The Mojo Triangle

The Mojo Triangle

Source: USA Today

Writer James L. Dickerson coined the brilliant term Mojo Triangle in 2005, before I learned of it I had referred to the area as the reverse Bermuda Triangle of music. This (among other things I’ll admit) is why I write a blog and he is the award winning author of Mojo Triangle: Birthplace of Country, Blues, Jazz and Rock ‘n’ Roll. I confess I haven’t gotten round to reading it yet but I’ve been itching to write about the area for some time and I have researched the names and places for several years now. The ‘triangle’ refers to the geographic region with Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans as the three corners. The states of Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana are at the core. We know it as part of the “Deep South” and it’s been referred to by other music related terms that pre date the ‘Mojo’ handle such as “America’s Musical Triangle” and the “Americana Musical Triangle”. But quite appropriately adding the noun Mojo conjures up a mysterious and magical aura.

What’s a Mojo?

The word “mojo” has a long history and is tied to spiritual tasselmans, in African Caribbean/American culture, it is a small charm bag used in Voodoo. It has come to be a descriptor of a person’s charisma, luck and other positive personal attributes. This latter definition loosely suits the context of one of the earliest songs to reference it. Released in 1953, “The Mojo” by J.B. Lenoir talks about dancing the “Boogie” in New Orleans while holding his “Mojo” tight. In 1956, African American songwriter and musician Preston “Red” Foster wrote a song for Ann Cole called “I Got My Mojo Working” and she began to perform it live while on tour with Muddy Waters. There’s no way to sugar coat this one, Muddy stole the song, changed up a few lines and recorded it at Chess Records in December of 1956 with his name listed as the sole writer. Ann Cole recorded it as well with Baton Records in New York and there it was Preston Foster that was credited, both songs were released in March of 1957. Neither version charted, but over time it has become a Blues Standard and an iconic part of the legend of Muddy Waters. Covered over 140 times to date. A lawsuit has since restored all credits for the song to Preston Foster.

Names, Faces and Genres

It’s often been said there’s something in the water down there and most certainly something about the people who drink it. While “Mojo Triangle” is a catchy phrase the genesis of the these musical genres certainly bulges beyond the triangle region, but not too much actually. The triangle itself is just a rough approximation, including many notable places such as the Mississippi Delta, Muscle Shoals, Jackson, Tupelo and Natchez. Just outside the edges you have places like Ferriday and Lafayette. States that enter the fringe are Arkansas and Georgia.

You know the names of the artists to come from this area, the most famous are associated with their birthplace and/or where they made their musical mark. From the Blues and R&B genres; W.C. Handy is from Alabama and then there’s Willie Dixon from Vicksburg, Mississippi, Fats Domino and Louis Armstrong from New Orleans. From the Delta region we have John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Charlie Patton and Sam Cooke just to name a few. The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis and so was Carla Thomas. Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans was born in Ponchatoula, Louisiana. Tina Turner, Big Bill Broonzy and Sister Rosetta Tharpe are from the Delta region of Arkansas, Memphis Minnie was actually born in Mississippi and Bessie Smith from Tennessee.

Country music has a long list of legends from this area also, Dolly Parton is from Tennessee as is Chet Atkins, Roy Acuff, Martina McBride, Kitty Wells and Marty Robbins. Hank Williams and Emmylou Harris are from Alabama, Floyd Cramer and Lucinda Williams from Louisiana, Mickey Gilley, Tammy Wynette, Bobbie Gentry, Charlie Pride and LeAnn Rimes from Mississippi. Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell and Conway Twitty are from Arkansas.

From the Rock & Roll World this region spawned names like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ronnie Hawkins, Levon Helms, The Allman Brothers, Tony Joe White, Carl Perkins and Bo Diddley.  Alabama native Sam Phillips and Sun Studios in Memphis are at the heart of the genesis of Rock and Roll recording as is Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals. The progenitors of R&R from this region include Arthur Crudup, Jack Dupree, Lloyd Price, Larry Williams, Big Mama Thornton, Dave Bartholomew and Big Joe Williams. I have covered all these artists and more in prior posts so I won’t repeat the Rock & Roll story today.  Suffice to say there is a reason this area has drawn so much attention spawning more talented natives such as Jimmy Buffett & Britney Spears (Mississippi) or Miley Cyrus (Tennessee).

The significance of this area, the names, the studios and the life stories mean more to historians and music geeks like me than to the multitudes involved in listening to modern day recording. Superstars have emerged from every corner of the globe and the desire or even the need to travel to The Mojo Triangle to record music has diminished. Never again will American society experience the conditions that brought us the small town boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, the farm boy who became the Man in Black, or the little girl from an impoverished home with her “coat of many colors”.  The first generation of free Blacks gave us the man who sold his soul to the devil, a guitar named Lucille and sounds so blue they can both lift you up or make you cry.

The rawness, simplicity and the straightforward delivery of the music from this region is part of what set it apart. You cannot duplicate the harshness of life that gave us The Father of Country Music, The Empress of The Blues, The Hillbilly Poet or the Session playing son of a Sharecropper turned singing superstar. Never again will the sons of Slaves travel with a guitar in one hand and a hat in the other. The “great migration” that sent millions to the north including many of the legends of the Blues will not take place again.

