North of Bentonia, the road enters the vast alluvial plain known as the Mississippi Delta. Two hundred miles long and 70 miles across at its widest point, reaching from Memphis to Vicksburg, the Delta was the original epicenter of the blues. The music emerged at the turn of the 20th century and was characterized by raw emotional intensity, the use of repetition, and bent or sliding notes on the guitar or the diddley bow, a one-stringed instrument played with a slide. Most scholars trace the blues back to the field hollers and spirituals sung by slaves, and perhaps further back to West Africa, where similar musical scales and techniques can still be heard.
The Delta was a feudal, apartheid cotton society. White landowners ruled over huge plantations, and black sharecroppers toiled in the fields. For early bluesmen like Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, playing music for money and whiskey was a way to escape hard labor, entertain a crowd, attract women and achieve a measure of freedom.
…Holmes County, an hour north of Bentonia, is the poorest county in Mississippi, with a median household income of $22,325 and 62 percent of children living in poverty. “Mechanized farming hurt this place more than anything,” says Sam Calahan, 67, a retired music promoter standing by a blues marker in the small, rough town of Tchula.
“One good-sized plantation used to employ hundreds of men,” he says. “Now it don’t take but five or six tractor drivers, and there’s nothing else. A lot of people here have been on welfare for two or three generations. The stores have closed.
…Hoover takes visitors to the grave and some civil rights locations and the dusty old preserved shack that serves as his museum. “I’m making more with my tours than my store now.”
He’d like to see more support for blues tourism from local business leaders and politicians. “I’m trying to get grants and raise money to do more. We should have a couple of blues clubs with live music, a bigger museum, a soul food restaurant. These tourists got money. They just need somewhere to spend it.”
…Clarksdale, a town of 17,000 in the northwest Delta, is the undisputed capital of Mississippi blues tourism. It has live music seven nights a week and more than a dozen festivals through the year.
…The old downtown is undergoing a major revitalization, with entrepreneurs, most of them white, opening restaurants, cafés, clubs, hotels, music stores and souvenir shops in previously run-down buildings. Many of the buildings have been left partially decrepit for a hard-bitten look.
Buster Moton, a firebrand city commissioner representing a low-income, predominantly black ward, welcomes the tourists, but says there are too many white people profiting from an African-American art form. “Blues tourism is not providing jobs for the people who really need jobs or solving any problems in my part of town,” he says. “And we’re seeing more and more white musicians playing in white-owned clubs.”
…“A lot of money has gone into buildings and tourism,” says Abel. “But these old guys like John and Duck Holmes and a few others are still playing for peanuts, when they can even get a gig. I’d like to see them honored more, because they’re the last guys playing the real thing.”
…“If we’re basing economic development on the blues, then we must be concerned about the individuals who gave us this music,” he says, speaking from his home in Jackson. “We owe them that.”
Mississippi Blues Trail | Al Jazeera America