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Eureka College professor to screen Mississippi blues documentary at Chicago film festival

In black and white, a pensive man in a baseball hat with a bedazzled 100 looks to the left, his hand gently resting on his lips.
Phil Duncan
A still from filmmaker Phil Duncan's interview with Terry "Big T" Williams in Mississippi Mud: A Natural History of the Blues.

Eureka College media studies professor Phil Duncan brought together his intersecting interests in environmental history, media studies and music in Mississippi Mud: A Natural History of the Blues. Duncan presents the short documentary later this month at the 14th annual Blue Whiskey Independent Film Festival near Chicago.

Duncan believes music is always a “product of its environment,” naturally adopting the qualities of a region.

“I grew up in the Northwest in the late ‘90s and early 2000s,” Duncan said. “A lot of the music that came out of there is directly related to the environment—especially if you’re talking about things like grunge music coming out of a very depressing, gray environment.”

Blues is no exception, with one of its most important points of origin in the Mississippi Delta. Duncan took several trips to the region, shooting black and white footage of the landscape and interviewing key figures in its current blues scene.

“The Mississippi Delta is interesting because, for the most part, it’s completely human-made,” said Duncan.

Bordered by the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers in the northwest corner of the state, the Delta went largely undisturbed until the end of the Civil War.

“The Delta was a frontier,” Duncan said. “They still had panthers, bears and alligators—it was wild. It was all forest and swamp. If you’ve ever spent time in Mississippi, you’d understand that it’s basically a jungle. It’s very hot and humid.”

Early blues music arose from the post-Civil War era as the Delta saw a sharp rise in deforestation and agriculture. The region was quickly developed by what Duncan equates to a “land grab.” Formerly enslaved people who remained in the region purchased land; for the most part, however, it was white settlers obtaining large swaths of land who fundamentally changed the landscape.

A man in tinted glasses and a black jacket stands in front of a red wall with the WGLT and NPR logos
Lauren Warnecke
Eureka College professor Phil Duncan took multiple solo trips to the Mississippi Delta, capturing footage of the Mississippi River's rugged edge at the height of summer. He hopes to have opportunities to screen his film locally in the future.

“You had a frontier, a very untouched land that was, over the span of 100, maybe 200 years, completely controlled, flattened and turned into one of the most economically viable places in the world for cotton,” said Duncan.

Blues music emerged from lumber camps and sharecropping fields, using images from nature and agriculture to subversively address social issues—a confluence of influences featuring the call-and-response and polyrhythms of West Africa and harmonic structures of European folk songs.

“Blues has a distinct sound that can change here and there, but a lot of it comes down to the one, the four and the five on the chords, the polyrhythms, the syncopation,” said Duncan. “But beyond that it’s really hard to say exactly what the blues are. Samantha Fish does the blues. Howlin’ Wolf did the blues. It’s a very diverse form that’s still changing to this day.”

Key to the evolution of the blues was its journey north aligned with the Great Migration to northern cities—and forming some of the country’s most important blues scenes.

“When it comes from Mississippi, it’s what we could call country blues,” Duncan said. “A lot of instruments, especially in the early 20th century, were homemade. You have a very acoustic music that now comes to a place like Chicago where if you’re playing on the corner with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, it’s really hard to rise above the sound of the city.”

Among the 400,000 people who left the Mississippi Delta in the first half of the 20th century was Mississippi native Muddy Waters, who played a pivotal role in electrifying jazz.

“Some of the music he recorded in the 1940s with Alan Lomax and his team in the Mississippi Delta—he re-recorded a lot of those songs when he moved to Chicago with an electric guitar,” Duncan said.

Those who stayed

A mass exodus out of the Delta perpetuated poverty in the Delta as workers fled toward manufacturing jobs in cities like Peoria that would automate jobs in agriculture. Duncan's next project aims to trace a kind of blues highway as musicians travelled a direct path through Central Illinois on the way from Memphis to St. Louis and Chicago.

“While cotton is still a huge industry in the Mississippi Delta, it’s not as labor intensive as it used to be,” Duncan said. “Not as many people work in that field. The Mississippi Delta is a very poor place, it has a high unemployment rate, but it still has that viable spirit of where the music comes from.”

In Mississippi Mud, Duncan interviews blues musicians and club owners like Terry “Big T” Williams and Tameal Edwards who stayed and are teeing up the next generation. Pride in the region has been elevated by efforts to place markers in key landmarks from blues history; tourism is a promising industry bolstering the region. But the music which rose from oppression is not immune to it today—particularly in an environmentally precarious place like the Delta.

“The blues continues to live in Mississippi and continues to flourish,” Duncan said. “As climate change happens and we see towns like Rolling Fork—which is where Muddy Waters was born—almost completely wiped out a few years ago from a tornado, it’s always going to be and it always has been that when you’re poor, and especially when you’re Black and poor in the South, you’re on the forefront of these environmental issues.”

Mississippi Mud: A Natural History of the Blues screens April 17 at the Blue Whiskey Independent Film Festival in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. Join Duncan’s mailing list to get updates about the film.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.