Travel through Mississippi with Smithsonian Folkways alongside this field guide curated by writer, researcher, educator, radio DJ, and documentarian Scott Barretta. Listen to the playlist and read Barretta's introductory essay and track notes below!
Mississippi is justifiably renowned for its enormous contributions to the blues—Charley Patton, Memphis Minnie, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, just to name a few—sometimes at the expense of recognizing the wide range of other musics produced here.
Its country heritage is deep—including Jimmie Rodgers, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Pride, Conway Twitty, and Marty Stuart—and gospel greats born here include Sam Cooke, Aretha’s father Rev. C.L. Franklin, Robert Anderson, and Staple Singers patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples. It’s also the home of luminaries including jazz pioneer Jimmie Lunceford, operatic soprano Leontyne Price, composer William Grant Still and soul brothers Jimmy and David Ruffin.
In taking a deep dive into the Smithsonian Folkways catalog we find an even broader glimpse of the unique voices of the Magnolia State at the grass roots level—various sacred musics, pre-blues styles, poetry, old-time country and the earliest work of one of our greatest current songwriters. It’s also an important repository of Civil Rights-era recordings, including the powerful speeches and singing of Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer.
Admittedly, this playlist is heavy on the blues, partially due to personal bias but also reflecting the interests of the documentarians for whom Folkways founder Moses Asch provided a perpetual platform. These include trailblazing jazz historians Charles Edward Smith and Frederic Ramsey, Jr., pioneer blues researcher Samuel Charters, and globe traveling folklorist Harold Courlander. Much of their work involved exploring rural areas to document older, “non-commercial” styles, often in the comfort of their homes or yards.
Field researchers also used Folkways as a way of enlightening the public about the treasures captured on 78rpm recordings. Notably, iconoclastic genius Harry Smith inspired many artists with his three-volume Anthology of American Folk Music from 1952, which introduced to long-playing vinyl Mississippi icons Furry Lewis, Charley Patton (as “the Masked Marvel”), Jim Jackson, Gus Cannon, and Mississippi John Hurt.
Don’t Drive Me Away
By R.C. Smith
From "Don't Drive Me Away / I Believe We Love Each Other" 45rpm, 502
Robert Curtis Smith (1930-2010) was raised in Holmes County in the Delta, and his blues career stemmed from a 1960 visit to Wade Walton’s Clarksdale barber shop. Also there were Chris Strachwitz, who would soon found Arhoolie Records, and British blues authority Paul Oliver, who were on an extensive blues research trip. The following year Strachwitz took Smith up to the Sam C. Phillips Recording Service for a session supervised by Elvis’ former guitarist Scotty Moore. The session resulted in an LP (Clarksdale Blues: The Blues of Robert Curtis Smith
, on Prestige Bluesville) and an Arhoolie 45rpm of sides of Smith with Moore on drums. Smith later became a gospel performer, and returned to recording in the late ’90s.
Mississippi Wants Freedom
By unknown children from the Child Development Group of Mississippi
From Head Start: With the Child Development Group of Mississippi
After the childhood education project Head Start, part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” agenda, was launched in Mississippi in 1965, its enrollment reached over 10,000. Psychologist Sol Gordon’s liner notes to this 1967 album address the massive resistance in Mississippi to the early anti-poverty program, with accounts of cross burnings, random shootings and arson at churches housing Head Start programs. “They want to destroy the CDGM precisely because freedom is the goal,” writes Gordon. The album was edited by Polly Greenberg, who helped found the Mississippi program.
Old John Booker, You Call That Gone
By Gus Cannon
From American Skiffle Bands
Veteran medicine show performer Gus Cannon (1883-1979) was born in Red Banks, Mississippi, and is best known for his work in the late ‘20s/early ‘30s with the Memphis-based Cannon’s Jug Stompers. He also recorded commercially as “Banjo Joe,” and he recalled that this song, recorded in 1956 on his five-string banjo, was one of the first he learned. Issued in 1957, American Skiffle Bands
was recorded by Samuel Charters and features a reunited Cannon’s Jug Stompers. Charters’ 1959 book The Country Blues
and a similarly titled album
on the Folkways subsidiary RBF are often pointed to as marking the beginning of the “blues revival.”
