The heritage of the blues in the Delta is as thick as the Mississippi mud.
Even people who think they know about the blues are overwhelmed at the number of notable blues musicians who came from the Mississippi Delta, the cradle of the blues, explained Jay Sieleman, executive director of the Blues Foundation, based in Memphis, Tenn.
In the foundation’s office is a map that is marked with important spots — places where blues musicians lived, worked, performed, died and were buried, Sieleman said.
Names like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Joe Willie “Pine Top” Perkins, W.C. Handy, John Lee Hooker and Bessie Smith come to mind.
It was the plantation workers, those who came forth from the cotton fields to pursue their music, and to find something other than work in the cotton fields.
“We’re talking the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s; travel was slow and money was tight. Maybe they made it to Clarksdale, Miss., or Helena, Ark., before moving on to Memphis — the closest large city to where the music had its birth,” Sieleman explained.
Even though Memphis in in Tenn., it is the capital of the Delta, the gateway to the Delta, he said.
The Delta is full of blues history —and thanks to efforts of the state of Mississippi, blues travelers can follow the Blues Trail, where they will see markers explaining the importance of the various sites.
The Web site, www. msbluestrail. org/ blues_trail, lists where the markers are located and where other markers will be found in the future as the project progresses.
According to the Web site, “The Mississippi Blues Trail will be composed of more than 100 historical markers and interpretive sites located throughout the state.”
Each site will be identified with a marker, featuring high resolution maps, photographs and text. Some of these sites will eventually employ the latest technology to allow visitors to hear the sounds associated with the location. A detailed Blues Trail map also will be available that will provide driving directions, GPS coordinates and basic information for each site.
Memphis is the regional headquarters for the area, Sieleman said.
“The center of the cotton industry was in Memphis, and as the biggest city in the area, when the African Americans left the farms, they went to Beale Street,” he said.
Commerce, entertainment, doctors, insurance companies, attorneys — all were located on Beale Street.
According to the Web site, www.bealestreet.com, “Beale Street is one of the most famous streets in Memphis, and it is the soul of old Memphis. Aside from the bustling cotton trade on the cobblestone banks of Front Street along the Mississippi, no other Memphis landmark has held such mystique, intrigue, fame and infamy over the years. As immigrants from many countries flocked to Memphis bluffs in the 1800s, homes, businesses, theaters, clubs, produce stands, houses of prostitution, churches and pawn shops appeared along Beale Street. By the 1840s, Beale Street was an affluent suburb of Memphis.”
Beale Street now is “alive and well as the city’s entertainment center,” Sieleman said. There are blocks of restaurants, shops and clubs. Every year in May, the Beale Street Music Festival features three days of music, by such diverse artists as Jerry Lee Lewis, Godsmack, Steely Dan, Taj Mahal, The Allman Brothers Band, the North Mississippi Allstars ... just to name a few.
The Blues Foundation puts on two of the most important blues events in the country, Sieleman said: The International Blues Challenge, held in late January or early February each year, and the Blues Music Awards, held in May.
The Blues Foundation — the world’s blues center — keeps the focus of the blues in Memphis.
“The foundation’s mission is to preserve blues history, celebrate blues excellence, support blues education and ensure the future of the uniquely American art form,” Sieleman said.
“In addition to its function as home of the blues, Memphis is thrice blessed,” Sieleman said.
“Sun Studios is here, where Elvis, Johnny Cash, B.B. King ... all those guys, recorded. It’s a huge thing in the history of music. There’s Elvis Presley’s Graceland, that has more visitors than any house in the country, with the exception of the White House. There’s Stax Museum of American Soul Music ... it’s fantastic, a great place to visit. If someone is a music fan, this is the place to be.”
Photo Provided - Beale Street by Night -
Beale Street is one of America’s most famous musical streets. Located in the heart of downtown Memphis, there are three blocks of more than 30 nightclubs, restaurants and retail shops. Music includes traditional blues, rhythm and blues, jazz and rock ’n’ roll. Catch a concert at Handy Park or attend one of the annual festivals or parades.