Mississippi Blues Trail
Monticello area native J. B. Lenoir (1929-1967) was best known during his lifetime for his 1955 hit "Mama, Talk to Your Daughter," but he also played an important role in blues history because of his political engagement. In the 1960s Lenoir recorded a body of topical songs in Chicago that addressed discrimination, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War. Lenoir's cousin Byther Smith from Monticello also became a Chicago blues recording artist, noted for his cutting-edge lyrics.
J. B. Lenoir (pronounced and sometimes misspelled "Lenore") was a distinctive blues artist, in both his high-pitched singing style and the candid political critiques in many of his song lyrics. Born on his family's farm near Monticello on March 5, 1929, he learned to play guitar from his father, Devitt (or Dewitt) Lenoir, Sr.; as a youth he also played with his brother Dewitt, Jr. Lenoir decided to leave because of racial discrimination and later recalled, "After the way they treat my daddy I was never goin' to stand that no kind of way." Lenoir began traveling to play music in his teens. He lived in Gulfport and worked at the Splendid Cafe there at one point in the 1940s, and he said he later performed in New Orleans with Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 (Rice Miller) and Elmore James. By 1949 Lenoir had settled in Chicago, where blues kingpin Big Bill Broonzy took him "as his son." Lenoir also performed with Memphis Minnie, Muddy Waters, and Little Walter, and soon formed his own band, J. B. and his Bayou Boys, with Sunnyland Slim on piano.
While the subject matter of most of Lenoir's singles on various labels was conventional for a blues artist, his first recordings, in 1950, included the topical "Korea Blues." A 1954 release, "Eisenhower Blues," resulted in controversy, and Parrot Records owner Al Benson took Lenoir back into the studio to rerecord the song as the more generic "Tax Paying Blues"; both issues featured "I'm in Korea" on the flip side. In 1965-66 Lenoir recorded a number of political songs for European release, including "Shot on James Meredith," "Alabama March," "Born Dead," "Vietnam Blues," and the biting "Down in Mississippi," for producer Willie Dixon at the behest of German promoters Horst Lippman and Fritz Rau. Lenoir and his Afro-American Blues Band performed some of these songs during a 1965 tour of Europe. The material was reportedly deemed too controversial for release in the United States at the time and only appeared on American labels years later. Lenoir died on April 29, 1967, in Urbana, Illinois, due to complications resulting from an auto accident. In 2003 Lenoir's music gained more attention when he was featured in the Wim Wenders documentary "The Soul of a Man," and in 2011 he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
Byther Smith, whose mother was a sister of Dewitt Lenoir, Sr., moved to Chicago in 1956 in hopes of joining Lenoir's band as a bass player. Those plans never worked out, but Smith played bass or guitar with some of Chicago's top bluesmen, including Otis Rush, Junior Wells, Fenton Robinson, and Sunnyland Slim, and made a number of distinctive recordings leading his own band. Born near Monticello on April 17, 1932, Smith first played guitar in a Memphis gospel group, worked as a drummer in Jackson, and learned to play upright bass in a country band in Arizona. While many of his songs dealt with standard blues themes, he sometimes used political topics, and his most intense songs often revolved around death, violence, and personal tragedies.