By The Hodges Brothers
From Bogue Chitto Flingding
The Hodges brothers—Felix, Ralph and James—were born in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, and mixed older string band standards with more modern country styles including vocal duets in the style/tradition of genres like country brother duos (à la the Blue Sky Boys), bluegrass, and rockabilly. “Everybody’s Rockin’” is a version of a 1956 single they cut in the wake of Elvis Presley’s breakthrough. Arhoolie’s Chris Strachwitz recorded the group in south central Mississippi in 1960 after a tip from Jackson’s Lillian McMurry, who had recorded Ralph and Felix for her Trumpet label in 1952.
Farro Street Jive (Farish Street Jive)
By Little Brother Montgomery
From Farro Street Jive
Eurreal “Little Brother” Montgomery (1906-1985) was born just south of the Mississippi state line in Kentwood, Louisiana (Britney Spears’ hometown!), and after 1942 was based in Chicago. He began playing professionally at 11, working at lumber and sawmill camps, and eventually led a popular jazz group in Jackson. He was a major influence on future piano greats Otis Spann and Little Johnnie Jones, a young Willie Dixon, and Skip James (who played both guitar and piano). Montgomery’s signature was “Vicksburg Blues.” “Farish Street Jive” referred to the social, cultural and economic center for African Americans in Jackson. This session was recorded in Chicago by Raeburn Flerlage, who shot multiple album covers and distributed Montgomery’s records for Folkways.
By sacred harp singers led by S.T. Thomas
From Fasola: Fifty-three Shape Note Folk Hymns: All Day Sacred Harp Singing at Stewart's Chapel in Houston, Mississippi
This recording, issued in 1970, is from an annual shape note singing convention held each March in northeast Mississippi that was established by R.A. “Archie” Stewart in 1959. It continued in Oxford after his death in 1977. Led here by Mississippian S.T Hawkins, “Canaan’s Land” was written in 1844 by E.J. King, a co-compiler of the influential songbook The Sacred Harp
. The term “sacred harp” alludes to the musicality of the human voice, while “shape note” refers to the use the four distinctive shapes of note heads that aid in sight-reading hymns and anthems, which are sung in four-part harmony. Houston, also the home of blues singer Booker “Bukka” White and gospel group the Pilgrim Jubilees, has long been a hotspot for shape-note singing—since the mid-’50s local AM station WCPC has broadcast a thirty-minute show every Sunday morning, drawing upon hundreds of homemade recordings.
Tight Like That
By Mississippi String Band (Tom Johnson and John Copeland)
From Music from the South, Volume 5: Song, Play, and Dance
Tom Johnson, a butcher who lived in Vicksburg’s Marcus Bottom neighborhood, and mandolinist John Copeland, were located by Frederic Ramsey, Jr. during his mid-‘50s search throughout the southwest corner of the state for a full African American string band. Their four songs included the hokum classic “It’s Tight Like That,” a 1928 hit for the duo of Tampa Red and Georgia Tom. (Georgia Tom is better known today as gospel pioneer Thomas A. Dorsey.) The best-known African American string band, The Mississippi Sheiks, were from Bolton, less than thirty miles away.
Freedom Is A Constant Struggle
By Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers
From Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers
The Chambers Brothers—Willie, Joe, George and Lester—were born in Carthage, Mississippi, and began playing gospel and folk music after resettling in California. At L.A.’s storied folk club the Ash Grove they met folksinger and activist Barbara Dane and they were soon collaborating on stage, on record, and at protests. In the liner notes to this album, Dane attributes this song to Sam Block, who led Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) voter registration efforts in Greenwood, Mississippi. A native of Detroit, Dane had earlier worked with Mississippians including Otis Spann and Willie Dixon, and she also ran the social protest-oriented Paredon Records, which is now a part of Smithsonian Folkways.
