Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Blues Highways

"It was Muddy Waters who took the Delta blues north to Chicago, electrified the sound, and changed the course of popular music as we know it. That's pretty much the judgment of history, and it is mine as well." -- Tim Cahill

It’s a natural feature of this place, a renewable resource. It oozes up out of the cracked dirt furrows of the cotton fields, underneath a lizard’s heel, and all around the trumpet-trunked cypresses in the chartreuse swamps. Then it streams beneath the cars parked at odd angles in front of the cinder-block juke joints before surging over the levee in a great slow wave. And when it hits the flat caramel river, there’s no stopping it, just like there’s been no stopping it for a century or more. It goes south to New Orleans, north to Memphis, west to San Francisco – and it fills the cars and streets and buildings of those cities, and the ones beyond them and the ones beyond them. And from there, the Blues flows all over the world.

The Mississippi Delta is to blues music what the Comstock Lode once was to precious metals, and what Africa is to humanity itself: the source, the fountainhead, the place where it all began. The Delta is the kind of country you can get homesick for even if it’s not your home; a smoky, comforting corner of the heart more than a precise geographic definition. Still, if it must be located, David Cohn’s oft-quoted drawing of its borders can’t be improved upon: “The Mississippi Delta,” Cohn wrote in his book, “Where I Was Born and Raised,” “begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” And everywhere in between is lively, affecting country – bittersweet and often poignantly beautiful.

On a gray day, when the cloud ceiling just clears the tops of the windbreaks and the breeze rattles the seared, burnt-sienna cotton plants, the countryside is desolate and haunting at the same time as it’s pastoral. On clear days, the sun turns the lush green of the cottonwoods and the kudzu to verdant fluorescence as it lights up the lacquer-red dragonflies that fill the air. And every few miles another narrow, white church building emphasizes how important the adhesive of religion is to the Delta’s families and small towns. The familiar imagery of blues music is everywhere: isolated crossroads and shotgun shacks, swamps, lonely highways and railroad tracks; and, of course, people who, like people everywhere, are each walking novels, every face a table of contents. If you subscribe to the notion that art emerges from the landscape as much as from the soul, then being in the Mississippi Delta is being deep in the blues – and like home, that’s not a bad place to be.

The Delta’s rich, distinctive culture almost makes it a country within a country. The capital of such a nation would probably have to be somewhere between Greenville, Miss., and Memphis, Tenn. Indeed, if you were to describe a 150-mile diameter circle with Greenville at its center, that circle would include the birthplace or one-time home of most every significant blues artist born over the last 120 years – from Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, who’ve become near mythological characters in blues lore, to Son House, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Albert King, John Lee Hooker, W.C. Handy, Koko Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Memphis Minnie and a legion of others.

On a cold morning, about 10 miles east of Greenville, I’m following a dirt road out to the town of Holly Ridge as the wind moans at a pair of hawks tracing circles in the concrete sky. I’m stopping at as many blues sites as I can, while taking a circuitous drive to Memphis. I’ve got Son House, “Father of the Delta Blues,” on the stereo – turned way up. Several times, as if to demonstrate the music’s restorative power, House’s voice and the crying wind fall into harmony, brightening this otherwise dreary day. I’ve come here to see if I can find the grave of Charley Patton.

Patton, born in 1891, was a seminal figure in the creation of Delta blues, and almost certainly Mississippi’s first celebrity musician. He lived the archetypal blues life – playing at juke joints, at house “frolics” and on street corners, living with numerous women, staying where he could until he was kicked out, dying young in 1934. Along the way he developed a compelling style of music whose influence is heard to this day in the playing of a multitude of contemporary blues artists, including Robert Cray, Eric Clapton and Keb’ Mo’.

At Holly Ridge – just a farm headquarters, really – I turn left at the crossroads by the old grocery store. Two gray-haired men in denim overalls sitting on a bench out front slowly turn their heads as I pass. Patton probably performed in front of that store, and those same gentlemen were probably sitting there when he did. I drive past wagons filled with cotton and the big, yellow Holly Ridge Gin building, and then pull over at a ragged, grassy field with a single, perfectly shaped black oak tree in the middle and a few crooked tombstones here and there. Along one side of the cemetery is a railroad track, next to which two blond dogs are walking shoulder to shoulder toward Greenville. Off in the distance, a green and yellow John Deere tractor is trailed by small thunderheads of red dust as it plows a field. This may be the loneliest place in Mississippi.

