I’m heading from my home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina to Clarksdale, Mississippi to continue my fieldwork in the music and folklore of the Mississippi Delta. This time, I’m meeting Brian Graves, another UNC graduate student who has done extensive work on James Island, South Carolina, to produce a documentary on the relationship of hip-hop to the Delta blues.
When you’re headed deep south from Memphis on Highway 61, the world starts to fall away and the Mississippi Delta assumes its place. The hand-painted signs and overcrowded, two-story clapboards that define the brutal urban poverty of south Memphis crumble into rusting tin-roofed shacks set against huge knotted fields of belabored cotton. The border between these kin forms of southern adversity has been called the “Cotton Curtain” by Reverend Jesse Jackson, and the analogy fits: about 15 miles south of the Tennessee/Mississippi border, tv signals fade, cell phones cease to work, and hopes of socioeconomic equality struggle as if trapped under the thick cotton blankets the local industry produces.
In this part of the world, the radio auto-tuner swings almost completely around the dial before finding a weak signal to pull from the air. More than likely, it’s community radio you’re hearing from the closest small town—tiny stations with tiny transmitters whose signals manage to roll over the flat Delta landscape for 20 miles in any direction. From this ether, strong black voices emerge from the midnight; each singular, each exquisite.
The first of these to register on the dial is that of West Helena, Arkansas’ KAJK 104.9:
“This is DJ Pimp Min-is-ter here with your Friday night sookie, soookie, sooook-ayyy!”
“Hello, Helena. You’re listening to party blues and oldies for grown folks only. Be grown or be gone!”
“I’m givin’ a shout out tonight to my partner, Leroy White. Let me hear you say, Leee-roy! Leee-Roy! Party down, party down!”
Keep on south, and KAKJ fades out around the Lyon exit, with Clarksdale’s WROX phasing into the dial. DJ Lady Cherry is on the microphone, conducting the night with the coy but pointed demeanor of a master blues vocalist.
“Hello, Clarksda-yullll. You’re listening to WROX, the home of Southern Soul, and I am your host, Lady Cherr-ay. Cherishhhhhhhhhhh! Cherrycherrishhhhhh! Ain’t that somethin’? Ooo-wee!”
The sights and sounds of the Delta envelop me. Here is a series of video clips, shot by my documentary partner Brian Graves, illustrating the dramatic beauty of driving into the Mississippi Delta after a heavy rain.