Back Water Rising
By Napoleon Strickland
From Mississippi Delta Blues Jam In Memphis, Volume 1
African American fife and drum bands were widely popular across the South following the Civil War, but by the late ’60s one of the few places the tradition remained vibrant was in the north Mississippi counties of Tate and Panola. At the time, Napoleon (or Napolian) Strickland was a popular leader, following in a local tradition represented by Sid Hemphill and brothers Lonnie Young. (Hemphill and Young were both recorded by Alan Lomax.) Here Strickland, on fife and vocals, is supported on snare drum by Otha Turner—who would later achieve renown as a group leader—and by Turner’s young daughter Bernice on bass drum. This session was recorded by Chris Strachwitz in Memphis in tandem with the 1969 Memphis Country Blues Festival. Turner’s granddaughter Sharde Thomas continues to lead the Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band.
I Have to Paint My Face
By Sam Chatmon
From Blues With A Message
Sam Chatmon (1897-1983) was from Bolton, near Vicksburg, and played and recorded with his brothers Armenter (aka “Bo Carter”) and Lonnie in the popular string band the Mississippi Sheiks in the ’30s. He later settled in Hollandale in the Delta, where an annual festival is today held in his honor. Commentary on race in early blues is often expressed through references to skin tone, but in this remarkable song Chatmon addresses the psychological injuries stemming from living under Jim Crow, cynically invoking multiple racial stereotypes. This song was recorded during a 1960 Southern recording tour by Chris Strachwitz and British blues scholar Paul Oliver.
*Content Advisory: This track contains derogatory language in the lyrics. The "n-word" was originally circulated and popularized through blackface minstrelsy and used by an American society steeped in white supremacist values, especially during the Jim Crow era, to unjustly describe and identify Black people. Click here
for more information on the track.
Introduction: Speech/When the Way is Dark and Dreary/I Heard a Call
By Richard Jolla
From Music from the South, Volume 7: Elder Songsters, 2
Richard Jolla was 76 when Frederic Ramsey, Jr. recorded him in 1954 in the Pond community in the far southwest corner of the state. Born to formerly enslaved parents on a plantation just several miles from his home, Jolla was a decade older than famous “songster” Lead Belly. His two recordings each feature a mixture of songs and speeches, and this one recounts a dream in which he encountered his former pastor and his mother, who were both deceased.
We Praise Your Holy Name
By The Mississippi Mass Choir
From The Mississippi River of Song: A Musical Journey Down the Mississippi
Written by the choir’s minister of music, Jerry Smith, "We Praise Your Holy Name" is striking for its coordination of 100 voices and soloist Alisa Patrick’s ability to rise above the group and shake the church to its foundation. The Mississippi Mass Choir was formed in 1988 by Frank Williams, who sang in his family’s influential group the Williams Brothers before joining the venerable Jackson Southernaires. As the head of Malaco Records’ gospel division, Williams auditioned singers from across the state for the Choir. Their debut album reached the top of the Billboard charts and they’ve since continued to rack up hits and awards.
Me and My Chauffeur
By Lucinda Williams
From Ramblin’ On My Mind
Lucinda Williams’ celebrated recording career began shortly after she pulled into Jackson, Mississippi in her Volkswagen bus in the fall of 1978. Williams had lived in the capital city as a child when her father, renowned poet Miller Williams, taught biology at Millsaps College, and her debut album was produced by his old friend, Tom Royals. That album, Ramblin’ On My Mind
, features mostly covers of vintage blues songs, including the Robert Johnson-penned title track and this cover of a 1941 hit by Mississippian Memphis Minnie. It was recorded at Malaco Records, which was founded in the mid-’60s—the “last soul company” remains active under its original ownership.
