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  THE OXFORD AMERICAN  
Mississippi: The State of the Blues
"Blues is not a song. It's an expression of your past life. The life that you have lived. Blues is a feeling."
Summer Music Issue, 2001

The crowd at the Red Top Lounge in Clarksdale, Mississippi, is sparse on a rainy Saturday night in April. I walk in with a few friends, all of us visiting from New York and humbly prepared to be the only whites in the place. There is a voyeuristic pleasure to this possibility, the thrill of going someplace we don't necessarily belong, far from home. At the door we are greeted by a man in a vintage suit and felt hat, who asks how we're doing and tells us to make ourselves comfortable. We aren't comfortable, of course, but we like that. Inside, some heads turn with mild interest, a few lingering unabashedly before turning away. We soon notice two young white men already sitting at a table in the middle of the room, their hands folded, their expressions revealing that they had been humbly prepared to be the only whites in the place.

A Dummy Image

The room is dim, lit by a Budweiser lamp above a pool table in the back and strings of Christmas lights drooping behind the bar. Real juke joints don't have stages so the musicians play near the murky front window, on level with the crowd. Four members of the local Wesley Jefferson Band wander up from the bar and the singer speaks into the microphone, "Now, we want everyone to be comfortable now. Let's all have a good time. All right!" And with that, the band starts into a fast, electric blues groove. The four women at the table in front of us dance a little in their seats and close their eyes and laugh. We are in our first juke joint, and we're immediately in love, although when I tap my feet and bounce my legs, I find myself wondering if I'm doing too much, or not enough. Then I'm thinking that I should stop thinking. I get up and put quarters in the pool table, drink a can of beer fast, play against a regular, lose, and it is about the time he shakes my hand and tells me I played a good game that I start to relax. The large man who has been playing bass comes over in his t-shirt and white baseball cap and asks if any of us visitors play an instrument. My friend plays guitar, and before long he is called up front to sit in.

He's good. "Damn, that boy can play!" a women shouts.

"See?" the singer tells the bar. "The blues is the blues. If you got the blues, you just know how to play it, whether you're Chinese—We had a guy in here from Hong Kong one time came up and played. We got no idea what they listen to over there. But he come down to Mississippi and play the blues." The crowd mutters amused agreement.

I go to buy another beer while the band takes a break, and I find myself standing at the bar next to Wesley Jefferson himself. He is tall and thin, dressed in a dark button-up shirt. He is visibly exhausted, or drunk. I ask him how often he plays here. He says once a week, that its a very laid-back show for them, like a practice. I ask where they play real gigs. "The casinos are good. You get sixteen hundred dollars for an hour at the casinos." He motions around the room. "You don't get nothing in your hometown. It's when you go out there that you get paid." He has been to Chicago, and a few other big cities. "But I won't never leave my hometown. I'm from here. And we get together and just have fun, drink. But you never get nothing in your hometown." I look over to see my friend talking shop with the guitarist, and I decide that this whole thing is not as awkward or as foreign as I had expected. And I feel a little disappointed....

 

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