What is: WABG Radio

What was: The Delta Blues was born out of a mixture of despair and dreaming. It reflects the distressed reality for blacks in the southern US states combined with the hopeful lyrical charm and beat of the great hymns of old. At its core, the Delta Blues is a heartbeat. It is a pulse that kept entire generations alive through the many trials and misfortunes of life.

The delta blues began in Mississippi among the plantations of the Mississippi River delta. The delta itself stretched from Vicksburg to Memphis. The overflow of the river left vast areas of fertile land that would turn into the cotton and vegetable plantations of the Deep South. Following the American Civil War, ex-slaves and sharecroppers continued to work the fields in the harshest of conditions.

As they labored, they sang. And the songs they sang were a reflection of the simplicity and poverty of life in the delta. In its initial form, the delta blues might have sometimes included a guitar or other similarly simple instrument.

It is in the Delta where there was a legendary meeting between Robert Johnson and the devil at the crossroads.  Robert Johnson is said to have exchanged his soul for the ability to play a distinct form of guitar. His life, riddled by reason to despair, was short-lived and yet the blues style he created has forever changed the face of music.

Radio was the center of mass media during 1930s, 40s and 50s.  Many people in the area couldn’t read and most couldn’t afford a television. Radio had the distinction of being able to both entertain and inform its listeners. It was this power to open and transform minds.  Once there were dozens of stations like WABG broadcasting delta blues to listeners all over the country. But as music and mass media evolved, WABG remained the same. This was, however, by the intention of its owner and sole disc jockey.

The station’s format is Mississippi Delta Blues, Classic Rock and “Stuff” (anything the listeners want to hear and anything the DJs want to play).  Its originator, James Poe, bases the format on the Mississippi Delta’s diverse population mix.  His belief is that with the rich culture of the delta and their history of southern rock & roll and blues and their proximity to Memphis, makes this format a daring likely success. The station’s Money Road location is also the setting for the burial ground of legendary blues man Robert Johnson (one of many).

Appropriately, the station’s physical location is set in the midst of the cotton fields of Greenwood, Mississippi on Money Road where the Emmett Till case unraveled in the 1950s, sparking the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.  The station is located less than a mile from the Little Zion M. B. Church and cemetery, one of the places thought to be the grave of Robert Johnson

Can you hear the music now?   You pick the song.

What us: Wurlitzer 1015 One More Time Jukebox (OMT) Vinyl

What was: Rudolph Wurlitzer’s forefathers emigrated to America in 1853. He was 24 years old.

Rudolph Wurlitzer founded The Wurlitzer Company in 1856. At first he imported musical instruments and opened sales outlets in American cities. He started production of pianos in America in 1880. In 1896 he introduced the first coin operated pianos.  The famous theatre organs followed.  They were manufactured near Buffalo.

With the crash in 1929, Farny Wurlitzer, youngest son of Rudolph, bought a patented music box mechanism at the beginning of the thirties, and took on it’s inventor, Homer Capehart, and a designer, Paul Fuller. This was the beginning of the “Golden” era for Wurlitzer with the first jukeboxes which played the old 78 shellac records. Wurlitzer quickly took over 60% of the booming jukebox market. The Wurlitzer Jukebox became a familiar sight to every restaurant or bar customer with the first “P10” model. After inserting a coin, one could select a song from a choice of 10 shellac record titles. In the Thirties, the Jukebox became the “small man’s concert hall”.

In the early Forties Wurlitzer produced some of most handsome dome top jukeboxes the world has very seen, which were made almost completely from wood due to wartime material restrictions. Wurlitzer had to call a halt to the production of jukeboxes due to the war in order to produce important war products such as radar components. These machines are prized as being the world’s most sought after and costly Jukeboxes.

The Wurlitzer 1015 became a big hit in 1946. It sold more than any other model in the 20th century. The “golden era” of the jukebox continued into the first post war years.  The “Silver era” of Jukeboxes began around 1950. The design was changed, the 45 single made inroads, and the selection from 100 titles became standard. Jukeboxes with shiny chrome and magical lighting began to be produced. They became a fascinating focal point in any bar or café.

By the end of the Fifties much of the earlier classic styling had been lost. Tooling costs to produce new models each year and compete with rival jukebox manufactures had weakened the company and the jukebox boom years were coming to an end.

“If you had to pick one single spot as the birthplace of the blues, you might say it all started right here,”

said the late and great B.B. King standing at the Dockery 

The Blues: Blues music is rooted in several musical genres and then it spins off as the roots of rock and roll.  Blues Music originated in the Deep South of the United States around the 1860s by African-Americans from roots in African-American work songs and religious spirituals. The first appearance of the blues is often dated to the end of slavery and, later, the development of juke joints. It is often associated with the acquired freedom of the former slaves and their challenges. Chroniclers began to report about blues music at the dawn of the 20th century. The first publication of blues sheet music was in 1908.

The main features of blues include: specific chord progressions, a walking bass, call and response, dissonant harmonies, syncopation, melisma and flattened ‘blue’ notes. Blues is known for being microtonal, using pitches between the semitones defined by a piano keyboard. This is often achieved on electric guitar using a metal slide for a whining effect. As a result, blues can be heavily chromatic. Originally the lyrics utilized a call and response component.

