Blues Brief - February 25th
“Long tall momma
She don't pay me no mind”
US Highway 49 would qualify as one of William Least Heat-Moon’s ‘Blue Highways.’ It tells tales of life, death, pain, and joy along its length. It is also the subject of blues legends and songs. At the southernmost point, Hwy 49 speaks of destruction and rebuilding. Gulfport was at the center of Katrina, where the legendary road meets US Highway 90 on the Gulf Coast. Just south of Hattiesburg, this major route between the coast and capital talks of bravery and loss, of sacrifice and victory. It passes by Camp Shelby, training ground to thousands of soldiers during World War II, including the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442 Regimental Combat Brigade, both made up of Japanese-Americans recruited from internment camps whose families lived and died in those camps while they were among the most decorated and decimated units during the war. Today Camp Shelby serves as a training and mobilization base to thousands of National Guardsman deploying to Southwest Asia and Afghanistan. The Mississippi capital, Jackson was in the heart of Choctaw lands, who gave it up by treaty. They had hosted French trappers and traders here on the banks of the Pearl River. The crossroads here included the Natchez Trace, along which American traders walked or rode back north from Natchez in the days before steam allowed boats to move up the Mississippi River. One of those travelers was Andrew Jackson, who gave the city its name. He moved north and south along the road long before he “took a little trip” down it in 1814 to defend New Orleans. A strategic point in the south, the city was destroyed during the Civil War.
Somewhere along the way, this blue highway becomes a blues highway. North of Jackson, Bentonia is known for the old juke joint Blue Front Café and the unique picking and guitar tuning of the “Bentonia School” style of blues. Just to the north, the route does something strange-it splits, as if the builders couldn’t decide which way to go. The eastern path goes through Greenwood, near the site of two tragedies - one real, one imagined. Here is where "Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge" in Bobbie gentry’s tale and where, in 1955 two men abducted, beat, shot and dumped 14-year old Emmett Till in the same river. On the western half, the old road wanders through the Delta, touching Belzoni, near the birthplace of Pinetop Perkins and home to Turner’s Drugstore, from which Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson broadcast the blues on Yazoo City’s WAZF. After the highway finds itself, it runs on into Clarksdale, the headquarters of Delta blues. So many artists were born, worked, or played here - WC Handy, Gus Cannon, Eddie Boyd, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker, Mack Rice, Ike Turner - that the bricks breathe blues, the roads are rock and roll, the sidewalks have soul. The legend of Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads Blues’ is here, where 49 met the old Highway 61. “ Pass the biscuits…” because US 49 passes through Helena Arkansas, home of KFFA, which has broadcast “King Biscuit Time” since 1941. The first show, only agreed to if the blues musicians could find a sponsor (which they did in Max Moore, owner of Interstate Grocer Company, local distributor of King Biscuit Flour) featured Robert Lockwood and Sonny Boy Williamson II. Over the years, the broadcasts were heard by local boys like Jimmy Rogers,”Little” Walter Jacobs, and Levon Helm. After Helena, the highway becomes a smaller road in fact and legend as it winds through the Arkansas Delta, ending up in Piggot, north of Jonesboro.
And those songs? Big Joe Williams wore out shoes and tires on many roads. Early on he traveled with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and the Birmingham Jug Band. Of course he was from Mississippi - but Crawford, across the state from US Highway 49. He traveled around the country, playing his unique 9 string guitar anywhere he could make his way. He did settle for a while in St Louis, but continued to travel to play and record. He signed a contract with Victor subsidiary Bluebird Records. In his first recording session he gave us a tale of a woman he left (or that left him) on Highway 49 in “49 Highway Blues,” recorded in Chicago on this day in 1935.