SOUNDS OF THE DELTA
Stanley Stewart tunes into the myths and magic of America's Blues Highway
WHEN you look for Robert Johnson’s grave, you are faced with a choice. Johnson died 70 years ago and a serious mix-up with funeral arrangements means there are three headstones, kilometres apart, each proclaiming that the great blues musician lies beneath. Along the backroads of the Mississippi Delta, people chuckle and say that’s the way his life was: you never knew where he was at.
I find one grave near a two-bit ramshackle hamlet grandly known as Morgan City. When I step out of the car, the delta heat folds around me. Cicadas drone. Flat cotton fields stretch away beneath a white sky. A pick-up truck passes me on the road, spirals of dust in its wake.
‘‘ You may bury my body down by the highway side,’’ Johnson sang, ‘‘ So my old evil spirit can catch the Greyhound bus and ride.’’
An elderly black man materialises from the long grass. He stands with hands in pockets. ‘‘ Been gawn mos’ of ma lifetime,’’ he says. ‘‘ Still casts a spell.’’
The blues was born here, just over a century ago, among the black plantation workers of the Mississippi Delta. All the great blues artists — from Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton through to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and countless others — came from the delta, a region just a little smaller than Victoria.
From the 1920s, the music and the musicians began to drift north to Chicago with the great black migration out of the south. Highway 61 became the Blues Highway, carrying the music to a wider world. This was the great musical journey of America. All popular music owes a debt to the blues: R ’ n’ B and rock ’ n’ roll, soul and Motown and every other variation. ‘‘ The blues is the roots,’’ Willie Dixon used to say. ‘‘ Everything else is the fruits.’’
‘‘ WENT down to the station. Jump the first mail train I see. I got the blues all over. And the blues they is chasing me.’’
Mail trains are trickier to jump these days so I opt for a rental car, not very bluesy but it has a CD player. I want to chase the blues all the way up to Chicago. From the dixieland jazz bars of New Orleans, recovered now from the trauma of Hurricane Katrina, I drive north through the bayou country of Louisiana. In the Rural Life Museum at Baton Rouge I wander around the reconstructed shacks, the company store and the white board church of a former slave plantation where the most moving items are the old auction notices. ‘‘ For Sale: four children, ages 13, 7, 5, and 11 months. Two to be sold with mother, others separately.’’
Up in Jackson, Mississippi’s state capital, the wood-panelled lobby of the Eddy Hotel seems to be full of extras from Gonewiththe Wind . A man in a white suit, with a florid complexion and an ivory-headed cane, is reading the Jackson Clarion-Ledger in an armchair by the door. Nearby a southern belle sits with her parents, hands folded in her lap, demure and dangerous.
On the other side of town, in the 930 Blues Cafe, the black singer rasps into the microphone: ‘‘ We gonna get that Wang Dang Doodle, all night long . . .’’
The 930 is in the fine tradition of Mississippi juke joints. At the top of rickety stairs folks are drinking beer and eating ribs while the band wails the blues. It is the kind of place that was once exclusive to black culture. But blues has long since been desegregated and young white kids, bursting with hormones and acne, are happily jiving with older black couples. A middle-aged white guy turns up. He might be the high school geography teacher. Unpacking a trombone, he joins the sweaty band and begins to blow a mean horn.
The next morning I drive north into the delta proper. It has the eerie power of a prairie. Roads, straight as ruled lines, diminish towards a flat horizon. Abandoned cotton gins are silhouetted against a bleached sky. The delta is not really a delta; the Mississippi flows southwards for another 800km before reaching the sea. But it feels like one, as if the sea is just over the horizon. In fact it is the great river that is just out of sight, fat, sluggish, occasionally rearing into view beyond the levee banks.
Every town in the delta is steeped in the history of the blues. This is the strangeness of the place, that so much music has emerged from so small an area. There is Tutweiler, where the black composer and bandleader W.C. Handy first heard ‘‘ a lean and loosejointed Negro’’ playing ‘‘ the weirdest music’’ with a slide guitar while he was waiting for a late train one night in 1903. There is Indianola where B.B. King was born, where he sang for nickels on the street and to which he returns every year to play a free concert.
There is the Stovall Plantation, west of Clarksdale, where Muddy Waters worked as a tractor driver before catching the train north to Chicago one morning in May, 1943. There are Johnson’s three graves, two of them just southwest of Greenwood.
Johnson lived the rock ’ n ’ roll lifestyle before rock ’ n ’ roll was invented. People believed he had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent. He was an itinerant, travelling from town to town, busking on street corners, playing in whiskey dives and in Saturday-night juke joints. A small-boned man with intense eyes, he was addicted to women and whiskey. Both were implicated in his early death. Playing at a house party, he was served poisoned whiskey by a jealous husband. He died a few days later. They say at the end he was on his hands and knees, barking like a dog. The devil had come to claim him.
