Discovering the music of the Deep South
Running from Louisiana to South Carolina and incorporating Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, America’s Deep South states are a hot bed of musical heritage with country, blues, soul and rock & roll all finding their spiritual homes within the region’s hot and steamy southern roots.
Cities, such as Nashville, Jackson, Memphis, New Orleans, Knoxville and Chattanooga, are all synonymous with American musicality and undertaking an escorted or self-drive tour will bring you into contact with an incredible range of people, places and events which have helped to shape and celebrate the world of music as we know it today.
Dolly Parton, Jerry-Lee-Lewis, BB King, Muddy Waters and Roy Orbison can all be traced back to the bars, clubs and recording studios of the Deep South and it goes without saying that a visit to Graceland, to celebrate sixty years of Elvis Presley, is always going to send a little quiver into even the least dedicated music fan’s top lip.
But where and when did it all start?
From the cotton fields and Christian churches to the banks of the Mississippi River, the Deep South has long resonated with the folklore, songs, chants and hollers of its African American communities and, with the abolition of slavery in 1865, these musical roots continued to blossom into the specific genres which we now recognise within contemporary fields.
At the turn of the 19th century, New Orleans, Clarksdale and Newton were all considered to be locations to hear the rhythmic ballads and simple stories that we now know as the blues and although they’d been sung and chanted for generations past this was the first time that the lyrics and chord progressions had been submitted to published sheet music. No matter where you turn in the Deep South, blues music can be heard emanating from an open window or street corner and with a succession of live music clubs and heritage trails it’s easy to see why the blues and the Deep South continue to march hand in hand.
Another early musical phenomenon attributed to the Deep South is jazz which stems back to the African communities who used the solace of song to escape the drudgery of the workplace. Black churches and festival periods provided ample opportunities to practise harmonies and one line melodies with the combination of European instruments, such as the piano, leading jazz music into the bars and brothels that rocked to the rebellious rhythm of rag time. Smoky rooms, sultry singers and super sexy saxophones have all helped to make jazz one of the most laid back and alluring of the Deep South’s musical concoctions and you won’t have to travel far to hear the familiar notes and mesmerizing solos drifting over the warm summer breeze.
Rock & Roll
A more contemporary form of music related to the Deep South comes in the guise of Rock & Roll which came to the fore in the ’50’s and is commonly thought to be the offspring of traditional blues and jazz with the back beat of a snare drum and a wiggle of the hips thrown in for good measure. As one of the first musical genres to appeal specifically to a younger generation and to give sexuality and rebellion to the masses, Rock & Roll is arguably one of the most important musical mixes to come out of the Deep South and you’ll find numerous monuments, studios and homesteads attributed to its inception.
Thought to have been created through a combination of traditional Appalachian Mountain music (Hillbilly) and American folk, Country music has origins in both European and African communities and first came to recognised existence around the 1920’s when rural folk moved to the cities looking for work. Banjos, violins and Spanish guitars accompanied by story-telling lyrics helped to make Country music as easily identifiable as blues and jazz with the Deep South a veritable spring board for the rest of the United States.
Originating around the same time as Rock & Roll, if not before, Soul music combines elements of blues, jazz and Afro-American gospel with funky and catchy tunes. Many of America’s top recording artists, including: Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Ottis Reading, all fall into the Soul bracket and with eminent recording studios in Memphis, Alabama and Tennessee, Soul music and the Deep South have a long and passionate relationship that shows no sign of stopping any time soon.
Haling from Louisiana, Cajun music has long been associated with French-speaking east coast Canadians who brought their traditional ballads to the bayous of the Mississippi before combining the strains of cheap accordions and fiddles to light up many an out of the way dance hall. Still to this day you’ll find numerous Cajun clubs and side walk quintets sounding out traditional and modern up-tempo beats up and down the streets of Louisiana and it won’t be long before your toes are tapping and you’re waltzing a two-step in time to one of the Deep South’s favourite musical off-springs.
