The Role of Rail in Bringing the Blues to Town

May 12, 2010

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Larry “Mud” Morganfield, (back to camera) Grady Champion, (harmonica) Big Bill Morganfield (guitar).
The Blues may have been born in the Mississippi Delt but they grew up and became world famous in Chicago. And last weekend two famous sons of the blues commemorated how the genre forever changed modern music. They did what their father did-take a train north. For WBEZ, Ron Brown has the story.

Trains have been important in blues songs as both subjects and metaphors from the very beginning. It was basic imagery mined by the likes of Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James and Big Bill Broonzy .

Broonzy 1932 song Mr. Conductor Man

And then there's the role trains played in bringing the blues out of the Mississippi delta and up north to Chicago, one blues singer, song writer and musician at a time.

It's that legacy of cultural migration that Amtrak celebrated this weekend during the third annual National Train Day activities.


ABUBAKAR: There's a really historic connection between railroad and blues.

Darlene Abubakar works with Amtrak.

For the Midwest Train Day celebration commemorating the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, Amtrak invited a few special musicians to ride the train from New Orleans through Mississippi and all the way up to Chicago… like so many great blues musicians before them.

And they encouraged them to make plenty of noise along the way.

Bluesman Grady Champion brought his amplifier and harmonica. 

CHAMPION: When you get the blues, I mean you can't sit still, you gotta move. And that's what we're trying to do now is keeping that legacy alive that they started so many years ago.

The lounge car for the train they call the City of New Orleans became an improvised blues stage for the ride. The surprised passengers who thought they were taking just another trip found themselves instead celebrating a long standing blues/railroad legacy.

Mud Morganfield sings a snatch of Muddy Waters song “I'm a Man” acapella.

One of the greatest blues musicians to ever take the train from Mississippi to Chicago was McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters. Muddy stepped on the train platform at Clarksdale, Mississippi in May of 1943 with a guitar and the blues.

sound of Big Bill Morganfield playing Dust My Broom

Big Bill Morganfield says his father might have stayed in Mississippi for the rest of his life working as a sharecropper on the Stovall Plantation, if it had not been for a disagreement over three cents.

MORGANFIELD: One of the reasons why he left, he was making 22 cents driving tractors in the field. And he went over to Stovall and he said, 'Can I get 25 cents' because everybody else on the plantation was making 27 cents a day. And when he asked for a raise the guy just pitched a fit went crazy, stomped around the room and the next day my daddy packed his bag and got on the train and went to Chicago. And the rest…is history.

sound of Big Bill Morganfield playing Dust My Broom

The train ride north was steeped in blues symbolism. At McComb, Mississippi, the musicians got out briefly to pay their respects to the hometown of rock and roll pioneer Bo Diddley. Then they pushed on to Hazlehurst where another blues legend, the man who wrote and recorded Sweet Home Chicago, Robert Johnson was born. After another brief 5 minute stop, the train not only was rolling it was rocking.

HUGHES: Oh it's awesome.

Guy Hughes was a passenger.

HUGHES: It's definitely turned just a regular train ride into an event and it's something how the music just kind of breaks down barriers and brings people together so it's been really neat. Been really fantastic.

(Howlin' Wolf song Smokestack Lightnin' begins)

It's a Mississippi blues connection that many years ago caught lightning in a bottle. But it had to first board a train north to Chicago before it became Smokestack Lightning. For WBEZ, I'm Ron Brown

(Smokestack Lightnin' up and out)