|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.
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.
Keith Dockery McLean, who is eighty-seven, has lived at Dockery Farms, near Cleveland, Mississippi, since she married Joe Rice Dockery in 1938. Their plantation on the Sunflower River was started some fifty years before by Joe's father, Will Dockery, and was the frequent home of Charley Patton, the father of Delta blues. Many a researcher and blues enthusiast has come to Dockery hoping to learn something, or wanting to pay homage, or trying to gain by osmosis some intangible communion with Patton and his blues.
"We never listened to blues," Mrs. McLean tells me. She told the same thing to Robert Palmer when he interviewed her for his book Deep Blues, and she tells the same to anyone who asks. "We were never a plantation family who invited the singers in for parties. I know one family down the road, they always did. And when the lady died recently, an all-black choir dressed in white sang at her funeral, which was lovely. I mean, it's beautiful."
They lived differently at Dockery, that's all. The plantation was regarded for its fair treatment of black sharecroppers, but that didn't mean the cultures mixed freely. Like a corporate boss today who might be understandably unaware if his intern is the best nineteen-year-old techno deejay in town, the Dockerys had no idea they were landlords to a cultural revolutionary. Mrs. McLean studied piano, and in those early days at Dockery they listened to a lot of jazz, pop standards, and ragtime. She can still remember the day George Gershwin died. But she doesn't remember even hearing of the blues, until the legendary ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax came by one day in the early '40s, several years after Patton's death in 1934. "He called Joe and told him he wanted to come by here. And he came and said, 'You know, this is the home of the blues.' And Joe said, 'Well, we don't know anything about it.'
"Later on, us having all of a sudden become famous for the blues, people just began to swarm in here and look at that sign down here." DOCKERY FARMS is painted on the side of an elevated seed barn clearly visible from the road. When Mississippi public television made a documentary about the blues in the 1980s, they used the sign as a logo for the beginning of the film. "And B.B. King stood in front of that sign," McLean remembers, "and he just said, 'You might say it all started right here. At Dockerys plantation.'"
The sign, which notes the dates of birth and death for Will and Joe Rice Dockery, is one of the only well-maintained relics at the plantation. The cotton gin, with its rusted machinery inside, still stands nearby, but the sharecropper shacks and the small schoolhouses and churches that used to line Dockery road have been leveled, many as recently as the mid-1980s. McLean grows soybeans these days as much as cotton, and what used to be the work of hundreds is now handled by a half dozen farmers, who use lasers and computers on their John Deere tractors.
Across the highway a little ways down a dirt road, at the site of a black church that burned down six Easters ago, the tall, charred stump of a tree stands over an old Negro cemetery. The graves closest to the empty church lot are kept clean. But the plots drift out farther than the Dockerys had originally allotted, the grave sites whimsically and sporadically placed, so the grass is left to grow there. I have seen in a book the names of Charley Patton's wives, so I walk around here looking, but I don't find any of them, or anyone named Patton. But some of these people must have known him, and I want badly to think I am paying respects to people who danced and drank to his music.
Back at the house, things feel very much alive. The red brick ruins of the long since burned-down commissary where Patton used to play for dancing crowds look lush beneath layers of vine. Beside them are tennis courts and a freshwater swimming pool. I sit with Mrs. McLean, drinking hot tea on her patio in the afternoon. A hummingbird buzzes around the flower patch. I'm amazed that she's lived in this paradise for so long, I tell her. She laughs. "Sixty years, isn't that crazy?" Even with age in her face, Mrs. McLean has a youthful glee that comes through in her giggle and her crystal-blue eyes. "But I've always traveled. I always say Dockery is a great place to live, but I don't have to stay here all the time. It's really a wonderful place to have your roots." Over on the lawn a bird feeder is overcome by blackbirds. I tell her that walking through the plantation fields near the old cemetery, I had seen a lot of red-winged blackbirds. "Well, these here are just plain old country blackbirds," she says thoughtfully, "The red-winged ones seem to stay out in the fields. Must be something out there they feed on that we don't know about."
Cathy Cox, who has been Mrs. McLean's visiting housekeeper for four years, is listening to headphones and washing glasses in the kitchen when I walk in. A forty-five-year-old black woman with a wide-eyed, sympathetic air, she asks what brings me all the way down from New York City. I'm wandering the Delta for a week, I tell her, looking for the blues.
"Yeah, you come to the right place," she says. "I grew up with the blues. But I don't listen to it no more. I mostly listen to gospel music now. But now, if you looking for blues, you should talk to my sister Galean. That's all she listen to. She's a singer."
Galean, two years older than Cathy, is married to Jerry Fair, a cousin, twice removed, of B. B. King's. We call Galean, who invites me out to her house in the nearby town of Shaw. Cathy will take me. She knows how to get there but doesn't know how to explain it to me. "But its not too far," Cathy says. "It's nice, too. They're building a big ol' house out in the country. Matter of fact, I don't know why they're building it so big. It's almost as big as this one," she says. "And that don't make no sense."
The house sits at the end of a gravel driveway off a remote dirt road, and is, especially compared with the neighboring homes, large. But it's unfinished. The yard is muddy from the recent rain, so we walk on the boards outlining where a walkway is going to be. A friend who drives a cement truck is supposed to bring by leftovers when he can, Jerry explains. The Fairs are building the house themselves, slowly, out of the cheapest good materials they can find. They spent the winter in a small, heated part of the house with their nineteen-year-old daughter, Noonie, while work to finish on the rest. Progress is slow. The floors are unfinished; the kitchen cabinets have no doors yet; many of the walls are unpainted or, upstairs, missing. The whole place smells like a hardware store, like bare wood and plaster, but you can see the beautiful house it's going to become.
