A new article for Paste Magazine ...
U.S. Highway 61, the most famous highway in musical history, no longer winds through the sleepy Mississippi Delta towns and hamlets of bygone days. The corporate takeover of the blues and the homogenization of America have seen to that. McDonald’s restaurants and Wal-Mart superstores now dot the alluvial flood plain from Memphis to Vicksburg. Tunica, Mississippi, where James Cotton and Skip James were born in tarpaper shacks, is now home to Casino Row, the largest gambling complex in the United States outside of Las Vegas and Atlantic City. The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale provides a multimedia overview of the music in the comfort of the newly renovated, air-conditioned former train depot. A few miles away, not far from the junction of Highways 61 and 49, where Robert Johnson allegedly made his famous pact with the devil, Hopson Plantation’s Shack Up Inn offers guilt-ridden or curious white folks the opportunity to stay in renovated sharecropper cabins. Here visitors can experience the hardscrabble ambience of a tin roof overhead, a sagging front porch on which to meditate, and an uncomfortable bed on which to dream of crossroads and blues greats. And air conditioning, of course; there’s no profit in making life too authentic, particularly given the blistering Mississippi summers. It’s genuine simulated poverty and misery, an almost but not quite uncomfortable blues experience. For a price. And for a night. Then it’s time to head back to the Hilton Inn next to the resort golf course.
It wasn’t always so neatly packaged. Summer of 1961. One of my earliest memories involves an old black man named Roosevelt Samples. Roosevelt and his family live in a three-room sharecropper’s cabin on my grandfather’s farm outside Caruthersville, Missouri. They don’t have air conditioning. They don’t have plumbing, for that matter. Abe Lincoln may have freed the slaves almost a hundred years before, but you couldn’t convince my grandfather of that. You probably couldn’t convince Roosevelt, either. And there on my grandfather’s farm in the bootheel of Missouri, eighty miles up the Mississippi River from Memphis, life continues much as it has for the past one hundred and fifty years. My grandfather doesn’t own a plantation. He owns eighty acres on which he raises cotton and soybeans, and where he struggles to support his family. And Roosevelt, like thousands of other poor black men in the Jim Crow south, works a portion of my grandfather’s land, shares in the profits that never quite equal his expenses, and struggles to survive On Monday through Saturday he picks cotton in the fields. And on Saturday night he drinks his homebrew moonshine with his friends and picks and sings blues tunes on his front porch.
It is my grandfather’s regular summertime entertainment, a redneck version of Saturday Night Fever, and I tag along with him “Let’s go watch that damn fool of a nigger,” he says, and hoists me up into his pickup truck. I am too young to argue or protest. And so we pass a dozen or more summer nights of my early youth listening to an old black man play a battered Sears and Roebuck guitar, drunk out of his mind, howling at the moon. It is my introduction, although I don’t know it or understand it then, to an ugly world of bigotry and racism, a deeply embedded social cancer that has changed precious little since the Civil War. My grandfather doesn’t care about the music at all, but he likes the homebrew moonshine, and he likes the chance to get away from my pious, churchgoing grandmother. I don’t like any part of it, least of all the music. “Baby, please don't go/Baby, please don't go,” Roosevelt sings. “Baby, please don't go down to New Orleans/You know I love you so” It is a famous blues song, but I don’t know that at the time. I am only too happy to go. New Orleans would be fine, but home would be even better, far away from this strange culture and these frightening sounds. I want to be anywhere but where I am. It turns out I have the blues. But unlike Roosevelt, I can catch the nearest passenger train out of town and return to freedom, chase the blues away by simply sitting next to my mother and riding the rails to the north. It is my own private northern migration, at the ripe old age of five.
Summer of 1977. I am a college graduate now, ready to face the world with an almost useless degree in Creative Writing, a half dozen crates full of albums, and a total ignorance of American black music and culture. I do what any unemployed, nearly penniless, directionless young man would have done; I move back home with my parents. It is an uncomfortable period of my life, and I spend part of it doing what I had been meaning to do for a long time. No, not looking for a job, although that is inevitable and cannot be postponed for long. Instead, I organize my music collection, carefully arranging albums in alphabetical order, cataloguing artists according to genre. And for the first time it dawns on me. I have been an avid music collector for many years. And I have assembled a fine, representative collection of lily-white music.
Among my favorite bands and musical artists – The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, Cream, Eric Clapton – the same songwriting names keep resurfacing. M. Morganfield. C. Burnett. W. Dixon. R. Johnson. Who are these people? I have no idea. But I know they write great blues songs, and that it is time to move beyond my narrowly defined musical world.
I come home from a university music store clutching an album called Muddy Waters at Newport, 1960. And there it is again: “Baby, please don't go/Baby, please don't go/Baby, please don't go down to New Orleans/You know I love you so.” I remember Roosevelt and his moonshine. And I remember the feeling of hopelessness, the humid oppression of the Missouri July nights, the desperate desire to escape.
This is not the flashy electric blues of Clapton or Zeppelin. There are no jaw-dropping guitar solos. It is rougher, more raw, more ragged. But there is an undeniable power and majesty in the vocals, an insistent cry at the heart of this music that startles me in its intensity. I want to hear more; a lot more.
