the museum has far more than a shout at being the first, it is officially the debut facility to house exhibits specifically on the blues. Here you find the treasures that the likes of Big Mama Thornton, B.B. King and the likes clung to as they battled with hardships of being a musician in the south at the time and poured them into stirring songs.

Thereafter the blues in Mississippi unfurls like the serpentine trail that the stars themselves embarked upon. Scattered around the state are the shotgun shacks where Muddy Waters was born, untouched to the naked eye since he wandered out of the front door; the West Point City bars with murals to the man they call king, the Howlin’ Wolf himself; and onto Grammy Museum in Mississippi where the lowly beginnings suddenly get a little plush and remind you off both the journey of the blues and wavering path that you have been on. 

In an era where cultural hotspots are eroded by the sands of time and mitts of commercialism, the Delta South is a spot that holds the blues in rightful loving esteem. Here the start of modern music proves a timeless constant, and with the dirt roads still weaving, the bars wood floors still creaking and the people still singing, it’s easy to see that the blues and its wherewithal is a balm that simply clings to the mire of the swampy south. As Jack Nicholson said, “The blues and jazz will live forever… So will the Delta and the Big Easy”.

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