The BLUES High­way

DINE and Destinations - - EDITORS LETTER - By Adam Wax­man

When asked to pick one place where the Delta blues be­gan, BB King pointed to Dock­ery Farms in Cleve­land, Mis­sis­sippi, where leg­ends were born.

On a wet spring morn­ing, I peel back the branches and weeds that cover what was once a stage on which Char­lie Pat­ton, fret­ting his gui­tar with a pock­etknife, fed cap­tive au­di­ences his Spoon­ful Blues. In the si­lence, I imag­ine those who per­formed at this cot­ton plan­ta­tion, iso­lated, so they wouldn’t be run out of town. Some came to play; others stayed to teach. Pat­ton stayed. Ed­die “Son” House, Howlin’ Wolf, Roe­bucks “Pops” Sta­ples—they were all raised here.

I press an au­dio but­ton on a sign, and the gen­tle breeze car­ries the echo of Pat­ton’s pi­o­neer­ing slide gui­tar that he played on his lap—a style he picked up from Hawai­ian bands at clubs in New Or­leans. Across the high­way, I walk a lonely dirt road of Faus­tian lore. The story goes that one night, Pat­ton, Wil­lie Brown and Robert John­son had an ar­gu­ment. John­son headed out this way to the cross­roads. Ap­par­ently he paced all night un­til he caught a train to Ha­zle­hurst, where he prac­ticed his gui­tar in the mid­night quiet of lo­cal ceme­ter­ies. To the as­ton­ish­ment of his old friends, he re­turned to Dock­ery a year later with a per­fected tech­nique; his play­ing was con­sis­tent, and his songs could be seam­lessly cut for a three-minute record. Some say that night at the cross­roads, he sold his soul to the devil.

In nearby Clarks­dale, I ar­rive at the Shack Up Inn, and col­lect my keys to what was once a slave cabin. Or­na­men­tal bot­tles fit tree branches like gloves, and a wind chime tick­les the si­lence. My wooden shack is cozy, and I lean against the porch post in won­der­ment. In­side the main build­ing is a stage from which I can hear a dis­tant wail­ing gui­tar. Out front, an ’83 Cadil­lac takes me to Mor­gan Free­man’s Ground Zero Blues Club, lo­cated at 0 Blues Al­ley. Snack­ing on fried grits and hot tamales, I’m en­tranced by the band as they ig­nite their in­stru­ments and slide through an All­man Broth­ers jam like snake charm­ers. On this hot night, my cure is cold pecan ale, and my new friends are toss­ing it back along with plates of grilled cat­fish with turnips and black-eyed peas. There’s a buzz go­ing around about a young phe­nom play­ing at a nearby club called Reds. Out­side, a smoker is cook­ing up sweet-smelling ribs and turkey legs. In­side, a 14 year-old boy named Chri­s­tone “King­fish” In­gram is bend­ing notes and pluck­ing tears with magic fin­gers and gui­tar wiz­ardry that come from way down deep. Muddy Wa­ters’ cabin is housed in the Delta Blues Mu­seum, just a short walk over the tracks. An out­door stage across from it fills the air with the in­fec­tious sweet­ness of har­mon­i­cas and gui­tars har­mo­niz­ing into the night. Back at the shack, there’s more live mu­sic. The mu­sic is ev­ery­where—as soon as the sun goes down, the stages light up. It’s their song, their prayer, their legacy; it’s who they are and what they do, and it’s the real thing passed on though gen­er­a­tions.

Rest­less, I get back on the road and drive into the moon­light, head­ing south on High­way 61. Veer­ing off onto the gravel be­neath a cloak of omi­nous trees, pot­holes test my shocks as peb­bles dance off the fend­ers, and my high beams light the fog through ru­ral Merigold to one of the last re­main­ing juke joints of the south, Po Mon­keys. Funk pours out the speak­ers like wa­ter through a show­er­head, as cheap

Put on your blue suede shoes and hitch a ride through the land that bred dry-rub bar­beque, the

King, and mu­sic that de­fined his­tory.

beer is passed and hips sway un­der a kalei­do­scope of lights. Sheet metal and wood some­how hold this for­mer share­crop­per’s shack patched to­gether, and in­side noth­ing mat­ters but our smiles and the mu­sic.

