Raised in the Mississippi Delta, the blues shaped music for generations

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Raised in the Mississippi Delta, the blues shaped music for generations

Muddy Waters Illustration: Brian Gray, USA TODAY NetworkAs the National Museum of African American Music opens its doors, journalists from the USA

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Muddy Waters
Muddy Waters
Illustration: Brian Gray, USA TODAY Network

As the National Museum of African American Music opens its doors, journalists from the USA TODAY Network explore the stories, places and people who helped make music what it is today in our expansive series, Hallowed Sound.

CLARKSDALE, Miss. — Two men — one Black, one white — arrived at Stovall Plantation on the last day of August 1941. 

John Work III, a professor from Nashville’s Fisk University, and musicologist Alan Lomax had set out to capture recordings of the music of the rural South for the Library of Congress.  

They were in the blistering heart of the Mississippi Delta that produced Charley Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson, a man who legend says sold his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar virtuosity at a crossroads roughly eight miles to the south.  

Muddy Waters' cabin on Stovall Plantation, about nine miles from Clarksdale.

Muddy Waters’ cabin on Stovall Plantation, about nine miles from Clarksdale.
Special to Clarion Ledger

Work and Lomax were looking for a sharecropper whose singing and guitar playing made him famous across the region. They found him, set up recording equipment in his flat-top wood shack and started the tape.  

“Name: McKinley Morganfield,” their subject said in a recording released decades later. “Nickname: Muddy Water, Stovall’s famous guitar picker.” 

Muddy Waters, as he soon became known, started his set with “Country Blues.” His guitar style, at once both soft and violent, accompanied a voice so powerful that it propelled him to international stardom. 

Within a few years Waters was playing clubs in Chicago, where he electrified his sound. His music stands as a link between rural blues and rock music, influencing The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton.

But while the music spread and evolved in the decades that followed, the roots of the blues remain firmly entrenched in the Delta’s fertile soil. For many here in the South, the blues is more than a musical genre, it is a way of life. 

And like its roots, this genre’s branches spread far and wide with a new generation of artists shaping its future.

Songs of work, struggle

“As far back as I can remember, I either had to plow or hoe. One of those long old 9-feet sacks standing at the old turn row.”

The lyrics of blues guitarist J.B. Lenoir’s song, “Down in Mississippi,” depict themes running through the blues, conjuring images of men and women working the land to earn a meager living, pining over lost love or other woes that strike at the heart and soul.

But the story of the blues is more nuanced than that, said Greg Johnson, blues curator in Archives and Special Collections at the J.D. Williams Library at University of Mississippi.

Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters
National Portrait Gallery/AP

“Some of that was ‘field hollers’, people singing to themselves to help pass the time when they’re doing monotonous work out in the field, picking cotton, planting corn or whatever, he said. “Some of those melodies and contours people were singing sort of developed into work songs, which would be like the field hollers but involving more than one person.”

More than a century before Lomax tracked Waters down in 1941, minstrel shows of the late 1820s became a popular form of entertainment, evolving into Vaudeville acts and musical theater, which eventually created another path to the blues of the 20th century.

The genre at this juncture began to evolve from the hardships of slavery, imprisonment and poverty.

Jazz also influenced blues music, especially in the early 20th century with female artists including Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters shaping another root structure of the blues.

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Passed down through generations

Cedric Burnside was one of “many, many” grandchildren of the late R.L. Burnside, a blues artist who brought hill country blues to the mainstream.

R.L. Burnside learned guitar in his teens in the 1940s and performed whenever he could until his death in 2005. 

“They would have house parties, starting from the time I was 5 or 6 years old,” Cedric Burnside said.

R.L. would sit in his back yard, strumming a six-string guitar, his voice wafting across fields of cotton and soybeans in north Mississippi’s hill country, Cedric said.

Cedric Burnside, a third-generation hill country blues artist, outside of his Ashland, Mississippi home on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. Burnside, who has been playing professionally since he was 13-years-old, followed in the family footsteps of his drummer father Calvin Jackson and grandfather RL Burnside, whose music saw major success worldwide late in his career.

