Is there such a thing as Mississippi River Music? When I bought my first blues record, back when I was a teenager and I was still smarter than my phone, that question was not on my mind at all. The album I bought, BB King’s Greatest Hits, might just have been my gateway to Mississippi River music.
I don’t remember where I first heard King’s music (probably on something we called “radio”), but The Thrill is Gone was on that album, a song I loved the first time I heard it and the reason I wanted that record. My collection has expanded to include other blues artists since then, many of whom were from the Mississippi Delta, and my interest in music of the Mississippi Valley has now grown into a fully developed obsession, driven by the pursuit of that deceptively simple question: is there such a thing as Mississippi River music?
I explored the question in a piece I wrote for Big River Magazine as part of their issue on river music (Sept/Oct 2011). The short answer turned out to be yes…and no. It’s true that much of what we call roots music has strong ties to places along the Mississippi River, but, then again, very similar styles of music developed independently in other places, too. The deeper I dig into the history of American music, the more I doubt the origin stories that have been passed around by a generation of anthropologists. Don’t get me wrong: they make for great stories; it’s just that those stories oversimplify how blues and jazz (and other roots music) came to be, and in the process they fail to give proper credit to the music that came from other places.
So I doubt that there’s a musical genre that can be confidently tied to the Mississippi River as its single source. On the other hand, there are hundreds of songs about the river. For me, that’s where the real river music is to be found.
On this site, you’ll find a (growing) list of songs that are about or mention the Mississippi River. Somewhat regularly, I post a short blog highlighting a Song of the Day. Every now and then, I get inspired by a song or a topic and craft a feature article around it. And once in a while, I chat with musicians who have been especially inspired by the Mississippi River and post an interview or profile of them.
This is a work in progress. While I’m learning something new all the time, I’m not exactly an academic expert in anything related to music. I’m just a guy who likes music. So please, don’t feel like you need a PhD in music theory to contribute to this conversation. Feel free to let me know what you think:
• What is river music to you?
• Which artists play river music?
• What musicians should I be listening to?
In the meantime, here are a few thoughts about what Mississippi River music means to some of the folks I’ve talked to.
The Mississippi River is one long oral history. And as the river flows as a thread through our nation it picks up these oral traditions of our people and you cannot separate the spoken word and the oral tradition from the music that comes out of it.
—Larry Long, Minneapolis, MN
They say the blues was born the day the West African shoreline fell from the horizon. I always liked that. If you understand that, you understand the heart and soul of American roots music.
—Ellis Kell, Rock Island, IL
The essential components of the music usually involve having African American gospel, blues, and jazz forms and then Anglo-American country and gospel and the results end up being things like rockabilly and rhythm and blues.
—Nick Spitzer, host of American Routes, New Orleans, LA
I often tell people that the Mississippi River is like the old tin can telephone that we all tried when we were kids. If you stick your ear in the river up here in Minnesota, you’ll hear all the music that travels up and down the river from New Orleans through St. Louis and north and also all the music that traveled from Lake Itasca down through St. Louis and New Orleans south.
—Charlie Maguire, Minneapolis, MN
One more thing
If you like the content at the Mississippi Valley Traveler, please consider showing your support by making a one-time contribution or by subscribing through Patreon. Book sales don’t fully cover my costs, and I don’t have deep corporate pockets bankrolling my work. I’m a freelance writer bringing you stories about life along the Mississippi River. I need your help to keep this going. Every dollar you contribute makes it possible for me to continue sharing stories about America’s Greatest River!
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2011,2015