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.