Thursday, May 23, 2013

Mississippi Delta Road Trip
Part 2

Day 6, Km 2750 to 3387 Central Delta A Full Day in search of Robert Johnson.

But not ONLY Robert Johnson, that wouldn't be right. We decide to pass altogether on Greenville MS, one of the larger cities in the delta. I'm enjoying the small places way too much to spend time lost on city streets.

The only thing of value we found in Cleveland MS, also a fair sized town, was this marker commemorating the concert WC Handy performed in 1905. His band was shown up by some plantation players, likely people from nearby Dockery Farms. Who they were is lost to history, it's too early to have been any of our holy trinity of Patton-House-Johnson. There is a very good chance the band included Patton's mentor, Henry Sloan.  The Tutwiler train station introduced him to the blues, this concert showed him it was a popular music that moved people.

"Look-a here the water now, Lordy,
Levee broke, rose most everywhere
The water at Greenville and Leland,
Lord, it done rose everywhere
Boy, you can't never stay here
I would go down to Rosedale
but they tell me there's water there" 

Charley Patton, High Water Everywhere Part 1

When we started this trip we though we`d be hitting the big cities to find the real blues material. That`s not the case. Clarksdale stole the thunder but the truth lies in the small towns or non-existent towns. Greenville couldn't entice me  (though it was a central part of the post-innovators era, the electric '40's and '50's), so after a one-trick-pony in Cleveland we start our days trek in Leland. We are at the Highway 61 Blues museum where Pete Thomas, son of "Son Ford" Thomas is playing live while we peruse the exhibits.

We check out the local wall murals featuring B B King and others before we head off to  Holly Ridge MS to locate Charlie Patton's grave.

If you come here pay no heed to the barking dog. As he came flying out of the house across the street I asked him: "What's that Lassie? Charley's buried in the mud, near the back?"

Next stop, Indianola, ostensibly to visit the BB King Museum but we decide to pass. Instead we get a terrific meal at the Gin Mill Gallery and Restaurant where the owner regales us with some stories of life in the Delta. Great food to boot.

On our way out of here we happen upon our favourite find of the trip. At 350 Heathman in Indianola, stands the property that Charley Patton died in, the main house for the Heathman-Dedham Plantation. No marker here.

"Oh, you easy rider's got to stay away  
She had to vamp it but the hike ain't far 
He's gone where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog 

W C Handy, Yellow Dog Blues

We are of to Moorhead, where the Southern Crosses the Yellow Dog. This is the refrain that W C Handy heard a blues musician playing at the Tutwiler train station in 1903. Combined with the one other event in WC`s life that we just visited in Cleveland, it may have been the nexus of the blues as a popular art form in America.

"You may bury my body
Down by the highway side
(Spoken:) Baby, I don't care where you bury my body when I'm dead and gone
You may bury my body, woooo
Down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit
Can get a Greyhound bus and ride "

Robert Johnson Me and the Devil Blues

Robert Johnson's life reminds me of a maxim that Toronto Troubadour Corin Raymond is fond of repeating: "Be careful what you sing, it might come true."
Not only was RJ likely buried by the highway side...he's definitely roamin' still because there's no less than 3 purported locations.

Today we are on the trail of the hellhound. There will be no photo reproductions of Robert Johnson here so Steve LaVere doesn't get his panties in a knot. He doesn't own the rights to the grave markers, so those we'll see.

Here is my Robert Johnson primer for you, short version. If you're a novice it might help you appreciate him. If you're an expert you can scroll down a bit.

Virtually everything that is known about RJ's biographical details can be found in Peter Guralnick's Searching for Robert Johnson. The one exception; the name of the person who killed him. Mack McCormick knows but he's not telling.

The music. 29 songs. 42 sides. You can find all but one of these on the Columbia discs, Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, released in 1990. It's now incomplete as another version of  Travelin' Riverside Blues has appeared but don't let that stop you from ordering this set. I've had it 23 years and only recently found out how to appreciate every note. You can do it too.

