The Mississippi Delta is known as the birthplace of American music and U.S. Highway 61 played an instrumental role in spreading the music, mainly the blues, across the nation.
On Thursday the town of Alligator, one of the smallest of all Delta communities and located in the northernmost portion of Bolivar County, was memorialized for its role in the blues movement when the Mississippi Development Authority, Tourism Division, unveiled the Alligator Blues marker as part of the Mississippi Blues Trail.
The historical marker in Alligator is the 16th of its kind to be located in Bolivar County and the 166th to be placed across the state.
"Highway 61, "the blues highway," is lined with the birthplaces of blues, R&B and gospel artists all along its route in Mississippi and even small communities such as Alligator share in this proud musical legacy," said Allison Washington, music trails representative for the MDA prior to the unveiling.
Blues musicians born or raised around Alligator and mentioned on the marker include: George P. Jackson, who was a longtime performer on the Kansas City blues scene; flamboyant entertainer Robert "Bilbo" Walker, who has recorded for the Rooster Blues and Fedora labels; Thessex Johns, a.k.a. Johnny Drummer, who plays the drums, keyboards and harmonica and has been playing in Chicago since the 1960s and has multiple albums to his credit; brothers Andrew, Curtis and Robert Kelly, known for their gospel music as well as R&B hits recorded under the names Kelly Brothers and the King Pins.
One of the most famous of all blues musicians, Robert Johnson, also briefly lived near the Alligator community.
Walker and Johns each made the long trek home for Thursday's unveiling.
"I don’t know where to start at," said Walker. "Wherever I start at, I remember that I am starting at home. This is home. This has always been home and will always be home with me."
Walker said that on his way back to the Delta from his home in California, he didn't realize how much this marker was going to mean to him.
"I didn't really know that this marker meant so much to me until just a few minutes ago," said an obviously emotional Walker. "But just seeing all of you out here, my friends and family, I know how much this marker means to me now. Not too many things mean much to me, except for money, and today this marker means more to me than money."
Walker said that a part of the feelings he was experiencing came from looking down the street of Alligator and remembering the many days and nights that he played his music in the area.
"Looking back, Alligator had lost some of its meaning for me," he continued. "As I stand here and think about all of the places that I have played, and I have played around the world, today, Alligator is the most important place in the world to me."
Taking the microphone from Walker, Johns looked at him and recollected that they had come a long way from running "these streets around us."
"Growing up, we dream of going all over the world, but as we get older we never forget about going home," said Johns.
"Thinking back, I have played all over the states and across the world but I have never played in my home town," he added.
That would change right after the unveiling as Walker and Johns entertained the crowd inside the town's community center.
"We are going to play for you all a little bit of blues and a little bit of rock-n-roll," said Walker as he stepped on stage. "If you enjoy it then come on out and join us again at Big Red's in Clarksdale this Saturday and Sunday night as Johnny and I will take the stage together again."
The Mississippi Development Authority is the state of Mississippi’s lead economic and community development agency, with approximately 300 employees engaged in providing services to businesses, communities and workers throughout Mississippi.
The agency works to recruit new business to the state and retain and expand existing Mississippi industry and business. MDA also provides technical assistance to the state’s entrepreneurs and small businessmen and women and oversees programs that support Mississippi’s minority and women-owned businesses.
The Mississippi Blues Trail markers tell stories through words and images of bluesmen and women and how the places where they lived and the times in which they existed–and continue to exist–influenced their music.
The sites run the gamut from city streets to cotton fields, train depots to cemeteries, and clubs to churches.