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River Shows, Blues, Ragtime, Jazz and Country Music - Hillbilly Plus Blues

From the upcoming book, July 2023 release: River Shows, Blues, Ragtime, Jazz and Country Music, by Matt Chaney, Four Walls Publishing.

Matt's books are on Amazon.

Radio hillbillies invade New York, 1930, in this sketch of the Crockett Mountaineers at the microphone. Columbia Radio Network

By 1949, rockabilly was germinating in the upper delta, a looming music form influenced by country strains, gospel, spirituals, jazz, and—underlying everything—the blues.

The typical music critic did not like hillbilly or “cowboy” songs, or “country western,” regardless of a reviewer’s proximity to the string pickers, twangers and yodelers. Country music took critical heat in the South, North, East and West. “The ether is full of hillbilly music and other moronic krap that is passed to the dear public as radio programs,” declared an Arkansas commentator for the Gentry Journal-Advance.

Hillbilly bands played radio stations and venues coast-to-coast by World War Two, including in the Hudson River Valley of New York. Shortly the tunes invaded Manhattan. “There are more hillbillies in the New York City metropolitan area than a revenuer, say, could ever find in them thar hills of Tennessee,” cracked M.C. Blackman, The Herald Tribune, in 1948. “You must believe this when you consider the sustained and growing popularity of hillbilly programs that fill the urban air day and night.”

“They must have listeners. They do have listeners. I am one,” confessed Blackman. Indeed, the big-city scribe demonstrated his learned ear for hillbilly formula. “The recurrent themes of hillbilly music are loneliness, remorse, love lost or never gained, reproach and yearning.” Moreover, he observed, “Hillbillies just love trains.”

And thusly the maxim: The blues always been, embedded as theme in virtually every type of song through human history. Of course, no musical class knew the blues like delta players, Afro-Americans of the Lower Mississippi Valley, emerging in the 20th Century.

Cairo, Ill., river wall, Illinois Central Railroad Depot, saloons and the Halliday Hotel, circa 1910. Postcard image by Curt Teich & Company, Chicago. Courtesy of the Newberry Library in Chicago

In the upper delta, strolling bluesmen walked, hitched and hoboed along roads and rails, back and forth between Helena, Ark., and Cairo, Ill. American artists had taken the path of U.S. Highway 61, and old King’s Highway before it, since flatboats. But blues giants made music legend of Highway 61, and likewise of the Illinois Central Railroad.

Missouri US 61

During the Forties and Fifties, blues music was constant from Osceola, Ark., up 61 through Hayti, Caruthersville, and Sikeston, Mo., and east through Charleston to Cairo. Railroad tracks paralleled the highways. Plantations came one upon the other, staging house parties with fried fish, corn whiskey and boogie blues, the piano style of Al “Sunnyland Slim” Luandrew.

Sunnyland worked the region through 1944, making music, hosting house parties, picking cotton. The Mississippi native rolled with blues cohorts Rufus “Speckled Red” Perryman, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, and Little Walter Jacobs, wizard of electronic harmonica from Louisiana. The great Little Walter, barely in puberty, wandered the countryside with Honeyboy. They were in Caruthersville for a stretch, bunking with Sunnyland.

Sunnyland said, “Me and that old albino fellow, Speckled Red, [who] sang the Dirty Dozens, we run through all the best, lively joints in Missouri—Caruthersville, Portageville, New Madrid, Sikeston, Cairo. All them best piano players was running up and down them roads, to them joints. I’d go up to Missouri every year [from Memphis or Chicago] and mess around in harvest times."

"That makes the times good, you know. And so a piano player had a pretty nice way to go. He’d get him a girl everywhere he went and he could holler.”

State line archway where U.S. Highway 61 enters Arkansas from Missouri, 75 miles north of Memphis, looking west in 1997. State Line Road is at right, obscured by the arch leg, a gravel bed leading to the old Casablanca Club, blues roadhouse of lore in Pemiscot County, Mo. Courtesy of the Missouri State Archives


72-Cairo Illinois


72-Radio Hillbillys


72-State Line Archway


72-US 61