Book claims Natchez as center of American music

Published 12:05 am Sunday, February 15, 2015

James L. Dickerson, above, wrote “Mojo Triangle: Birthplace of Country, Blues, Jazz and Rock ’n'Roll.”

James L. Dickerson, above, wrote “Mojo Triangle: Birthplace of Country, Blues, Jazz and Rock ’n’Roll.”

If Natchez had developed recording studios, it may have been given the reputation of a music city like Nashville or Memphis.

That’s the argument made by James L. Dickerson in his most recent book, “Mojo Triangle: Birthplace of Country, Blues, Jazz and Rock’n’Roll,” which claims that Natchez is at the center of what became American music.

The Mississippi River and The Natchez Trace, Dickerson said, put the area at the center of American music.

The river and the Trace allowed the music to travel from Natchez to other parts of the United States.

In fact, one of the first published American songs came from Natchez, Dickerson said. The song was originally titled “Natchez Under-the-Hill” but has undergone some changes and is now known as “Old Zip Coon” or “Turkey in the Straw.”

“It has been played many times in the Grand Ole Opry and (on) ‘Hee Haw’ over the years,” Dickerson said.

“Hee Haw” was an American television show in the ’70s that featured country music.

The birth of American music began when slaves came in contact with Native American music, Dickerson said.

Chanting and background beats characterized African music. Through exposure to Native American music, African Americans learned to harmonize.

The combination of African and Native American music creates the blues, Dickerson said.

Traditional Irish and Scottish music played by white settlers also impacted the development of American music, Dickerson said.

Irish and Scottish music had three and four chord progressions that, when blended with African American music creates the blues.

The blues then aided in the creation of country music, Dickerson said.

“The African music blending with the Native American music helped to create the blues first,” Dickerson said. “And then you sort of detour from the Trace to Meridian and you have Jimmy Rogers, the Father of Country Music. He took Irish music and added the blues to it and also listened to Indian music.”

Music claimed by Nashville and Memphis also came from Natchez, Dickerson said.

W.C. Handy, who is known as the Father of the Blues, added chord progressions to music coming from Natchez and much of the music that came out of Nashville traveled to the city from the Natchez Trace. Even New Orleans jazz was adapted from music heard in Natchez, Dickerson said.

Dickerson said Natchez is not credited as the center of American music today because the city did not develop recording studios.

“Unfortunately, Natchez didn’t develop recording studios like Nashville and Memphis. If (they) had done this to record the center of traffic no one would have questioned where the center of American music was,” Dickerson said.

Dickerson hopes that his findings will prompt the City of Natchez to develop an entertainment district.

“It would be great if Natchez would designate an American music street like Beale Street (in Memphis, Tenn.) You could have blues and country and jazz and rock’n’roll. You could have a wonderful music experience there.”

Dickerson’s thinks genetic imprinting is the reason so many talented musicians come from the area.

“One reason why so many big music stars have come from this triangle is that it becomes genetic after a couple hundred years. I think it really does get in our blood. I fully expect the next Elvis will come from Mississippi,” Dickerson said.

“Mojo Triangle: Birthplace of Country, Blues, Jazz and Rock’n’Roll” won best non-fiction book in the South from the Independent Publishers Association.

Dickerson will be at Bookland in the Natchez Mall from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21, to sign copies of his book.