In the living room is a row of mismatched chairs, a large guitar amp, some microphone stands, and a couple of guitar cases. Jerry and Galean practice here on Wednesday nights with their band, the Kings of Rhythm, which plays every Sunday night in Indianola at Club Ebony, where B.B. King has performed every June since 1980 during his annual homecoming.
Jerry is forty-five years old, stocky, and dark-skinned, with a mustache, goatee, and a scar over his right eye. He speaks with a hazy ease that doesn't quite hide the fact that there is a lot on his mind. "The Club Ebony is like a shrine in Indianola," he tells me, sitting in his kitchen. "And the whole town knows B.B." Jerry's grandmother was first cousins with King, who is ten years her junior. King's parents died when he was a boy, and he moved into her house as one of her children. They grew very close. "When I was a little boy, six years old or so, I remember B. B. came to visit. We were all in bare feet like Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn, playing in the mud or something, and B.B. pulls up. A black man riding in a pink 1962 El Dorado. Pink cufflinks. Pink suit. Everything pink. And Mama introduced us, 'This is B. B. King, your cousin.'"
The very next year that Jerry started learning to play the guitar. "Knowing that we had someone in the family that had made it, that was a real influence. Then when I got fourteen and fifteen, playing music made you popular with the girls, so that kept me going some more. But see, Mama would tell us that B.B. was going to hell." Jerry's parents, who raised eleven children in a two-room house in Indianola, were devout members of the Church of God in Christ. And since Jerry's great uncle Archie Fair was a sanctified Pentecostal minister who played the guitar, Jerry cut his musical teeth in church, playing gospel, just as B.B. had done.
"B.B. became inspired by Uncle Archie and the fact that Bukka had recorded a blues album," Jerry says. Booker T. "Bukka" White, one of the first country blues artists to be recorded, is also a relative. "Uncle Archie gave B.B. his first guitar. And somehow or another everybody in the family since back years ago. Grandpa Jones was a fiddler, a guitar player, a piano player, was given the gift. And so it just came along on both sides. My father is eighty-three years old and still plays guitar. Could have been a hell of a blues guitar player had he chosen to play the blues. But he played church music." Jerry has always played both.
Jerry Fair is a long way from a pink El Dorado, but he is not the dusty Delta blues musician one might want him to be. For one, he almost always plays an electric guitar. And when Jerry says "the blues," he means the rhythm and blues he grew up listening to, not the old country blues or the electric Chicago blues his parents told him were evil. "To tell you the truth, I was a grown man when I heard Muddy Waters the first time. I was a grandfather. You know, I'd probably heard it like in cafes or someplace, walking along the street. I'd heard the blues vaguely, playing on the radio. But I wouldn't know Howlin' Wolf from Steppenwolf. I'd be more familiar with Steppenwolf 'cause that was the only thing we'd get on the radio station when I was at school." When he first sat down and really listened to the blues, in 1994, he was thirty-eight years old.
Cathy, sitting with Jerry and me, laughs. "You late. I was six or seven when I first heard Muddy Waters."
"But Mama and them didn't play no blues at the house, and they didn't let us go to no parties and stuff," Jerry explains. "When I got to college, we were doing the 'Wild Thing.' Listening to rock. Trapeze and Steely Dan. Steve Miller. We played Al Green, stuff that was contemporary at the time. We didn't play blues."
"We was raised up with the blues," Cathy says. "That's all we heard. My mother listened to it. My daddy. You know those little juke joints? We had to work in those, and when we got out of school and did our homework, we had to go to work. That made it so we'd seen drunk women and men, growing up as kids."
"But once you hear it, the blues catches on," Jerry adds. Galean walks in, with an acoustic guitar for Jerry and one for herself, and tunes up. Galean is forty-seven but looks thirty-seven at most. She is beautiful, her skin a rich medium brown and her dark hair pulled back into a small bun. There is a serenity in her face and voice, in the calm movement of her eyes. The Fairs sing a gospel song for me, then "Every Day I Have the Blues," a song B. B. made popular. Jerry met Galean in sixth grade in 1967. They married in November of 1985, and Jerry taught Galean how to play guitar the next year because she got tired of him leaving her to go play. Having grown up playing the clarinet and saxophone, she was a fast learner.
"We're pretty much a team now," Galean says.
"Galean is one of a kind," Jerry says. "She went onstage and sang with Little Dave and Big Love and pleased the crowd. Then she got up there with this all-white band, a bunch of white fellas from Kentucky and Nashville and those places. Got up there with a country-western band, and got a standing ovation, more applause than both bands had gotten."
Galean smiles a warm, pacific smile at me and shrugs impishly. She starts up a Bonnie Raitt song, "Come to Me." Her voice is free and full of fire. Jerry sings some backup, harmony loose and clean. I would pay for this. But if I hadn't come into their kitchen, would I ever have heard this music?
