Can the Blues Rescue the Mississippi Delta? Part 3

This is the third and final article in this series. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

On my Mississippi Delta book tour for The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu I met people working together to develop a blues tourism industry with the potential to economically rescue the Delta -- the poorest region in our nation. Not only did I fall in love with this soulful place, I came home with questions. For answers I turned to some of the folks I met there.

Q: What does the Delta offer culturally that no other place on earth does?

Matt Marshall, editor-in-chief American Blues Scene: They say the Delta starts in Memphis and ends in Vicksburg. From within those borders has come nearly everything we know and love about music in this country. From Muddy Waters to Elvis Presley, and Levon Helm and Conway Twitty from the Arkansas side of the Delta, this impoverished stretch of flat land gave our entire country a voice. There, music isn't just on the radio; it's still a way of life deeply embedded into the area's unique southern charm.

Steve LaVere, music historian, producer, owner Delta Haze Jazz-n-Blues Tees: A gateway to the heart of American Music at large and American Culture in general.

Wesley Smith, Executive Director, Greenville-Washington County Convention & Visitors Bureau: Authenticity everywhere.

Roger Stolle, owner Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art , documentary filmmaker: The beauty of the Mississippi Delta is that because it still exists in a vacuum, and each town seems to keep itself in a silo, blues music here is not homogenized. We have enough living fossils playing the blues that you can still hear distinct regional styles--from the Delta to the Hill Country.

There are younger musicians coming up, but they have access to professional lessons and today's popular music forms. To hear one-of-a-kind, they-broke-the-mold, real-deal Delta bluesmen, people need to drop what they're doing and come on down.

Q: Mississippi has the most people living below the poverty line (22.6 percent) of any state in the U.S. Can blues tourism help?

Matt Marshall, American Blues Scene: The Delta has always been known for three things: cotton, the blues and incredible poverty. In the hundred years since this reputation developed, things have gotten worse--not better. Cotton jobs dried up as processing was automated; other industrial jobs have moved on.

Blues tourism has become one of the area's biggest exports. State and local tourism commissions--and a handful of Delta residents--have done a fantastic job of realizing this early and working hard to promote it.

More people every year make pilgrimages to the area. Fans get to pay homage and enjoy the music, the people and the incredible culture, while their tourism dollars help keep area musicians employed, hotels filled and create jobs. It doesn't hurt that blues fans lead a wildly passionate and vocal--not to mention successful--grass roots movement.

The music moves everyone, and the residents treat their guests like they've just come home.

Wesley Smith, Greenville-Washington Visitors Bureau: I think blues tourism can be a piece of the puzzle. The thing that will make the biggest difference, however, is education. We have to have strong schools.

Roger Stolle, Cat Head: I have never lived in such a welfare state. Both the poverty and the contrast between the "haves" and "have nots" really are stark. Without blues/cultural tourism, authentic blues venues like Red's Lounge in Clarksdale, profiled in my and Jeff Konkel's film We Juke Up in Here!, would have probably had to drop live music from the schedule. Fortunately, as Red's traditional African-American customer base has thinned with age, it's been supplemented with visiting (mostly white, often international) fans. The juke joint experience there is like stepping into the pages of a history book. Places like Red's provide more than just music; they provide a glimpse into the culture that created the blues.

Trailer for We Juke Up In Here

Q: I saw African Americans and whites working together at top administrative levels of museums and tourist sites, yet I've read charges that blues tourism is "whitewashing" the blues, Southern racism and African American history. How do you respond?

Jim O'Neal, Research Director, Mississippi Blues Trail: An important element in the promotion and documentation of blues on the Mississippi Blues Trail, which now has 167 markers in place, has been its public acknowledgment of the troubled racial history of Mississippi. This topic has been addressed directly in the texts of a number of markers.

The Mississippi Blues Trail is a state-sponsored program. Scott Barretta and I have written the texts, and we've never been censored by any state authorities. At the Otis Rush marker dedication in Philadelphia MS, a town notorious for the 1964 murders of three civil rights activists, the mayor--an older white man--said the marker signifies a "healing process" between the races.

There's no doubt that in some places, more outside of Mississippi than in the state, the cultural and racial background of the blues, its crucial roots in African American history, and its continuation as African American expression have been "whitewashed," but that's another topic.

Matt Marshall, American Blues Scene: The history of the blues, while not always appreciated or widely acknowledged, is one of this country's most important cultural messages. Walking down the streets, ghosts of Jim Crow can still be seen. It was these atrocities and more committed against African Americans in the Delta that made the music what it was.

It's ironic that many of the blues musicians who are now so highly revered sang about the problems in the Delta, and the overwhelming challenges they faced. Many bluesmen who could leave for greener pastures did. Decades later, people are coming back to the Delta and appreciating the music. Is that a bad thing? How could it be? Every week, busloads of reverent fans spend their hard-earned dollars enjoying the music, cuisine, and culture--helping to preserve the history and messages that came from the Delta.

