Monday, March 7, 2011

A Journey Up Highway 61: The Delta and Northern Mississippi

Leaving New Orleans and the southern regions of Louisiana, Highway 61 moves northwest for a few hundred miles before bending slightly, like a thirsty diviner’s rod, eastward to join up with the mighty muddy Mississippi River.  This is the route the highway will take for the next one thousand miles, following each bend and curve, cutting through eight States as it makes its way to the Minnesota North Star where it will at last terminate. 

But first, as 61 leaves Louisana, the highway-river cuts through the most fabulous flood plain in the USA: the Mississippi Delta. Home of the blues and to so many early giants of American music, the loamy, nutrient rich Delta, as writer David L. Cohn famously said, "begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg."  The land between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, is some of the richest and flattest in the world and during the 19th century the location of huge plantations worked by tens of thousands enslaved African Americans.  No wonder the hollers, field songs and work songs and remembered African rhythms gave form to the Blues, the roots of it all.

And so 61 Highway is intimately tied to the Mississippi River. And America has yet to produce a more one-eyed Mississippi River-lover and booster than the late great, John Hartford. A veritable Mark Twain of music, John Hartford, spent most of his life singing about life along the river: paddle-wheel boats, gum tree canoes, fishing, slumbering, swimming holes, escaping city life to get to the river and so on.  Plucking his banjo, stomping his foot, growling, groaning, moaning and harmonizing with his merry band of friends, Hartford, proselytized the great waterway with humour, love and some of the most heartfelt music ever produced.

So I offer you the collection Me oh My How the Time Does Fly an eighteen track collection of some of John Hartford’s most memorable songs, including the iconic Gentle on My Mind (I made my fortune on that song, he used to say), which is, ironically, not about the River he so worshipped.  Every song here is a classic and will have you smiling, snapping your fingers and humming along as you listen to it over and over.

Track listing.
1.     Skipping in the Mississippi Dew
2.     Julia Belle Swain
3.     Natchez Whistle
4.     I Would Not Be Here
5.     Miss Ferris
6.     Bear Creek Hop
7.     Cukoo’s Nest
8.     Boogie
9.     Gum Tree Canoe
10.  Slumberin’ on the Cumberland
11.  Gentle on My Mind
12.  In Tall Buildings
13.  Nobody Eats at Linebaugh’s Anymore
14.  On Christmas Eve
15.  Way Down the River Road
16.  Let Him Go, Mama
17.  Good Old Electric Washing Machine
18.  I’m Still Here
Listen here.

Mose Allison is another American original. So much so, we named our first born after him.  Born in 1927, in the small hamlet of Tippo, Mississippi, not all that far off 61, Mose Allison, released his umpteenth album in 2010 at the age of 83! His music comes out of the Delta and is rooted deep in its southern soil. It is bluesy, raw, earthy and jazzy all in one. His piano playing style is fun and seems effortless. It trips and skips and sashays all over the place sometimes punctuating, sometimes guiding and other times, bumping right up against his laid back, tongue-in-cheek lyrics. You can’t go wrong with Mose. Any number of his albums, especially those from the mid-50s to early 70s are registered in the great book of American classics.  But even his later years produced some stellar turnouts like Live in London (2002) and Gimcracks and Geegaws (1997).  But I offer you Mose Allison Sings from 1963, which includes one of his signature pieces, Parchman Farm, about the infamous max security prison, located just east of Highway 61. But that’s only one of the gems in this treasure. There’s Seventh Son, If You Live, Don’t Get Round Much Anymore and Young Man, to name just a few of the many songs that have become Allison-ised over the years.

            Track Listing:
1.     Seventh Son
2.     Eyesight to the Blind
3.     Do Nothing Until You Hear From Me
4.     Lost Mind
5.     I Got a Right to Cry Baby
6.     Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand
7.     Parchman Farm
8.     If You Live
9.     Don’t Get Round Much Anymore
10.  One Room Country Shack
11.  I Hadn’t Anyone Till You
12.  Young Man
13.  That’s Alright
Listen here.

An hour and a half up the road from Tippo, is the slightly larger town of Senatobia, Mississippi. This is where Jessie Mae Hemphill, the cowboy-hat wearing, electric guitar picking mama of the Northern Mississippi hill country was born and lived for much of her life.  In a field dominated by larger than life men with mythic appellations (Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, the three Kings) Jessie Mae Hemphill always managed to do her own thing. Which was playing her own songs, many of them in a slow laconic groove, while keeping beat with a tambourine she kept tapping with her foot.  Listening to Jessie Mae’s music will transport you to a special corner of American music, the Hill Country, that is not nearly so well known as the Delta country style of the gentlemen named above (and the myriad others).