I ask if they play any Charley Patton. "I heard some Charley Patton stuff, but I don't know any of it," Jerry says. "I heard it once or twice on an old tape; it was kind of scratched up. But I'd like to hear some more Charley Patton." I bring in my book of CDs from the car, and I play some Patton. But just a few songs. Looking through the book, Jerry and Galean grow eager: "Play some of that Howlin' Wolf." "Play some Muddy Waters." "Play some more Charley Patton." Galean plays along on a B-flat harmonica that a Greenville blues legend named Willie Foster gave her. They ask if I have a tape I can spare, and I do. So we sit there for a long time in their half-finished house, on bare wood floors, listening to my CDs in our own impromptu juke joint, making a mixed tape so they can listen to some old blues after I leave.
The next day Jerry and Galean take me into Indianola, a twenty-minute drive away, to show me some old juke joints. At a stop sign a man is passing out flyers that show a sample ballot with two state flags. This is the day when Mississippi votes on whether to adopt a new state flag to replace the current one's Confederate emblem. I take a flyer.
"Why do they want to change the flag?" Galean asks me. She didn't know about the vote. I explain that the old flag, aside from its racist connotations, is considered, more practically speaking, bad for the state economy: companies hesitate to locate themselves in a state that flies a Confederate flag. She frowns. "They're not going change the flag."
We walk into the Club Ebony, where Mary Shepard, the owner, sits at a table counting receipts. Shepard is fifty-eight and has been running the club for twenty-seven years. She tells me about her first show, in 1975, when she called Little Milton and asked him to play. Little Milton asked for a thousand dollars and told her she could keep whatever they made on top of that. She was nervous because she thought they wouldn't make it. But they did. "Oooh, I was tickled to death 'cause I had made $231." Mary Shepard's club has done well.
We go around the block to Church Street, which used to be the main street of the black business district. It begins, literally, just across the tracks from the historically white downtown area. Jerry remembers as a kid having to eat out of the back doors of restaurants in the white neighborhood on the rare occasions he went there. The black neighborhood in those days was, of necessity, self-sufficient, so businesses thrived and bustled. "These buildings that you see, vacant buildings, vacant lots, used to house juke joints. Up and down the street," he says, motioning along Church. "And if we walk along the street, somewhere here they painted a copy of B.B.'s guitar, Lucille." The sidewalk tribute is actually on the other (white) side of the tracks. "The first black pharmacist in the state operated right here. And the first black bank, Penny Savings Bank. There's my ex-brother-in-law there. He own this lot and the one across the street where he's mowing."
Louis Lockhard gets off his mower and says hello. His furniture store, along the tracks, used to be the Blue Chip Lounge. "We played there back in the early '80s," Jerry tells me. "Every weekend. And Club Chicago." Jerry s now-deceased brother Birkett ran Club Chicago.
Another man walks up, wearing a black shower cap and chewing on a half-smoked cigar: Gene Gastone, the proprietor of the Key Hole Inn, which has been open since '71. The three men start pointing to where all the old cafes were, telling me "all those places there used to be juke joints," and those stores, and that empty lot, and back there, "all them houses used to run juke joints on the weekend."
"There was a store right there," Louis says, "and you come out of that store and step out, it was packed full right there thirty, forty years ago. It was packed, the whole street."
"Even when I was a boy back in the mid-'60s, in the late '60s, on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday they had so many people in the city, man," Jerry says, looking off down the street. "You could come down here with a shoe box during the day and make money." Lockhard says the city was making a killing just off the parking meters, which are now removed. "Man, it was money," Jerry says. "People were here. It was thick, crowded."
Gastone opens the door to the Key Hole Inn so I can look inside. Everything is particle board and tinsel and beer posters except the brick bar. He bought the little place next door and knocked out the wall, allowing for a pool table. I flip the pages of the Key Hole's jukebox: Keith Sweat. Coolio. No old blues. Nothing older than Motown.
Back outside in the bright sun, Gastone points out the building where Lockhard is putting a Laundromat.
"All of us stick together," he says. "We trying to make it more lively. It may come back, make it back alive."
Mary Shepard's Godson Clarence, who is forty-four, offers to take me over to a few places in Greenville and maybe introduce me to a musician or two. (Jerry pulls me aside before we leave and suggests I might give Clarence twenty bucks for his trouble, and I do.) Clarence used to work in Greenville as a bartender at a riverboat casino. When the casinos first opened a few years ago, Clarence says, they hurt business for the area blues clubs. Why pay ten or twelve dollars to see Bobby Rush or Little Milton at a nightclub if you can see them at the boat and drink for free? "But you know, people kind of got back off it, because most of the people, they know they can go to the casino and play and gamble, true enough, and see stars," he says, "but you have to think about some people want their own privacy. So they'll wait until they come to the Club Ebony next week and see them then. Especially if you--excuse the expression, I know the tape is running--got yourself a pussy. Know what I'm saying?"
I put on a Howlin' Wolf CD in the car, which surprises Clarence. "Damn," he says. "You listening to that hard-times blues. You like that old blues?" I say I do, and does he mean the hard times are over? Not exactly. Clarence has lived away from Mississippi--he went to college for a few years in Marion, Ohio--and he knows things here are a little backward. In Indianola, he explains, he still doesn't speak to white women in town unless they speak to him first, and "then I talk to them politely. But in Marion, it's all good. I can talk to any woman I want to talk to, 'cause they game, and I'm game." In Ohio they even had blacks and whites living together, he says. "But the state of Mississippi, oh no. They don't play that shit here. You got that in Indianola nowadays, but it just started." I ask him if any whites ever come to Club Ebony. Not really, he says. "The only time you going to see white people at Club Ebony is when the B. B. King show come in June. Some might be just riding, coming from like where you are from, New York or somewhere, Australia, down here, you know, sightseeing."