When blues mu­si­cians sought larger au­di­ences, fur­ther on up the road lay their mecca, Mem­phis. At the Stax Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Soul Mu­sic, I’m told, “To a blues­man, Beale Street was like Broad­way to an ac­tor.” Once the hub of the black com­mu­nity in the south, it feels like a block party. Weav­ing through engine-revving bikes, as bars and juke joints flood the street with live mu­sic, one band is rip­ping through Free­bird, while a few steps away I hear the fluid sweet tones of Lit­tle Wing. There’s a crazy ex­u­ber­ant en­ergy here ev­ery night of the week.

Across town, Sun Stu­dio main­tains the space where that serendip­i­tous mo­ment oc­curred when the Mil­lion Dol­lar Quar­tet of Elvis Pres­ley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash shared an im­promptu jam ses­sion, but rock ’n’ roll’s Palace of Ver­sailles is just out­side town, at Grace­land. There is an in­escapable ex­cite­ment as we pass through the gates. Rhine­stone-stud­ded jump­suits and walls of end­less gold records dis­play the grandeur of the

King. The TV Room’s wall-mounted tele­vi­sion sets and mir­rored ceil­ing; the car­peted kitchen; and the “Jun­gle Room,” with its built in wa­ter­fall, are a trip back to the ’70s. Pass­ing through the Elvis fan de­tec­tor, I board the Lisa Marie and wink, “Thank ya very much.”

Mem­phis also has an­other claim: “dry rub.” At the World Cham­pi­onship Bar­beque Cook­ing Con­test, JC Young­blood of Cen­tral Bar­beque ex­plains to me that their bar­beque tech­niques came from the plan­ta­tions in the delta, where the plan­ta­tion own­ers would give the less de­sir­able cuts of meat to the slaves who had been work­ing in the fields. “They cre­atively fig­ured out the only way to eat it was to rub it with salt and spice, cook it slowly at a lower tem­per­a­ture, and then they could make a pretty de­cent meal out of it.” His per­fectly meaty, caramelized ribs—smoky and tangy—are in­cred­i­ble. Just off an al­ley­way, I step into Ren­dezvous for a taste of their renowned bar­beque ribs. The man­ager tells me they’re closed…but if I want to come in for some ribs, he’ll seat me. “Huh?” I re­ply. “We’re makin’ bar­beque all the day long,” he smiles, “and we’d never refuse any­body.” Well, much obliged.

The African-amer­i­can tra­di­tions of food and mu­sic can be found ev­ery­where, but the heart of rhythm and blues is at Stax Records. I’m told that if you came to town to play, and if you had some gift from God that you wanted to get out, this is where you would come. Stax show­cases the evo­lu­tion of the African-amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence from field hollers and church choirs, to tes­ti­fy­ing through gospel, coun­try, blues and soul, to the sec­u­lar an­thems that would em­body the Civil Rights Move­ment. Stand­ing in the mid­dle of a dance floor with Soul Train play­ing on the big screen, I feel funky. The sur­round-sound of Mavis Sta­ples singing like a prophet, “If you’re ready…come on go with me” gives me chills and lifts me up so high. This soul mu­sic was an in­te­gral part of the marches and the ral­lies of Martin Luther King. After his as­sas­si­na­tion at the Lor­raine Mo­tel, now part of the Civil Rights Mu­seum, these mu­si­cians car­ried on his mes­sage in their songs.

“Walk­ing with my feet 10 feet off of Beale,” sur­rounded by a re­ver­ber­at­ing or­bit of mu­si­cal gen­res that chart so much his­tory, I feel ela­tion, like I’m at a re­vival. All the joy, all the pain, all the leg­ends that made their way up high­way 61, the train lines, and the Mis­sis­sippi River are en­cap­su­lated in these songs of hope through un­fath­omably dark con­di­tions, and they are tes­ta­ments to the beauty and for­ti­tude of the hu­man spirit. As Wil­liam Shake­speare once wrote, “If mu­sic be the food of love, play on…”

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