The Delta Factor In Great American Music

Ninth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

During the 1960s, U.S. Highway 61 was reduced to a byway in southeast Missouri—and throughout the lower Mississippi River Valley—supplanted by Interstate 55 of the new federal road system. And traveling southbound from Cape Girardeau and Scott City, where I-55 blazed over knobby foothills, motorists met a stunning vista: the great delta flatland, stretching out of sight. The interstate’s twin tracks bore straight south, seemingly melding together in the distance, with the horizon a flat line.

Southeast Missouri had been ocean coastline in eons past, an ancient embayment subsequently altered through ice ages and meltdowns, according to geologists. The modern Mississippi River stood relatively young at around 10,000 years of age, scientists calculated in the 20th century, with the delta basin composed of sediments washed from across the continental interior. Core drilling indicated more than one thousand cubic miles of sediment filled an entrenched rock valley from Cape Girardeau to New Orleans. Geologists concluded that the New Madrid Fault, notorious seismic rift of the valley, would never resolve for the encroachment of boulders far underground.

Pristine delta swamps and spillways were drained in the early 1900s, giving way to farms and communities from Missouri to Louisiana. Population influx was led by planters and sharecroppers from the Old South, escaping regions beset by soil depletion and the boll weevil. In the “reclaimed” delta, basic scenery amounted to level crop rows, on and on—gigantic expanses of cotton, corn, beans and alfalfa, framed only by fence and tree lines.

On appearances the delta seemed no place for artistic greatness to influence a civilization, yet it became the talent wellspring of American music. Multiple musical genres were impacted: gospel, jazz, blues, country, folk, and, ultimately, rock ‘n’ roll. And the primary delta factor, said music authorities and others, was the struggle of class and race for people who tried to forge a living from a harsh frontier.

“All the music culture that’s come into Memphis has come in here from poor whites and poor blacks,” said Sam Phillips, record producer, in 1979. “I think we need to take into consideration that poor whites and poor blacks came in here looking for jobs… and they were singing their hearts out. It’s not there in Chicago, or New York, or on the West Coast. It came from right here in the melting pot of human suffering.”

The delta musicians “created a sound out of the way they lived and their backgrounds and their roots,” said Al Bennett, a records magnate reared on a farm in northeast Arkansas. “I don’t think it was designed.”

“There are two choices in Arkansas…,” said singer Ronnie Hawkins, founding member of The Hawks, in 1970. “You either pick cotton for three or four dollars a day, or you can play music and get out. So there’s an awful lot of people trying to pick guitars in that area.”

As a boy Johnny Cash helped family clear tangled swampland for their meager farm at Dyess, Ark., where floodwater was a constant threat. Cash believed the experience translated later for his music, attracting wide audience. “When you work close to the earth on some poor dirt farm… you learn to understand the basic things about love and hate and what people want from life,” Cash observed.

“I think the Mississippi delta was just as fertile to American culture as the delta was in ancient Egypt,” said author Nick Tousches, biographer of Jerry Lee Lewis, in 1994. “It was where black people heard the white man’s music and made something new out of it. It was where the white man heard the black man’s music. And people say the blues came from Africa; well, I think they really came from the Deep South.”

Author Rose Marie Kinder heard lyricism in everyday delta expressions. The language of her native southeast Missouri “differs from anywhere else in the state or country,” Kinder said in 2006. “It’s subtle, perhaps, but you’ll know the true southeast Missouri vernacular when you hear it. It’s not Southern inflection, not just metaphor and certainly not just colloquialisms. It’s wit and pacing and sharp, apt observation.”

“An added pronoun or two can make music if they’re in the right place.”

Select References

Brown, T. [Prod.], & Perry, H. [Dir.] (1994). Rhythm, Country and Blues [VHS]. MCA Records: Universal City CA.

Chipmunks to Millions. (1977, Aug. 24). Manhattan Mercury KS, p. 15.

Drew, R. (1967, Aug. 19). Listen Hear. Pasadena Independent Star-News CA, p.7.

Eberhart, J.M. (2006, May 14). ‘The Land Is Rich’: Missouri Author Brings a Sense of Place to Her Writing. Kansas City Star, p. H6.

Elvis ‘Got Black Music Into White Homes.’ (1979, Aug. 17). Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman, p. 15.

Fisk, H.N. (1944, Dec. 1). Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River. U.S. Mississippi River Commission, War Department Corps of Engineers: Vicksburg MS.

Gormley, M. (1970, Feb. 13). Canadian Music Legend: The Story of an Arkansas Rock Singer and His Band. Ottawa Journal, Ontario, Canada.

Hilburn, R. (1969, July 14). Clearwater Revives Its Delta Heritage. Los Angeles Times, p. B18.

Holbrook, J.M. (1994, June 6). Interview with author at Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau.

Holbrook, J.M. (2017, Sept. 14). Email correspondence with author.

Holbrook, J.M., Snowden, J.O., & Aide, M.T. (1996, Feb. 5). Interviews with author at Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau.

Interstate 55 Portion South Opened Today. (1965, Sept. 1). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 1.

Landforms of Southeast Missouri [map]. (1987). USDA-SCS-National Cartographic Center: Ft. Worth TX.

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.