Clarence takes me to the home of Willie Foster, an eighty-year-old bluesman who played harmonica for Muddy Waters in the 1950s. Foster, who has lost both of his legs and is mostly blind, answers the door with a small, yapping dog under his wheelchair. Foster is beaming, glad to see me, whoever I am. I sit on his sofa, and the little dog jumps at my legs until Foster swats it away with a cane. He hands me his business card, which reads, HARMONICA PARADER WITH SOUL. LEGENDARY OF MUDDY WATERS. PARTIES, DANCES, WEDDINGS, SPECIAL OCCASIONS. CALL ANYTIME DAY OR NIGHT. HAVE BAND. WILL TRAVEL. He has a price, he says, but if you can't pay it, well, that's fine too, as long as you pay him whatever you can. "I'll play with anybody. I'll play for nothing. But I don't want somebody to say, 'Here's two dollars,' and they think they're paying me." He says a few things then to suggest that there might be something in this interview deal for him: "You're not writing this article for free, are you?" I ask if he means he wants me to pay him. "Well, I'm mostly teasing at you. Because you get grants to do these things. They give you a grant to go out and search for blues, the black culture. We're history, am I right?"
I say I'm not on a grant, and you're not history. You still play. (In a month, on May 20, after playing a private party, Willie Foster will die in a hotel room in Jackson, Tennessee.)
"But we are the history of the blues," he says. "We're history. And you're really searching up on history. See, I hardly play at my own cultural place, black folk place. We denounce ourselves, and we're ashamed of ourselves. I can go out to a club, there'll be a hundred people in there, mixed or whatnot. And they'll call me up because I blow a harmonica. And this is the blues. That's what blues is. It all originated back with the whooping and hollering across the fields. That's where blues comes from. But I could go in a club where a lot of black people, everybody jumping and dancing and, 'Let's call Willie Foster up!' 'Yeah!' And I get up there. And they say, 'Aw, that's an old man. I don't want to hear no old blues.' That's the first thing they say, 'old blues.' But they're playing the blues now, but it's just more fancy.
"When poor Muddy died, he come out of the blues. He didn't mind singing about the blues, telling it like it is. Lightnin' Hopkins will tell it like it is."
I tell him I prefer that kind of blues, the country blues. "Well, there you go. That's who's interested in it now," he says. "But blues is not a song. It's an expression of your past life. The life that you have lived. Blues
is a feeling. You get sad about something. The only thing you going to have the blues about is your girlfriend gone or you done got broke. But we had the blues about everything. We stomp our foot, we got the blues. We had to go barefooted. Stick a nail in your foot, step on cocklebur, you got the blues as long as it's hurting. You walking on the hot sand. You ever been to the beach? Wasn't no beach out there in no cotton field, but you'd be walking, and that ground is hot. Ground is real hot. You walk, you're going to hurry up and try to get to some shade where the ground won't burn your feet. It wasn't too much shade out there. That'll give you the blues. I've worked sick. I've worked hungry. Then when I got big enough, I know, I got worried so. ... You worry. Blues is a burden. Somebody die in your family, you got a burden. You worry. Just worry. Your woman gone, you got a burden. If you love her, and she done walked off and left you, nothing out there shoot you like that if you love her. You got a headache, you got the blues. That's the beginning of the blues. Black people coming home, put an ooze to it. They say, 'What's wrong with you? You got your head down today.' Well, I got a terrible headache. 'Yeah, I know how blue you feel.' Yeah, I'm feeling real blue."
This is definitely not the first time I have encountered this thought: that I couldn't really have the blues, but there are old black people who get the blues every time they stub a toe.
"The blues, I express it. 'Cause I lived it. That's the life I lived, what I express. And you express your past life. If you lived it, you know it. If you don't live it, you really don't know it. You hear it from someone else. It's like a fire."
Foster tells me about his recent travels to New Zealand, where people of all races treat one another with love, "just like we say Heaven is," he says. "I tell some people now, we don't have nothing. God's given you breath to breathe. That same air that I breathe, you breathe it also. We all got red blood. And we all got to breathe this invisible thing, the air. But we try to separate: 'I'm better than them.' But you ain't no better. If God snatch that little breath from you and snatch it from them, both of you gone. But I lived the blues. I went to work when I was seven years old. I bought my first harmonica when I was seven years old. And I lived the life I love, and I love the life I've lived."
Clarence gets a warm welcome at the Casa Blanca in Greenville, where a handful of people at the bar are talking to John McPhen, the tall, deep-voiced proprietor. No live music there anymore, McPhen tells me, but they spin dance r&b on the weekends. He's been there for eleven years, and before that he ran another place for thirteen, and he'll do it as long as he can, or as long as they'll let him. "The boats are taking over and sliding the little black man out. I run this place clean. But I give it five years, there won't be a small black club left in this town. Not one worth going to. Not a legal place."
McPhen has a rather sinister theory that the city, trying to push people onto the casino boats, will shut down all the black clubs. His is one of two clean places left, he says. The majority of black clubs are heavy into crack cocaine, and the police know they can shut those places down anytime they want. "When they get me, it'll be a plant," he says. "And when you throw us out, you got the whole town. That's it."
"If you can't beat 'em,join 'em," a friend at the bar jokes.
