Race, Blues, Rock ’N’ Roll and the Mississippi Delta:

Advanced Cultural Geography.  Course for Fall 2011

(Geography 4375.01: 3 Credits – T-Th  9:30 am); Field-Trip on August 7 - 12




“The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg” – David Cohn, 1948.

“The eye does not see what the mind does not know” – T. V. Rajan, quoting an unidentified college professor, Natural History Magazine, February 2003.


In Fall 2011 the Department of Geography and Geology will offer a field-trip based course that will use “musical culture” as a lens to thoroughly explore the cultural geography of the Mississippi Delta. The course will be structured around a 5 day field trip that will progress from Houston, Texas, to Memphis, Tennessee and ultimately conclude with a visit to the Delta, a region aptly described as both “the most Southern place on Earth” and “the cradle of American culture.”

Participants in this course the field trip will investigate the ways that this unique sub-region (the “Delta”) has impacted the wider “American” culture and the world.  For example, the Delta is acknowledged as the birthplace of both blues and rock ‘n’ roll, the home of “King Cotton” and is also the source of a variety of other uniquely American art forms. In addition, the Delta served as the backdrop for a number of events and initiatives that were critical to evolution of both the Great Migration and the Civil Rights Movement.


The primary focus of this course will be a discussion of the formation and nature of what we will refer to as “blues culture” – a phenomena which was (and still is) strongly evident in this region. The lens of blues culture will be used to investigate the geographic dimensions of broad array of social and culture processes. These include migration, urbanization, economic transformations, gentrification, social and technological change, racial segregation, civil rights, heritage tourism and other topics. In addressing these topics from a geographical or spatial perspective, we will examine the powerful role that musical culture can have in influencing or transforming the nature of place and space. Throughout this course we will also learn about the concept of “sense of place,” as we develop the ability to study “places” themselves as texts. As we engage in our field experience we will learn history and geography directly where events and processes happened, stopping at several sites that tell stories. We will read what has been called "the invisible landscape," the hidden landscape of stories from the past (and present), as we learn about events that transpired in particular places and how they transformed the South, America and the even the World.

The content of the course will also include some discussion of the inter-relationships between the geomorphology of the Mississippi river and cultural dynamics. This culture of the region has always been intimately tied to the area’s physical geography. For example, the role and influence that the Mississippi river has had on life in this area has long been memorialized in song, fiction, prose and legend. Moreover, the challenges associated with harnessing the Mississippi continues to impact life in the area.

In addition to studying the Delta, the course will also explore the history and geography of blues-influenced culture in Houston, Texas. A major topic we will address is the degree to which blues culture is utilized and memorialized as a means to foster economic development. In contrast to Memphis and the Delta, we will view Houston as an example of a community that has largely ignored its musical legacy.

The specific itinerary of the trip has yet to be determined, but will most likely include visits to the following sites:
• Sites significant to the long-forgotten musical heritage of Houston.
• Memphis, Tennessee: where we will stroll down world-famous Beale Street
Stax Soul Museum which represents an evolving attempt utilize the celebration of musical culture as a means of neighborhood-based urban development.
National Civil Rights Museum located at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN site of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
• Sun Records Studio, site of early recordings of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, U2 and others.
• Pilgrimage to Graceland, the Mecca of American Culture.
Tunica Riverpark Museum, which commemorates life on the Mississippi river and focuses on the history of the river as it pertains to the economic and cultural development of the Mississippi Delta.
Fitzgerald’s Casino and Hotel, an example of the incorporation of legalized gambling as a means to generate an economic base to replace “king cotton.”
• Cleveland, Mississippi, home of Delta State University, the Delta Center for Culture and Learning and the Blues Highway Association.
Dockery Farms, the famous plantation and birthplace of the Blues and location of Robert Johnson’s crossroads.
• Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club, in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

·                     Theo’s famous Rock’ N’ Blues Museum and the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale
Ruleville, Mississippi; birthplace and burial place of Fannie Lou Hammer, famous civil rights organizer and co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Holly Ridge, Mississippi; home and gravesite of Charley Patton, King of the Delta Blues.
Money, Mississippi; site linked to the lynching of Emmett Till, an event that was a major spark that initiated the Civil Rights Movement
* Sites of THREE of Robert Johnson’s graves.
• Po’Monkey’s Lounge, an experience of contemporary “blues culture.” This world famous location, my home away from home, is considered one of the last remaining rural juke joints.  We will also witness a live Delta Blues performance at equally famous Red’s Lounge, an urban juke in Clarksdale

During our field experience we will also have the opportunity to taste Delta foods, from authentic “Soul” food, fried catfish, okra and barbecue to fried dill pickles, and maybe even Kool-Aid pickles if you are bold enough. We will visit the famous crossroads where bluesman Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the Devil for guitar virtuosity.  And of course you will listen to the music of the Delta, the Blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Son House, Charley Patton, and Willie Brown, and also the music of Ike Turner, Booker T and the MGs, Elvis Presley, Johnnie Cash, Otis Redding, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin, among others.

The exact date of this field-trip component has yet to be determined but it will most likely be scheduled on or around August 7. Students successfully completing the field trip will participate in a shortened lecture-based course during the Fall Semester; 2011. Transportation, as well as all museum fees, will be provided by the Geography and Geology Department. Students will only be responsible for hotel accommodations and food/beverage.

For additional information, contact Dr. John Strait (jstrait@shsu.edu). OR look on Facebook for Strait’s Voodoo Butter Blues Trips