The Blues is not a mood, it’s a way of life
The blues is not a feeling, even though it is talked about as an emotional state. The blues goes much deeper than just a genre of music, one of many. While these contexts may be true enough to place the idea of the blues in, those two words heave a greater meaning as soon as you scratch the surface just a little. The blues is: a way of life for many, it is a foundation, a bedrock for so many different types of music and storytelling, and it is a social history, an oral communication of shared experience. We can also safely say that all of these definitions of the blues intersect right here at the Crossroads, in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
As a blues fan, blues fan, what does it mean to you? Is the blues simply like an ingredient in a recipe for you, or is it an essential element of your life, like water? So many people around the globe connect with the blues, and find themselves reflected, and understood. Something about the fundamentally raw lyrics and rhythms common in the music, whether the tone is woeful or celebratory, permeates the static and noise that surrounds us all in the modern world, transcends border and language, and resonates in hearts and souls.
Back home in Clarksdale, Mississippi, thousands of people make their way here every year, like a pilgrimage that turns into more of a homecoming. In just a few hours in Clarksdale, many feel like they’ve been welcomed into the community. After a few days, it’s more like being adopted into a family. Many return again and again, as there seems to be an almost magnetic pull here that grounds people to the delta soil. Clarksdale manages to worm its way into many a heart, which reflects in the growing expatriate population found in the town.
Local residents include transplants from Australia, Germany, and Canada, or from the far-flung corners of the United States such as Washington state, California, New York, Florida, and New Jersey. What draws people here, makes them come back, and then what makes them stay?
There is a sense of belonging here that many have roamed far and wide to find. It is not a feeling – it is a way of life. Just ask the local bluesmen, they’ll tell you straight up. If you don’t know anything else, the blues just is life. It is in the work you do, the people you meet, the way you talk and the songs you sing. It is in the Mississippi sunsets in the fields, and in the births and deaths, running long before you and me.
The who’s who of blues
in Clarksdale, MS
It is funny to go into a record store (that’s right, #teamnewroxy still shops at record stores) and see “The Blues” or Mississippi blues as a category, a classification, a section neatly organised alphabetically. To us, the blues is not a fragment cleaved from all other forms of music, it is intertwined with other genres. In fact, the blues is not simply part of the web, but it has provided inspiration and foundation from which other music has grown. The blues is the wellspring from which much of modern music has been fed.
Rock and roll music as we know it comes straight from the blues, with its urgent, frenetic sounds and driving rhythms. One early rock and roller, Ike Turner, came from right here – Clarksdale, Mississippi. His experience in the juke joints, what he saw and heard, informed his rock and roll style, which sprouted from the Mississippi blues of his youth in Clarksdale. As a quick side note – Ike Turner is rumoured to have been an usher at the New Roxy!
Muddy Waters, another Clarksdale native, turned his days of work on the Stovall Plantation into nights of pickin’ in the juke joints to let go of the day’s toils. Following the ebb and flow of the popularity of blues music, it was rock and roll turning back to look over it’s shoulder to the long line of bluesmen that came before them that revived the genre in the 1960s. The Rolling Stones (named for a Muddy Waters song) were champions of bringing these blues legends into the spotlight once more, and to bigger audiences on an international scale.
Many of the Mississippi Blues players experienced the reverence they deserved later in life, touring Europe and elsewhere, playing for music fans who got to appreciate the living legends, the unwitting history-makers. Howling’ Wolf (White Station, Mississippi), John Lee Hooker (Tutwiler, Mississippi), and B.B. King (Indianola, Mississippi) were among the greats to tour the world to accolades for their contribution to music as a whole. Their influence continues to be felt, and documented, by younger artists who look to them for inspiration.
All of these blues greats had relocated to Chicago in the great migration, but to think that all this talent was grown under the hot Mississippi sun, and that all had spent time in the bustling community of Clarksdale, Mississippi.
History through storytelling
To examine blues music as a language is to see a history unfold. This collection of bars of music has served as a mode to tell the story of the people, and of the lives they’ve led, living and working the land. Mississippi blues encapsulates several different styles which are intrinsically tied to the land from which they originate. The rolling hills gave rise to the rolling, cyclical rhythms of hill country blues, where the flat landscape of the delta gave us the raw, introspective form.
As oral histories are relayed from generation to generation, the language changes and evolves, but the story remains the same. There is something truly magical to watch the Mississippi River flow slowly by and know that Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson wondered at the same scene. To watch a delta sunset at the Stovall Plantation, just outside of Clarksdale, is to see the same brilliant pinks and oranges from the porch of the shack where one McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters) would have sat picking his guitar at the end of a long day picking cotton in the fields.
While there may be a history of oppression in the South, the blues was something that could not be taken away, nor stifled. People gather, people laugh, people share, in spite of and in the face of adversity. The story of the people, their suffering, their triumphs, joys, desperation, failure, lust, and loathing, is all laid out note for note in the Mississippi Blues.
Even as the population dwindled in Clarksdale and the surrounding regions with the advent of the mechanised cotton picker, and as people drifted northward to seek work in the booming automotive industry in Chicago and Detroit, they carried with them the stories and the songs. While their geography may have changed, the roots run deep right back to the delta, the place where it all began.
At the Crossroads
We don’t have to tell you where Clarksdale fits into all of this. The rural landscape of Mississippi may be wide open and vast, but the close-knit town of Clarksdale has always been a connecting hub. In the sharecropping days, Clarksdale served the outlying plantations as a meeting place, a restocking center, and as an outlet of expression. You may not believe it now, but Clarksdale had more than a half dozen movie theatres up through the 1960s. You would be hard-pressed to find a parking spot outside of the New Roxy on for a Saturday afternoon showing.
The streets were packed, people walking shoulder to shoulder, in and out of the many shops lining the street. What we wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall to step into a juke joint in downtown Clarksdale, Mississippi in the 1930s and 40s. The stories, the yarns, the jokes, the laughter – you can almost hear their echoes now in these hallowed streets. This is the town where people came to share the stories of their daily lives with one another, whether they were tales of hardship, or whether they were sharing a song they had learned from another worker out on the farm.
Clarksdale was always at the crossroads, through transportation of goods, to paths intersecting traveling through the region, looking for work. This is a place where everyone ends up, it seems. All roads lead to Clarksdale. You can see it with the illumination of more and more lights on Delta Avenue and around downtown, and you can hear the laughter swelling once more in the restaurants and cafes. But over the din of conversation, you hear the tale of everyman carried through the air from juke joint to juke joint in the form of the Mississippi Blues.
Mississippi blues means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and it which can be studied, debated, argued, and pontificated on (as we are doing presently with this article), but in the end, isn’t that still just a conversation? Isn’t the very exchange of words on the topic proof of it’s relevancy to life today, and furthermore, scads of people worldwide are still creating, writing, composing, arranging, and rearranging music under the banner Mississippi Blues therefore it is still an effective form to translate the day-to-day stories of life in the modern world.
As an art form, as a fundamental folk tradition, it remains to be an effective way of transferring knowledge and emotion from one human to another. This is a culture unto itself, yet not separate. This is a culture that threads its web beyond borders and language, bridging class, and unifying all who choose to participate in the discussion. The raw honesty that is the music of the Mississippi Blues seems to draw people to it’s door, invite them in, ask them to take off their armour, and stay awhile.