"No," he says, shaking his head, his eyes wide open. "I got the working crowd, and I plan to keep it." The men have been waiting on Clarence that night, it turns out. He's an essential component of the Casa Blanca pool team, which is shooting against the VFW that night. The VFW hall is a point of interest, Clarence assures me, because blues acts used to play there all the time. But no, not anymore.
What's there now, in the back of the fluorescent-lit banquet hall where a stage would be, are closed-up voting machines from the flag referendum earlier that day. I ask John, the owner, if he's heard how the vote turned out. He shrugs and shakes his head. No one I meet seems to care. I think I care the most, the only person who isn't from Mississippi, the only one who isn't black.
In the front bar room, a deejay is setting up to play dance music. There will be fifty or so people here later, they say, dancing all night. The back hall, where the regulars play pool, is vast and dark except for one corner, where the women sit at tables talking and watching the men shoot, sometimes playing the jukebox, which is full of obscure '60s r&b, with the occasional '90s hit ("Whoop! There It Is") mixed in for the hell of it.
The tournament ends (with VFW victorious), and Clarence suggests we check out the casino to see if anyone is playing. But first we drive past an old club, Perry's Flowering Fountain on Nelson Street. Nelson Street was once to Greenville what Church Street was once to Indianola. Now it's all crack, Clarence says. There's a police outpost there now, brightly lit, but the area is still considered unsafe. Perry's was the last real blues holdout for the longest time, but old Perry died last year. His family started a Flowering Fountain Renovation fund to keep the old place alive somehow, but nothing has come of it yet. The door to Perry's is chained. NO TRESPASSING.
We drive up the hill of the river's levee and down the other side to where the three casinos sit. It's midnight on a Tuesday, but the parking lot is half full. A band had played (no one can remember their name) but they were gone. Clarence shows me the penny slot machines, a sign, he says, that they want your every last cent. The place is bright and soulless, which is no surprise. But what is interesting is the cozy multiracial patronage. Blacks and whites, side by side, playing video poker. "You see," Clarence says, "the only color that matters here is green."
I stop by the Cleveland/Bolivar County, Mississippi, Chamber of Commerce office, looking for Cheryl Line, the director of tourism, who I'm told knows a lot about the local blues history. She's out, showing some sites to a group of people interested in developing a self-guided blues trail for tourists, her colleague explains, but I should come back tomorrow maybe. "I wish I could help you," she says, "but blues is not my field."
She gives me a brochure, which lists annual festivals (where you can actually hear live music) and seventeen sites in a thirty-mile radius that "should be of particular interest for tourists with a love of Southern culture." Many of them are just towns where certain things happened a long time ago. Benoit: "Birthplace of blues-men Willie Harris, 'Peck' Curtis. . . ." Rosedale: "Both Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson sang about Rosedale. . . . Check out Bruce Street, where Robert Johnson used to play." A restaurant called Airport Grocery is listed as having occasional live music. I call. There is a Willie Foster performance coming up, but nothing now. The courthouse in Cleveland is listed as the famous spot where W C. Handy let a local black trio play at intermission of his orchestra's concert in 1905 (they played a blues number and stole the show). A historical marker is posted in the lawn there. Parchman prison is listed: "Celebrated and cursed in many recorded blues songs by former residents. Son House, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Bukka White." Then there's Tutweiler, where Handy first heard the blues in the train depot in 1903. There is a painted sign off the highway there that reads, TUTWEILER. WHERE 'BLUES' WAS BORN, and turning off toward the depot, you see another sign: $97.50 FINE FOR LOUD NOISE. The depot, now severely dilapidated, blends right in with the other forgotten buildings. Traveling the Delta, trying to soak up the blues heritage, starts to feel a little like walking through the old black cemetery at Dockery.
Wednesday night at Jerry and Galean Fair's house, the Kings of Rhythm are practicing. Galean does not feel well and is in the bedroom trying to rest. But I see she's written out the words to Etta James's "At Last," which she had asked to hear repeatedly during our listening session two nights before. The drummer is also absent. Jerry, on rhythm guitar, is working with the lead guitarist and the keyboard player on a Temptations song. They get that down and start to improvise an instrumental number, with Jerry yelling out chord progressions. It starts out as a kind of Latin funk groove then goes into a blues riff. Then Jerry leads them into a little jazz improvisation. Then back to the latin funk. Jerry is thrilled. "That's a good mix right there, a little samba and some funk and blues," he says to the other two. He asks if I liked it. I did. He turns to the band, pointing at me. "See, we can sell that to his kind of people--excuse the expression--and they're the ones with the deep pockets."
When the band leaves and the house is quiet, Jerry seems still excited, but in a way that makes me think he's not excited often enough. The band has its good times and bad, he explains. In June they're going to play at B.B.'s homecoming concert as the backing band for opening acts Rufus Thomas and Nathaniel Kimball. But they've had some group-dynamics issues lately. Galean is ready to take on a bigger role, but there are other strong personalities in the band. "Its been kind of difficult to market the team concept," he says.
After some time living in Milwaukee, he and Galean moved back to Mississippi in 1990. They played with a band of four brothers called the Midnight Express. The Express already had a singer, though, so there wasn't much room for Galean, and they eventually left the group. "But we're good together," Jerry says. He's never been turned down after an audition with a band. In the mid- and late '90s, he played with some very promising talent (including a fairly long stint with Little Dave Thompson, a popular Greenwood guitarist who has recorded with the Fat Possum label in Oxford), but a match has never been perfect, or long lasting. No one seems able to handle any success they earn, Jerry complains. There are gambling problems, drug problems. Jerry himself had a freebase cocaine habit, and a marijuana charge once landed him in prison, from where he emerged, by all accounts, a new man. And if it's not an addiction that stands in the way of healthy success, it's rampant egotism. "One guy usually maybe sings a little better or he's more versatile, can play a multitude of instruments, and starts to feel that he deserves more publicity, more financial rewards, instead of looking at the group concept. So it's kind of hard to work with the same guys consistently. There are plenty of musicians, but finding a group, a team to work with, is missing us. Everyone wants to be the star."
