Saturday, February 09, 2008

Runnin' The Roads

Well, things are getting somewhat back to normal here in the hill region of north Mississippi after the freight train of tornadoes roared through February 5th. All that is left of the storms are the scars on the land and the people's lives who were unfortunately placed within their paths. But today was bright and sunny and the temps were in the low 60's. A beautiful day, and I hope somehow it helps to mend some of those scars.

Since the weather was so nice, I decided to do a little rambling today(runnin' the roads as it's called down here), and as I had a few chores to accomplish also, I incorporated work and play into a very enjoyable day! I live in the hill region of Mississippi which is just east of, and borders, the famed delta region and it's world renown blues artists and culture! As I was runnin' the roads, I passed through quite a few small towns and communities that lay claim to some very impressive bluesmen. If I mentioned them all, this could turn into a documentary very quick...so I thought I would cover just two of these legends. And the two I chose happen to be buried in the hill region, but only a few miles from where the bluffs abruptly drop off almost 200 feet into the delta area.

The first artist I want to mention is Mississippi Fred McDowell. Mississippi Fred is kind of special to me, as he was born in the small town of Rossville, Tennessee. The reason I feel that is special is due to the fact my family sharecropped on 320 acres just outside of Rossville, Tn. from the year 1960 - 1963. That property was owned by Berry B. Brooks who was the president of the Memphis Cotton Exchange during our tenure at this farm. This old plantation was one of many throughout Fayette County and was located on the northern side of Wolf River. I'm not sure what the name of the plantation was, but all we ever called it was the Bell Place. I've searched on the web for information but have yet to find out the history of the place. One of these days, I'll drive over there and do some research through the county records. But I digress and that's a story for another time. It's just the fact I could possibly have kicked up some of the same dirt clods that Fred did when he was young that gives me that little special feeling. And surely it's possible that I could have met some of his relatives down at the old country store? Probably not, but it's nice to imagine the possibility.

Mississippi Fred is a member of the Blues Hall of Fame and he is now buried no more than 8 miles from where I currently live. His burial site is located at the Hammond Hill M. B. Church in Como, Mississippi.

I've listened to quite a few of his older recordings and watched some of his videos that a few caring people have thankfully uploaded to the web. Fred's complete discography can be found on the American Music site. Here is one of them on video, but more can be found if a search is done. I chose this one because I think both of us had to work the same Wolf River bottomland, even if not the same ground. This tune is called, "Goin' Down to the River".



The next bluesman I want to mention is the great Mississippi John Hurt. Mississippi John was born in the small town of Teoc, Ms. but was raised in the little delta community of Avalon about twenty miles to the west of Grenada. John also worked in the cotton fields as a field hand when he was young and later as a sharecropper while he played his music for his local friends and family. Mississippi John did get the chance to record a couple of tunes that just didn't ever get off the ground during the depression era of the late 20's. John stated that he made $20 for each song he recorded. However, a man named Tom Byrd Hoskins had listened to John's recordings and set upon the trail to find this Mississippi John Hurt. I think an entire novel could be written about "Fang" Hoskins, but that is for another time!

John's performance in 1963 at the Newport Folk Festival launched his musical talents into a new direction and his fan base began to grow among the youth in the 60's and his popularity grew so, that he did a performance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. John had finally left the fields and was getting to share what he loved.

Mississippi John is also a distinguished member of the Blues Hall of Fame and much more can be learned of John at the Mississippi John Hurt Museum, which is maintained by John's grand daughter, Mary Frances Hurt Wright. Later this month, there will be a dedication ceremony honoring Mississippi John Hurt. There will be a new state "Blues Trail Marker" unveiled in Carrollton, Mississippi to honor John's contribution to the history of the blues. His contributions are some of the greatest that our state, our country, and our world have ever known.

Mississippi John Hurt was buried at Saint James Cemetery in Avalon, Ms. The burial site hunter duo, Death 2UR even have a video documenting their hunt for Mississippi John's gravesite.

There are some of Mississippi John's tunes available at the Internet Archive. The one I'm sharing here is entitled, "You Got To Walk That Lonesome Valley"



I hope you enjoy these extraordinary artist's music as much as I do. Perhaps in the near future, I'll do a little more rambling and visit a few more of these wonderful blues artists stomping grounds as I am runnin' the roads. Maybe I'll even begin a pictorial journey of the historical places they were born and even performed. At least for now, it sounds like something I really would like to do, especially with Spring just right around the corner. We shall see!

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