Stan­ley Ste­wart tunes into the myths and magic of Amer­ica's Blues High­way

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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.


Main pic­ture: Getty Images

Blue bloods: John Mayer and Buddy Guy

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