In 2000 acclaimed filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen released O Brother, Where Art Thou? Set in late 1930s Mississippi, the film was an artsy exercise in camp, a collage of characters and characterizations that recognized no state boundaries and took liberal artistic license with its subject. The result was a compelling yet not necessarily bona fide composite containing geographical and historical ambiguity. With an intriguing story (a modern-day Odyssey) and fine cast, including the charismatic George Clooney, the film appealed to a large and appreciative audience and surprisingly emerged as the hit of the year. The true star of the film may have been the music. An accompanying compact disc served as an entertaining souvenir of the movie; according to the liner notes, it contained songs of various styles and genres, from “blues, gospel, string-band hoedowns, [and] Appalachian balladry [to] work songs and vaudeville hokum.” Yet the music’s popularity outside of the movie theater arguably owed its success to how the songs were presented on-screen, performances that served as a touchstone of common images that many people associated with rural Mississippi.
Whether it was the authentic work songs emanating from a fictional chain gang, a gospel call to a baptism beyond the banks of a muddy river, or an overall-clad itinerant trio singing “into a can” within the confines of a recording studio located in the middle of nowhere, the imagery conformed to universal perceptions of Mississippi inhabitants as inherent makers and consumers of music. Mississippians apparently tolerated tedious political campaigns and pompous windbags and blowhards—that is, politicians—because musicians were hired to perform at their rallies. Excited rural dwellers headed to town on Saturdays to enjoy live musical entertainment on the square, avidly listening to and watching energetic hillbilly bands and only grudgingly meandering in and out of nearby shops and stores to fill essential supply and grocery needs. Of course, everyone sang in sync at Ku Klux Klan meetings, and shackled black grave diggers did the same as they prepared some poor soul’s final earthly resting place. There even is a plotline that echoes the well-known legend of a nondescript African American rambler who became a phenomenal bluesman after having sold his soul to the devil at midnight at a crossroads. Indeed, O Brother, Where Art Thou? conveys the message that music, at least in Mississippi, is everywhere.
Although the movie may have overstated its case, it nonetheless made its point. Many outsiders view Mississippi as a faraway land of melody and melisma, a place where natives are as apt to break out in song as they are to talk or even breathe. After all, the Magnolia State has produced more than a few figures conventionally viewed as the stylistic pioneers of various celebrated strains of American music. Charley Patton and Robert Johnson (Delta blues), Jimmie Rodgers (country music), Muddy Waters (electric blues), B. B. King (rhythm and blues), the Blackwood Brothers (gospel), Elvis Presley (rock and roll), and Sam Cooke (soul) are but a few of the musical innovators whose lives began in Mississippi. Other prominent musicians and musical celebrities who have called Mississippi home, at least during some part of their lives, include such luminaries as David Banner, Lance Bass of NSYNC, Jimmy Buffett, Ace Cannon, Gus Cannon, John and Sam Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks, Hank Cochran, Bo Diddley, Bobbie Gentry, Faith Hill, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert King, Chris LeDoux, Brandy Norwood, Charlie Pride, Jimmy Reed, LeAnn Rimes, David Ruffin of the Temptations, Britney Spears, Roebuck “Pop” Staples of the Staples Singers, Marty Stuart, Ike Turner, Conway Twitty, Edgar Winter, Tammy Wynette, and Lester Young.
As any list highlighting the state’s accomplished performers would demonstrate, Mississippi has turned out a wide variety of musical genres and personalities. And while several styles or related derivations that are affiliated with folk or “roots music” certainly have flourished—those tethered to the blues, country music, or gospel—in no way did they corner the musical market. Nearly all categories of music have accrued adherents within the state. Classical, fine art, and theater traditions have fared well, with many favorite sons and daughters rising to prominence in privileged fields commonly thought to be exclusive to supposedly more sophisticated areas. The Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame, with its slogan, “Mississippi, birthplace of America’s music,” has inducted several individuals who may have been more comfortable performing at New York City’s Carnegie Hall or Metropolitan Opera House than they would have been at the Apollo Theater in Harlem or the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Those who have been honored as Hall of Fame inductees for their work in non-folk-related fields include such artists as John Alexander (opera), Dee Barton (classical composer), Lehman Engel (Broadway conductor), Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (concert vocalist), Samuel Jones (classical composer and conductor), Willard Palmer (classical pianist), Leontyne Price (opera), William Grant Still (classical composer), and Walter Turnbull (opera). They are a few of the maestros who have served as constant reminders that Mississippi’s musical roster and repertoire cannot be grouped into one or two genres. The obvious influence of national and international high art standards within the state’s borders reveals that Mississippi’s “closed society” may not have been as culturally isolated as conventional wisdom would have observers believe.