Unlike the unsolved mysteries of its namesake, The Bermuda Triangle, we know exactly where it all came from. What we see in parallel however is the disappearance. Not only in terms of the times and places that made all the music possible but the loss of the names of the people. Just by default a good majority of my writing is focused on the names from The Mojo Triangle. This is the birthplace of The Blues, Country Music and Rock and Roll. Without these icons we would not have R&B, without the great names from New Orleans there is no Jazz. As much as these genres spread quickly across the US and many parts of the world, the origin story is not as well known and becoming less so over time.

The cover song plays a huge role in the region itself and in helping the proliferation of these music genre. How so, you may ask? So glad you did! Let me give you a few examples. In the early days of the development of any music genre is the first song or the first style of singing/playing, someone did it first and then passed it on. The music from this region was about as grass roots as you can get, so before the words and music started to be written down, it was passed from one person to another. Like telling a story, which many songs were, they moved through families, entertainers with embellishments and new lyrics often added.

Mojo, Blues and the Cover Song

One of the genre from this area is the Blues and it travelled throughout the South primarily via two modes, the Minstrel Show and the Itinerant Musician. We known the Minstrel Show was an appropriation and mockery of Black Slaves and Culture, but it did spread the music. The authentic mode was that of the the singer songwriter. While most of these traveling musicians had a few of their own original songs, the majority of their repertoire consisted of songs belonging to others. When they would meet and on occasion play the same shows or venue, a free and open sharing would occur. It was common to pass songs along and in turn fill out one’s own bag of tunes. For as much as this was a good thing, the innocence and comradery would lead to problems when recordings were released and credits and royalties did not go to the original songwriter.

Borrowed lines and melodies were commonplace, and still are to a certain extent and many artists would record the same song, often in the same year. This was also the beginning of the concept of the “Standard” that exists in any Genre  and is represented in part via The American Songbook. The more popular a song was with the audience/buying public the more artists and record producers wanted to get in on the action. For example we can look at the legendary Delta Bluesman Charlie Patton who recorded Pony Blues in 1929 which was covered by another legend, Big Joe Williams in 1935 as My Grey Pony, in turn Williams song “Baby Please Don’t Go” from 1935 was covered by Tampa Kid in 1937 then Lightnin’ Hopkins in 1949 followed by over 180 versions. Robert Johnson, notwithstanding that he benefited from the song sharing I just mentioned, has at least 25 original songs to his credit. “Cross Road Blues” has been covered by 114 artists, “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” 107, “Come on in My Kitchen’ 98, “Walkin’ Blues” 86, “Love in Vain Blues” 51 and 11 songs with 20 plus cover versions. The names of the artists that have recorded his songs reads like a “Who’s Who” of music Royalty; Howlin’ Wolf, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, Rory Block, The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, George Thorogood, ZZ Top, Lucinda Williams and The White Stripes.

The Blues is not the only genre that requires it’s practitioners to wet their chops on the “tried and true” songs but if we look at the number of versions from the early legends we find some of the most covered songs of all time. I have talked about The Father of the Blues, W.C. Handy, born to this region, in Florence Alabama to be specific, he spent most of his life in that state and The Mississippi Delta. Credited with putting the first Blues songs on paper his “St. Louis Blues” was copyrighted in 1914 and the first recording was December 18, 1915 by Prince’s Band and released in February of 1916. This song (excluding Christmas and Instrumentals) is the 10th most covered song of all time and according to ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) it’s the most recorded song of the first half of the 20th Century. Both a Blues and Jazz music standard it has over 900 versions and is the most covered song from 1916. Just to give some context the first song to surpass it was initially recorded as “New Britain” (by The Original Sacred Harp Choir) and subsequently named “Amazing Grace”, now with over 1160 versions.

Ma Rainey, The Mother of the Blues was from this region and spent much of her career touring the Mojo Triangle. Her song “See See Rider Blues” and it’s derivative titles has almost 400 versions.

The song “Rising Sun Blues” or as most will known it as “House of the Rising Sun” has roots in Traditional English Folk songs dating back to as early as 1740. “Rising Sun” was a Bawdy House (Bordello) in London England. The location was transposed in the North American version with references to “…a house in New Orleans” and author of the lyrics is unknown. It was however a well known tune throughout the South, first recorded by Appalachian musicians Clarence Ashley & Gwin Foster in 1933 (above link) and has been recorded many times in a Folk or Country Style. While commonly played by many from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s it was the 1944 recorded versions by Josh White and Lead Belly that document the transition into that now Classic Blues feel. Recorded some fifty more times up to 1964, including a Jazz rendition by Frankie Laine in 1959, the most famous is the stunning version by The Animals (1964). This group from Newcastle upon the Tyne that relocated to London England brought this song full circle. Ironically their rendition is based on the American Blues arrangement and solidified the songs Mojo roots and has since been recorded more that 500 times in various styles.