The local scene is so faint, it's not surprising that individuals might want to put their names out front and try to get broader notice. With bands fighting over scraps, everyone's share becomes more vital. "The juke joints can only afford two hundred, two hundred-fifty at the most, to a local band," Jerry explains. "And the more pieces you have, the less money you bring in." So if Jerry and Galean play once a week, they each make fifty bucks, or a hundred bucks a week, or about four hundred a month, barely enough to live off of. "With a three-piece band you can make a living. But if you go in there with five or six pieces, you got to do it every day." They could play more gigs. They're offered gigs in Greenville all the time. But those pay even less, and by the time you pack everything up and drive to Greenville, and unload, and pack back up and drive home, it doesn't seem worth it. "I'll play for free, on the street, before I do that stuff. I'll give it away." I mention that Willie Foster told me something similar, and Jerry complains that Foster does gigs for $250, making it hard for them to get more.
Jerry tells me he has an interview at the USG construction materials factory in Greenville the next day, for a nine-dollar-an-hour, nine-to-five job. He didn't want to take anything lower than four hundred a week, he says, but three-fifty might be all right. Except that if he takes a day job, he sacrifices the time and flexibility that he wants to use for music. "I know that all those musicians had to pay dues," he says. "But I've worked hard for fifteen years. I'm too old to work hard like that. I got to work smart." For the longest time, Jerry says, he never thought of music as a viable career. And maybe it's still not. But he wants to try. "It's not basketball or football. You can get old and still play music, and get better." Jerry wants to retire on music. But there is his half-finished house, their hundred bucks a week.
"It's sad," he says. "'Cause what about the future? I'm trying to think about the next hundred years, our grandkids. That's why I'm building this house so big, so we can have a place to all come together. I want my grandkids to have a place, and they can say, 'My grandfather built his house.' And maybe they'll lay a flower on my grave, and I'll be remembered. That's why I'm building this house so big."
I hear about a juke joint called Bourbon Mall where a great guitarist named Eddie Cusic is known to play. He doesn't play there anymore, they tell me on the phone, but they've got music on Wednesday through Saturday. Amazing, I think, four nights of live music. I drive out south of Leland, following the vague directions I was given. The road curves, and civilization slowly disappears. Right about the time I'm certain I've gone past it, that it can't be this far out, I come to a lighted shack on the side of the road. Cars are parked in a field across the street. It's a quintessential juke joint setup, and my eyes get wide. I walk into a small convenience store front and am directed through a door into a dark bar area, where a man sits in a chair in the corner with just an acoustic guitar. There are small tables with candles, and various examples of taxidermy around the room. Perfect. Except there are a few things awry: the place takes credit cards; filet mignon is on the menu; there is a big-screen TV (turned off, mercifully) in the corner above the bar; and everyone in the place is white. Including Guitar Charlie, a jolly but sore-throated man of about forty with a buzz cut and sunglasses. His tip jar is empty. He sings a Howlin' Wolf song, his imitation helped along by his sore throat. The people are talking among themselves, oblivious to the music. Sitting alone at the front of the long, wooden bar, I'm the only one who claps after each song. No one speaks to me, asks me where I'm from. Half the backs in the room are turned toward Guitar Charlie and me. When starts to move away from Delta blues, into Stevie Ray Vaughn territory, the crowd warms up a bit, but there's still no applause. "Folsom Prison Blues" gets people stomping along for one verse and singing along for a chorus. But then they go back to their conversations. The steak is excellent. The fried shrimp, a little mushy. There is no bourbon for sale in Bourbon. I get my check as soon as I swallow the last bite, and I take my leave to the tune of ZZ Top's "Tush": "I said Lord take me downtown/I'm just looking for some touch."
WE'VE GOT THE BLUES AND A WHOLE LOT MORE! read the signs welcoming you to Clarksdale. And where Highway 61 crosses 49, near the center of town, there is a monument with three large blue guitars, their necks pointing out in each direction. This marks the crossroads where, we are led to believe, a mediocre Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil for the talent that would bring him fame, fortune, and immortality.
Clarksdale is pushing a blues revival effort. At the center of it is the Delta Blues Museum, which states as its mission to "assure that the blues never die, and remains a vibrant part of the history and future heritage of its Mississippi roots." The museum building, an old train depot at what is now One Blues Alley, was renovated two years ago and houses galleries, a gift shop, and a practice space where Michael "Dr. Mike" James, a guitarist with the Wesley Jefferson Band, is giving a Thursday afternoon music lesson to four children as part of the museum's local Delta Blues Education Program. There is a boy on drums, another boy on bass, his twin brother on guitar, and a longhaired white girl playing lead guitar. Dr. Mike paces the room, counting off, singing out their parts to them one by one. Dr. Mike has been teaching for fifteen years and took over this program in 1998 from his former teacher, Johnnie "Mr.Johnnie" Billington, who continues to teach students of his own in the nearby town of Lambert. These classes are meant to get kids interested in playing the blues, to teach them not only how to play but how to dress and act like musicians, and how to make a living at it. There are several bands around Clarksdale made up entirely of young graduates from the program.