Cedric Burnside, a third-generation hill country blues artist, outside of his Ashland, Mississippi home on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. Burnside, who has been playing professionally…
Cedric Burnside, a third-generation hill country blues artist, outside of his Ashland, Mississippi home on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. Burnside, who has been playing professionally since he was 13-years-old, followed in the family footsteps of his drummer father Calvin Jackson and grandfather RL Burnside, whose music saw major success worldwide late in his career.
Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal

Others, hearing the music, would wander over and join in song or beat a tambourine, dancing alone or grabbing a partner to move to the rhythm.

People would come from miles around to listen to his grandfather play, Cedric said. He liked what he saw and heard.

“From an early age, I knew I wanted to play (music),” he said.

Cedric took up the drums, learning by watching his father, Calvin Jackson, a young drummer who sometimes played and recorded with R.L. Burnside.

Calvin Jackson was an innovator, known for incorporating fife and drum blues as well as funk and soul into hill country blues for a musical signature that was his own.

Long before Cedric decided he wanted a career in music, the fates may have had a hand in steering his path. 

Cedric’s parents were returning to Mississippi from a gig when a pregnant Linda Jackson’s water broke, forcing the couple to find the nearest hospital. Despite being born in Memphis, Tennessee, Cedric is a lifelong resident of the Magnolia State.

Cedric Burnside has three daughters, and all have expressed an interest in music. One is studying music in college and knows how to read music — something Cedric was never exposed to in his youth.

“I think one of the things about reading (music) is you can play with just about anybody,” he said, “especially if you have a gig and need somebody who doesn’t know your music.”

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Making music, making money

Early in his career, Cedric Burnside, like many other blues artists, played for the love of music — and very little else.

“We used to play for pennies,” Burnside said. “Money-wise it’s a little better now.”

He said his grandfather never made a living with his music until he was much older, instead supporting his family through farming jobs, working long hours from sunup to well after sundown before picking up his guitar at night to play.

“I remember my Big Daddy (R.L. Burnside) telling me they used to play for $5 to $10 a night plus something to eat and drink,” he said.

Cedric Burnside performs in the 2009 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Cedric Burnside performs in the 2009 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Photo: Chris Graythen, Getty Images, Illustration: USA TODAY Network

That changed in the 1990s, when he was cast into the international spotlight. He recorded several albums in the last 10 to 12 years of his life, one of which garnered a Grammy nomination.

Soon after the turning point in his career, R.L. Burnside was able to buy some land and a trailer for his large family, said Cedric, who was about 20 at the time.

“That changed things,” he said. “That helped me get a place of my own.”

It helped in other ways, too. Cedric Burnside has been able to earn a living as a recording artist and like his grandfather, was nominated for a Grammy — twice.

Like most musical artists, though, in 2020 the coronavirus pandemic forced his performing career into an abrupt hiatus. 

Cedric Burnside has turned to other means of making a living. He performs live on social networking sites and produces merchandise to sell on his website.

Grammy Awards: These Mississippi artists were nominated in 2019

Music defines the artist

Trenton Ayers, who often performs with Cedric Burnside, also comes from a family of blues artists. His father, Earl “Little Joe” Ayers, often toured with Junior Kimbrough and was a successful solo performer.

The three elder statesmen — R.L. Burnside, Little Joe Ayers and Kimbrough — hailed from Mississippi’s hill country, so their musical styles were similar.

Trenton Ayers on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, at his home in Holly Springs, Miss.

Trenton Ayers on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, at his home in Holly Springs, Miss.
Max Gersh / The Commercial Appeal

It was in the hill country where Ayers learned to play guitar at 3 and performed his first show at the age of 6 or 7. Sports was his first love, however, hoping for a football or track career. 

Sports eventually gave way to music, and now he wants to complete his debut album and has a few other projects in the works.

”I tried to make the varsity football team,” he said, “but God didn’t grow me to be 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, you know what I’m saying?”

Geography often played a role in an artist’s musical style, too.

Bobby Rush, a bluesman who calls Jackson, Mississippi, home, is known for his high-energy shows and ramped up music.

