Story and photos by Ray Proetto of Blues Power Photo
A Very Private Performance
It was a Sunday afternoon at the 2017 Juke Joint Festival and most of the fans had gone home. Sitting outside the Rock and Blues Museum on 2nd Street in Clarksdale MS, Mississippi Marshall (Hopper) was playing guitar and singing for a grateful audience of three. Yes three! While most of the remaining fans were camped out in front of the Cathead Delta Store or at the Bluesberry Café, I was enjoying a very private performance from a true Mississippi Delta original.
Raised in a “dirt poor” Delta family during the 60s and 70s, Mississippi Marshall sweats Mississippi from every pore. He’s been playing guitar since he was eight years old. He began public performances playing drums for his father’s band when he was just eleven. Rubbing shoulders with the blues players of the time inspired him as he absorbed every genre of local blues guitar. Self-taught since his father showed him the basic chords, he has studied various styles of blues, rock, and country. Mississippi Marshall expresses all those years of study and practice in his own unique melodic playing style. Whether he is playing soaring guitar licks, country Delta blues, Delta slide, or the Hill Country groove, Mississippi Marshall has them all mastered. In fact, he often blends multiple types of blues into one song.
On this day, Mississippi Marshall played solo with an electric guitar. He never raised the volume all that much and left the tone deeper and fuller, closer to a jazz guitar. He said he prefers semi-hollow body electric guitars for the richer sound. Watching him revealed he is a true finger picker using all five fingers. His fretwork was amazing. Sometimes it appeared he was playing bass, rhythm and lead all at the same time!
What A Set!
The set began with an original song entitled “The Delta’s Son.” During a recent interview Mississippi Marshall described it as “Bentonia blues influenced by the Delta style.” He set the serious mood with slow meditative finger picking and then launched into a complex rhythm. It’s a story about young Marshall meeting the ghost of Son House on a train station platform. House tells him he’s the chosen one, the Delta’s Son who must take his place. Mississippi Marshall used subtle rhythm changes to great effect. Once you are caught up in the rhythm, these changes become markers of listening pleasure. The story within these lyrics combined with his distinctive guitar prowess establishes “The Delta’s Son” as a modern country blues masterpiece.
“Tallahatchie Mama,” an original song about an ill-fated romance, was next. The fast paced song had a smooth funky groove causing me to bounce with it immediately. I noticed his frequent solo picking echoed the funky rhythm seamlessly. His style was so silky and melodic it could have easily been described as beautiful! Not something you hear all that often about the blues. His guitar licks routinely had the deep sweetness of a violin. Don’t be confused, however, Mississippi Marshall’s playing had plenty of passion. He just achieved it with the sweetest licks and without a whole lot of volume.
Mississippi Marshall enjoyed talking in between songs. His speaking and singing voice was deep, warm and raspy. He spoke of his father who “loved” Jimmy Reed and wanted to play like him. The next selection was Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do?” Mississippi Marshall pulled out all the stops on this one. He provoked his guitar to cry, scream, moan, and wail throughout the song. Both Jimmy Reed and his father would have been proud.