For us the events…./It is Something…/ Congregation: Ain't no danger-- / Since I went down-- / Congregation: Oh, Keep Your Eyes on the Fire
By Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, congregation
From The Story of Greenwood, Mississippi
In late 1962 the civil rights organization Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led in Mississippi by Bob Moses, began a voter registration drive in the county seat of Leflore County, Greenwood, Mississippi. Greenwood, a center of the local cotton industry, became a focus of the national movement—at an impromptu festival in June 1963 Bob Dylan introduced his “Only a Pawn in the Game” about recently assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers and his murderer, who was later discovered to be Greenwood’s Byron de la Beckwith. This track from the documentary album produced by Guy Carawan features Block talking about the movement’s success, local activist Fannie Lou Hamer addressing the persecution associated with her activism, and civil rights anthems from local gatherings including “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”
By Johnny Young (and Otis Spann)
From Chicago Blues
Vicksburg-born Johnny Young (1917-1974) represents here a tradition of blues mandolin in Mississippi; others include the extensively recorded Charlie McCoy and Louis Ford, who accompanied Muddy Waters on his early ‘40s Library of Congress recordings. Young moved to Chicago around 1940, and played an important role as a guitarist and vocalist in the creation of the new urban blues sound alongside fellow migrants like Muddy Waters. In this 1964 session, Young plays mandolin with Waters’ longtime pianist Otis Spann, a native of Jackson. The first stanza and basic melody derive from the Memphis Jug Band’s “Stealin’, Stealin’
,” issued in 1929, but it’s mostly a platform for trading hot licks.
I Wish I Was in Heaven Sittin’ Down
By Mississippi Fred McDowell, Annie McDowell, Hunter's Chapel Spiritual Singers
From Good Morning Little Schoolgirl
Fred McDowell was born in Somerville, Tennessee around 1904, but settled around 1940 in Como, Mississippi, where he played local juke joints and house parties. After he was recorded in 1959 by Alan Lomax, McDowell and his bottleneck slide guitar style influenced local artists including RL Burnside. Chris Strachwitz recorded three of McDowell’s albums for Arhoolie, and during a 1965 visit to Como captured McDowell and his wife at his home church—Annie would perform with him on religious songs, but not on blues. A likely inspiration for this song is a 1953 recording of “Wish I Was In Heaven Sittin’ Down
" on Duke Records by the Memphis-based Sunset Travelers.
Columbus, Mississippi Blues
By Bukka White
From Mississippi Delta Blues Jam in Memphis, Volume 2
Booker T. Washington “Bukka” White (c. 1904-1977) was born in Houston in the northeast part of the state, and was notable for his powerful vocals and slide guitar work and remarkable lyrical abilities. His recordings in the ’30s and ’40s included his signature “Shake ‘Em On Down” and others that recounted his time in the notorious Parchman Penitentiary. White settled in Memphis, where he helped cousin B.B. King start his career and became popular on the blues revival circuit. This song sounds much like his more popular “Aberdeen Blues,” which he notes lies just north of Columbus. White also sings of the nearby community of Sandyland, which lies to the south along the Tombigbee River—bluesman Willie King later played regularly there at the juke Bettie’s Place. In spoken asides White evokes Howlin’ Wolf, who was also from the area.
By Margaret Walker
From Margaret Walker Reads Margaret Walker and Langston Hughes
Poet and writer Margaret Walker (Alexander) was born in Birmingham. Before teaching literature for three decades at Jackson State University (JSU), Walker was an active participant in the South Side Writers Group alongside Mississippi native Richard Wright. The Margaret Walker Center at JSU still carries on her work. In this 1970 poem about the capital city, Walker evokes a city of flowers where Civil Rights protestors were hauled in garbage trucks to barbed wire stockades. Her description of the still beleaguered city as “the harbor of my ship of hope/the dead end street of my life” evokes a similar dualism.
Big Road Blues
By Mager Johnson
From Playing for the Man at the Door: Field Recordings from the Collection of Mack McCormick, 1958–1971
Mager Johnson (1905–1986) of Crystal Springs was the younger brother of Tommy Johnson (1896-1956): the most influential blues musician in the greater Jackson in the late ’20s. “Big Road Blues” was Tommy Johnson’s signature song. This recording was made by Texas-based researcher Mack McCormick around 1970. At the time McCormick was carrying out research for a biography of Robert Johnson, who was born in nearby Hazlehurst in 1911 but was of no relation to Mager or Tommy. More information about Mager and Tommy Johnson is available in ethnomusicologist David Evans' book Big Road Blues
The Death of Martin Luther King
By Big Joe Williams (with Charlie Musselwhite)
From Shake Your Boogie
A native of the Crawford area, just south of Columbus, Mississippi, Big Joe Williams (1903-1982) crisscrossed the country with his customized 9-string guitar for most of his life. A prolific songwriter, Williams began recording in 1929 never had more than a several year gap between sessions—his last was in 1980. Delmark’s Bob Koester, who recorded a session for Folkways in the early ’60s recalled, “I didn’t discover Big Joe—he discovered me.” In the 1960s Williams lived in the basement of Koester’s Jazz Record Mart together with fellow Mississippian Charlie Musselwhite, who plays harmonica on this late ’60s narrative ballad paying tribute to Dr. King.
