Oct. 20, 2002 -- There was a time in the South when the dusty back roads that connected the cotton fields to the juke joints were well traveled by heroes of American music. Journalist Francis Davis summed it up when he wrote that "something about the Delta inspired introspection on the part of men whose lives allowed little time for it." Clearly, something in the Delta soil served as the muse for legends such as Muddy Waters, Jelly Roll Morton and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
Brothers Eddie and Frank Thomas spent three years traveling Highway 61 between Memphis and New Orleans. They studied the history of the music created along that stretch of road, then they recorded their interpretations on location at significant spots along the way. The brothers Thomas went down to the very crossroads that inspired blues legend Robert Johnson; they visited "where the levee broke" to play Memphis Minnie. Frank records; Eddie sings and plays guitar.
"Our first interest was the music that came out of the Delta," Frank tells Liane Hansen for Weekend Edition Sunday. "And it seemed that the music in the Delta sort of flowed up 61 to Memphis, then down the Mississippi River to New Orleans."
"You can just feel it," says Eddie. It's in the land. It's in the breeze. It's in the birds. It's just there. It's everywhere. And the music just had to come out."
Later, the pair traveled Highway 61 again, recording interpretations of those songs at points significant to each song's origin. The resulting collection is called Angels on the Backroads. Hansen talks with the brothers about the road, the river, and the songs, from jazz to blues to ragtime. And she joins them for the last stop on their journey: the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, where they recorded the hymn "Sweet Hour of Prayer."