I reached Vicksburg late in the morning, after four days on the road. It’s known as a historical site of the Civil War, but I knew it as Willie Dixon’s hometown.
The cafe stood on the north end of Washington Street. I sat down and ordered a cup of coffee, a toasted bagel with cream cheese and a slice of tomato. That’s my favorite breakfast, and that morning I found myself looking for anything familiar, anything that felt close to home. I even missed the morning paper, but then I figured I was probably better without it, at least for today.
During that point in March, we weren’t in full quarantine mode and businesses like this one were still allowing people to come in. About five or six were sitting inside when I arrived, a few gathered around a coffee table in cozy armchairs chatting like any ordinary day, which was fine by me. It was nice to see a little civilization again, especially when I considered that it might be one of the last times for a while.
I don’t think any of us had come to accept how dire things would get in just a few more days. At this point, the consensus was just wash your hands and eat well. Keep the immune system up. Social distancing hadn’t become a thing yet.
Still the feeling of not knowing exactly when I’d be back hit me a little harder than usual, and not just because of everything happening in the rest of the world.
This wasn’t my first visit to Mississippi, nor the second or third. I’d always driven through from California to Florida or vice-versa over the years. One time, only a few years prior, I’d stopped along Highway 61 en route to New Orleans from Nashville and slept just a few steps away from the bank of the river. That was in Rosedale, maybe a hundred miles to the north of Vicksburg.
I wrote a little in my notebook, then finished breakfast and walked upstairs toward what they called the Attic. I heard the faint sound of a piano playing, growing louder as I reached the second floor.
I stood in a vast gallery of vibrant colors, rare antiques and a few old recycled instruments; local art seemingly paying tribute to the town and it’s rich musical heritage.
The man who ran the place sat in his chair and welcomed me in, reminding me to let him know if I had any questions. He sat beside a record player. The vinyl jacket placed beside it. The sounds of the piano came in only a little scratchy, but still clear. Arthur Rubinstein playing Beethoven sonatas.
Much like central Europe, where so many well-known composers lived and worked, Mississippi was the home-state for an equal number of extraordinary American musicians in the early twentieth century. And so like with central Europe, its tempting to wonder at first whether there was something in the water at that time in history.
Here they were now, looking out at me through canvas portraits or old black and white photographs. Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, B.B. King, Albert King, Willie Dixon, Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bukka White, Skip James, and John Lee Hooker. All born in Mississippi.
I hadn’t visited many places in the state like this, places that so visibly recognized it’s history. Maybe that’s because there weren’t too many to begin with, at least no big avenues or bustling boulevards remotely close to the iconic and tourist-jammed sites like Broadway in Nashville, Beale Street in Memphis or Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
In Mississippi, there were grave sites. A few hidden plaques. A famed highway. Crossroads. And then, there was the river.
I left the gallery and made my way back outside. I turned off Washington and down Grove Street, along the slope that dips sharply down toward the river. Docked on it’s bank stood an old steamboat gleaming in white beneath the afternoon sun. It was empty and left unattended. It looked almost abandoned like a ghost ship that wasn’t supposed to be there, hiding in plain sight. There it lie, some quiet reminder of days long past.
Except they didn’t feel past at all. For me, the past was never really past. I looked out over the river which always has a funny way of reminding me of these things, typically when I need the reminder most. Maybe that’s why I always come back to it. Maybe there is something in the water.
Here the connection between the land and the music is far easier to trace than it might be in the case of Central Europe. For one thing, the origins of the blues lead back to life on the plantation before the Civil War, to the slaves who worked from sunup to sundown, who sang as a way of not simply passing time, but as a critical means of holding onto the humanity they might have otherwise lost.
They had no formal musical instruction, no understanding of theory at all. Still the music sounded as beautiful as anything ever composed under hours of intense professional or academic scrutiny, something that underscores the nature of creativity and how much is informed by human experience over theory, how it may come as much from sheer necessity as intention, if not more so.
The style, as well as the songs themselves were passed on from the slaves to their descendants, through Reconstruction and Jim Crow south, and with every generation the songs, though thematically growing more varied and complex, remained as true to the basic form as it does today.
Though its themes never avoid the harsh realities of life, such as the pain of body or spirit, poverty, jealousy or death itself, the blues frequently acknowledges love, redemption, friendship, travel and hope. Even in the case of those songs of loss–and there are many of them–the very act of singing the songs was and remains an act of survival, a means of recognizing what must be recognized before it can be overcome.
When the train left the station, it had two lights on behind
When the train left the station, it had two lights on behind
The blue light was my baby, and the red light was my mind
-Robert Johnson, “Love In Vain”
Any form of expression that acknowledges life with such a wide and sober lens is bound to stand the test of time, and rightfully so, because it’s language is universal and deeply relatable, it’s music as raw and recognizable as the forces of nature and the land itself.
For me, no other music achieves this as completely as the blues. It is more honest and unique to the history of America than anything else I know, so timeless that it feels elemental. When I hear it, I hear those who’ve come before and those who will follow. I hear the river. I can feel it flowing as gently as it has done for millennia, and will continue to do for generations to come.
It’s significance is made all the more poignant by the fact of its origin, that it was created by the same men and women who built so much of the country as we know it today, who literally laid down it’s foundations.
It’s part of a long tradition intimately tied to the history and character of this land. It is American Music. I remember that every time I play it, and every time I sing.
Somehow, through the strange and uncertain times that lie ahead, it would would help anchor me in a way few things ever could. And though some time has passed since that quiet afternoon by the river, I’m still there.
I never really left.
P.S. Here’s a playlist
we made for your listening pleasure
Our selection of personal favorites in the blues
We hope you enjoy.