Here's how it is:  he's got a bindle full of traditional 12-bar blues with the familiar AAB rhyme scheme. Some songs don't strictly fit the bill but you could write a book on the notes and chord changes in those 42 sides. A lot of these songs may already be familiar to you; Love in Vain covered by The Rolling Stones, Cross Road Blues covered by Eric Clapton, Sweet Home Chicago, geographically corrected by Roosevelt Sykes and covered by a legion of artists, Dust My Broom covered, modified and perfected  by Arthur "Big Boy" Cruddup, Robert Lockwood Jr and Elmore James, and Come On In My Kitchen, a late-comer to the cover derby and a little less well known. It diverges from the strict 12-bar formula but found fans in Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton and Patti Smith after it's 1960 release.  Terraplane Blues, Dead Shrimp Blues and Phonograph Blues, not so familiar, are three fine examples of the double-entendre blues, a whole sub-genre.  Me and the Devil Blues, the closest RJ comes to telling us about any devil dealings, has been covered by Canada's own Cowboy Junkies and the late, great, Gil Scott-Heron .

The songs above would have made Robert Johnson the well-spring from which the '60's rock revolution evolved, all by themselves. There is not much that has been done in rock that can't be found in those tunes. But there's more. 3 monster songs, already fully developed rock and roll. 4 unique tunes that might shed some light on the diversity of RJ's musical repertoire. And 1 transcendental, untouchable masterpiece.

If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day, Stop Breaking Down, and Stones In My Passway are way beyond the constrictions (if you can call it that) of Delta Blues. If RJ had lived to move north you could see how he would have owned the electric blues.

(They're Red Hot) Hot Tamales, is jumpin' blues at it's best. This song is being kept alive, in a different genre, rockabilly, by Robert Gordon in his set ending Red Hot. All fun blues. Last Fair Deal Gone Down starts out at a leisurely pace but builds to a rapid 200 beats per minute by the end. His cover of Son House's Walkin' Blues is either a terrific imitation of House or a heart-felt homage.

If you're still thinking that Robert Johnson sounds a little primitive, one-dimensional, if you're mind is stopping your ears from working, then maybe you'd like to listen to a Bing Crosby imitation. Say what?!? These itinerant artists we're tracking didn't make their nickels and dimes by playing only original tracks. Depending on where you were, who was attending the house-party, fish fry or wedding you were playing, the audience wanted to hear something they knew. While we don't have recordings it's unlikely any of them would have faired well without the odd tin pan alley song in their playlist. From Four Till Late is unlike anything in RJ's catalogue. Crooning at it's best...given the available technology.

Hellhound On My Trail, cover the kids ears. Everything that has come before was to prepare you to hear this song. If it doesn't hit you, go back to the start and try again. There is a reward waiting.

The best way to listen to Robert Johnson is with headphones and a lyric sheet. You have to acquire an ear for the vocals, some are difficult to discern. With the lyrics in front of you it gives your brain some space to listen to the music.

The Search for Robert Johnson Documentary on youtube

That's the end of the lesson.I'm heavy loaded baby, I'm booked, I gotta go.

The Complete Robert Johnson on youtube can be found at this link. You can open another window to search for lyrics.

Robert Johnson Gravesite #1, near (NOT IN) Morgan City.

Behind the Mount Zion Church. Just a bit northeast on Highway 7. You have to know where you are going because it's hidden from the highway by a grove of trees. So we drove right by it, all the way to Quito, our second scheduled stop, and circle back.

This is the location that Columbia picked to place their obelisk honouring RJ. It's the least likely place that he would have been buried but how were they to know?

Farther up Highway 7 is Quito (not Kee-toe but Kwee-toe) and the Payne Chapel where a rather nondescript marker leads us to Robert Johnson Gravesite # 2. A quick left off of Highway 7 leads you to it. This one actually looks real, not ostentatious but also not likely the place he was laid to rest.

We take a little time off of the trail to located the Tallahatchie Bridge where Billy Joe McAlister tossed his illegitimate child, in the Bobby Gentry classic, Ode to Billy Joe.

It's not easy finding things in Mississippi. You need your maps, you need your GPS but mostly you're better off just bringing Cece as your navigator.  Mississippi is helping me though. If you get lost they got these red signs that say WRONG WAY.
How they know where I'm going I have no idea but it's helpful.

Outside Robert Johnson Gravesite #3 I chat with a young couple who are getting married at this church. Mom is showing them the stone. I share a story with the family about Robert's sad marriage. He was a young man who thought working the fields to provide for his family was the right thing to do and wasn't present when his teen-age bride died in childbirth while he was away from home. His son also died. Some say he was off playin' and drinkin' but a census record from this time shows him listed with the occupation farmer.  Others believe it was his despondency over this cruel twist of fate that lead to him committing to a life of drink, women and song. Always a silver lining. It was the only appropriate story I could think of.