Of all the delta towns, Clarksdale’s blues heritage is perhaps the strongest. The train station, where Waters caught the Illinois Central to Chicago, is now the Delta Blues
Museum. Among the displays is Waters’s plantation shack and some rare archive footage of him playing to rapturous audiences on his tour of Europe in 1953.
I stay at the Big Pink Guesthouse. It is like a stage set for a Tennessee Williams play. I keep expecting Blanche DuBois to drop in for mint juleps. Beneath the ceiling fans are parlour settees, glass lamps, potted palms and a bust of Elvis. There is an organ in the hall and an inner courtyard with a tiled fountain. Upstairs is a library of southern classics, and a bath the size of Alabama.
It is only stumbling distance from the Big Pink to Ground Zero, a blues club recently opened by movie star Morgan Freeman. In spite of the Hollywood connections, it is in the tradition of Delta juke joints, a down-home spit-and-sawdust kind of place, barn-like, friendly and crazy for music. The walls are covered with graffiti and posters, and the punters are a mix of locals and blues tourists.
The band has a guest guitarist with them, a 13-year-old black boy called Omar Gordon, another child prodigy of the delta. For those who despair of the way music has become manufactured, and worry about the decline of the blues, young Omar is the antidote. Serious, self-contained and dignified, he lights up the place with fluid lines of notes that would have impressed Johnson. The next morning I head north to Memphis with his guitar licks still humming in my head.
Memphis may be in Tennessee but its soul is in Mississippi; it is the big city for all the small towns of the delta. It is no coincidence that Elvis, the white boy with the black sound, grew up here. His first recording, That’s All Right, Mama, was a cover of a song that had been a hit eight years before on local black radio stations for Big Boy Crudup.
Beale Street was the black entertainment district of Memphis since the early 1900s. Today it is Memphis’s answer to New Orleans’s Bourbon Street, a string of blues bars and taverns, largely populated by visiting tourists. It may be rather Disney-fied but you can’t knock the music. The bands in Beale Street are as good as you will hear anywhere.
For a more authentic Memphis blues experience I set off with Tad Pierson, a musical tour guide who takes his clients around town in a 1955 Cadillac. The car’s chrome winks seductively. Its back seat is the size of a small bordello. The Caddy is a hot date and attracts endless rubbernecking.
On the corner of Chelsea and Hollywood, we happen upon a three-piece band busking in front of a row of shops, including Cheques Cashed and Hot Wings and Things. It is a timeless delta scene.
Cars are drawn up. People sit on the bonnets drinking and eating hot wings and things. Some dance. It is a local gathering but the Caddy seems to break the ice. While Pierson is showing off its curves, a slightly tipsy black mamma pulls me into the dancers where my best jive moves provide endless merriment for the audience.
Next stop is Wild Bill’s, a legendary Memphis blues bar. All the black dudes are in three-piece suits. Purple is popular, as is red satin; accessories include matching wide-brim hats. A number of musicians sit in. A delta man is called up to play the Mississippi saxophone — the harmonica — on TheThrill is Gone . Miss Nicky is coaxed into a few numbers. Size matters to female blues and soul singers; Miss Nicky must be a size 28. Her voice sends shudders of pleasure down our collective spines.
In the morning, Chicago beckons. I drive through Missouri and Iowa, past small towns slumbering in the midst of corn fields. I break the journey in St Louis, where the Blues Highway meets Route 66. The next day Chicago draws me in through a web of expressways and suddenly I am in big city streets where car horns blare like saxophones.
In spite of a host of distractions, Chicago remains a great blues city. There seems to be cracking blues bars in every neighbourhood, playing everything from laid-back delta blues to throbbing horn-inspired R ’ n ’ B.
In Buddy Guy’s Legend I meet the legend, Buddy Guy, who is enjoying a quiet drink.
‘‘ The blues found a new energy when it arrived in Chicago,’’ Guy says. ‘‘ The city inspired it. It went electric. Solo musicians formed bands. It got new life, and it is still going.’’ Born 70 years ago, just south of the delta in Louisiana, Guy has a fine blues pedigree. His mentor was Waters, who helped him get his first gigs in Chicago. Waters learned everything from early country blues musicians such as Johnson.
‘‘ You don’t ever have to worry. You don’t ever have to cry. I’ll be there beside you. And don’t you ever ask me why.’’
In one of his three graves, Robert Johnson must lie content.
Blue bloods: John Mayer and Buddy Guy