Dockery Farms: The Dockery plantation at its peak in the mid 1930s consisted of 18,000 acres and extended over 28 square miles of rich fertile lowland along the Sunflower River. It had its own currency and general store, a physician, a railroad depot, a dairy, a seed house, cotton gin, sawmill, and three churches. There was also a school for the 1,000 to 3,000 men, women, and children who worked during the farm’s busiest times as either day laborers or as sharecroppers. The workers’ quarters included boarding-houses, where they lived, socialized and played music.  Farm workers often sang while working the fields and their music became their basic entertainment.

In the 1900s a young Charlie Patton’s parents took up residence at the Dockery Farms. Charlie took to following around guitarist Henry Sloan to musicals performances.  Charlie would become his own musician, and considered the father of the Delta Blues.

Charlie Patton and other bluesmen, drawn to Dockery by its central location and sizable population, used the plantation as their home base. When at the Dockery they often played on the porch of the commissary and at all-night picnics hosted by Will Dockery for residents. He and the others also traveled the network of state roads around Dockery Farms to communities large enough to support audiences that loved the blues. In the 1920s he could make about $25 for a performance at a party.

It was Patton’s live performances in the area that inspired and influenced fans such as Robert Johnson (who sold his soul to the devil to play blues), Bukka White, Ed “Son” House, Chester Burnett (also known as “Howlin’ Wolf), and Roebuck “Pop” Staples (as in the father and inspiration behind the Staples Singers). These important artists in blues history either lived at or passed through Dockery Farms.

 

 

What is: the Dockery Farms Service Station, between Cleveland and Ruleville, Mississippi

What was: The service station/store, circa 1935, contained the general farm office and Joe Rice Dockery’s private office (Lester, 2005). It retains its original glass front counters, and a scale is visible through one of the front windows.

From Smithsonian Magazine: The plantation was founded on the vision of Will Dockery, a graduate of the University of Mississippi, who took a $1,000 gift from his grandmother and purchased tracts of Delta wilderness in 1885. Over a decade, the transformed the land into a cotton plantation. Eventually, the company town had an elementary school, churches, post and telegraph offices, a resident doctor, a ferry, a blacksmith shop, a cotton gin, cemeteries, picnic grounds for the workers, its own currency, and a commissary that sold dry goods, furniture, and groceries. To ship out the cotton, Dockery built a railroad depot and a spur route, named the Pea Vine for its twisted path, was laid from the main station in nearby Boyle (Patton’s “Pea Vine Blues” pays tribute to the line). At one time, roughly 3,000 people lived on the plantation’s 40 square miles.

Dockery Farms is widely regarded as the place where Delta blues music was born. Blues musicians resident at Dockery included Charley Patton, Robert Johnson (sold his soul to the develi)  and Howlin’ Wolf and Pop Staples (Dad to the Staples Singers)

What is: Po’ Monkey’s was founded by Willie Seaberry in 1963, and was one of the last rural juke joints in the Mississippi Delta, wedged between a cotton field and a gravel road just over a mile west of Merigold, Mississippi.

What was: The shack was originally sharecroppers’ quarters. The building is made of tin and plywood, held together by nails, staples, and wires, loosely fashioned and made by Seaberry. Seaberry was best known for his strangely coordinated outfits of wildly exotic pantsuits. He could be seen sneaking out of bar room, into a bedroom offset of the drinking quarters, only to reappear in a new pantsuit. Seaberry was found dead on July 14, 2016. Po’ Monkey’s ceased operating after Seaberry’s death. The contents, including Christmas lights, signs and X-rated toy monkeys that hung from the ceiling, were auctioned off in 2018. The PORCH (Preservation of Rural Cultural Heritage) Society and Shonda Warner acquired them and hope to maintain the collection in a way that continues to bring it to life.

Po’ Monkey’s gained international fame as one of the most important cultural sites related to blues and American music. The club was typical of modern juke joints in that it rarely featured live entertainment, although it sometimes did. Often instead, Seaberry played recorded music, typically soul and R&B, using a DJ or a jukebox, and patrons danced, mingled, or shot pool. He had a strict rule against playing rap music, which he claimed he detested. Other rules included No loud music, no dope smoking.” Beer was to be purchased inside, but customers could bring in their own liquor.

Classic juke joints are found at rural crossroads and catered to the rural work force that began to emerge after the emancipation. Plantation workers and sharecroppers needed a place to relax and socialize following a hard week, particularly since they were barred from most white establishments by Jim Crow laws. Set up on the outskirts of town, often in ramshackle, abandoned buildings or private houses — never in newly-constructed buildings — juke joints offered food, drink, dancing and gambling for weary workers.

What is: Tennessee River, Florence and Muscle Shoals, Alabama

What was: Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” Etta James’ “Tell Mama,” Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man the Way Love You,” the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” – they were all recorded at Muscle Shoals by a strange and driven record producer named Rick Hall and a group of white musicians who loved music, the Swampers.

The Tennessee River was once known as “The river that sings,” and the local tribes believed that a female spirit lived there. According to legend, she would sing and protect the people around her. This legend is offered up as one of the many reasons for the area’s near mythical status as a recording mecca.

Muscle Shoals was where Franklin stopped singing light pop, found her voice, and revived her career. It was where Pickett recorded his best material. It was where Duane Allman talked Pickett into recording The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude,’ on which Allman played guitar and laid the foundation for what would become ‘southern rock.’