It's their contention he's likely not even buried here. Thing is, dead black itinerant singers in the '30's weren't high up on the respect list. It's most likely he was buried in another unmarked location, but this will have to do unless they start digging up these plots.

An unexpected bonus comes our way when we happen upon Bryant's Grocery.

This is the convenience store where a young Chicago lad visiting the Delta stopped to by some candy in August of 1955. The proprietor, Mrs Bryant, told her husband that the black boy got fresh with her. He and his friends ran out to round up Emmett Till, they tortured and beat him to death, dumping his body into the Tallahatchie River. Emmett's mom insisted on an open casket funeral in Chicago. Those pictures launched the Civil Rights movement with a vengence.

Day 7, Km 3387 to 3501 North  Delta/Helena AR

Today is almost a free day. We use it to hit some things we saw and missed earlier. A quick trip back to Tunica, breakfast at the Blue and White Cafe on Highway 61 then a stop at the Tunica Museum...where there's not much to see on the music front but some interesting material on the general history of the area.

For reasons beyond comprehension we find ourselves back in Lula MS. I mean it only has three blocks in it. We missed the blues marker the last two times through.

We cross the bridge into West Helena Arkansas, veer left and head towards Marvel MS, the hometown of Levon Helm. Absolutely nothing here to commemorate his existence. What a shame. We do get to listen to the King Biscuit Boy (half) Hour as we drive around the Arkansas Delta.

In West Helena we take a walk along the levee, overlooking the Big Muddy, and find a wall mural featuring Sonny Boy II and Levon Helm.

Spend a little time in the Delta Cultural Center not really learning anything new but seeing some artifacts of the past. Across the street is the gift shop where I drop a quick bill on memorabilia. I'm a long way from home, I'm not going to get a chance to buy these things everyday. Books, shirts and postcards with Robert Johnson's likeness. The best buy : empty bags of Sonny Boy Meal, a product the King Biscuit company put out after the success of the radio show. We were going to buy this product in a grocery store and dump out the food part but these guys were way ahead of us.

Back in Clarksdale for a visit to the Delta Blues Museum. It's worth a look, as they have a good deal of unique artifacts, including a scaled down version of Muddy Waters shack, with wood preserved from the original. No photos allowed, which is strange because they bemoan the fact that Steve LaVere won't allow them to sell photo likenesses of Robert Johnson and they don't speak to highly of him because of that, yet they cling to what they have and want to make sure you pay your $7.00 to take a gander instead of seeing it for free on this blog.  Everybody's protecting something. It is worth a visit.

Also stopped briefly at the Rock N Roll Museum which is much friendlier, both the proprietors and the guests.Chatted up two young ladies from Michigan in the Delta to do interviews for a university paper. Also met a young man from Holland. They dig our old blues even more than we do.

Dinner at the Ground Zero Blues Club then up Stovall Rd to find the marker where Muddy Waters home once stood. We get a photo of the iron gates where Alan Lomax stood to inquire about the singers on this plantation back in 1941.

The actual house is nowhere to be found as a scaled down replica of it has been reassembled at the Delta Blues Museum.

A restful evening back at our shack, sitting on the screened in porch listening to the blues artist playing at the commissary across the lawn. I've befriended one of the commissary cats who spends it's evening on my lap. Well not the whole evening, he did take a few minutes out to climb the screen porch door to root out a bird egg from the nest in the ceiling of our porch. Not a pretty site but nature does what nature does. I spend the rest of the evening trying to keep him away from a late night snack. Oh, and 100 Proof vodka which can sneak up on you if you're not careful. Ask Cece.

Day 8, Km 3501 to 3989 Clarksdale MS, via Vicksburg to Kosciusko, MS along the Natchez Trace

Just a couple of things to take care of before we head south to Vickburg. Rather than tear down Highway 61we are back on the smaller 49, through the Blues epicenter Tutwiler for the 5th time, on to a couple hamlets where our heroes lit, back in the day.

First stop, Belzoni, the Catfish Capital of the World.

Charlie Patton had a link to Belzoni, he told the story in High Sheriff Blues.

A quick circle through the stomping grounds of one of founders of The Mississippi Sheiks, Hollandale MS.
You might recognize RJ's Come On In My Kitchen melody in their Sittin' On Top of the World.

Then we are on to Rolling Fork, birthplace of Muddy Waters.