The legendary Willie Dixon may have made his name with Chess Records in Chicago but he was born and raised in Mississippi and went from a Gospel singer to The Blues before he left the area at age 21. His song “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” first recorded by Muddy Waters is another of the Blues Standards with over 150 versions. John Lee Hooker was raised in the Clarksdale area of Mississippi were he learned the Delta Blues. At age 14 he ran away from home and played on Beale Street in Memphis. His song “Boom, Boom” released in 1962 is one of the most recognizable of the Blues Standards and at over 70 versions it’s just one of his 49 songs that have been covered by other artists. An arrangement of the song is used as the theme for NCIS New Orleans.

Early Jazz from a ‘Point’ in the Triangle

This is a genre that has both a clear and yet oddly muddled division between the Instrumental and the Vocal genre. What I’m getting at is that many songs have no lyrics and many more that do may be recorded just as often as an instrumental. You know the names of the famed New Orleans Jazz legends such as King Oliver who was a mentor to the great Louis Armstrong, then there’s Al Hirt, Louis Prima, Ellis Marsalis and five of his six Jazz playing sons; Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, Mboya, and Jason.

Charles “Buddy” Bolden is often cited as The Father of Jazz.  His coronet playing fussed the many techniques of Ragtime, Marching Band and African American sounds to create the more improvisital style we know today. The roots of New Orleans Jazz include some major influences; mostly we see the Cuban Conga-beat, then Latin Rhythms and a strong bit of the Afro-American beat as well. New Orleans Pappa Jack Lane is one of the forerunners of Jazz, he mentored the sons of Sicilian immigrants who formed the influential Original Dixieland Jass Band that began recording in 1917.  So to perpetuate the muddled part we have vast input from many places and some of these Jazz instrumental artists were also noted vocalists (Armstrong, Prima) while others (Hirt and The Marsalis’) less so.

For the Jazz Vocal, we first see the area represented with the above noted W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” that has also become a Jazz Standard. Other notable Jazz names include; Clarinetists George Baquet and Dorothy Ketchens, Pianists Sweet Emma Barrett and Harry Connick Jr. and the genres first arranger, the writer, bandleader and piano legend Jelly Roll Morton.  It’s not possible to travel to New Orleans without hearing the Classic Jazz songs from these artists played live at many venues.

More Classic songs from New Orleans

You will recognize the James “Sugar Boy” Crawford tune that was originally titled “Jock-A-Mo” and released in 1953. Popularized by New Orleans group The Dixie Cups in 1964 as “Iko Iko“. Dr. John is a Pop Music Icon and “Right Place, Wrong Time” has become another New Orleans and Mardi Gras standard since it came out in 1973. Al Johnson’s “Carnival Time” is another must know song as is Professor Longhair’s “Going to the Mardi Gras“.

“Little Liza Jane” is another song that has roots in The Appalachia dating back to the late 1800’s. A song by the same name was copyrighted in 1916 and written or at least credited to Brooklyn N.Y. native Ada Louise Metz, later to be addressed as Countess Ada De Lachau. However, when New Orleans writer and performer of “Sea Cruise” Huey Piano Smith rearranged it in 1956 he soon made it into a Mardi Gras classic. Born across the River in Gretna, Louisiana, Frankie Ford’s release in 1958 was responsible for making “Sea Cruise” into a million seller and a Rock & Roll Classic. Huey Smith also wrote “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” and had a minor hit with it, most famously covered by Johnny Rivers of Baton Rouge Louisiana in 1972.

The Louis Armstrong’s version (released in 1939) transformed “When the Saints Go Marching In” from a stately Gospel song into what has evolved into perhaps the signature New Orleans Jazz song. Fats Domino released “Walking to New Orleans” in 1960 but he also helped spread the popularity of “When the Saints Go Marching In” as he added it to almost every live show he performed. I wager you won’t find a group or artist in New Orleans that does not know how to play this song.

Country Music

I dropped some big names in my introduction and in a recent post I filled out the story on The Father of Country Music, Jimmy Rodgers. You’ll find those names and more in post titles and content throughout my blog so I won’t go into them again. As important as The Triangle area was to Country Music’s origins, we need to go outside the area for the more complete picture. For some time now the “Western” as Country & Western Music has been relegated to a subgenre of Country. However much of the origin story lies outside of the Mojo Triangle. We see significant artists from Texas and other areas both from the west and east of the Triangle.

Recently I was reviewing the Ken Burns Documentary on Country Music, so I feel compelled to put the results of my research on to a separate post.  I will get back to it soon and therefore leave the topic of Country Music Origins to a more comprehensive review. That post should be ready soon but given that the Holiday Season is upon us…and hopefully the worst behind us I will post an updated blog on that topic in the coming weeks.

Legend for Names, Faces and Genres (Paragraphs 5&6)

Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Jimmie Rodgers, Bessie Smith, Hank Williams, Glen Campbell

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3 thoughts on “The Mojo Triangle

  1. Great article as always! FYI – as you know classical composers Mozart and Haydn were Freemasons. Also the following: Howlin' Wolf – blues. You can see his Masonic ring on the cover of 'The Complete RPM & Chess Singles As and Bs' albu W.C. Handy – known as the Father of the BluesMissippi Fred McDowell – bluesJimmie Rodgers – country


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