The students play through the Temptations' "Just My Imagination." Then they work on a new song that Dr. Mike is teaching them: Prince's "Purple Rain."
I ask the man at the register in the gift shop of the Delta Blues Museum if he knows of any live blues in town that night, and he does not. It's mostly just three clubs, on the weekends. But that will soon change, he tells me. They'll have music in town at least four nights a week. Morgan Freeman, who lives nearby, is opening a juke joint, Ground Zero, across the street in the old Delta Grocery building.
I walk over to Ground Zero, up the big concrete stoop past a barbeque grill shaped like a pig's head. One of the managers, Joe Williams, who played drums with the Wesley Jefferson band at Red's on Saturday night, recognizes me. "You were with that guitar player," he says. "Yeah, he was good. I liked his style." Joe's brother, Terry, is going to lead Ground Zero's house band, Big T and Family. They'll play three or four nights a week, but they'll keep a full array of instruments there, ready to go, should capable and interested players happen to show up on a Monday or Tuesday.
I notice, on a wall nearby, a photo, clipped from the newspaper, of a billboard showing a white and black handshake. WORKING TOGETHER, the billboard reads, WE CAN ALL BUILD A BETTER DELTA. "We want this to be a place where whites and blacks can come and be together," Joe tells me. He moved to Clarksdale when he was nine and remembers hanging out around juke joints. He was too young to go inside, but he and his friends used to get dressed up and dance outside for quarters. "Not as many people come out as they did ten years ago. So we're trying to recreate that happening time, when you come and relax on the weekend and you don't worry about anything."
Ground Zero will serve Southern food seven days a week, all day ' and evening. They will have a shuffleboard table and bottle cap checkers. On a table near the door are the checkerboards, fresh from the box, with the checkers still in their plastic bags. The place feels like what it is: a charming replica, bigger and cleaner than what it's supposed to evoke. The ceiling is left unfinished, with some of the wooden boards visible. The tables and chairs don't match, the floor is bare. "Morgan wanted the place to be as tacky as possible," Joe tells me.
Tony Czech, the director of the Delta Blues Museum, a white guy with a mullet haircut, comes over and introduces himself. The museum is not formally involved in the Ground Zero project, but Czech is thrilled by its presence. "There's a lot of new interest in blues," he says, "by a lot of people like me. The blues came to me from the Yardbirds and Eric Clapton and John Mayall, and then you work your way backwards." He tells me about the busloads of Norwegian tourists they get at the museum. Now if only the Museum could just get more people to make the drive from Memphis, or Tunica, where the casino boats attract sixteen million people every year. I ask if anyone is worried that a place like this might hurt the few traditional black joints left in town, but Joe and Tony are not worried. More traffic through town is good for everyone, they say.
A lot of people in town have those concerns, though, Czech admits. They don't see the possibilities. "The people in Orlando don't necessarily go to Disney World all the time, but they're glad it's in their backyard." A tourism page on the museum's Web site says, "It is Clarksdale's intention to capitalize on its unique position as the Birthplace of the Blues by providing authentic, 'must-see' entertainment products and services." But Czech puts it more concisely: "It's not cotton anymore. Blues is the cash crop now."
Czech suggests I check out a place fifteen minutes out of town where they have occasional blues performances (he saw James "Super Chickan" Johnson, a solo guitarist who also plays with the Wesley Jefferson band, do a private party there the night before). The place is the old Hopson Plantation. James Butler, who married into the Hopson family, manages the site, which they have developed into a "bed and beer" compound. There is a barn-sized commissary building with a bar, a stage, and twenty or so tables for dining. The room is decorated with photos, old license plates, farm equipment, old album covers. There is an entire wall from an old barber shop, complete with chairs, restored in one corner. It feels like a cross between a museum and a T.G.I. Friday's.
The lodging part of the compound is a row of four sharecropper shacks which were salvaged from nearby plantations and renovated with working bathrooms, kitchenettes, and televisions. When there is a performance in the commissary, the televisions show a closed-circuit view of the stage area so people can watch from their rooms.
James Butler, who works by day as Director of Public Works for the city of Clarksdale, knows his history, and cares about the blues. He wishes he could have more live music, but when they do have it, the five-dollar-a-head charge at the door doesn't come close to paying the band. They have to make it up at the bar, and even then they only break even, usually; $750 for the band, $400 at the door. It just doesn't make sense. He's going to try to start putting on shows every second Saturday. He figures if he can get people trained on a certain schedule, he might succeed. And besides, he's sick of telling people who come through the door that they have live blues but not today. People like to plan.
Thursday night is the night to be at Po' Monkey's in Merigold. Everyone knows this. Over the course of the week, when I tell people I am looking for juke joints, most tell me to go to Po' Monkey's on Thursday night. Even the brochure from the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce recommends it.
