Written by James L. Dickerson
Mojo Triangle Books
In the first chapter, entitled “Finding the Cradle of American Music,” author Jame L. Dickerson quickly establishes the perimeters of his latest book. “Draw a straight line from New Orleans to Nashville, then over to Memphis and back down to New Orleans following the curves of the Mississippi River, and you have the Mojo Triangle, a geometrical, cultural, and spiritual configuration that represents the geographical birthplace of America’s original music – blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and country”. Tracing the musical roots back to the early 1800’s, the author sets the stage with Native American tribes like the Natchez and Choctaw interacting with French settlers and African-American slaves in a cross-culture pollination that affected many areas including music.
From those humble beginnings, Dickerson begins to back up his thesis using a staggering array of legendary artists and writers as supporting evidence. A chapter on the 500 hundred mile Natchez Trace trail highlights country legend Jimmie Rodgers along with Howlin’ Wolf and Charlie Patton before touching on the influence of writers William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams, then finishing with Elvis Presley, Tammy Wynette, Marty Stuart, and Faith Hill.
The focus then shifts to the Mississippi Delta as the author makes a case for the Mississippi Sheiks as the focal point for the blues music that followed from Robert Johnson, Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson), Jimmy Reed, and B.B King. Other notables sited by the author include an interesting glimpse at Booby Gentry plus Conway Twitty and Charlie Pride. After a brief sojourn to Clarksdale, the journey arrives in Memphis with the usual references to W.C Handy, Sam Phillips & Sun Records, and the Stax label. Several parts of the chapter that make an impact are focused on guitarist Scotty Moore and producer Chips Moman, with the author making a concerted effort to highlight their sizable contributions.
A section on New Orleans is fairly predictable, focusing on the trumpet lineage that flows from King Oliver to Louis Armstrong, Al Hirt, and on to Wynton Marsalis. The author also highlights Antoine “Fats” Domino and Dr. John, who offers this analysis, “ New Orleans relates to Memphis a lot in the way of funky, down-home music. But it also has a little Caribbean flavor because there is a lot of connection with Cuba or Jamaica or Brazil…..that has been mixed with parade music and funeral music and marching band music in such a way that a funkified version came out of it”.
A major highlight of the book is the chapter on Muscle Shoals, reviewing the formation of Fame Studios by Rick Hall after the end of his partnership with drugstore owner Tom Stafford and Billy Sherrill, a budding country songwriter and producer. Dickerson delves into an area that nurtured W.C. Handy and Sam Phillips as children, then gave the world so much incredible music with the help of some talented local musicians who always seemed to know exactly what to play in the studio. The final chapter takes a look at Nashville, which musically is a far cry from the rich heritage of the Memphis area. Moore, Moman, and Stuart return as Dickerson trains his eye on the hit-making focus of the city’s musical structure.
There are a few errors that stood out in the review copy of the book. On page 82, a classic Jimmy Reed tune is listed as “You Don’t Have To Do (Go)” while page 258 makes reference to “Patsy Kline” instead of the correct Cline spelling.
When all is said and done, Dickerson certainly makes a strong case for the cultural importance of the Mojo Triangle region, particularly in regards to music. While he generally writes in broad strokes, the book has plenty of fascinating facts and stories in an easy-to-read writing style that should appeal to music fans interested in learning more our musical heritage.