After searching the cemetery for 20 minutes or so, I find the granite marker in the southeast corner: “Charley Patton,” it reads, “The Voice of the Delta. The foremost performer of early Mississippi blues whose songs became cornerstones of American music.” Above the inscription is an oval photo portrait, taken in 1929 when Patton was an artist for Paramount’s “race” records, when he recorded songs like “Moon Goin’ Down,” “Pony Blues” and “When Your Way Gets Dark.”

There’s no sunshine on Charley’s grave. But there’s a Gibson medium guitar pick, a rusty capo and some yellow plastic roses left behind by blues devotees. There’s even a Japanese coin tucked in the dirt at the base of the headstone. I don’t have anything to leave – I didn’t think to bring flowers – but I pull the car near, open the door, and put Son House on the stereo, turning up the volume as loud as possible. And House, who was a friend of Patton’s, chants across the cemetery for a good long time.

Son House is singing so loud that the John Deere tractor driver, on his way back from plowing, stops and stares at me quizzically. I wave and point to Patton’s trinket-littered grave and the tractor man nods, waves back and pulls away. Son House keeps singling and playing his National steel-body guitar. Maybe Charley hears and maybe he doesn’t. Who can say for sure? But Son House’s lion-like voice does warm up the place. I lean against the front fender of the car, digging a hole in the dirt with the toe of my shoe, letting both sides of the cassette play as an informal memorial service for Charley Patton. When I drive away, I pass the grocery store where the two gray-haired men in denim overalls sitting on the bench out front wave and smile at me as if I’m a long lost cousin.

Those smiles stay with me until I’m distracted by an overflowing plate of pork ribs at Abe’s Barbecue in Clarksdale, located 75 miles north of Greenville near the legendary intersection of the two great blues highways: 49 and 61. According to some, it was at this very crossroads that Robert Johnson made his deal with the devil: Johnson was endowed with a yet-to-be-equaled musical genius, and in return Lucifer received the blues man’s soul. If it’s so, then there is some poetic justice to the fact that Abe’s, a temple of devilishly good barbecue, now memorializes the spot.

But the place’s historical aura is not going to help me eat the ribs and keep my white shirt pristine, much less my hands and face (this is a trip, by the way, during which moist towelettes take on disproportionate significance). Abe’s – bless ‘em – is yet another Delta institution where the concept of “light eating” has not yet taken hold. The thick, tender meat of the barbecued ribs, slathered in a rich, pungent sauce, falls obligingly off the bone, and after a while my shirt resembles a Jackson Pollock canvas, but who cares?

Though it’s a relatively new genre, blues music is deeply rooted in African-American cultural traditions and syncopated rhythms that originated centuries ago in West Africa - rhythms that many whites heard for the first time in the early 1800s during the Sunday afternoon slave gatherings held in New Orleans’ Congo Square (now Louis Armstrong Park’s Beauregard Square). In the last three decades there has been a massive resurgence of interest in the blues both here and abroad, bringing with it a proliferation of blues festivals and clubs, a wealth of new and reissued recordings and a vast number of new books on the subject.

While some may associate blues music with “feeling blue,” in fact, the content of blues songs spans the range of human emotion from sorrow to joy, with an abundance of humor and irony. It is musical storytelling drawn from the essential elements of human experience, which explains its worldwide appeal. “Blues is sad music and it’s happy music. Also secret-language music,” Ahmet Ertegun, the co-founder and chairman of Atlantic Records once observed. “It has two things. By the fact that it’s a lament, it has the dignified beauty of black people expressed in it. And because of its obvious innocence and sincerity, it captivated the world. It isn’t because it’s got a drum that came from Africa, but because it has a soul that comes from suffering.”

