Exploring the Blues

by George Tipton Wilson (a freelance writer in Memphis, Tennessee)

© American Profile, Central Edition, January 9, 2005

Frank and Eddie Thomas found inspiration along Blues Highway, Route 61

In 1998, brothers Eddie and Frank Thomas of Iuka, MS (pop. 3,059), set out on a pilgrimage along Highway 61 that took them from Beale Street in Memphis, TN, to the choir loft of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. With a guitar and hand-held recorder, Edie, 55, and Frank, 49, followed the roots of blues music along the famed Blues Highway, recording 65 songs at historic locations along the way.

“Were we in search of something?” Eddie ponders. “Perhaps. I will say that if I was looking for something, there were times when I stood quite near it.”

They recorded their first song, Muddy Waters’ Country Blues, in an old red barn near Clarksdale, MS (pop. 20,645), where Waters worked as a farm laborer in the 1930s and early ‘40s. “A flock of blackbirds flew past the barn door on that cool October day, and something, somewhere smiled and whispered a breeze that filled up my soul,” says Eddie, who felt an inexplicable bond with the legendary bluesman while recording the song. “When you stand that close to whatever it is and feel that closeness, it will last a lifetime.”

Their journey resulted in the four-CD collection Angels on the Backroads, which includes 80 pages of liner notes chronicling the significance of each stop along the way.

The project began after the two brothers, who own a film and audio production company, finished an audio driving tour of the Natchez Trace Parkway. “When we completed that project in 1994, we turned to the next famous roadway in Mississippi, Highway 61,” Eddie says. “Our intentions were to do a similar project, but we found it was not the road itself that was the guide, but the rich musical heritage of the region that led us from one fascinating place to the next.”

To learn of that heritage, the brothers devoted two years to research, listening to thousands of old, scratchy blues records. They studied everything from how original composers tuned their guitars, to discovering where many of the songs were first performed.

To bring their project to life, the self-described “song-storians” hit the road . Eddie sang and played guitar while Frank, a sound engineer by trade, recorded the legendary songs.

For three years they recorded at locations based on “song titles, birth places of musicians and historical events,” says Eddie, who’s played guitar since high school. “We were looking for classic songs by classic musicians that would tie the land to the music.”

They traveled to an abandoned store in Robinsonville, MS, near the hometown of blues legend Robert Johnson and recorded Johnson’s Sweet Home Chicago. At the Valley Store near Greenwood, MS (pop. 18,425), Eddie poured his heart into Avalon Blues, on the same front porch where Mississippi John Hurt had performed the song 75 years earlier.

Because the songs were recorded on location, the resulting tracks include ambient sounds from each stop. “I remember every song,” Frank says. “I loved every minute, every bird that sang, every set of car tires that whined down the highway, the sound of every crop duster flying overhead, like it did on (Gus Cannon’s) Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home.”

Since releasing their compilation in 2003, the brothers launched a tour – the Mississippi Delta Blues Heritage Program – sponsored by Delta State University in Cleveland, MS (pop. 13,841). The program introduces middle and high school students along Highway 61 to the region’s musical heritage and features a 50-minute informative film and Eddie performing select songs.

“The goal of the program is to explore the evolution of the blues,” says Dr. Henry Outlaw of Delta State University. “To trace its flow from the Mississippi Delta to Memphis, St. Louis and the northern cities, and demonstrate how it has been incorporated into other music genres such as jazz, gospel and rock ‘n’ roll. Eddie and Frank are very talented musician/historians.”

In March, the brothers plan to tour the United Kingdom, where they’ll spread the history and their love for a musical genre that sprang to life along Highway 61.

To learn more, log on to www.angelsonthebackroads.com or write to: Eddie & Frank Thomas, P.O. Box 153, Iuka, MS 38852.