• Image about Fannie Lou Hamer


A yellow crop duster circles overhead as we pass through the town of Drew, home to Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his gospel singers (incidentally, it also happens to be the hometown of quarterback Archie Manning). The Staple Singers became an influential gospel group during the civil rights movement with message songs such as “Respect Yourself.” They changed gospel lyrics such as “Woke up this morning with Jesus on my mind” to “Woke up this morning with freedom on my mind.” Other Staple favorites included “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” (1967) and “Freedom Highway” (1965).

Tutwiler, which lies 16 miles to the north, claims to be the birthplace of the blues. A mural painted on a wall tells the story: In 1903, W.C. Handy, a bandleader and cornet player in minstrel shows, was waiting on the platform to catch the train to (presumably) Clarksdale. Back in the station, though, he heard a “knife on a guitar” (slide guitar). His curiosity piqued, Handy went inside and heard a man singing “Goin’ Where the Southern Cross’ the Dog,” a song about the dangerous 90- degree crossing of the Southern and Yazoo & Mississippi Valley (nicknamed the Yellow Dog) railroads. While Handy didn’t take to the blues right away (he actually called it “the weirdest music” he’d ever heard), he soon discovered its potential. After starting a music publishing company, Handy became instrumental in bringing blues to the mainstream and earned the moniker Father of the Blues. Today, all that remains of that Tutwiler station platform is a concrete slab with a historical marker, but the tracks — still lonesome and singing the blues for those who care to listen — still stretch north to Memphis.

Outside of Tutwiler, a curving gravel lane takes us to the site where harmonica legend Aleck “Rice” Miller, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson, is buried. Emerging from the bus, I find myself immersed in the rich smell of the earth, and the thrumming sounds of insects and birds fill my head. Trees have sprung up in this country cemetery, offering some respite from the relentless heat. Previous visitors have scattered coins and guitar picks, whiskey bottles, and a few smooth stones around Williamson’s grave. From 1955 to 1965, Williamson recorded 70 songs for Checker Records; his major hit, “Don’t Start Me Talkin’, ” reached number three on the Billboard R&B charts, and later, his “Eyesight to the Blind” was performed by the Who in their rock opera, Tommy. Freeland observes that after Sonny Boy played with Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds, he remarked, “These English boys want to play the blues so bad, and they play the blues so bad.”