Roots of the Blues echo down the decades

BARRY O'BRIEN explores the Mississippi Delta

In the classic Coen brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, African American guitarist Tommy is said to have sold his soul to the devil.

In real life, King of the Delta Blues Robert Johnson’s legend grew over several decades because of the myth he had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical talent.

The greatest selling blues artist of all time, Johnson influenced artists such as Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones.

My wife Pat and I were on an American Duchess Mississippi river cruise and found this information in the little town of Tunica “in the middle of nothingness” in the Mississippi Delta, population about 10,000.

Many blues performers such as B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were raised in the region, as well as Johnson.

We visited the Gateway to the Blues museum on Highway 61, The Mississippi Blues Trail that runs from New Orleans to Minnesota, rivalling Route 66 as the most famous road in US music folklore.

The blues tell of the struggles of ordinary people in mighty tough times — of debt, tragedy, exploitation, lost love, death and of better times to come, played with acoustic instruments that include guitar, washboard, tea chest bass and anything that makes a tune. The term blues is thought to be a shortened version of “blue devils” meaning melancholy, sadness or depression.

Born in the Mississippi Delta of holler, call-and-response singing — one sings a line and it is repeated by everyone else — it helped pass the time and take some of the drudgery out of working in the cotton fields.

The music found its voice in juke joints where gambling, illegal alcohol and women were available against a backdrop of raucous music. These became a refuge for black people working the fields.

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