The smoky, bluesy anthem and the story behind its lovable lyrics
By Joanne Prichard Morris • Photography by John Montfort Jones
If the Mississippi Delta has an anthem, “Darkness on the Delta” is it. The Delta State University marching band plays it at every football game, bringing cheering students to their feet and putting a lump in the throats of alumni. In live performances of “Darkness on the Delta” and on her album Mississippi Number One, Eden Brent unleashes her smoky blues voice and keyboard virtuosity in the stride piano style she learned from Boogaloo Ames. Boogaloo himself accompanies Cassandra Wilson on her lush version for Belly of the Sun. “Darkness on the Delta” was played at writer Willie Morris’s graveside service and Greenville Mayor Chuck Jordan’s funeral.
When popular music fans in the Delta and across the land first heard “Darkness on the Delta,” the year was 1932, and the country was mired in the Great Depression. The crooner Rudy Vallee was sobbing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” into his megaphone. In the Mississippi Delta, people were literally bogged down—in the mud and muck from the 1927 Flood and the ongoing levee building. On cotton plantations African Americans like Son House were singing, “The blues ain’t nothing but a low-down shakin’ chill/If you ain’t had ‘em, I hope you never will.”
Is it any wonder that the light-hearted, gently swinging, tuneful “Darkness on the Delta,” became a national hit? Mildred Bailey, the most popular white jazz singer of the day, introduced “Darkness” on a 78 rpm single. Other vocalists and orchestras recorded it, radios played it, and the sales of sheet music took off. Soon “Darkness on the Delta” was available on a player piano roll.
The lyrics of “Darkness on the Delta”—“lounging on the levee” and “cotton all around me”—suggest that someone familiar with the Mississippi Delta wrote them. In fact, the song was written by three young men in their twenties who had probably never set foot in the Mississippi Delta. They were among the many popular music collaborators getting a start in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. Jerry Livingston (Levinson), a recent arrival from Denver, Colorado, composed the music. He teamed up with the lyricists Al J. Nieburg, a Vermonter, and Marty Symes, from Brooklyn. “Darkness on the Delta” was the first hit song for all three men.
As originally written, the song had “darkies DSC_1648singing sweet and low.” Fortunately, the word “darkies” has long been replaced by “voices” or another racially unbiased word, casting the song in a totally different light. In the Delta’s segregated past, that wasn’t always the case, as Diane Jacobs vividly remembers: “In 1959 when I was in the first grade, everybody in my class at Pearson Elementary School in Cleveland had to dress as pickaninnies and sing “Darkness on the Delta” in the middle of the football field! We all wore black gloves, had our faces blackened, and the girls wore bandanas on our heads.”
A less controversial faux pas is the line, “Listening to the nightingale way up above.” Everybody in the Delta knows they were really listening to the night songs of a mockingbird!
According to the composer Jerry Livingston’s son Dennis, popular music listeners throughout the country in the 1930s loved nostalgic songs about the South, and it was common for non-Southerners like his father to write them. Cultural historians explain that a major source of southern details in popular music resulted from the friendships between Tin Pan Alley songwriters and African-Americans who had fled the South for the big city. In the very same year that “Darkness on the Delta” was released, Cab Calloway and the Boswell Sisters separately recorded two Fats Waller songs about life in the Delta, “Old Yazoo” and “Down on the Delta.” Apparently “outsiders” found the Mississippi Delta as intriguing then as they do now!
Yet “Darkness on the Delta” is the song we know and love and not the two by Fats Waller. Jerry Livingston’s melody and rhythms are an almost mystical imagining of the spirit of the Mississippi Delta. The song’s conventional 32-bar structure and predictable chord changes make it comfortable to hear and offer endless possibilities for improvisation. And quite simply, “Darkness on the Delta” is singable and danceable in a way that transcends the passing of time and changing personal tastes.
The sustained popularity of “Darkness on the Delta” probably owes the most to singer and musician, Herbie Holmes of Yazoo City. A young man with a sky’s-the-limit ambition and the talent and drive to match, Herbie was a student at Ole Miss leading the Ole Miss jazz band, the Mississippians, when “Darkness on the Delta” came out. Not long afterward, he won a won a trip to New York for a guest appearance on the Eddie Cantor Radio Show and a singing audition with NBC radio.
After college Holmes created his own band, DarknessJMJand in 1935 he signed with Count Basie and Benny Goodman’s agent. The Herbie Holmes Orchestra went on the national circuit with his theme song, “Darkness on the Delta” and a repertoire of other popular upbeat Dixieland-style jazz pieces. His featured vocalist, Nancy Hutson, was also from the Delta (Isola) and a student at Delta State Teachers College when she won Holmes’s talent search. Wearing glamorous satin evening gowns, she opened and closed the band’s performances with “Darkness on the Delta.” The press praised her “throaty and delightful voice.”
