It's no exaggeration to say that the popular music of the last 100 years owes its existence to the American South. New Orleans was the birthplace of jazz. The Mississippi Delta gave the world the blues, which then cross-pollinated with the country music of the upland South to yield rock music. R&B music – ie rhythm and blues – and any variant of soul music also evolved from both the blues and the black gospel music of Southern churches.
Need more convincing? The pop music icons who have won American Idol have overwhelmingly hailed from the South. Even hip-hop owes its existence to black migration patterns from the South into Northeastern cities – and that is only accounting for the genre’s early history. In the 21st century, Southern cities like Atlanta have set the sonic course of hip-hop for at least a generation.
We could write a book about this musical legacy, but for now, content yourselves with this auditory tour of the sounds of the American South.
The Mississippi Delta
The music of America was born out of many historical streams, but disenfranchisement and oppression were almost always a primary source. Case in point: the blues, which evolved from the work music, ballads and African heritage of workers in the Mississippi Delta.
Technically, the guitar chords and driving beat of blues music has sonic mirrors in West and North Africa, a connection African artists have detected for decades. Thematically, the stories told by blues musicians are tales of lost love and long days of labor, of salvation by God and temptation by the devil. That last trope is most commonly associated with blues legend Robert Johnson, who was said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his superlative talent on the guitar
The place of this hellish bargain, which Johnson wrote about in ‘Cross Road Blues,’ was supposedly a lonely crossroads hatched onto a flat cotton plain somewhere under the severe Delta sky. (The song was later covered by Eric Clapton and Cream as ‘Crossroads.’) Today, the supposed site of this musically significant event sits just outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi, the most convenient base for exploring the Delta.
While the scrappy juke joint of legend is largely disappearing from the Southern landscape, there are still a few gems in the Delta. The humid sweatbox that is Red’s is still going strong. Come in the evening and have a frosty beer pulled from an icebox while bluesmen wail on a carpet lit by deep crimson flood lights; outside, tourists smoke cigarettes and chat with musicians under a dappling of damp stars. The next day, grab coffee and eggs at the greasy Bluesberry Cafe, which hosts many an impromptu jam session in the morning. If you want to check out a more structured music venue, grab dinner and a show at Ground Zero, a massive club owned by Morgan Freeman.
Don’t forget to spend a little time in the Delta Blues Museum, where you can learn about the blues as a genre. The same can be said of the BB King Museum in nearby Indianola, a modern facility that explores both King as a musician and the music style he popularized around the world.
If the blues were born in the Delta, they achieved their adolescence in Memphis, a city that served as a staging point for the eventual international dissemination of the genre. Country-fried Delta musicians were exposed to modern recording studios and management, as well as church gospel and jazz from New Orleans, and their guitar work began to bend in a more soulful, funky direction.
This confluence of musical currents formed a fertile gestation pond for soul music, a legacy that is explored at the excellent Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Once you’ve finished here, head to the Rock 'n' Soul Museum, which details how the marriage between Delta blues and country music birthed American rock ‘n’ roll.
With a grounding in soul and rock, you should now head to Sun Studios, a historic landmark that delivered unto the world the music of Johnny Cash, BB King and Elvis Presley (by the way, Graceland is nearby). In this tale of black music borne out of a geography dominated by white-enforced slavery, then Jim Crow, it’s worth noting the eventual commercial success of white rock performers was rarely paid back to the black forebears of popular music.
Beale Street is the most famous thoroughfare for music in Memphis, and on any given evening you’ll hear blues and rock music pouring out of local clubs. Make sure to stop in at Lansky Brothers, a one-stop shop for Memphis musicians seeking the right outfit. And don’t leave town without blasting – wait for it – Three 6 Mafia, the most recognizable ambassadors of Memphis hip-hop. The Memphis sound emphasizes lo-fi production and some truly unique sampling – horror movie soundtracks are popular, which makes these tracks compelling and disturbing all at once.
There is no better place in the world for live music than New Orleans. In this town, French and Spanish immigrants intermarried and established the Code Noir, a system of slave laws that allowed African slaves some degree of freedom, at least compared to their brothers and sisters in bondage in the Anglophone world. Under French law, slaves were given a day of rest and allowed to perform music from the mother continent.
Simultaneously, the children of French-African unions were often granted liberated status as gens de couleur libres – Free People of Color. The Free People received a classical education, including musical training. This training, plus African rhythms and a surfeit of brass instruments left by the military after the Civil War, laid the groundwork for a new brand of improvisational music. This sound was nurtured in the brothels of the New Orleans Red Light district, eventually emerging in the early 20th century as jazz.
Later in its history, as jazz moved from dance floors to lounges, a more frenetic, danceable version of brass music took hold in New Orleans. This style is called brass band music, and on a sonic level, it’s like hosting a 24-hour party in your ears cranked to volume 11.
Another reason New Orleans is top-notch for music: no other city in America – and maybe the world – is so fiercely devoted to satisfying the senses. This city believes in hedonism on a fundamental level, and works hard to give visitors (and residents) the best play, whatever the delivery method: food, drink and, of course, music.
Frenchmen Street has had an incredible music scene for decades. Today, the street’s clubs have increased, but so has attention from tourists, who flood the area on weekends. We’re not saying you can’t have fun here (quite the opposite, in fact), but be prepared for serious crowds. Favorite clubs include polished d.b.a, which boasts a gorgeous whiskey list, and the dive that is the Spotted Cat. Or check the schedule at a bar like Le Bon Temps Roule and lose yourself in a brass battle of the bands.
Currently, New Orleans is most famous for bounce, a frenetic style of dance characterized by a backing ‘Triggerman beat’ and twerk dancing. Big Freedia is the most popular ambassador of bounce to the world, and often puts on shows at venues like Siberia and Republic.
Country music is synonymous with Nashville, and we’re not going to pretend that genre shouldn’t be experienced here. Head down to Broadway and catch a show at the unforgettable Tootsie’s, or pop into the Grand Ole Opry, and definitely take time to stop into the Country Music Hall of Fame; you may learn more about, and dispel some cliches around, the USA’s original homegrown music. If we only had time for one club in town, we’d try the Bluebird Cafe, a tiny spot that has nurtured generations of singer-songwriter talent.
But don’t forget this town is also producing more than its fair share of indie rockers. Moon Taxi and Those Darlins came out of here, as well as bigger name rockers like Paramore and Kings of Leon. Jack White doles out vinyl at the excellent Third Man Records; live music, sushi platters and DJs spin at the Acme Feed & Seed; and local indie acts as well as national artists rock out at the multiple venues on Cannery Row.
The largest city in the South cannot be defined by any one style of music. Electronica pops off in downtown clubs, punk thunders around Little Five Points, and Latin music rolls out of immigrant communities outside the Perimeter. But hip-hop and R&B are Atlanta’s claim to fame. This is the town that gave the world Outkast, Ludacris, Jermaine Dupri, Lil Jon, 2 Chainz, B.o.B, CeeLo, Gucci Mane, T.I., Usher...the list goes on. Trap, crunk and snap music would not exist without Atlanta.
Don’t leave town without stepping into Criminal Records, a brilliant execution of a used record shop. Pick up some shoes at A Ma Maniere or grab fresh jeans at Wish, both known as some of the best streetwear stores in the country. And consider heading into Magic City – which, caveat, is a strip club. But it’s a strip club known as, effectively, the center of gravity in the Atlanta hip-hop galaxy. Hustlers, producers and DJs meet here, and the tracks the girls dance to are often pushed onto Atlanta airwaves, and from there, the world. It’s the launching point of international stardom, and it begins, here, in the sweaty, dirty South.
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