While classical and fine art musical legacies have been very important to the state’s cultural development, however, no one would deny that Mississippi’s most recognized musicians have sprung from and adhered to working-class traditions. People the world over have honored and revered native performers associated with the blues, country music, gospel, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, soul, dance music, hip-hop, and pop, genres that first gained a hearing not in symphony halls and musical conservatories but in juke joints, honky-tonks, bordellos, nightclubs, and churches; at festivals; and through radio, television, and the Internet. Such artists have captured the popular imagination at least in part because they represented art forms to which nearly everyone had access. The music they produced generally did not require formal training to be appreciated or replicated. It originated with ordinary people who sang in styles or played instruments that likewise could be mastered by others of similar socioeconomic and educational backgrounds and circumstances. Most important, perhaps, the music’s lyrical content addressed universal themes that corresponded to the daily experiences and needs of people everywhere. Whether they represented joy or sorrow or a response to freedom or oppression, the sounds of music seemed always to accompany work, play, and worship. Indeed, music was a constant presence in situations where people loved, laughed and cried, celebrated and mourned, lived and died.
The majority of Mississippians, therefore, like their counterparts throughout the American South, were indeed a musical people. The state’s Native American, Anglo-Celtic, and West African groups all claimed age-old musical traditions. Such ancient practices, of course, were not identical, but music was central all of the groups. Native Americans, for example, believed that music (and dance) possessed magical qualities that could be summoned to benefit those who performed or otherwise participated in its creation and reception. Music thus constituted a major component of public celebrations and religious rituals and maintained an importance in more private and personal quarters. Moreover, music served as the transmitter of an indigenous people’s history, keeping alive the stories and legends of bygone eras.
Music, particularly ballads, functioned in a similar fashion for Anglo-Celtic migrants, the large majority of whom were illiterate. In the absence of a written literature, ballads provided a journalistic perspective on past as well as more recent events. In addition, they offered guides for morality, often producing narratives that described in graphic (and frequently superstitious) detail the harmful consequences of waywardness. Yet ballads, like other forms of Anglo-Celtic music brought to Mississippi, also furnished entertainment, whether in the home or in public. Dancing to fiddle tunes during celebrations such as weddings and community gatherings, for example, represented a standard practice, a piece of cultural baggage readily transplanted to the Mississippi frontier.
As for West Africans forcibly relocated to the antebellum American South, their engagement with music was even more pronounced. Music seemed to be rooted within their cultural makeup to a degree that could be distinguished from their European counterparts. From both individual and communal settings, music served as an important connection to another world, a spiritual realm where one’s gods and ancestors dwelled in harmony. With its deep-seated emphasis on polyphonic and polyrhythmic tendencies, African music also connected enslaved people to each other. Indeed, through the melodic sounds of voices and the rhythmic swinging and swaying of bodies, West African exiles merged present with past and one with all in a manner that helped deny slavery’s power to nullify a people and a culture.
