I’ve always considered myself an avid music fan. I loved Elvis, had a fondness for the Beatles, and enjoyed smooth jazz. I threw in a healthy dose of classic ‘70s and ‘80s rock for good measure. There are very few artists in the ensuing decades I could listen to as I felt they couldn’t live up to ‘my’ music. I believe there is a term to describe that: a music snob.
A few years ago, it was suggested I might be interested in delving into the Blues and writing a story about the Mississippi Blues Trail. I agreed since I considered myself ‘into’ music. That wouldn’t be so hard, right?
Van Morrison once said, “Hearing the Blues changed my life.” I can now relate.
This journey I have been on for the last couple of years has filled me with love, respect and appreciation of the genre that is the root of most music forms today.
Definition of Blues Music
For those who have not been exposed to or have yet to listen to it, Blues, by definition, is secular folk music created by African Americans in the early 20th century, originally in the South. My simple explanation, much less scholarly, is that blues is raw feelings and emotions. If you can’t feel the blues, feel what the music is transmitting, you need to listen more carefully and properly. The Blues are the most critical influence on all other music forms – jazz, rhythm and blues, rock, and country music. Some have said the Blues represent the foundation and other forms of music such as rock and jazz are the walls.
Blues music tells stories in its most elemental form. It portrays struggles with a heavy focus on entwining gospel into the mix. There are technical definitions that discuss the format, tone, and foundation of how Blues music is structured, but Blues is basically about expressing feelings.
The combination of rhythmic techniques with expression of the artist’s deep feelings makes Blues unique. You can hear the same song and lyrics sung by five different artists and chances are each rendition will elicit different emotions within you.
Etta James once said, “When I’m singing the Blues, I’m singing life.”
That’s what Blues music is all about. The resourcefulness and fortitude that keep one going. The feelings and expressions denote living life and making the best of it.
That is why I’ve become taken with the Blues and the reason I consider myself a Blues convert.
The Quest Begins in Mississippi
There are several regions where the Blues movement gained a stronghold. One of those is my home state of Mississippi. Many say the Blues were born here. I began my quest to learn in Coastal Mississippi.
The Mississippi Blues Trail is a list of markers throughout the state (and some neighboring states as well) providing explorers with places to visit, words, and images of the great men and women who contributed their talents to the Blues. The trail highlights where they lived, significant places in their lives, and why, even today, their influence lives on in future generations.
You may find these markers at an actual brick-and-mortar building, along the road, in cotton fields, churches, cemeteries, or clubs. There is even an app to download onto for checking out various sites along the trail.
100 Men Hall
One of the first markers I visited was 100 Men Hall in Bay St. Louis. It is a rarity on the trail, an actual physical location still in use. History oozes from the walls.
The organization was started in 1894 by a group of civic-minded African American residents under the name of ‘Hundred Members Debating Benevolent Association.’ Its mission was to assist its members when sick, bury its dead in a respectable manner, and knit friendship. It morphed into an open-air pavilion and then in 1922, the first cornerstone was laid for their building, which remains standing to this day.
During this sad time in America’s history, segregation of African Americans was the accepted rule – Jim Crow. 100 Men Hall became a place for gatherings and an energy center for people of color. Many of the community’s social events occurred here: weddings, funerals, showers, and musical performances.
Tribute to the Greats
The Hall became part of the ‘chitlin circuit’ – spaces where Black musicians and artists could perform as they were not allowed in the ‘white only’ clubs. Musical icons such as B.B. King, Sam Cooke, Etta James, and Fats Domino – to name a few – were welcomed and accepted at 100 Men Hall.
While touring this unassuming building in Bay St. Louis, the first thing that drew my eye is the mural on the side of the building. Inside the Hall, you’ll find framed pictures of the greats that have been here – known as the Wall of Fame. The talent that has walked through these doors is astounding. Perhaps you will get goosebumps like I did when you see the original stage. The same stage on which James belted her heart out and where King and Lucille (his black Gibson guitar) made musical magic.
In addition to hosting live music and cultural events, 100 Men Hall supports other programs. The Tin Shed offers residencies and retreats to various artists – musicians, painters, sculptures, and writers. Given by invitation, the artist must then ‘leave their mark’ as others have done. Of course, that phrase means something different to all.
100 Men Hall recently celebrated its100th anniversary.
Broadcasting the Blues
Another marker on the trail in Coastal Mississippi is called Broadcasting the Blues. This marker brings to the forefront the massive significance radio broadcasting brought to the Blues movement. At one time, Mississippi led the nation in the number of stations broadcasting the Blues.
In the 1940s and 50s, radio was the primary way music, news, and advertising reached all Americas including Mississippi’s large African American population. Targeted programming to this market segment emerged at this time. Blues, as well as Gospel music, became essential components of this Black-oriented programming. However, at the time, most stations were broadcasting only from larger cities in Mississippi.
It took until 1994 for Coastal Mississippi to have its first African American-owned FM radio station when Rip Daniels began WJDZ, a station still broadcasting today. A few years later, in 2000, Daniels took the concept even further when the American Blues Network transmitted the first satellite signals from the WJDZ studios.
Ground Zero Blues Club
Although not a part of the Mississippi Blues Trail (yet), Coastal Mississippi has a new addition to the Blues music scene that has become popular and is an avid supporter of the #keepthebluesalivemovement.
Ground Zero Blues Club Biloxi had its highly anticipated opening in 2022. The original Ground Zero Blues Club, located in Clarksdale, Mississippi, is partially owned by Mississippi native Morgan Freeman. While fashioned after the original, the Biloxi location is newer while still retaining that deep-seated Blues vibe.
It’s a venue where you can walk in and immediately feel comfortable. Sit at the bar. Order up some lunch or dinner and a cold beverage. Hang out and chat with friends. Most importantly, you’ll find yourself surrounded by fabulous music – it’s always there.
One of the best ways to experience Ground Zero is during a live event, much like I did. It is not a large concert venue, rather an intimate place with a great atmosphere. You might have the opportunity to hear from a famous Blues musician whose family goes back generations, or an upcoming genius in the genre.
I have many markers yet to discover on the Mississippi Blues Trail to unearth the who, what, when, where, and why. I will continue this journey and hope to share more stories of my musical adventure,
Billy Gibbons, a member of ZZ Top, said,“The blues is a mighty long road. Or it could be a river, one that twists and turns and flows into a sea of limitless musical potential.”
Last Updated on March 3, 2023