It was the summer of 1967.
The Summer of Love for some. The Long Hot Summer for others.
American troops poured into Vietnam while race riots broke out in major cities across the country from Detroit to Atlanta.
“Gentle people with flowers in their hair” flocked to San Francisco while The Rascals and Aretha Franklin rocked the top of the music charts.
A different kind of music was playing in the north Mississippi counties of Marshall, Tate and Panola that summer, a special flavor of blues with hints of Appalachian and African influences that musicians says is distinct and isolated compared to the more popular Delta blues.
“Mississippi Hill Country Blues 1967” tells the story of that unique style of blues and one man’s quest to find it.
“It is often said that blues was born in Mississippi, and this may be true,” writes author, journalist and blues aficionado George Mitchell. “Where a harsh life afforded no other means for providing entertainment, gaining prestige or shedding frustrations, the blues filled a vacuum.”
Retired to his native Ft. Myers, Fla., Mitchell says he discovered the blues as a teenager.
“A friend of mine was flipping the dial on the radio trying to hear the most recent Elvis song,” he says. “Then we heard something as we were turning the dial and we said, ‘Hey, stop what’s that?’”
The sound was Muddy Waters playing on WAOK in Atlanta, one of the few black-owned radio stations in the country at the time.
Mitchell’s love affair with blues began that night and it wasn’t long before he was finding and hanging out with bluesmen from Peg Leg Howell in Atlanta to Furry Lewis in Memphis. He also worked for record companies and concert promoters in Chicago.
While studying journalism at the University of Minnesota, Mitchell read “The Country Blues” by Sam Charters and convinced his wife, Cathy, to join him in their tiny VW Beetle with no air conditioning on a road trip to the Deep South in search of more soulful music.
“We’re living right here on the Mississippi River,” Mitchell recalls in the book. “Why don’t we travel south down the river to the state of Mississippi and find and record some blues singers? Unknown blues singer — people who have never been on record.”
The Mitchells didn’t have much money and only brought along a 35mm camera borrowed from the journalism department and a cheap tape recorder to capture the music and voices of this obscure sound.
“It was absolutely amazing in the hill country,” Mitchell says. “(The people were) especially friendly. I was recording and taking pictures. People would just let me photograph anywhere.”
Mitchell says one interview with Fred McDowell of Como turned into a late night session that included harmonicas and bottleneck guitarists. Other instruments they encountered were the gutbucket bass, drums and hand carved river cane fifes, all staples of Hill Country blues.
“(Music was often) played with homemade instruments that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” says Oxford attorney Tom Freeland. “The songs don’t have the standard 12-bar change that people think of Delta blue; it’s almost drone like before there’s a change.”
“Hill Country blues was more uplifting, danceable,” Mitchell says in contrast to the more “gut-wrenching” Delta blues. “Just makes you feel good.”
The Mitchells made more stops in Senatobia, Coldwater, Holly Springs and Nesbit going from front porches to church picnics, acting as veritable music archaeologists. Photographs of a cowboy-hat wearing Othar Turner and a guitar-strumming Rosa Lee Hill fill the book.
Some of Mitchell’s recordings were with musicians who hadn’t been recorded in years. Others, like R.L. Burnside of Holly Springs, had never been recorded.
“The people of the Hill Country of Mississippi were just as open and welcoming and friendly as they could be,” Mitchell says.
The African-American families that he met may have been hospitable but it was their white neighbors that Mitchell had to be careful around.
“We were looking for a blues singer named Bullet Williams,” says Mitchell, “I was taking pictures of some sharecropper shacks and the guy that owned them came out.”
It had only been three years since a group of college-age civil rights workers were found murdered in Neshoba County.
The white farmer wasn’t happy with George and Cathy Mitchell and their camera.
“He said you hit the highway and get the hell out of Mississippi,” Mitchell says. “We were kind of scared.”
Mitchell believes that even though Hill Country blues isn’t as popular internationally as Delta blues; it has similarly broken down racial barriers and is finding new listeners with the younger generations. Both black and white blues fans flock to the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic every summer in Waterford to hear the children and grandchildren of some of the bluesmen Mitchell interviewed.
“(Mitchell was) somebody that went out in the field and found musicians,” says Freeland, adding that the research has been useful to blues lovers and music historians.
“George is definitely respected among the academy: folklorists, anthropologists and other cultural academics who write about it and study it,” says Jake Fussel, a blues musician and friend of Mitchell’s that recently finished a graduate degree at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.
“George has always had a real humanist perspective- not academic as much as just showing the human side of people, their thoughts and dreams, childhood memories,” Fussel says. “George’s recordings are really soulful and intimate. You can hear his close relationships to the subject and how much he cared and was passionate. He was a really important documentarian.”