Monday, December 8, 2008

The Delta and Frank Frost

Speaking of Frank Frost (see last post)....

During the 1990's (and a couple of times since), I would periodically visit the Mississippi Delta to chase down the blues and visit some of the holy sites of the music. I’m not talking about the mouth of the Mississippi in Louisiana, but the narrow triangle of land between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers that Mississippians call the Delta. This region is indeed an inland delta, and flooded every year until the system of flood control levees was built. The Delta was pretty much wilderness until after the Civil War, when a few intrepid settlers discovered that it had the best topsoil for growing cotton in the country. The planters cleared tracts for huge plantations, and since cotton was, before mechanization, a highly labor-intensive crop, the black Americans who were now nominally citizens flocked to the area to find work and a living. Many of them, or their descendants, would come to regret this move. For about a hundred years, the Delta had a black majority, but the white minority ruled with a pretty brutal iron fist. The sharecropping system kept the laborers subjugated, in debt and unable to leave the plantations. It’s no wonder that, around the turn of the twentieth century, the blues first developed there.*

Even to a native Southerner, the Delta seems strange and a little foreign. In the winter, when I first visited, the sky is low and oppressive; in the summer, it seems infinite – since the land is almost completely flat and there aren’t many trees, it seems as if you can see forever. Even though the vegetation is lush in the summer, the Delta has a strangely desolate feel, not helped by the fact that most of the small towns in the region have been largely deserted by businesses. By the time I first visited, the Delta had left behind its past as the most racist place in America to the extent that the white and black citizens had realized that they have to live together. And they do, for the most part, in a kind of polite, uneasy truce. Except for the urban homelessness I see in Atlanta, I have never seen the kind of shocking poverty I’ve seen in the Delta anywhere else in America. In the nineties, and I imagine still, there were/are people living without electricity and running water.

The blues are still in the air in the Delta; the blues are still played on AM radio as popular music, and the music is still played for dancers in juke joints, along with later styles of African-American popular music. And for a blues lover like me, holy sites abound. I have visited the graves of Charley Patton, Robert Johnson (all three of them!)**, and Sonny Boy Williamson. I have visited Dockery Plantation (ground zero for the blues if anywhere is) and stood in the remains of Muddy Waters cabin on Stovall Plantation.*** I've stood where the Southern crosses the Dog**** and stood on the platform at the depot in Tutwiler, where W.C. Handy first heard the blues. And I've heard some great Mississippi bluesmen, many of whom are now gone, like Lonnie Pitchford, Jack Owens, Eugene Powell (who recorded in the 1930’s as Sonny Boy Nelson), Wade Walton, Othar Turner, and on one amazing evening, Frank Frost.

Although he appeared briefly in the movie Crossroads, Frank Frost (1936-1999) was never famous, except to hard-core blues aficionados and Delta juke joint patrons. An accomplished blues singer, guitarist, keyboard and harp player, he never left the Delta for any length of time. Along with guitarist/bassist Big Jack Johnson and drummer Sam Carr, he was a member of the long-lived juke joint trio The Jelly Roll Kings, who were originally Frank Frost and the Nighthawks. During 25 years of barnstorming the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta areas, they managed to record three albums; the last one, from which the lyrics in my last post were taken, was recorded shortly before Frost’s death.

In the late 1990’s, I was at a Sunflower River Blues Festival performance by Greenville, Mississippi harmonica player Willie Foster; in the backing band were Sam Carr and Frank Frost. Frost seemed old and tired; he hunched over his organ and pecked out chords in a somewhat detached manner. Foster started urging him to come up and sing a feature number; he refused at first, but finally was persuaded. He pulled a harmonica out of his pocket as he shuffled***** to the front of the stage, counted off a tempo, and was instantly transformed as he sang and played one of his signature songs, “Midnight Prowler.” For five minutes, he WAS the Midnight Prowler - he stalked around the stage as he played and sang like a man possessed. Then the song ended, and he became Frank Frost again - old, tired, and damaged by alcohol. He took his place behind the keyboard and spent the rest of the set hunched over and uninvolved. It was an amazing and moving moment.

*A case can be made for the blues originating in Texas and spreading first to Mississippi, instead of vice versa. It's six of one/half a dozen of another: both places were brutally racist.

**He was a black man with a common name who died in Mississippi in the thirties; it's no wonder that we don't know exactly where he was buried. Three cemeteries have claims to his "official" final resting place.

***One of the delicious ironies of the Delta blues is that Howard Stovall III, the grandson of Muddy's employer, plays keyboard with Arthneice Jones' Stone Gas Band, an otherwise all-black blues band. The irony is not lost on Howard III, as he has made clear.

****The Southern Railroad once crossed the Yazoo Delta (Yellow Dog) line in Moorhead, Mississippi, as celebrated in "Yellow Dog Blues."

*****I'm aware of the racist implications of this verb, but there is no other way to describe Frost's gait.

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