Sam Cooke

Blues Landscape

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Tree house, courtesy of Gary Geboy

When we set out for a Mississippi Blues Highway road trip this winter, it’s not like I was expecting the “Summertime,” and the livin’-is-easy version of the Deep South.  You know — fish are jumping and the cotton is high and all that. I knew the Mississippi Delta would have a rough kind of beauty, if at all, which is exactly why Gary wanted to photograph it for his project (

I just wasn’t ready for images like this one: a sharecropper’s shack on Highway 1 just south of where Muddy Waters was born. We found it on a day that didn’t get past 16 degrees. The wind whipped through my bones and I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live inside this home – winter or summer – never making enough money to move away. You couldn’t even make a run for it. The fields around it are ankle-breaking troughs of defoliated cotton plants. The horizon is so flat and far away you might as well be adrift at sea.

Which is how I felt, driving through this landscape of leftovers. It might be prettier when the cotton is high, but after the harvest the fields look like the stubble of a cheap shave. Plastic Wal-Mart bags catch and snare on stumps – pockets of trash biding their time, flying the colors of the poor. The dirt roads beat down hard here, cutting through the flatness like scars. Even the trees are stripped, nakedly twisting in the wind.

I’ve seen this kind of forgotten before, on our drive through the Altiplano of Bolivia and Peru. That Mississippi is our own corner of the Third World was no surprise, witness Hurricane Katrina. What did surprise me, threw me really, was the hope that floated up between waves of despair. Here in the Mississippi Delta, where the human spirit had every right to sink, it didn’t. People had the strength to shout it out – from back porches, on curbs outside gas stations, in Devil-guarded crossroads and under the cover of dimly-lit juke joints. They gave voice to what would have been a void. They freed what could not be stolen. Mississippi Delta Blues was a gift to the entire world. We, who didn’t even ask, got Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Elvis, Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King and countless others.  

This embarrassment of talent is no coincidence. But it has as much to do with the will of the tree growing up through that sharecropper shack on the side of Highway One as the misery of the shack itself. We do learn from those who went before. I don’t remember Byrne Miller ever quoting Blues lyrics, but her favorite Nietzsche saying would be right at home in the Delta. “Life is hard to bear. But do not affect to be so delicate. We are all of us fine sumpter asses and asseses.” Beasts of burden – yes, we surely are. Capable of so much more — uh huh.