Here’s Get Right Blues.

            Track Listing:
1.     Streamline Train
2.     Shake Your Booty (Shake it, Baby)
3.     Go Back to Your Used to Be
4.     Take Me Home With You, Baby
5.     Baby, Please Don’t Go
6.     Lord, Help the Poor and Needy
7.     Cowgirl Blues
8.     Little Rooster
9.     He’s a Mighty Good Leader
10.  All Night Boogie (Jessie’s Boogie)
11.  Loving in the Moonlight
12.  Get Right, Church
13.  Jessie’s Love Song (Tell Me You Love Me)
14.  Honey Bee
15.  Jesus Will Fix it For You

Listen here.

Near Senatobia is Como, Mississippi.  And here lived “Mississippi” Fred McDowell. McDowell was born in Rossville, Tennessee, near Memphis. His parents, who were farmers, died when McDowell was a youth. He started playing guitar at the age of 14 and played at dances around Rossville. Wanting a change from plowing fields, he moved to Memphis in 1926 where he started to work in the Buck-Eye feed mill where they processed cotton into oil and other products. He also had a number of other jobs and played music for tips. Later in 1928 he moved south into Mississippi to pick cotton. He settled in Como, Mississippi, about 40 miles south of Memphis, in 1940 or 1941, and worked steadily as a farmer, continuing to perform music at dances and picnics. Initially he played slide guitar using a pocket knife and then a slide made from a beef rib bone, later switching to a glass slide for its clearer sound. He played with the slide on his ring finger.
While commonly lumped together with Delta Blues singers, McDowell actually may be considered the first of the bluesmen from the 'North Mississippi' region - parallel to, but somewhat east of the Delta region - to achieve widespread recognition for his work. A version of the state's signature musical form somewhat closer in structure to its African roots (often eschewing the chord change for the hypnotic effect of the droning, single chord vamp), the North Mississippi style (or at least its aesthetic) may be heard to have been carried on in the music of such figures as Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, while serving as the original impetus behind creation of the Fat Possum record label out of Oxford, Mississippi.
The 1950s brought a rising interest in blues music and folk music in the United States and McDowell was brought to wider public attention, beginning when he was discovered and recorded in 1959 by Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins. McDowell's records were popular, and he performed often at festivals and clubs. McDowell continued to perform blues in the North Mississippi blues style much as he had for decades, but he sometimes performed on electric guitar rather than acoustic guitar. While he famously declared "I do not play no rock and roll," McDowell was not averse to associating with many younger rock musicians: He coached Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar technique, and was reportedly flattered by The Rolling Stones' rather straightforward, authentic version of his "You Gotta Move" on their 1971 Sticky Fingers album. (from Wikipedia)

I Do Not Play No Rock n Roll is one of the great blues albums, its possession worth the opening monologue on track one Baby, Please Don’t Go, alone.  But listen to the anger in Red Cross Store and the hope in 61 Highway and the joy in Glory Hallelujah and you’ll see why this is an essential American recording.

            Track Listing:
1.     Baby, Please Don’t Go
2.     Good Morning Little School Girl
3.     Kokomo Me Baby
4.     That’s All Right, Baby
5.     Red Cross Store
6.     Everybody’s Down On Me
7.     61 Highway
8.     Glory Hallelujah
9.     Jesus on the Mainline
10.  My Baby She Gonna Jump and Shout
11.  Long Line Skinner
12.  You Got to Move
13.  The Train I Ride
14.  You Ain’t Gonna Worry My Life Anymore
Listen here.

Next stop: Memphis, Tennessee!


Z j A k said...

What a post ***** ! I love Jessie Mae Hemphill's downhome blues for decades and I didn't know this album but few tracks...Thanks a lot ! If you want I have two other rare LPs of this amazing lady (RIP blues goddess!)and two singles. Washerman's dog is for month on my favorite blog list on >< Please, don't hesitate to do the same if you enjoy the work done to put the discography of Poly-Rythmo in 'order' (!) and share their music ! Easy bro'

ajnabi said...

cheers Mate. would love to get those other Jessie albums.
Thanks for the favoritiing.
have followed yours for awhile!

Z j A k said...

Here you'll find the first part in WAV !
I'm uploading the second one...
Cheers !

Z j A k said...

...and the B side :
Enjoy !

ajnabi said...

Thankz ZjAk
will let you know how they go!

ajnabi said...

Very nice. She's great isn't she... very unique sound. Thanks for sharing mate.