The Mississippi Railroad was conceived by Dale Wise and Dave Groninger of Harrisburg’s own Cornlickers who, after traveling to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and playing and recording there numerous times, decided to expose Pennsylvania to some of the last, real blues artists. The Cornlickers consist of Wise (vocals and drums), Groninger (guitar), Bobby Gentilo (guitar), and Tony Ryder (bass).
The first event was held at the 40 & 8 with “Cadillac” John Nolden and Bill Abel. Nolden was in his 80’s at the time and had never left the county of his birth. To give you an example of how they do it in Mississippi, he told his wife he was going “down to the corner to play some blues” and ended up in Harrisburg with nothing but the clothes on his back and his harmonica. After playing gospel in his early years with his three brothers and blues with his guitarist brother, Jesse James Nolden, he stopped performing except for occasional solos at church until 1970 when he was inspired to take up the blues again to help alleviate the pain he felt after his wife abruptly left him. He bought a harmonica from the Simmons drug store in Cleveland, MS, and “went to hummin’ a little then…I just couldn’t hardly hold it back.” In the nineties he performed with guitarist Monroe Jones who introduced him to guitarist Bill Abel. They have performed regularly at venues in the Delta area, as well as at the King Biscuit Blues Festival, The Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, the Highway 61 Blues Festival, and the Yazoo Blues Festival. Abel has played with blues legends such as Honeyboy Edwards, Henry Townsend, Hubert Sumlin, Paul “Wine” Jones, Sam Carr, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, and Big George Brock. Abel says it has been his privilege to play authentic Delta blues with many bluesmen in different settings from juke joints to blues festivals across the Delta, the Chicago blues Festival, and all around the United States, Belgium, Italy, England, Wales and Switzerland. Nolden’s most recent CD, Red’s Juke Joint Sessions, Volume 1, “Cadillac” John Nolden and the Cornlickers, was recorded at Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Big Jack Johnson, described by Paul Evans in Rolling Stone magazine as “Mississippi Delta authentic; his songs sweat with grown-up hurt.” Big Jack Johnson, of Clarksdale, Mississippi, had a very special personal relationship with Central Pennsylvania for many years when he used to play at several venues in the area while touring the country and then connected with Dale Wise, who toured in the United States, Scandinavia and Europe with him. That relationship was the impetus for the concept of the Mississippi Railroad. Big Jack Johnson was a triple threat – singer, songwriter, guitar player – when you heard him on guitar you knew it was his distinctive playing. He was a member of the Jelly Roll Kings, along with Frank Frost and Sam Carr, who have been described as the quintessential Delta blues trio. Johnson played jukes and festivals from Chicago to Maine and from France to China, but was never happier than when playing at his hometown juke joint, Red’s Lounge. His last three CDs, Juke Joint Saturday Night, Katrina, and Big Jack’s Way, were recorded with the Cornlickers.
Appearing with Big Jack Johnson one year were Terry “Big T” Williams (vocals and guitar) and Terry “Harmonica” Bean (vocals, guitar and harmonica). Williams has played with many Delta bluesmen, including Wesley “Junebug” Jefferson, and continues to keep the blues alive. Bean came up in a blues world filled with country jukes and late night house parties. A lifelong resident of Pontotoc, Mississippi, Bean first heard downhome blues at home on Bean Hill. His father, Eddie Bean, sang and played blues guitar and prior to Terry’s birth traveled with an electric blues band. “I always did love the sound of the blues,” he says. “Ever since I was a little bitty boy, that’s the music I heard. My daddy used to play with BB King, but he had to stay home and couldn’t go on the road. My folks died without hearing me really playing the blues, but they knew I could do it.” Terry has maintained a busy performance schedule as both a solo artist and with a band. He has performed at festivals across the nation and in Europe. He has performed more times than anyone else for the Mississippi Railroad and continues to wow his audiences. His last three CDs, Two Sides of the Blues, Hill Country Blues with a Big Sound, and Rock This House Tonight were recorded with the Cornlickers.