Rich in blues history, Clarksdale, with its broad, lazy streets, low brick buildings, and the docile Sunflower River shambling through, is my favorite Delta town. Once the home of Tennessee Williams and W.C. Handy, the first men to transcribe the blues to written form, it’s also the birthplace of John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner and Sam Cooke and the place where the life of Bessie Smith – one of the most influential blues singers who ever stepped on a stage – came to a tragic end. Robert Johnson spent much of his youth around nearby Robinsville, but Clarksdale is perhaps most well known among blues lovers as the one-time home of a man who grew up seven miles away on the Stovall Plantation. By leaving town on a northbound train in 1943 he would become one of the blues’ most celebrated figures. Born McKinley Morganfield, he took the raw emotional power of the Delta sound out of the country and into the city, where he plugged it in, turned it up, and became famous as Muddy Waters.

As great Americans once did with regularity, Muddy Waters lived in a log cabin during his youth. On my first trip to Mississippi, part of the pre-Civil War structure was still in its original location a few miles northwest of the town, its windows looking out at the cotton fields where young McKinley started working at the age of 10. There were a few old photos and a short explanatory text attached to one wall. And a typed note from Howard Stovall, owner of the plantation, pleading with visitors not to deface the site and ending with the imprecation, “We will lay a BIG NASTY MOJO on you if you take anything.”

On that same trip I also visited Clarksdale’s Riverside Hotel. Sitting on a sloping bank above the Sunflower River, the modest brick-front building with a Coke machine outside and red and white aluminum awnings has been a hotel ever since Mrs. Z.L. Hill turned it into one more than 50 years ago. Before that it was the hospital where Bessie Smith was brought on the September night in 1937 when the car she was riding in crashed on Highway 61.

As I approached the Riverside’s screen door a voice from behind it said, “Please, come on in.” Inside, Mrs. Hill, a chatty, gracious woman of incandescent sweetness, was sitting in a large lounge chair to the right of the door. “Yes, I was here that night working at the hospital when they towed Bessie’s car – left it right outside. I could tell by her condition she wasn’t going to live – one arm was near torn clean off and she was bleeding terrible. She died in that first room on your right.”

Mrs. Hill then called for Clarence Powell, her maintenance man, to show me around. He opened the door to “Bessie’s Room” first – there was a wreath of white cloth flowers on the dark blue bedspread – then took me all through the atmospheric old hotel that’s been home at one time or another to most every blues performer who’s passed through Clarksdale.

Before I left, I stopped to say goodbye to Mrs. Hill. “Oh, all kinds of people come by here,” she said. “Not long ago, I had a very special visitor, meant a lot to me. Do you recognize him?” She showed me a snapshot taken in front of the Riverside of her standing beside John F. Kennedy Jr. I said I sure did recognize him and she laughed and put the picture in her pocket and made me promise to visit again the next time I was in Clarksdale, but unfortunately I didn’t get the chance. (Mrs. Hill passed on not long ago. Her son now operates the hotel.)

The diaspora of African-Americans from the Delta in the 1940s resulted in the emergence of urban blues – the taproot of rock ‘n’ roll – in a number of northern cities, notably Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo. But many Mississippi emigrants – black and white – went no farther than Memphis, which, for decades, was the blusiest of American cities, and is no slouch now. B.B. King and Bobbie “Blue” Bland started here, as did Howlin’ Wolf, Memphis Slim, Memphis Minnie and Big Joe Williams. And it was in Memphis where, as Muddy Waters sang, “the blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n’ roll.” The personification of that metaphorical baby, as everyone knows, was a polite, soft-spoken white boy from East Tupelo, Miss., who couldn’t stand still. He started out singing gospel and blues, and some believe he always remained a blues singer at heart. His name was Elvis Presley.

On a Sunday morning I’m at Graceland. I’ve gotten myself prepared to hate the place – problem is, I love it, starting with the shuttle from the ticket office. The shuttle has a video monitor mounted up front. There’s young Elvis onstage, all lips, hips and felony eyes. Images of Presley during his unfortunate Las Vegas white jumpsuit period have become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget just how fresh, exciting and funny he was when he first hit. As the vehicle passes through the gates and climbs the long, curving driveway, Presley’s rubber legs vibrate impossibly as he chokes up on the mic. “Since my baby left me,” he shouts, with the sulky voice that redeemed the ‘50s, “I found a new place to dwell … it’s down at the end of Lonely Street, called Heartbreak Hotel.”

