Blues, jazz and country – they all started in America’s Deep South. PHIL LUTTON travels down the Mississippi Delta.

The road from the gentle southern town of Oxford, Mississippi to nearby Clarksdale is Delta country through and through.

Once you cross the interstate that splits the state down the middle, jutting south from Memphis, Tennessee, the Deep South unfolds into a rambling reality of cotton fields, marching powerlines and rundown farm shacks, complete with rickety rocking chairs on even more rickety porches.

Faded American flags flutter in the breeze from facades blistered from peeling paint. The residents show an admirable patriotism in this, some of America’s poorest countryside.

Our starting point on the drive is Oxford, a refined, wealthy town home to Ole Miss – the esteemed University of Mississippi. Oxford holds a critical place in the history of the American Civil Rights movement. It was here, in 1962, that James Meredith became the first black student to enrol at Ole Miss, then a stronghold of southern prejudice. The ensuing violence on the campus left two people dead, but Meredith’s campaign paved the way for fellow black students to seek a first-class education.

Our destination, Clarksdale, is famous for reasons less political. It commands a place on a road trip for one reason and one reason only – the Blues.

The Mississippi Delta is the cradle of blues music, and Clarksdale is one of its most fabled destinations. Legend has it that blues pioneer Robert Johnson, at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, traded his eternal soul to the devil in exchange for some fearsome guitar-pickin’ talents. Judging by his musical legacy, it would appear to have been a fair deal.

Today, the crossroads is marked by a sign on a busy road, with the odd visitor pulling over to snap a shot of an unremarkable landmark in an unremarkable town. But the Delta doesn’t need signs to keep the blues traditions alive, nor has it done since the 12-bar, bent note, holler-and-answer musical tradition was born in the northern Mississippi cotton fields by enslaved black workers.

Like the rest of the Deep South, the Mississippi Delta still thrives on its musical heritage, with juke joints and blues bars, not all of which are entirely savouring, populating towns and city.

All of the south’s major tourist cities have been built on a rich musical heritage, from the scooting boots of Nashville to the blues of Memphis and jazz of New Orleans.

While the evidence of this music-rich region can be found outside the cities, the big three provide the best chance to sample the sounds that have defined the Deep South and shaped music around the world.


Souvenir shops selling ‘coonskin hats, à la Davy Crockett, confederate flags and more cowboy hats than Rooster Cogburn. Welcome to Nashville, Tennessee, the self-proclaimed Music City USA and home of country music.

The sounds of Garth Brooks wafting out past the neon Budweiser signs at the barroom door confirms that, yes, there are boot scootin’ joints lining the streets in the vibrant city centre, known as the District, although cowboys line-dancing down the streets in spurs and Stetsons aren’t the norm.

In a university city, the 10-gallon hat brigades seem to be a popular piss-take target for incoherent students. But the country bars, like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge (for a Holler and a Swaller… and don’t forget to tip the band a dollar!”) are 10 gallons of fun, even if your Wranglers didn’t make the trip stateside.

Nashville isn’t just country music – it is a haven for independent songwriters and musicians, blues, jazz, rock and bluegrass. It has outstripped its cross-state rival Memphis in recent years, cultivating the best music scene in the Deep South.

Nashville’s most famous music review is the Grand Ole Opry, a 4400-seat country music mega-hall that yodels out the beats every Friday and Saturday night in Music Valley, about 10 miles from downtown.


Think Memphis, think blues. The neon signs on world-famous Beale Street shout out the names of bars that have become synonymous with the Memphis blues sound; BB King’s, Mr Handy’s Blues Hall, Rum Boogie Café, the Black Diamond.

So important was Beale Street to the evolution of the genre that the US Congress has officially declared it the “home of the Blues”. Every night of the week, there is live music at almost all of Beale’s clubs and bars, usually to the wee hours. There are lashings of soul food to get you through the evening and don’t forget, this is catfish country, so dig on in.

About 10 miles from downtown, on Union Avenue, Sun Studios is one of Memphis’ other religious destinations for musical pilgrims.

It was here that Sam Phillips witnessed the veritable birth of rock ‘n’ roll, recording artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, BB King and, in 1955, a fresh-faced young man from Tupelo, Mississippi named Elvis Aaron Presley.

His residence, a little old shack known as Graceland, is about a 10-minute drive from the studios, which offer a 30-minute tour complete with the original Elvis recordings.

New Orleans

Music blares from every doorway in every bar on rowdy Bourbon Street in the Big Easy, but the city’s definitive contribution to popular music has been jazz.

Tracing its roots to honkytonk whorehouse piano players and impromptu slave jam sessions, the city has given world music some of its most influential names – Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Sidney Bechet.

These days, Bourbon Street can deteriorate into a rabble of frat parties and nightclubs playing bad techno, but the jazz bars are still worth seeking out. It’s also worth venturing off Bourbon Street (no, there are no looters anymore) and checking out the scene around St Peter Street in the French Quarter, where old standards like the Preservation Hall churn out some of the best jazz in town. Fritzels on Bourbon Street is another charmer, where you can hear Dixieland at its best, while Maison Bourbon on the main drag is worth a look.

Finding good jazz in New Orleans is as easy as stumbling across a pub in London. Drink in the Big Easy’s intoxicating sounds while you have the chance.

History of the Blues

What is now recognisable as the characteristic 12-bar blues music is documented from oral history and sheet music appearing in African American communities throughout the region along the Mississippi River during the first decade of the 1900s.

One of these early sites of blues evolution was along Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee – but before the days of smoky bars, blues could be heard on the slave fields. Shouts, hollers, chants and praise songs quickly expanded into simple solo songs laden with emotional and often depressing content, hence the name “the blues”.”