And so begins a journey that still continues today. I chase the blues because the blues are hotwired to my soul, an electric jolt of sorrow and joy that can rouse me from the lethargy of unending, monotonous days. It is difficult to escape the grey, drab dreariness of the routine. But the blues are life in Technicolor, an inexhaustible wellspring with a thousand rivers and tributaries; the most constricted and limited of all musical forms, and yet infinite in variety and nuance. I chase the blues up to Chicago with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Magic Sam, Willie Dixon. I chase them down to the humid Delta with Robert Johnson and Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and Charley Patton, and over to Memphis with B.B. King and Sleepy John Estes and Furry Lewis. I chase them out to east Texas with T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins, across to California with Big Mama Thornton and Lowell Fulson, up and over to the rust belt with John Lee Hooker and Robert Lockwood, Jr., across the country with the great blues/rock guitar slingers – Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter, Roy Buchanan. I chase them across the Atlantic with Eric Clapton and John Mayall, Jeff Beck, early Fleetwood Mac.
The blues are life writ large, and they cut to the chase and cut to the bone, every time. You won’t find flowery, lofty language here. You won’t find metaphors or similes, philosophical navel gazing, or simpering existential angst. But you’ll find life distilled to its most essential qualities. And if the lyrics are frequently earthy and coarse, it is because the realities of brutal existence leave little time for social niceties or metaphysical meditation. The subject matter reflects life at its most basic and elemental – love, sex, betrayal, violence, grinding poverty and oppression, the devastating effects of floods, tornadoes, and drought; crossroads that point the way to anyplace but where you are, and railroad tracks that invariably head out of town. And death. Always death.
Summer of 1979. My grandfather has succumbed to colon cancer. We’ve said our goodbyes, attended his funeral service, planted him in the ground not far from his cotton and soybean crops in the hopes that he will rise again. My grandmother has decided to sell the family farm. And now we journey to Greenville, Mississippi to visit my uncle and aunt, one last family reunion to remember and celebrate. I have not been here since my youth, and I am curious to see what has changed.
We take Highway 61 out of Memphis, wind our way through the Delta past Robinsonville and Tunica and Clarksdale, deep into the heart of the south that I longed to escape many years before. My uncle stands over his barbecue grill, preparing one last family feast, and I head outside in the blistering Mississippi heat to join him.
“What ever happened to Roosevelt?” I ask him. He looks puzzled, then remembers. “That old nigger?” he says. “Why, he drank himself to death years ago.”
Not much has changed.
November, 1981, a cold, blustery night in Columbus, Ohio. Muddy Waters, born McKinley Morganfield, would be dead in less than a year and a half, but here he is in front of a crowd of fewer than 100 people in a smoky bar, stalking the front of the stage, growling and roaring and moaning. He rolls his eyes upward in some heavenly musical ecstasy and rips through his greatest songs, holding nothing back, the sweat pouring down his face. He is 66 years old.
His band lumbers into “Mannish Boy,” and that thunderous guitar riff, embedded deep in rock ‘n roll’s DNA, explodes from the speakers. “Ain’t that a man?” Muddy shouts, and the crowd, all 75 strong, bellows back “Yeah.” It is love of a sort, between this old black man and those who have been touched by his music. It is a call and response that is better than church, a give and take that leaves everyone moved and changed. The crowd shouts in unison; Muddy beams from the stage. The devil’s music, some have called it. Not this night.
“Baby, please don’t go,” Muddy sings near the end of the concert. “Baby, please don’t go/Baby, please don’t go down to New Orleans/You know I love you so.” It is one of those transcendent moments that every true music lover knows well. I sing along at the top of my lungs, as does everyone around me. I believe I can die a happy man now. It is Muddy’s song, but it is my song too, taken up and made a part of my life, as the best songs always are, a signpost that tells me where I’ve been and that points the way home.
Muddy leaves the stage with a wave, the lights come up, and I stumble out into the Ohio November chill and head home, exhausted, exhilarated. But I can’t fall asleep. I don’t want to fall asleep. It is one of the best nights of my life.
I wouldn’t mind staying at The Shack Up Inn if the air conditioning was working. And I think I could probably enjoy the Blues Experience, as marketed by corporate America, if the Hilton Inn wasn’t too far away. I know something about the blues, but I’d prefer to keep that knowledge theoretical and relatively abstract. I don’t like to be too uncomfortable. And I hate it when people die.
All of them are gone now; my grandfather, my mother, my uncle, Roosevelt, Muddy. Long gone. You live long enough and you get the blues, no matter your station in life. You hope, you fervently pray Baby please don’t go, and Baby goes anyway.
February 2005, another cold winter evening in Columbus, Ohio. It has not been a good few years for the blues, or for Chris Duarte, the hotshot Texas guitarist I see this night. Blues festivals are folding, public funding for the arts is dwindling, and Duarte, once heralded as Stevie Ray’s heir, hits the stage thirty minutes late after waiting in vain for the crowds to appear. It hasn’t been a good couple of weeks for me, either. My father-in-law died a week ago, and I’ve just returned from my third funeral of a close relative in the past nine months.
Midway through the concert Duarte finds his groove. The notes spatter like machine gun fire. The voice moans and soars like Muddy or the Wolf. And I am transported to a better place. It doesn’t matter that Duarte is white, that his long pony-tail owes more to Haight-Ashbury than the Mississippi Delta, that the bar is half empty on a dead Thursday night in the middle of a Midwest winter. He’s doing what I’m doing, what we’re all doing. We’re chasing the blues.