Monday, January 31, 2011

Delta Report

For the first time in many years, I visited the blues country of the Mississippi Delta last week. I mean, I've driven through a couple of times in the past few years, but this was the first time I had spent more than a day there since about 1997. Even for a Southerner, the Delta is strange place, full of contradictions and mysteries.

The area that Mississippians call the Delta is the northwestern slice of the state, between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, extending northwards to Memphis. It's flat - almost totally devoid of hills, with some of the deepest and richest topsoil in the country. There are places where it seems like you can see forever. The area was practically wilderness until the late 19th century, when planters bought large tracts and cleared them for cotton plantations. Cotton was a labor-intensive crop until mechanization changed the cotton industry in the 1940's, so large numbers of workers, mostly African-American, were recruited for cheap labor. The Delta's population was soon majority black, as it still is. The white minority resorted to increasingly oppressive tactics in order to maintain social and political control. It's no wonder that the Delta is often considered the birthplace of the blues.

On my trip, I stayed for two nights in Cleveland, in the very center of the Delta. I had wondered how this extremely poor region was faring during these economic hard times, and I must admit that Cleveland gave me a false impression. It appears to be a prosperous, bustling town; the downtown area is attractive and healthy. It only took a little driving around to other towns to discover that most of the area is not faring as well. Tutwiler, Glendora, Friars Point, Merigold - these towns are as shockingly poor as any places I have ever seen in the United States. Hirsberg's Drug Store in Friars Point has been around long enough for Robert Johnson to have played on the bench in front of the store, but it couldn't survive the current economic climate; they were having a going-out-of-business sale when I was there.

My wife made a little bit of fun of me because I visited so many dead blues guys' graves. But often those graves are the only remaining physical locations that represent those pioneers' careers - their homes are long gone, for the most part, as are the places they played. If you want to pay homage in the form of a blues pilgrimage, you're left with visiting graves. In some cases, you are left with visiting someone's guess about where a grave is. There are three Robert Johnson graves around Greenwood. And while I visited Charley Patton's grave in Holly Ridge, there are some who believe that he's buried in the nearby Longswitch cemetery. And one of Patton's relatives says that he's buried underneath the burner of the cotton gin next to the cemetery.

But the Holly Ridge cemetery is a place I always visit when I'm in the Delta. Although there are houses across the road and a working cotton gin next door, this spot somehow always gives me an intensely desolate, isolated feeling. I don't think I've ever seen another human being while visiting the cemetery, and it feels like the middle of nowhere as much as anyplace I've visited.

Digging a grave in the Holly Ridge cemetery must be a nightmare. I've never visited when the ground wasn't wet and spongy, with standing water scattered around. In addition to Patton, harmonica player Willie Foster (whom I heard in 1995) and Asie Payton, who had two stunning posthumous albums released, are buried there.

I also visited the grave of Sonny Boy Williamson (the second one) outside of Tutwiler, and Dockery Farms. Dockery, as much as any place on Earth, can reasonably lay claim to being the birthplace of the blues. Charley Patton lived there for some 30 years, and learned to play guitar there, inspired by an older musician, Henry Sloan.

But I wanted to hear some music, so after a couple of days I moved my base of operations to Clarksdale, where I rented a wonderful, large apartment downtown for a couple of days. I was staying two doors down from where W. C. Handy lived for awhile, and just steps from the depot where Muddy Waters caught the Illinois Central train to Chicago. Weekends are about the only time to hear music in the Delta, so on Friday night I went to hear Terry "Big T" Williams at Ground Zero, Morgan Freeman's blues club in Clarksdale. I had been impressed with Big T on recordings, but his live show was kind of disappointing - a pretty slick presentation of predictable blues covers by Albert King, B. B. King, etc.

But the next night was something else. Clarksdale once had numerous juke joints - informal bars with a jukebox and live music on the weekends. They're pretty much all gone now except for Red's. Red's frankly looks like an abandoned, boarded-up building. But on Friday and Saturday nights, it's anything but. The crowd was fairly small on the Saturday night I was there, but the music was just what I was looking for. Big A (I only learned his real name, Anthony Sherrod, later) and his three-piece blues band played with soul, humor, and intensity. They played some of the same cover tunes I had heard the night before, but Big A and his cheap-ass guitar (I never did figure out what brand it was) turned every song into a raw, strong, immediate experience. His rhythm section played with that perfect blend of drive and relaxation that's found in the best blues. I couldn't keep still.