By Big Jack Johnson
From The Mississippi River of Song: A Musical Journey Down the Mississippi
Mississippi is often known as the place where blues musicians came from. Even the story of Chicago blues, notably, is of those who brought the sounds of the Delta to the big city. But many musicians stayed, and from the early ’60s until his death in 2011, Clarksdale’s Big Jack Johnson was arguably the king of the Delta blues scene. Known as the “Oil Man” due to his day job driving a truck, Johnson’s music was the link between that of Muddy Waters and current torchbearers including Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. “Catfish Blues” is perhaps the Delta standard—first recorded in 1941 by Robert Petway
, it was recast by Muddy Waters as “Rollin’ Stone,” inspiring the name of a young British band.
City Called Heaven
By Fannie Lou Hamer
From Songs My Mother Taught Me
A sharecropper who famously declared that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Fannie Lou Hamer was a grassroots leader of the voting rights movement in the Delta and beyond. In 1963 she was savagely beaten in Winona after challenging segregation on interstate buses; the following year she challenged the status quo at the 1964 Democratic convention in her role as cofounder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. A traditional spiritual well known through its performance by Mahalia Jackson, “A City Called Heaven
” (aka “Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow”) signaled the determination that things would change for the better.
By Scott, Celeste and Rose Dunbar
From Music from the South, Volume 5: Song, Play, and Dance
Scott Dunbar (1910-1994) worked as a fishing guide on the isolated Lake Mary, an oxbow lake in the southwest corner of the state that was created when the Mississippi River changed course. This recording by Frederic Ramsey, Jr. from 1954 features Dunbar joined by his wife Celeste and daughter Rose. According to the liner notes, after Dunbar started playing “Easy Rider,” his family began dancing energetically and Celeste shouted out some of the lines. Inspired, Dunbar rose from his chair to join them. Dunbar later recorded for folklorist Bill Ferris and recorded an album for Azura Mazda; his protégé, Robert Cage, cut an album for Fat Possum.
By Cat Iron
From Cat Iron Sings Blues and Hymns
Blues is famous for its colorful nicknames, and Natchez’s “Cat Iron” has one of the most memorable ones, reminiscent of “Lead Belly.” Alas, it turned out to be Frederic Ramsey, Jr.’s misunderstanding of William Carradine’s last name! Carradine’s ten recordings from 1958 are split between traditional blues and gospel/spirituals, but “Jimmy Bell” stands out as an example of the “bad man ballads” (eg. “Stagger Lee,” “John Henry”) that immediately preceded the blues. He recounts Jimmy Bell’s expensive wardrobe, cynicism about the church, irresistible charm with the women, and itch to get back on the road.
Two Bugs and a Roach
By Earl Hooker
From Two Bugs and a Roach
Like his cousin John Lee Hooker, Earl Hooker was from Quitman County, not too far from Clarksdale in the Delta. He was regarded by his peers in Chicago and beyond as a “guitarist’s guitarist,” and although he led groups, he usually left the singing to others. The playful banter here between Hooker and erstwhile vocalist Andrew “Big Voice” Odom belies a serious issue—the title of the song is code for tuberculosis, which Hooker succumbed to in 1970 at just 40 years old. Accompanying him here is his longtime band mate Joe Willie “Pine Top” Perkins from Belzoni, who played for a decade in Muddy Waters’ band following the death of Otis Spann. Perkins continued playing until his death in 2011 at 97.