Po' Monkey himself is William Seaberry, who lives at the sharecropper shack and has run a juke joint in it for thirty years, gradually adding rooms as popularity demanded. His place is right in a cotton field, covered in Christmas lights, near a shady glen of trees. This Thursday night he cruises the room in an American flag shirt—blue-and-white starred shoulders with red-and-white striped pockets. I'm with a young friend of Keith Dockery McLean's, Rob Brown, who teaches at Delta State University and did his doctoral thesis on the return migration of blacks to the Delta. There are few empty seats, but we are beckoned to sit by a man called Puddin', who asks me to guess his age. I guess fifty. He is seventy-one, an old regular and a retired professional gambler. We play a little no-stakes three-card monte, and I lose. We get drinks. Whenever Seaberry passes us, he asks if we're all right, and I know he's asking because we're strange faces, white faces. "Relax now," he says. "Enjoy yourself." This, if anything, causes a little tension, like the excessive reassurance you get at a dentist s office. But I'm not tense. The crowd is in full swing, having a great time. The music is loud, the deejay is louder, talkative. He's giving shout-outs to the people from Shelby and Mound Bayou.
From out of the crowd in the back emerge three middle-aged white people. Rob introduces one to me as Luther Brown (no relation), who is the head of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State. He's escorting Judy Randall, a consultant from North Carolina who has been hired by the state of Mississippi to catalog the authentic blues locations that might be of worth to tourism. It's too loud to talk, so I wave at Randall, who smiles and nods and holds her purse close to her body as she takes one more look around before leaving. The dancing a few feet away ranges from mellow and skilled to mildly obscene, and progresses toward the latter as the music evolves from a bluesy groove to hip-hop and harder later in the evening.
Old photos of Monkey's adorn the walls: portraits of family, snapshots in the bar from decades ago, some pin-ups of women mixed in. Monday night Seaberry has live dancing girl—less music oriented, I'm told. I wander over to get another beer from the kitchen area, and beside the open door is a poster of a blues musician named Stacey Merino, who has autographed it: "To Po' Monkey. Keep your head up. We will get there some day."
Cheryl Line has been to Po' Monkeys and has talked at length to Seaberry about possibilities. "There are an awful lot of people who come here and want something that's authentic. They like places like Po' Monkeys," she tells me in her office the next afternoon. "I don't think William Seaberry understands what he's got out there. If he really took Thursday night and just played blues, live blues. . .well, it would probably be too much for him." Line, as the Director of Tourism for the city of Cleveland and Bolivar County, is trying to foster a comfortable atmosphere where people can experience the local culture. "They're coming anyway," she says. "What we'd like to do is to give them something we think they can really sink their teeth into."
It's hard, she realizes, when people travel down here with romantic notions. They find the Delta as it is, and it's depressing. "What we'd like to do is figure out something we could actually give them, and not just have them wandering around to depressed and itty-bitty towns where there's nothing left," she explains. "I thought of talking to Po' Monkey and asking him if he would play some of the right kind of music, or that kind of music. I don't know that he will. He's doing his thing. "Looking around at what we're known for and what's important, the music ought to be celebrated. I think we've been fools not to recognize that," she says. And now she worries that it's too late. "You're losing the numbers of people that have really heard field songs and have heard those old chants. And most of the younger generation doesn't know about blues, really."
The simple fact, she says, is that there's not much incentive. Blues musicians don't make a lot of money—partly, she suspects, because of bad organization. There is a lack of reliability with venues that discourages people from patronizing. So Line says the consultant Judy Randall is sticking to certain criteria as she charts out a guide for tourists to the Mississippi Delta. "You have to be able to find it," Line asserts. "You got to have a sign that says it's there. You can't be standing there on the street guessing. You've got to have at least hours that are reliable. If Judy could put together a package that is realistic—start off small—and we can give people that experience they've come looking for, then I think out of that will grow lots of different things. And those streets may get full again. And you've got plenty of out-of-work folks. There's no telling what you could have going in those towns if something caught on." She and Luther Brown have even talked about applying for a grant "to subsidize some of these guys that are good who could run a safe place that would be authentic. I don't know what we'll come up with, but we're looking at some things like that."
But isn't there a small problem with manufactured authenticity? I ask. And isn't the unreliability of a hidden hole-in-the-wall part of the charm that would bring people down? She doesn't want to bring busloads of people through any of those places, she says. "It makes me nervous when [juke joints] get too much attention. Because I would like to see as much authenticity maintained as possible. But I don't know how to do that." A broad focus on the whole Delta history, she believes, would help—an approach where tourists could be "standing in a cotton field with a sack behind them, or taking a levee tour and talking about before the river was channeled and how the levee was built and what labor was used. See a film on mule farming and take it all the way through, and just explain what happened. And we would have to do a Civil Rights tour, too. So it's quite a story. And then you have your blues. And it'll have a little bigger meaning if you know the story. But there are a lot of people that don't want to tell the story, that don't want you to know about the story."
By and large, people in the Delta are friendly, she says, even if they don't know how to help. "And if you're adventurous, you're having an experience." I've been pretty adventurous, I tell her, but I haven't seen what I thought I would see, certainly not in the way of live music. "We may not have the authentic juke joints, or as many as we had," she answers, "but we still have a story to tell, and the flavor that is still here. And there are festivals, of course, where a tourist can get his fill of live blues. You might have to come the twenty-eighth of this month to get the right feel for it in the right venue rather than have it at anytime you come. You can look at a schedule across the year that we could put together and have when the festivals are, and you will be able to see when you could have a good experience of the blues. Because you get your vacation when you can get it."
Line wants the towns to work together, to collectively develop something that will make sense of it all, "to tell the story and be able to direct people in the areas that they might be interested in and try to see that those are developed as a realistic kind of thing, and not a pie in the sky. You know, now you're just out there wandering, looking for a grave site. Well, there's got to be more." *