There was more to my trip which would probably only interest someone as geeky as me. I loved the little moments when I encountered a trace or remnant of blues history, like the tile floor that's only thing left of Sonny Boy Williamson's house in Helena, Arkansas, or the trestle of the Yazoo Delta (Yellow Dog) rail line I unexpectedly came across in Boyle. A lot has changed in the Delta, but many things remain the same. I can't decide if that's good or bad.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Germany Report

Nothing about music here this time - just a short report on our trip to Germany for my friends, with some pictures that I haven't posted elsewhere on the interwebs. Karen's nephew is studying computer engineering at the University of Saarland, so the idea was that we would visit during the Christmas season, and meet up with Karen's sister, brother-in-law, and niece, who would stay in Germany for Christmas, while we returned home Christmas Eve.

Flying across the Atlantic is always brutal, even if it is kind of miraculous. We took one of those awful overnight flights and arrived in Frankfurt at 7:00 AM on December 17. I knew that it would be cold in Europe at that time of year, but for some reason snow didn't occur to me; I guess I just don't think about it much here in Atlanta. We arrived just as Europe was experiencing unusual amounts of snow, which played havoc with plane and train schedules. Anyway, we found our nice little hotel, walked around Frankfurt a little, and had a nice dinner at a good restaurant.

The next morning we took the train to Saarbrücken, where our nephew and niece, along with their two kids (2 1/2 and six months) met us at the station. Saarbrücken is a nice little city, about the size of Savannah, Georgia, I guess. It's on the Saar river, near the French border, and has bounced back and forth between Germany and France a few times. Although the guidebooks say there's not a whole lot to do or see there, it was interesting enough to this American; there are several centuries-old churches and a 17th-century palace. We did some sightseeing, but since this was a family trip, we spent a lot of time just hanging out in our nephew's tiny student apartment, drying out and warming up from walking through the snow.

Speaking of the snow, it delayed Karen's sister's arrival for days. Their flight was cancelled, and they couldn't get another for four days. So the several days we were planning on spending together turned into about 45 minutes - they arrived at the Saarbrücken train station as we were leaving on the 23rd.

The plan for the 22nd was to catch an early morning train to Paris, spend the day there, and return on the 7:00 PM train. Well, our train was canceled due to the weather; the next one was scheduled for 11:00 AM. After some debate about whether it would be worth it, we bought tickets for the 11:00 o'clock train, which actually left about 12:30. So we only had a few hours to walk around Paris, but I'm glad we did. We had a simple, but excellent meal, with the best pommes frites (French fries) I have ever had - I guess that's not surprising. In our few hours in Paris, we visited Notre Dame Cathedral, and I got to kiss my wife in the rain on a bridge over the Seine. Notre was awesome, with incredible artwork. There was a mass service going on when we visited, and the polyphonic choral music seemed suspended in the air. A handful of hours is not enough time in Paris, but I'm glad we had that.

Other impressions: All of the airports and train stations had policemen carrying assault rifles. I never quite got used to that.

Europe is more advanced than the U.S. in some ways, but not in bedding. Sheets and blankets are much superior to duvets, which make temperature regulation almost impossible.

I never had a bad beer in Germany. Even the cheap stuff was good.

Speaking of alcohol, gluhwein is good stuff. It's hot spiced wine, popular around Christmas. The first sip was a little bit of a shock, but I took to it pretty quickly.

The weather played one last trick on us as we tried to get home. Our flight out of Frankfurt was cancelled. We scheduled a flight the next day, and the airline put us up in a hotel near the airport. It was a brand new hotel - functional rather than elegant - and the airline had apparently booked the entire place. So all of the "guests" were stranded passengers like us; we all shared a strange, Purgatory-like existence. We had shelter and meals - always pasta and sauce, served buffet-style. And no refills on the Coke, please.

So we didn't make it home for Christmas with my family; we spent twelve hours on a plane, instead. But we made it home that night. It was a low-key trip to Europe, but we got to do lots of baby-holding.