Lightnin’ Malcolm was another one of our early rail riders and music has always been part of his heart and soul. From the moment he discovered an old raggedy guitar with a couple of strings and a cassette of Muddy Waters his life and the music world would change forever. Malcolm’s journey began in Southeast Missouri but it wasn’t until he settled in North Mississippi that he had a musical epiphany. He was drawn to the hill country blues first made famous by Fred McDowell and later R. L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Jessie Mae Hemphill. “I first came to Mississippi in about 1993 and fell in love with the music and the people here. It was a spiritual thing. When I heard the fife and drums and hill country music it really touched me because that was the closest thing to the music I was hearing in my head”. After performing for our Mississippi Railroad he eventually joined forces with blues royalty Cedric Burnside, and they toured the globe and won the 2009 Blues Music Award for Best Debut Artist. Malcolm has now teamed up with Cameron Kimbrough, grandson of blues legend Junior Kimbrough.
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, blues guitarist, vocalist and Bentonia, Mississippi native is the proprietor of one of the oldest juke joints in Mississippi, “The Blue Front” in Bentonia, which he took over in 1970 after the death of this father. Holmes is a practitioner and advocate of a distinctive blues style from his hometown whose most famous proponent was blues pioneer Nehemiah “Skip” James. Holmes, who never actually met James, studied the music of Jack Owens, another notable Bentonia based artist who shared James’ style. He is credited with promoting blues through the founding in 1972 of the Bentonia Blues Festival. Holmes, who normally works as an educator, has traditionally been a somewhat reluctant performer, but has enjoyed the opportunity to share his music and talk about the Bentonia tradition. “You don’t get nervous when you’re doing your hobby,” he says of performing.
Another icon of the Delta, Big George Brock (harmonica and vocals), performed for us in 2008. As a member of the “older” generation of bluesmen, he continues to keep the blues alive in the Delta and around the country. He began blowing harp when he was eight years old, so he’s been around, at times sharing stage or studio with the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Lee Kizart, Albert King, Hubert Sumlin, Big Bad Smitty, Jimbo Mathus, Watermelon Slim, Steven Seagal and others. He has toured the United Kingdom, Italy, Switzerland and France where crowds went crazy for his energetic, honest-to-Muddy performances. He is featured in the award-winning documentary, M for Mississippi.
David “Honeyboy” Edwards, born June 28, 1915 in Shaw, Mississippi, was one of the last living links to Robert Johnson when he performed for us in 2010, and one of the last original acoustic Delta blues players. He was a living legend and his story is truly part of history. Honeyboy’s life has been intertwined with almost every major blues legend, including Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Big Joe Williams, Rice “Sonny Boy Williamson” Miller, Howlin’ Wolf, Peetie Wheatstraw, Sunnyland Slim, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Walter, Little Walter, Magic Sam and Muddy Waters, just to name a few.
Louis Arzo “Gearshifter” Youngblood, is a Jackson-based guitarist and vocalist who performs a unique blend of country blues, modern soul-blues, and everything in between. Raised in a rural environment, he learned the rudiments of guitar from his great aunt Essie Mae Youngblood. She taught him several of the songs he performs today, including the traditional folk song “Rabbit in a Log” and the Tommy Johnson song “Bye Bye Blues”. Essie Mae was influenced directly by Johnson, one of the most significant bluesman in the Jackson area, who married her sister Rosa in the 1930’s. Johnson had a profound influence in the area, including Louis’ grandfather and namesake, Arzo Youngblood. Recently Louis has been performing as a solo acoustic artist, creating a distinctive mix by blending the country blues he learned as a youth with soul/blues classics and electric blues standards. He has performed festivals from Mississippi to Italy.
The Blues Society of Pennsylvania is truly blessed to be able to experience the living history of the blues with the unique Mississippi Railroad.
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