The shuttle stops at the front door and I climb out. The surprising thing about Graceland is how modest it is: The rooms are not vast; the kidney-shaped pool is what you’d expect to find at a small motel. Overall, it lacks grandness. But that’s what’s so appealing about Graceland. To the 22-year-old who bought it for $100,000 the place must have looked like the White House. Much has been made of Elvis’ taste in interior decoration, but to me the rooms of Graceland look less like kitsch than naive art. He was, after all, the eternal boy, frozen in lip-curling, pompadoured adolescence for his entire adult life. Despite his post-‘50s misadventures in show business vapidity, one can’t help feeling Presley’s unaffected charm and exuberance as expressed in Graceland’s almost whimsical decorations and furnishings. This, he must have imagined, is how rich people live. Or maybe he was just putting us on.

That night I walk the few blocks from the Peabody Hotel down to Beale Street. In the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, Beale Street was the very heartbeat of African-American music, lined with nightclubs, saloons and shadier enterprises that throbbed with jazz and blues. Rufus Thomas, performer, disc jockey, father of singer Carla Thomas and a veritable institution in the Memphis music scene, once described to a white acquaintance the infectious vitality of Beale Street at its peak. “If you’d been black for one Saturday night on Beale,” he said, “you’d never want to be white again.”

Today, after decades of decline, the street is revitalized. While it may be a self-conscious shadow of its former self – like New Orleans' Bourbon Street, a little too theme-parky – on any given night there is plenty of exceptional live blues music wailing out of a half-dozen or more inviting nightclubs. In one of the best, B.B. King’s Blues Club and Restaurant, a wall-to-wall crowd is waiting for Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets with Sam Myers to blast off. But I’m hanging out in the men’s restroom, listening to the trumpet player who’s stationed himself just inside the door. As I lean against a sink I tell a fellow named Alex how earlier I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life.

I was in the old A. Schwab’s general store a few doors down the street. It’s been a fixture on Beale since 1876. On three antiquated floors, A. Schwab’s carries everything from long johns and 44 kinds of suspenders to Masonic supplies, incense and men’s pants up to size 74. It also has several bins of old blues 78 rpm records. Its motto is, “If you can’t find it at A. Schwab’s, you are better off without it.”

“You what?” Alex is stunned when I tell him.

“That’s right,” I reply. “I found an original Decca 78 of Louis Jordan’s ‘Saturday Night Fish Fry’ in the $5 crate at Schwab’s.”

“And you left it there? You’re not gonna find anything better to do with that fiver.”

I nod. Alex shakes his head and looks at the trumpet player. The trumpet player looks disgusted but doesn’t stop playing.

“Is it still there?” Alex asks.

“Probably,” I say, and walk out.

Not surprisingly, B.B. King’s is the ideal venue for listening to blues: roomy, but not too roomy, superb sound system, attentive waitresses and bartenders, enthusiastic crowd and a better than average menu of Southern cooking (though the chef should be ashamed for omitting King’s favorite, sweet potato pie).

The band’s onstage now and Sam Myers is finishing his drink at a front table. Anson Funderburgh looks disturbingly wholesome for this line of work but his guitar cuts a hot, nasty swath through the club’s cool atmosphere. After Funderburgh gets things warmed up, Myers, a formidable singer and harmonica player, joins him and the rest of the band onstage.

A big man, Myers has been on the blues scene for years. Originally based in Jackson, Miss., he started out as a drummer for guitar virtuoso Elmore James, who made Robert Johnson’s “Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” into a blues standard. Myers is wearing obsidian sunglasses and a navy blue double-breasted suit. A fully loaded bandolier of harmonicas crosses his chest. He looks over the audience, reaches into his jacket pocket, takes out a silver case and carefully selects a cigarette. He puts the cigarette in his mouth, pulls out a lighter, holds it up and suddenly out shoots a flame about 8 inches high. Several people in the audience gasp, but Myers doesn’t seem to notice. He touches the torch to his cigarette, inhales, lets his hand fall to his side and steps to the microphone, where he unleashes the smooth, deep voice of a world-weary dragon. And in no time, up and down Beale Street, and all through the Delta – from Congo Square to the front porch of Graceland – the blues, once again, is on fire.

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