By the late 1930s the Herbie Holmes Orchestra had evolved into a big band with a smoother, more mellow sound conducive to dining and dancing—“Music Served Southern Style,” Holmes called it. Billboard magazine wrote about his orchestra: “The band, unusually framed, has three violins, three saxes, three rhythms, and two brass. The effect is a tasty musical dish.” The band played long engagements at the grandest hotels in the country—the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, the Edgewater Gulf in Chicago, among them—and was featured on national radio broadcasts.
Herbie was known as “the Young Maestro from the Mississippi Delta.” By all accounts, the debonair Holmes had a sonorous radio and stage voice and was also a polished and charming emcee. In fact, When Lawrence Welk was getting his start as a bandleader, his agent instructed him to observe Herbie Holmes and try to imitate his emcee style.
With the start of World War II in 1941, DSC_1649Holmes’s orchestra added USO shows to their performance schedule, entertaining troops across the country. In June of that year, Herbie and Nancy Hutson were married. Two years later, he dissolved his band and joined the Navy, rising to the rank of Lt. Commander. After the war, the couple moved to Yazoo City in part because his father wanted him to work in his bank. Herbie chose other work, but Herbie and Nancy raised two children and lived in Yazoo City the rest of their lives. But “Herbie was never the same,” his wife Nancy said. “He loved music so much.”
Today “Darkness on the Delta” is also a jazz standard played around the world and recorded by such celebrated jazz musicians as Pete Fountain and Thelonious Monk. Jazz and blues combos play it in clubs and at music festivals from California to Connecticut. Master guitarist Chet Atkins recorded a slow, mellow guitar solo of “Darkness.” The song is beloved by barbershop quartets at everywhere. There are recorded versions of “Darkness on the Delta” in ragtime and bluegrass, blues and traditional country, featuring individuals and groups who sing and play it fast and slow, on fiddles, steel guitars, ukuleles, and banjos…trumpets, saxophones, woodwinds, and harmonicas. A review of YouTube and iTunes reveals nearly 300 versions, many of them from barbershop groups.
But nobody plays or sings “Darkness on the Delta” with more heart than the musicians of the Mississippi Delta, or dances to it with more exuberance than Delta people. In the 1950s Delta couples danced the Memphis Shuffle to “Darkness on the Delta” at legendary Red Tops Delta dances. Thirty years later, their children and even grandchildren were gyrating to the Tangents’ audacious bluesy rock “version, featuring the late great Delta musicians Charlie Jacobs on saxophone and Duff Dorrough on guitar.
When Noel Workman moved to Greenville from Illinois in 1962, he remembers that the song was a nightly standard on a radio show called “Darkness on the Delta” on WJPR (“1330 on your radio dial”), where disc jockey Bennie Gresham offered a program of gentle jazz standards. Soon Noel, a superb jazz pianist, added “Darkness” to his own playlist when he entertained gatherings of Greenville friends. In Yazoo City, from “high atop the Taylor and Roberts Feed and Seed Store in downtown Yazoo City, Gateway to the Delta,” both Miller Holmes, Jr., and Willie Morris sometimes dee-jayed the long-running “Darkness on the Delta” show on WAZF, a radio station started and partly owned by Miller’s uncle, maestro Herbie Holmes.
Anyone who has lived in the Delta can appreciate the song’s central vision, the blackness of a Delta night, when darkness envelops you and spreads out around you as far as you can see. The song calls it “the shelter of the night.” To Indianola native Steve Yarbrough, a fiction writer now living in Boston, the song “always evokes exactly the same image: looking out the windows on the west side of my grandfather’s house at that big field across the road.”
I swear there were nights when you looked out and saw nothing but solid darkness, not a light in sight. The only possible source of light would have been Mr. Cecil Poe’s house about three-quarters of a mile away, on the other side of the field, but Mr. Poe went to bed early, and once his lights were turned off, it was total blackness.
Eden Brent suspects that the inspiration for the song was the Great Flood of 1927. “The devastation would have been invisible after dark,” she says. “With that in mind, the song suggests that even in the face of hardship, the people here tend to make the best of a situation, not just persevering, but enjoying life.”
More than eighty years after it was written, “Darkness on the Delta” still delights and enlightens.
The Ultimate Road Traveler’s Guide, Delta Magazine, 2014
The Story Behind Darkness on the Delta
The smoky, bluesy anthem and the story behind its lovable lyrics