Old Man River:  History Along the MississippiApril 19-November 2, 2003

The Arts Along the River

Music of the Mississippi: The Blues, Jazz and Rock and Roll

Bald eagle and alligator crossing sign
The Upper vs. The Lower Mississippi
Music exhibit section
Artifacts, artwork, and images depicting the blues, jazz, and rock and roll were loaned from many sources.

The Blues

"The blues is a story of a small and deprived group of people who created, against tremendous odds, something that has enriched us all."
-- Robert Palmer, "Deep Blues"

The Mississippi River has been host to a musical heritage ranging from Native American drumbeats to Anglo-Celtic ballads, French folksongs to African field hollers. Emerging in the late 1800s, an original American sound drifted up from the southern cotton fields, choir lofts, juke joints, and river barges.

Distinctive songs of suffering were sung by the poorest, mostly illiterate blacks, a reaction to the demeaning existence lived by sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta. Accompanied by acoustic guitar or harmonica, these earthy songs were primitive and gritty, often called "devil music."

Eventually, bluesmen such as W.C. Handy, Robert Johnson, and Leadbelly would revolutionize American music. From 1915 to 1970, millions of African Americans migrated north, drifting to St. Louis or Chicago where the blues was electrified by transplanted Southerners Muddy Waters and B.B. King.

The Delta blues became the cornerstone of modern music. It became the basis for gospel, jazz, Dixieland, ragtime, bluegrass, country, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, soul music, even rap!

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Did you know … ?
The phrase "having the blues" can be traced back to "the blue devils" of 18th century England, which was slang for melancholy feelings.

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"What we play is life." - Louis Armstrong

A gumbo mix of blues, ragtime, spirituals, and Caribbean music erupted from New Orleans as the first sounds of jazz in the late 1890s. Musicians worked the riverboats and spread their hypnotic rhythms and brassy tones up the Mississippi, and by the 1920s and 1930s, Dixieland brass ensembles were all the rage.

The brilliant trumpet solos of jazzmen like Louis Armstrong and Iowa's own Bix Beiderbecke refined the raw sounds of the blues into universally appealing music. Armstrong, in particular, became one of the greatest celebrities of the 20th century with his "hot jazz" tempos.

In St. Louis, a "cool jazz" turn was taken to new heights by trumpet master Miles Davis in the 1950s. Davis traded frenetic jazzy notes for smooth, mournful sounds likened to smoked glass, and in the late 1970s, pioneered a new jazz-rock sound. Innovative jazz continues to excite its listeners while traditional New Orleans brass ensembles still flourish with an irresistible beat!

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Did you know … ?
Jazz was born in New Orleans' red light district of Storyville, where jazzmen such as Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong brightened the bordellos and music halls with their upbeat sound.

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Rock and Roll

"My heart's beatin' rhythm and my soul keeps singin' the blues."
- Chuck Berry, "Roll Over Beethoven"

In the Memphis music business since the late 1940s, Sam Phillips opened Sun Studios in 1952. That same year, Elvis Presley was finishing high school, Johnny Cash was in the Army, Jerry Lee Lewis was attending Bible College, and Carl Perkins was baking bread. Within a couple of years, these artists would forever change the face of American music.

The exuberant pulse of rock and roll emerged in the early 1950s, outraging the nation with its blend of guitars, piano and drums that relied heavily on the rhythms of black artists. When Elvis Presley recorded "That's All Right (Mama)" in 1954, all hell broke loose! Sun Studios had found their "white black man" with a handsome white face and a soulful black sound.

The birth of a new teenage culture discovered its identity and rebellious expression through music formed along the banks of the Mississippi. Nevertheless, most Americans viewed rock and roll as a passing phase. Popular comedian Jackie Gleason even said of Elvis, "He can't last. I tell you flatly, he can't last."

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Did you know … ?
Jerry Lee Lewis' own mother told her son, "You and Elvis are pretty good, but you're no Chuck Berry!" (Chuck Berry hails from the Mississippi river town of St. Louis.)

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This section "The Arts Along the River" has the following related pages:
Music of the Mississippi: Blues, Jazz and Rock and Roll
--B.B. King
--Sachmo and Bix, Jazzmen
--Elvis Presley

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Early Exploration and Development
River Days
view of Bellview, Iowa
Riverfront Property
Civil War enenactors
Man vs. Man
Bald eagle and conservation officer
Man vs. Nature
You are here!jazz musician
The Arts Along the River
New Orleans graveyard
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