The octogenarian, who plays guitar and harmonica, recently celebrated his musical influences with a new album that is a tribute to his blues predecessors.

Blues musician Bobby Rush
(Blues music) isn’t new. A lot of young people hear a song and don’t know where it comes from. Give credit where it is due.

“It’s one of the hardest CDs I’ve ever chose to do,” he said. “It’s easy playing it, but I want to salute people I respect and love so much and I love so many guys I couldn’t put them all on one CD.”

The new album is also a way for Rush to share his music with a younger audience who may not have had much exposure to the blues.

“(Blues music) isn’t new,” he said. “A lot of young people hear a song and don’t know where it comes from. Give credit where it is due.”

The artist defines the music

Trenton Ayers, although he’s been pegged a blues artist, isn’t boxed into the genre. He is a rock musician, too, working on a solo album that blends his musical styles. 

“People like to think of me as the blues, but I’m all over the place,” he said.

His family members had their own musical influences, with blues, soul, rhythm and blues. For Trenton, there was so much more out there.

Trenton Ayers on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, at his home in Holly Springs, Miss.

Trenton Ayers on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, at his home in Holly Springs, Miss.
Max Gersh / The Commercial Appeal

“We were all doing the same thing,” he said. “I wanted to be different. I was into the Isley Brothers and Michael Jackson, but I was also into Jimi Hendrix.”

But blues will always be part of his life and his music, Trenton said, noting he wants to stretch his boundaries, push himself outside the box.

“All these years later they done took me for what I am,” he said. “I’m the crazy one who plays something they don’t play around here. I don’t know what type of music I play — I play Trenton.”

Lessons from the past

While Cedric Burnside and Trenton Ayers were able to learn music at the feet of their fathers and grandfathers, other musicians have had to learn from afar.

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram’s family members weren’t blues artists. He grew up surrounded by gospel music. His is a first cousin of legendary country singer Charley Pride, who passed away late last year.

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram rips into guitar solo

Mississippi Clarion Ledger

Ingram found influence in many early blues artists including Johnson, Waters, Elmore James and B.B. King, he said. He hopes to inspire teens to develop a taste for blues music.

“The blues is pretty much alive and well today and is coming back,” he said. “Especially in a lot of young Black teens. We need more kids our age exploring our history in different forms and different ways.”

The 21-year-old from Clarksdale, Mississippi, is proving his mettle. Ingram shot to fame as a teenager and already has been nominated for a Grammy Award with his 2019 debut album, “Kingfish.”

Ingram continues to work on a number of new projects while the coronavirus pandemic halted touring.

‘Full circle’

Today’s blues artists pay tribute to their musical forebears, who not only paved the way but also set the standard for what blues should be.

That’s why they keep classic blues songs in their repertoire and why the genre remains virtually timeless, even as it changes, said Johnson, of the University of Mississippi. 

Early blues artists such as W.C. Handy, Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson may have been the pioneers of a new style of music, but the genre continues to evolve with each passing generation.

Blues changed with the mass production of the electric guitar and sound amplification, bringing a different sound to a once-acoustic realm.

Television, movies and commercial air travel popularized the blues on an international stage, with artists around the world creating their own versions. And in the 21st century it has changed even more with the digital world bringing even greater global influences to the genre, said Johnson.  

Some regional differences, however, are less obvious with the globalization of the blues.

“Little regional styles developed (in the early years) because you didn’t have as much outside influences coming in,” Johnson said. “A lot of these style differences are being diminished because we are so connected now.”

Bobby Rush plays music on his front porch in Jackson, Miss. Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.

Bobby Rush plays music on his front porch in Jackson, Miss. Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.
Eric Shelton/Clarion Ledger

While those distinctions have blurred, some artists are looking back again to those formative years in the Mississippi Delta. 

Rush’s new album, for instance, showcases a more vulnerable side of himself, one most fans wouldn’t recognize. But it is where he came from, he said, and it’s who he has been all along.

“Where I’ve been and where I’m going — it may not be over, but I’m certainly back to where I started from,” Rush said. “I’ve come full circle.”

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