The roots of the blues are embedded deep within Washington County. From historic festivals to African American businesses, and from street corner musicians to world-renowned blues legends, Washington County has been the backdrop to many of the key individuals and events that make up the history of the blues. For more information on the Mississippi Blues Trail in this part of the state, call us at 800-467-3582 or 662-334-2711 or visit msbluestrail.org.
Nelson Street was once the epicenter of African American business and entertainment in the Delta. Nightclubs, cafes, churches, groceries, fish markets, barbershops, laundries, record shops, and other enterprises did a bustling trade. Famous blues clubs on the street included the Casablanca, the Flowing Fountain, and the Playboy Club. Willie Love saluted the street in his 1951 recording "Nelson Street Blues."
The first Mississippi Delta Blues Festival was held on October 21, 1978, here at Freedom Village, a rural community founded as a refuge for displaced agricultural workers. In 1987 the festival, organized by Greenville-based M.A.C.E. (Mississippi Action for Community Education), moved to a location closer to Greenville.
A major source of income for blues artists in the first half of the 20th century was tips. This corner, formerly the intersection of highways 10 and 61, was a profitable spot, particularly on Saturdays when people from the country came to town. Passengers on the "Planter," a train that ran daily from New Orleans to Memphis, also stopped here to eat dinner and be entertained by Delta musicians.
James Henry “Son” Thomas, internationally famed blues musician and folk sculptor, worked as a porter at the Montgomery Hotel, which once occupied this site, after he moved to Leland in 1961. Born in the Yazoo County community of Eden on October 14, 1926, Thomas made his first recordings for folklorist Bill Ferris in 1968. He later traveled throughout the United States and Europe to perform at blues concerts and exhibit his artwork. Thomas died in Greenville on June 26, 1993.
Guitar icon Johnny Winter’s emergence on the national music scene in 1969 created a sensation among rock and blues audiences. The first of his many hit albums for Columbia Records featured the song “Leland, Mississippi Blues,” which paid tribute to his roots here. Winter’s grandfather and father, a former mayor of Leland, operated a cotton business, J. D. Winter & Son, at this site. Winter was born in Texas in 1944 but spent parts of his childhood in Leland.
Sam Chatmon (c. 1899-1983), a celebrated singer and guitarist who spent most of his life in Hollandale, sometimes performed with his brothers in a renowned family string band billed as the Mississippi Sheiks. He embarked on a new solo career after coming out of musical retirement in the 1960s. Many local musicians have performed here on Simmons Street, known as “the Blue Front, ”once one of the most vibrant centers of blues activity in the Delta.
Mathis James “Jimmy” Reed, one of the most influential blues artists of the 1950s and ‘60s, was born here on the Shady Dell plantation on September 6, 1925. Reed was one the first bluesmen to achieve “crossover” success, scoring hits on both the rhythm & blues and pop charts with songs including “Honest I Do,” “Big Boss Man,” “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” and “Bright Lights, Big City.”
The most important figure in the pioneering era of Delta blues, Charley Patton (1891-1934), helped define not only the musical genre but also the image and lifestyle of the rambling Mississippi bluesman. He roamed the Delta using Dockery as his most frequent base, and lived his final year in Holly Ridge. Patton and blues singers Willie James Foster (1921-2000) and Asie Payton (1937-1997) are buried in this cemetery. This marker is located in Holly Ridge in nearby Sunflower County.
All photos and information are © the Mississippi Blues Commission 2011.