The legacies established by these original inhabitants, especially those from West Africa and Great Britain, cannot be overstated. They were central to the evolution of music in Mississippi. Yet neither can one take too lightly the rural and agricultural milieu from which the music emerged. Working behind a mule and plow, often separated by long distances from neighbors, farmers frequently sang out or hollered simply so that they could hear a human voice, even if it was only their own. Of course, those within earshot might respond, making for a distinctly convivial exchange. If nothing else, such activities helped break the monotony of rural seclusion. In addition to establishing a regimented pace, the work songs and field hollers of slave laborers relieved the boredom of isolation and repetitious toil. Characterized by improvisation and the give-and-take of call-and-response between leader and chorus, the songs could reflect either a spiritual or secular bent, referencing concerns or topics that all understood. In a rural folk society that relied almost exclusively on an agricultural existence, the emphasis on such verbal expression reiterated the importance of oral communication. For many who worked the land, whether their own or someone else’s, formal education received little attention and was routinely dismissed as unnecessary, superfluous, or out of reach. Inhabitants tended to rely on the spoken rather than the written word for information, inspiration, and entertainment. It is no coincidence, then, that music flowed from an environment where public oratory, whether in the form of political posturing, fire-and-brimstone preaching, or commodity auctioneering, played a very prominent role. Like its formidable literary tradition, which developed around the aural art of storytelling, Mississippi’s musical heritage has rested heavily on a long-standing and pervasive oral culture.
Most important to the state’s musical evolution, however, has been the relationship of its people to power. Simply put, the large majority of its citizens have possessed little real access to social, economic, political, or even racial authority and security. In a state legendary for sustaining a rigid hierarchical social and governmental structure that favored the few while ignoring the many, both black and white, the masses were marginalized. And the ramifications of systemic discrimination along racial, class, and gender lines have been horrendous. For generations, Mississippi has endured as one of the most economically challenged and politically oppressive states in the Union. Yet one unintended consequence of this situation relates directly to music. Enjoying little satisfaction associated with material acquisition, political prerogative, or social status, ordinary Mississippians turned to music, a cost-effective and seemingly apolitical means of enjoyment, release, creative sustenance, and self-expression. The blues, for example, which developed in the Mississippi Delta at the turn of the twentieth century, established a modern framework for such musical manifestations. Created by a generation of African Americans that came of age in the late nineteenth century expecting a just racial environment, the blues represented a response to the realities of lynching, political disenfranchisement, economic subordination, and the final implementation of Jim Crow segregation. It conveyed a strong sense of realism that allowed disillusioned performers and listeners to identify and relieve themselves of repressed emotions that harmed their psychological well-being. Recognizing that life epitomized a series of ups and downs, the blues embodied a perspective that encouraged perseverance in the face of defeat, failure, and oppression. It was a worldview that became the essence of working-class musical expression.
At no other time has the roots music phenomenon so central to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and perceptions of the state carried greater weight than in the early twenty-first century. Rarely seen as a vanguard, Mississippi, which habitually has languished at the bottom of all major social indexes, such as those concerned with income, education, health care, infant mortality, and environmental safety, ironically may have anticipated what the future holds for a majority of Americans. Mississippians unfortunately can relate in personal and historical terms to a transnational world of permeable borders, less governmental concern or protection for the underrepresented, and the seemingly endless growth of corporate wealth and power at the expense of workers and citizens. Yet as residents of the Magnolia State have demonstrated, resistance to such oppressive versions of modern society can be mounted—through music.
- William Barlow, Looking up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture (1989)
- Samuel Charters, The Country Blues (1959)
- James L. Dickerson, Mojo Triangle: Birthplace of Country, Blues, Jazz, and Rock ’n’ Roll (2005)
- Dena Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (1977)
- David Evans, Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues (1987)
- William Ferris, Blues from the Delta (1984)
- Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music (2000)
- Charles Hamm, Music in the New World (1983)
- Charles Joyner, Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture (1999)
- Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (1977)
- Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began (1992)
- Bill C. Malone, Country Music USA (2nd rev. ed., 2002)
- Bill C. Malone, Don’t Get above Your Raisin’: Country Music and the Southern Working Class (2002)
- Bill C. Malone and David Stricklin, Southern Music, American Music (rev. ed., 2003)
- Grady McWhiney, Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South (1988)
- Robert Palmer, Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta (1982)
- Jeff Todd Titon, Early Downhome Blues: A Musical and Cultural Analysis (1977)
- Craig Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race, and the Soul of America (1998)