University of Mississippi Blues Scholar Takes a Trip into the Mississippi Delta
of the 1940s with ‘Coahoma’ Podcast”
Field hollers, traditional African American
church music and songs by a tractor driver who later became one of the most
influential musicians of the 20th century are among the gems in the Coahoma
Study of the Mississippi Delta in 1941-42.
The study by folklorist Alan
Lomax and a team from Fisk University in Nashville is the focus of “Coahoma,” a
new podcast series by Scott Barretta, a University of
Mississippi adjunct instructor of sociology.
Barretta takes a deeper look into the nearly
600 field recordings that introduced blues legend McKinley Morganfield,
aka Muddy Waters, to the world, but also painted a vibrant picture of
African American life in Clarksdale and Coahoma County in
“Today, the Coahoma Study is best known for
the recordings of Muddy Waters,” Barretta said.” But its scope went beyond
music to address issues such as religious practices, the transformative
influence of pop culture, foodways, transportation, race relations,
urbanization and economic conditions.
“In other words, it aimed to gain a full
picture of the Delta’s African American community.”
Barretta, former editor of Living
Blues magazine, has worked on the Mississippi Blues
Trail project and the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center.
He’s also the longtime host of the Mississippi Public
Broadcasting blues radio show Highway 61.
Coahoma was funded by the Artworks
program of the National Endowment for the Arts, and is the result of
collaboration between the Delta Center for Culture and
Learning at Delta State University and the New
York-based Association for Cultural Equity, which maintains the Alan Lomax
By the time Lomax, of the Library of Congress,
arrived in the Mississippi Delta with researchers from Fisk
University in 1941, he was already a seasoned folklorist. Lomax had
discovered and recorded inmate Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead
Belly, on a visit to Angola Prison in Louisiana in 1933,
The Coahoma recordings were before Waters’
first commercial records, which came in 1946, and they give a sample of
his acoustic sound, in contrast to the electrified music he made in
Chicago. Waters was a tractor driver on the Stovall
Plantation when he played for Lomax.
He later became father of Chicago Blues
and influenced countless blues and rock musicians, including the Rolling
Stones, who took their name from one of his lyrics and also imitated his guitar
In the recordings, Waters plays solo on some
tracks but is accompanied by a string band with a fiddle and mandolin player in
other takes. He also tells Lomax stories about writing lyrics while fixing a
flat on his car, or walking down the road, giving some insight into the blues
master’s creative process.
Waters later said he was proud of
himself after hearing Lomax’s tapes because he’d never really heard his own
voice, and was impressed with his performances. The experience gave him
the confidence to move to Chicago and pursue a career in music.
David “Honeyboy” Edwards, who played
with Robert Johnson, the “King of the Delta Blues,” as well as Muddy
Waters’ mentor, Son House, and bluesman Willie Brown also were
recorded in the Coahoma Study.
Besides Lomax’s work with blues singers,
the recordings contain church music, field hollers, children’s game
songs, and oral histories, which was of interest to Fisk University’s John
Wesley Work III, whose father and grandfather were pioneering scholars of
African American music. Gospel was taking over black music culture at the time,
after having being created mostly in the 1930s, but that wasn’t what the team
wanted to hear.
“They had to sit people down and ask them to
play the old stuff,” Barretta said. “The music associated with slavery and
its immediate aftermath, such as the spirituals, was rapidly fading from
The research team also paid close attention
to what was on the local jukeboxes. The jukebox makers would keep tabs on which
records were being played most, and which ones weren’t. They would use this
information to figure out which ones to trash and which ones to keep.
One thing the Coahoma team found was that
even though people often thought of Mississippi as backwards, by the 1940s,
locals were mostly listening to the same records as the rest of America.
“They were listening to Fats Waller and
pretty much what everybody else across the country was listening to,” Barretta
The study also includes tapes of children
singing popular songs of the time, such as “Shortenin’ Bread,” among all the
other kinds of music.
“There is a pretty wide range of sounds,
which is a testament to the spirit and breadth of African American culture,”
Barretta is a great storyteller, and the
podcast will teach listeners about a significant time and place in our nation’s
history, said Jeffrey T. Jackson, Ole Miss chair and professor of
sociology. He calls “Coahoma” a “remarkable achievement.”
“We in the Department of Sociology and
Anthropology at UM are very excited that Scott has engaged in this
collaboration with Delta State University and has created such a rich series
exploring the music of Coahoma County, Mississippi in the early 1940s and, even
more significantly, the social context in which that music was born,” Jackson
“This is sociology, history, and – most
importantly – music tied together in a fascinating way.”