Another of Louisiana’s musical descendants is Creole which can be threaded back to the traditional folk songs of the state’s French-speaking African descendants, who came, most notably, from Haiti. Often mentioned in the same breath as Cajun music, Creole developed into a more jazz and blues type of sound whilst Cajun tended to follow a more Country music trail. Whichever variation that you find yourself listening to whilst visiting the Deep South, there’s no better way to experience the music than in a Louisiana dance hall on a hot summer’s night.
Must experience on the Deep South music trail
No matter what style or tempo you’re into, the Deep South is an incredible setting to find out more about the African and European heritage that has helped to place this region firmly on the world music stage.
Self-drive and escorted tours of the area give you an invaluable opportunity to walk in the footsteps of legends and dance the night away in some of the most intoxicating venues on the planet.
Below are just a few of the ‘must experience’ places to see whilst touring the Deep South and from traditional African tunes to the snake-charming hips of Elvis the pelvis, this is where you find out the real heritage of America’s most popular music.
The first ever Elvis Presley recording gained radio air time on the 8th July 1956 and as such the King of Rock & Roll’s Graceland estate is all set to celebrate 60 years of pelvis gyrating history. Graceland is a superb museum and memorial to Elvis and one of the most visited houses in the whole of the US. Guided tours will take you back in time and provide a fascinating insight into the man, his family and his music that helped to shape the world as we know it today.
Stax Recording Studios, Memphis
Another Memphis music tour favourite is the Museum of American Soul Music which can be found on the site of the original Stax Records recording studio. This is an excellent chance to learn more about the legacy and the artists which brought Soul music to the world and from Otis Reading to Booker T & the MGs this place will send tingles up and down your soul-loving spine.
Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville
With a vast collection of country music memorabilia, which includes: previously unheard recordings, video footage and live performances, the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville is a must for anyone who wants to put a bit of twang into their tour of the Deep South. From Johnny Cash and Garth Brooks to Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette inductees to the Hall of Fame take the privilege very seriously and this is a great venue to find out more about the history and the personalities which have helped to shape the modern Country music scene.
The French Quarter, New Orleans
If you’re hoping to indulge in some true musical history whilst touring the Deep South then there’s no better district than New Orleans’ French Quarter which has got jazz and blues dripping from every hot and humid pore. Jackson Square, Bourbon Street and no end of landmarks and memorials make New Orleans the genuine article and if you’re looking for late night action then there’s never a dull moment as from flea-infested dives to swanky up-market joints, this is where the Deep South and live music go skipping hand in hand.
Grand Ole Oprey, Nashville
Anyone who is anyone in the world of Country music has been asked to appear at the Grand Ole Oprey in Nashville and gaining membership is one of the highest accolades that the scene allows. Patsy Cline, the Carter Family and even the Dixie Chicks have all made it onto the list and if you’re hoping to catch a live show, go backstage or just soak up the atmosphere from inside the auditorium then this is undoubtedly one of the most iconic of all of the Deep South’s musical hubs.
Live symphony orchestras – Jackson, Chattanooga
If you’ve had your fill of Rock & Roll and you think that the blues are lacking in soul then why not give something a little bit different a try on a musical tour of the Deep South? Tennessee has an amazing live symphony orchestra scene and is a must experience if you’re hoping to tickle a few of your musical senses which you didn’t know existed. Jackson and Chattanooga both boast great venues to appreciate a live performance and from hot jazz evenings to Beer, Brats and Beethoven, you maybe surprised at what you find on a night out in America’s Deep South.
More information and to book: To some, Tennessee and the deep south regions conjure up images of the sultry Delta, of cotton fields and the eerie wail of lonesome Blues singers, as indeed the beautiful Music and Heritage of the Deep South tour travels in what is defined as the cradle of American music from Blues, Country, Gospel and Soul to Rock’n’Roll.
Article written by Chris Owen.