Wesley Smith, Greenville-Washington Visitors Bureau: What the Delta needs most is more dollars flowing into its economy. You don't market to all audiences the same way and that should be acknowledged. William Faulkner said, "To understand the world you must first understand a place like Mississippi." The chain of events that led to the creation of blues music is so complicated and emotional that it's impossible to interpret comprehensively through a magazine ad or a website. It's a story too big to encapsulate.

Once people are here, however, our "on the ground" presentation should be the truth laid bare for all to see. What created the diamonds of the Delta--black and white--its famed musicians, artists, leaders, writers and activists, was the heat of racial tension, the pressure of coming to terms with it and the passage of time to give it perspective. To attempt to soften hard truths by "whitewashing" history is counterproductive to the whole effort.

We also must discuss how to make sure the African American community sees real benefits from the promotion of blues and blues culture. There are huge benefits through increased tax revenue to the public, but we'd all like to see benefits less abstract and more direct, like jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Steve LaVere, Delta Haze: Just like the Blues itself, the Delta is undergoing a cross-culturalization that is inevitable if it is going to survive at all.

Roger Stolle, Cat Head: It's a tough subject. I may well be "part of the problem," if indeed there is a problem. I moved from the North to the Delta specifically to "organize and promote from within," because I saw so few people doing it -- white or black.

When I moved to Clarksdale, over a decade ago, we had twice as many bluesmen alive and probably four times the juke joints. Still, because there was zero promotion, there was only reliable live blues two nights a week, and even then, it was hard to find.

Today, we have live blues seven nights a week in Clarksdale, with listings on Mississippi Blues Trail calendar and Delta Blues Event Calendar. We have national promotion on Sirius-XM Bluesville radio and a bi-monthly Blues Revue column. Does this mean you'll see more white folks at blues clubs, juke joints and festivals? Yes. Does it mean that you can still have an authentic, culturally relevant Mississippi blues experience? Absolutely.

The burden of history is very real here but, as your question infers, today's relatively successful blues tourism scene is the result of whites and blacks working together. That simply wasn't a reality in the past. It is today. I think that is progress and good for everyone.

Q: What do you personally love most about the Delta?

Matt Marshall, American Blues Scene: There's history in the land...and it still sings.

Steve LaVere, Delta Haze: That this is the place that gave birth to the Blues. This is where all the stomping grounds of the great bluesmen are, as well as the scenes of Civil War battles.

Wesley Smith, Greenville-Washington Visitors Bureau: My favorite memories over the years are the impromptu musical gatherings. People here love music and if you gather five or more for any length of time, the guitars will come out.

Roger Stolle, Cat Head: The blues made me visit, but the people made me stay. Southern hospitality is a very real thing here. When you walk down the street, locals will say hello to you--and mean it.

My favorite area blues musicians include Robert "Wolfman" Belfour, R.L. Boyce, L.C. Ulmer, Robert "Bilbo" Walker, Anthony "Big A" Sherrod, Terry "Big T" Williams, Terry "Harmonica" Bean, Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, Louis "Gearshifter" Youngblood, Elmo Williams, Hezekiah Early, Robert "Lil' Poochie" Watson, Pat Thomas, Eddie Cusic, Little Joe Ayers, James "Super Chikan" Johnson, Big George Brock, James "T-Model" Ford and some younger artists like All Night Long Blues Band. If y'all find any of the names above listed on my Music Calendar, you must go. Really.

Q: I ran into many European tourists on my trip--why should Americans also value and visit the Delta?

Matt Marshall, American Blues Scene: No other music in history has made such a cultural impact on the entire world. Europeans appreciate it. God only knows why more Americans don't.

Wesley Smith, Greenville-Washington Visitors Bureau: The Europeans are easier to spot because of the accents, but Americans flock to the Delta by the thousands and this grows each year as our tourism efforts become more organized.

All of us have a soundtrack to our life both individually and as a country. Each generation's music builds on the last, and all that music traces a direct path back to the Mississippi Delta. Therefore all Americans value the Delta. Many just don't know it. Yet.

Roger Stolle, Cat Head: During Juke Joint Festival last April in Clarksdale, we had international visitors from at least twenty-three countries! Crazy, really, for a little town of 19,000 in the poor Mississippi Delta. We also had visitors from at least forty-six states.

When I lived in St. Louis, I used to tell folks it's only a six-hour drive, but it's like you flew six hours. It's a foreign close to home. This is a land trapped in time. The music here still reaches back to the beginnings of the genre. A night in a Mississippi juke joint hearing a seventy-year-old bluesman play and sing will change any fan of music or history forever. But because you can still experience this archaic art form today, doesn't mean that you'll be able to tomorrow. C'mon down to the Delta, and see for yourself.

To find out what the words in your favorite blues songs really mean, check out my book The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu and my weekly American Blues Scene magazine column, "The Language of the Blues."