Here they have a replica of a sharecroppers shack. This one has all the tricks. On the left, the bottle tree. It's an African-America cultural icon used to ward off bad spirits, they would get caught in the bottles, not unlike our indigenous Dream Catchers. You'll see these all over the South, I'm told.

On the right side of the door a primitive diddley bow. This was the first instrument many of our heroes would have started trying to master. A plank of wood with two frets (a coke bottle and no top fret on this one.) They would play it like a slide, using a bottle neck or knife. I studied the complex design and think I can make one of my own. The lower fret will be a brick from the Abbay and Leatherman Plantation where Robert Johnson grew up and the upper fret will be a piece of wood from the rail ties on the old Yellow Dog line where it used to meet the Southern.

That's (almost) it for the blues part of the trip, time to hitch up our wagon and make our way up the Trace.

Vicksburg is a steeeeeeeeep city. Think Quebec, or San Francisco on acid. After almost burning out my clutch trying to pull a U-turn into a parking spot we settle for lunch at Monseurs. Don't start me talking about how they pronounce French words in the southern states. Food was good. View of the harbour was lovely.

On the Vicksburg Military Park, the side that lost the War of Northern Aggression. Your driving trail starts in along the Union lines. Lovely views of the hilly terrain. Historical markers telling you the location of entrenchments and headquarters. No sign of the Rebels here, safe spot for Grant.

As you circle around you learn of futile battles fought in the hills and dales, mostly in May of 1863. A slaughter that eventually led to the Union pulling back in favour of a siege. You come onto the Confederate lines, separated by a large valley and a good distance of a 1/4 miles from the Union guys.
Then then trail narrows until the two encampments are separated by less than 15 yards. More slaughter ensues. That's what war is about.

"Oh, Mississippi
Show your hand, I'll
Read your fortune and your fate
Oh, Mississippi
I'll trace your lifeline
Along the Natchez Trace" Pierce Pettis

We hop on the Trace about 1/4 the way through it's length at Clinton MS. Lovely drive, slower speeds, winding roads, much easier on the psyche than the Interstates. Historic markers along the way mark the boundary of the Choctaw nation and the development of alternate roads home from the mouth of the Mississippi. At mile marker 122 there is a nature walk through a Cyprus swamp.

Bring your hip waders.

The only wildlife we came across were two squirrels in a territorial battle. They can make a lot of noise though and when you're on the lookout for bears their scurrying around behind you can get your heart rate up a bit.

Halfway up the Trace we disembark for a night's rest.
The sprawling metropolis of Kosciusko MS was the birthplace of Oprah Winfrey and, more to the point, harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite. It's also dry, so stay out on the highway.

We are also, fittingly, close to Goodman MS, birthplace of John Lomax. He moved away to Texas as a young boy and the miles vs the chance they have anything to honour him finds us bunking down for the night.

Day 9, Km 3989 to 4799  Koscuisko MS, via the Natchez Trace to Elizabethtown KY

rain,traffic and getting lost outside nashville...deer, turtles and turkeys

Day 10, Km 4799 to 5345 (Funky Cold) Medina OH

Not as much distance as we could have made today but I always tire near the end of these trips so I planned a couple periods of downtime to rest up.

Our first stop is in Lexington KY to visit a couple friends who are learning to adjust to the presence of their almost two year old daughter. In the late afternoon we stop in Columbus OH to visit with other friends who are adjusting to being grandparents.

Day 11, Km 5345 to 6017 Home

Today we have one more stop to visit friends living just south of Buffalo, NY. When Cece and I started travelling to see Dylan shows back in 2001, we made friends all over America and many parts of Europe. We try never to miss an opportunity to say hello when time and circumstance allow.

Though it may be a little hard to believe at this point, a lot happened on this trip that didn't make it into this travelogue. Pics of the Mississippi sunset from the Tunica Queen, the shenanigans onboard, the Blue and White restaurant on Highway 61 or the old Tunica Museum, Conway Twitty's hometown was also Friar's Point, Archie Manning came from Drew MS, a couple great eateries and a few stops that came to nothing. I bypassed almost all the electric blues artists from post- WWII. Even stopped in Johnny Winters hometown, he was the headliner at the second concert I saw live back in 1973. Which is to say the road is filled with more things than you can take in, but keep your eyes open, there's always a reason to go back.

Through the years, two things always suck;  gravity and heading home.

On the upside I've learned if I leave for work at the regular time on Thursday morning, head in the OPPOSITE direction, I can be at the Crossroads by lunch time on Friday. Perhaps not good news for Cece.

No comments: