Nothing comes from nowhere.
Charlie planted the seed.
Charley Patton Pony Blues c.1930
Baby, saddle my pony, saddle up my black mare
Baby, saddle my pony, saddle up my black mare
I'm gonna find a rider, baby, in the world somewhere
"Hello central, the matter with your line?"
"Hello central, matter, Lord, with your line?"
"Come a storm last night an' tore the wire down"
Got a brand new Shetland, man, already trained
Brand new Shetland, baby, already trained
Just get in the saddle, tighten up on your reins
And a brownskin woman like somethin' fit to eat
Brownskin woman like somethin' fit to eat
But a jet black woman, don't put your hands on me
Took my baby, to meet the mornin' train
Took baby, meet that mornin' train
An' the blues come down, baby, like showers of rain
I got somethin' to tell you when I gets a chance
Somethin' to tell you when I get a chance
I don't wanna marry, just wanna be your man
Then he fertilized it.
Charlie Patton Stone Pony Blues c 1934
I got me a stone pony and I don't ride Shetlands no more ,
I got me a stone pony and I don't ride Shetlands no more ,
You can find my stone pony hooked to my rider's door .
Vicksburg's my pony, Rayville's my grey mare.
Vicksburg's my pony, Rayville's my grey mare.
You can find my stone pony down in Louisiana town somewhere
And I got me stone pony, don't ride Shetlands no more.
Got a little stone pony, don't ride Shetlands no more.
And I can't feel welcome, rider where I go .
Vicksburg on a high hill and Natchez just below.
Vicksburg on a high hill and Natchez just below.
And I don't feel welcome, rider no where I go .
Well, I didn't come here, steal nobody's brown.
Didn't come here to steal nobody's brown.
I just stopped by here, well to keep you from stealin' mine.
Hello central, s'matter with your line.
Hello central, s'matter now with your line.
Come a storm last night and tore the wire down.
While those two songs laid the ground work for Pony songs, it was Cruddup Dylan seized on to shape his version.Cruddup's perhaps better known for penning That's Alright Mama and My Baby Left Me.
Arthur "Big Boy" Cruddup Black Pony Blues c.1941
I got a coal‑black mare :
but Lord how that horse can run
Yes she win every race :
man you don't see how it's done
I give her three gold teeth :
I put earings in her ears
There ain't no use a‑worrying :
I do swear the stuff is here
I cut her mane :
I put streamline shoes on her feet
Ain't a horse in the country :
I do swear my horse can't beat
Say she foxtrot and pace :
and I rode that horse today
Yeah when morning comes :
she had never broke her gait
She going to the race track at midnight :
and I rode her all night long
Yeah when morning come :
she had never changed her weight
She's a coal‑black mare :
she's got long black curly mane
Well I'll follow that horse :
man in any land
Bob Dylan New Pony
I had a pony, her name was Lucifer
I had a pony, her name was Lucifer
She broke a leg and needed shooting
I swear it hurt me more than it could ever have hurted her.
Sometimes I wonder what's going on with Miss X
Sometimes I wonder what's going on with Miss X
You know she got such a sweet disposition
I never know what the poor girl's gonna do to me next.
I got a new pony, she knows how to fox-trot, lope and pace
Well, I got a new pony, she knows how to fox-trot lope and pace
She got great big hind legs
And long black shaggy hair hanging in her face.
Everybody say you're using voodoo, your feet walk by themselves
Well, everybody say you're using voodoo, I seen your feet walk by themselves
Oh baby, that god you been praying to
Is gonna give ya back what you're wishing on someone else.
Come over here pony, I wanna climb up one time on you
Well, come over here pony, I wanna climb up one time on you
Well, you're so nasty and you're so bad
But I swear I love you, yes I do
Dead Weather(w/ Jack White) New Pony
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Monday, May 27, 2013
Nothing comes out of nowhere.
This 1941 recording for Lomax's project is almost a medley of the best of Son House. It includes couplets from My Black Mama Blues (Death Letter) and a few other tunes. Support from his good friend (and RJ's, who name checks him in Cross Road Blues) Willie Brown on guitar. Joe Martin and Leroy Williams on fiddle and harp.
This song has most of House's affectations, the moanin' and howlin', the jivin'. It's a little light on his trademark slide riff that is the heart and soul of Death Letter, but it's there.
Now Son moved around and he likely scored some of these couplets along the way. That's alright, mama, 'cause we're looking at where these went, not where they came from.
Robert Johnson paid homage to Son House in this cover of Walkin' Blues where RJ shows his ability to mimic, or interpret, what he heard around him. This is knee-slapping good. Robert nails the diction, the guitar riffs, it's unbelievable. This version is pretty well a straight cover of House's June 1930 Grafton recording for Paramount (the Charlie Patton sessions). Robert wasn't around to hear the more developed '41 version.
Muddy Waters was right there, near Robinsonville at the Stovall Plantation when House was King of this Part of the Delta.
Here's his not too subtle homage. The song is called Country Blues but I think you'll recognize the sound, the melody and most lyrics. He also has that riff down cold.
Now here's House sounding a little more like himself. 1930 version of My Black Mama, which became Death Letter Blues in the '60's.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
Show your hand, I'll
Read your fortune and your fate
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.
Monday, May 20, 2013
Day 1, Thursday May 9, 2013 Km 0 to 869 Toronto to Carrollton KY.
Leaving all the anticipatory anxiety behind, it's time to hit the road.
Eat,Drive,Drink, not starring Julia Roberts.
Today it's about making the miles, or kilometers go by.Our goal today was to cover 800kms, over half the distance to our target in MS.
We stop in Carrollton KY 869 kilometers from home.
Beautifully uneventful day.
No border issues, no traffic issues.
Day 2, Friday May 10, 2013 Km 869 to 1800 Carrollton, KY to Clarksdale MS.
"Some day I will return, with the marriage license in my hand
Some day I will return, hoohoo, with a marriage license in my hand
I'm gon' take you for a honeymoon, in some long, long distant land"
Robert Johnson, Honeymoon Blues
It's our 34th anniversary and look what I got Cece doing, going to some long, long distant land.
I just tell her: "The stuff I got'll bust your brains out, baby, it'll make you lose your mind."
We're on the back roads, headin' south.
I've been exposed to the results of the blues revival in the early '60's that lead to an explosion of rock n roll my entire life. For a good part of it I had no idea about the history behind the chords. Those 12 bars were all over the music we were hearing; The Stones, Yardbirds, Animals, Janis, Jimi. And the crossover greats; Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner...that list goes on. Bob Dylan built his whole career around stuff he stole from the artists of the 20's and 30's. He didn't hide from it, he put out an album called Highway 61 Revisited. In fact, in 1962 when Bob played the Finjan Club in Montreal he may have been the first major-label white artist to cover Robert Johnson when he performed Ramblin' on My Mind.
At some point, 30 years ago, I tried to find my way in via the first collection of Robert Johnson songs, the original 29. I didn't get it, except for the cover of the Jagger/Richards tune, Love In Vain.(sic) (Mick and Keith also put their name behind Stop Breaking Down on Exile on Main Street, shameless money-grubbers that they were. When the rights to these songs reverted to the Johnson heirs and their agent, with the blessing of John Hammond at Columbia Records, Eric Clapton gladly paid all royalties due...The Stones, they fought it. But I digress.) I didn't think too much about my attempt to open up to the blues. Circa 1990 with the release of the Complete Robert Johnson I took another shot. Still didn't stick, though I did come to love the hypnotic Come On In My Kitchen and Hot Tamales (They're Red Hot) ,which didn't sound like RJ at all.
Flash-forward to 2001. Just on the periphery of the music scene I catch sight of a new musical phenomena breaking out of Detroit City.
It's this photo that inspired me to invest some time listening to the original masters. Dylan's 2001 homage to Charley Patton, Highwater, and the Bootleg Series release of the song Blind Willie McTell, were events that converged with the emergence of The White Stripes to make the time ripe for some investigation. McTell's not a Delta Bluesman and we won't be hearing much of him the rest of this trip but The White Stripes opened a door through him. (We'll do Ma Rainey, Blind Willie and the Georgia blues artists on another trip. It's not likely anything will convince us to visit East Texas though.) Jack's Stop Breaking Down and If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day, opened new doors to Robert Johnson. We'll get to Son House later.
That's why we start our trek outside Jack White's Third Man Records store and studio in Nashville TN.
Jack has just released a series of vinyl records with the complete recordings of Charley Patton, The Mississippi Sheiks and Blind Willie McTell. I'm in a buying mood. Find myself the Vol 2 Patton disc and a few 45's, including Tom Jones. Unfortunately the Blind Willie McTell, Patton Vol 1 and Mississippi Sheiks were sold out. A t-shirt and a couple other items and I leave only $100 lighter.
After knocking off only one thing on our 'to do' list we are already off script as we spy a sign that will lead us into Loretta Lynn's Dude Ranch. So we go there. A mile down the road we see this sign. Sonny Boy Williamson I wasn't on our list either but we pass a Mississippi State Historical marker (NOT a Blues marker, his honour precedes that project) detailing where his grave is located. We've been down this road before, well, not THIS road, but we've gotten lost looking for things we didn't know the exact location of. In this state "5 miles southwest" is vague.
We planned to bed down for the night in Holly Springs, MS. Hometown of R L Burnside, a solid link to the Delta in this gentleman. It's also the town where Ulysses S Grant wintered before the siege of Vicksburg...which we'll get to later. Also home to Mel & Tim, one-hit cross-over STAX recording artists who placed # 3 on the CHUM Charts (Top 30) in 1969 with Backfield in Motion
Thing is we were making such good time we flew right through the town. Stopped at Aikei Pro's Records Shop and chatted with Mr. Caldwell. That's not me chatting in this clip, just a chance to hear the old man speak and take a look inside his cluttered magical kingdom. If you think you can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant it's only because you haven't been here. Mr. Caldwell renamed himself Aikei Pro in 1952 when he arrived here from Germany. Why is unknown. When I asked if he sold diddley bows he thought I was inquiring about Bo Diddley. Almost.
Strange shop for sure. A little tough to find, even though it's very close to the town square. Just look for 20 old black guys sitting outside chatting....oh, and a couple hundred bicycles.
We keep on moving. Now this is bad news for Cece because I just discovered that if I think about going to Mississippi by mid-day Thursday, I can be there by dinner time on Friday. It hasn't been 30 hours since we left home and we are already in full 'road trip' mode. Taking Hwy 6 West through Marks and Batesville we drive straight into Clarksdale, past the misplaced crossroads sign onto Sunflower Ave where we stop at the Riverside Hotel, formerly the G T Thomas Afro-American Hospital.
It was here Bessie Smith died after a horrific accident 10 miles north on Hwy 61. Lots of misinformation around this, due mostly to John Hammond and Alan Lomax who felt they had to embellish the story for northern audiences by passing on an erroneous rumour that Bessie was turned away at the white hospital and that's WHY she died. Nowhere near the truth even though Lomax continued to make this claim as late at the 1990's. No ambulance attendant would have brought Bessie Smith to the white hospital. No way, not ever in 1930's Mississippi.. The doctor who tended to her said she could not have survived the crash in any case. Here arm was nearly severed and she had sustained massive internal injuries. It wasn't about the time it took to get her to a doctor that could (or would) treat her, it was a done deal at the moment of the crash, even though she was still alive when she reached the hospital.
Click on this link for more details of that crash. It's a wild story.
A little farther north on Sunflower you will come across Red's Blues Club, an active juke joint...some nights.
You best look for LaVene Music Center though, it would be just too easy for it to be called Red's.
We get a room in Clarksdale for the night. We've slayed a lot of miles in a short period, time to rest up for the busy part.
News reports are giving us flash flood warnings. Hmmmm, high water anyone?
Day 3, Saturday May 11,2013 Km 1800 to 1986 Clarksdale to Robinsonville.
The day starts in Clarksdale. There's a street music fest going on, so it's busy. The goal this morning is to hit Cats Head, roam the streets a bit and find a few blues markers. At Cats Head, a Delta souvenir shop, we find a copy of Jack's production of The Mississippi Sheiks (Vol2) and Blind Willie McTell (Vol2). This is a 'must visit' place when you are here. They have a ton of interesting material. On the street we are treated to a set of music by Robert Belfour, one on the few remaining artists with a tie to the distant past.
Here's a link to an online concert from NPR.
We check into the Tunica Resorts because it's really inexpensive on the weekends, especially Sundays, if you're ever by this way. One down-side, no wifi in the room. They don't want you hanging around. We don't. A dinner cruise on the Mississippi sounds like a good idea, a night without driving an even better idea. We've had trouble getting good food so far but we've been mostly on the interstates. This was a treat.
House and Willie Brown often found a young Robert Johnson at their feet when playing the area. Robert was living at the nearby Abbay and Leatherman Plantation during his teen years. To hear Son House tell the story Robert's talents were a little meager in the early years. RJ would take to the stage to play guitar between sets, when allowed, House and Brown would try to convince him to play his harp instead, so he would scare the clientele away.
I managed to retrieve a piece of brick from this building, it will be on a shelf in my re-decorated computer room, the Blues Room. Or perhaps a fret on the diddley bow I build.
It was in nearby Banks MS where RJ first reappeared after his 'crossroads' moment to dazzle House. There's not much left standing in Banks. It's just a single side road now, now sharecroppers shacks on the outskirts. Only 1 building on that road so I vote for this as the spot where RJ revealed his supernatural skills.
More on Son House later. Much more on Robert Johnson. Tomorrow we go a bit off script but we'll still sneak in some blues.
Day 4, Km 1986 to 2287 Memphis, TN
In Memphis we start the day with a hearty breakfast at Automatic Slim's across from the Peabody.
Everyday at 11 am and 5 pm the Peabody Hotel has a duck-walk. A tradition that goes back to a drunken hunting party (always a good idea) back in the '30's. Interesting fact...the restaurant here may be the only French restaurant on Earth that doesn't serve duck. We just chalk this one up to "things you don't see everyday"...unless of course you work at the Peabody Memphis. Quite the spectacle, a whole classroom of kids sitting by the red carpet waiting for the elevator to open. Out rush the 5 ducks, 4 female and 1 male. They sprint along the carpet and into the world famous marble fountain. At this point the kids all congregate around the fountain to watch the Drake mount one of his concubines. Never know when you're going to learn something.
We watched St Louis Blues before we embarked on our trip. The movie stars Nat King Cole playing the part of W C Handy. (His 1912 publication of Memphis Blues is the earliest notated reference to blues music, maybe the beginning of the gestation.) I highly recommend the movie if you want to get a general sense of the time and a sense of the generational conflict. (Also in the movie; Eartha Kitt, Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, Mahalia Jackson, Ruby Dee, Ella Fitzgerald and a 10-year old Billy Preston! I guess it DOES go around in circles.) The W C Handy House is on Beale St., near a 'performing park', so the spirit lives on.
Beale St, in the daytime, doesn't have much to offer. It's about a 1km stretch of bars and souvenir shops.
At night I'm sure it's something different. Mostly dangerous if you go by the Police Station and all the signs saying NO LOITERING AFTER 3 am!
A Schwab's was open though. Under new management it only recently began opening on Sundays. I was looking to buy a diddley bow but hadn't come across one for sale. In Clarksdale I was attracted to a hand-made cigar box guitar but the $250 price tag caused me to think on it some. At Schwab's the price was $300. I passed. Did pick up a bag full of t-shirts and other trinkets.
It was a few doors up at B B King's Company store where I bought my first guitar.
Last time I was in Memphis I failed to make my way over to the Lorraine Hotel where James Earl Ray sucked the life out of the Civil Rights movement with his cowardly shot at Martin Luther King Jr from a safe distance away. It's moving, standing at that balcony. What we lost that April 4th can't be measured.
Spent some time talking to the lovely Jacqueline Smith who has been protesting the expansion of the Civil Rights Museum for over 25 years. This lady is no nut-bar, she's righteous. Her problem with this spectacle isn't white people coming down from Canada to look at the motel. She knows it's historic. Her issue comes with spending 27 million dollars at this location to promote tourism while the neighborhood is gentrified and the poor black population that lives here finds their property gobbled up so visitors can have pulled pork sandwiches when they leave the museum. She calls it a 27 million dollar monument to James Earl. She's asking us to boycott the museum. I gotta agree with her. If it wasn't for that one shot NO ONE would be here. Perhaps the money could be better spent helping the poor that MLK stood up for, or this neighborhood, or in the public schools.
Check out her website and her story.
Day 5, Km 2287 to 2750
We're taking Old Hwy 61 into Clarksdale as we have a half day to kill before our room is ready at The Shack Up Inn. It hugs the 4 lane Highway 61 bringing you through Tunica before it veers towards the river at Lula, MS.
First stop is in Walls MS to chase down the final resting place of Memphis Minnie. This lady is an interesting story. A virtuoso guitar player, she used to beat Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters at those smack-downs where artists compete against each other for the applause of the crowd.
Biographers make a big deal of pointing out that Memphis Minnie played mostly in Memphis and adopted that name even though she came from Mississippi. Google Maps, however, shows us that there was a borough in Walls called Village of Memphis. Don't believe everything you read, least of all anything I'm typing.
We stop in Lula to locate the train terminal where Charley Patton and Son House hooked up with Louise Johnson for their trip north to Grafton Wisc,.
Charlie always brought someone along with him when recording for Paramount. The trip with this crew had some drama as Louise, who was Charley's 'other best girl' (ie. not his wife, Bertha Lee) started the trip beside Patton and ended it sharing a room with House. Still they recorded. You do get a sense that there were some issues when you listen to Charlie and Son caterwalling during Louise's recording of All Night Long Blues.
Stopped by the well at the base of the Lula water tower that was immortalized in two of those Grafton session songs; Patton's Dry Well Blues and House's Dry Spell Blues.
This is Charlie Patton wailing about the times.
Here are the lyrics to Patton's rendition, you're going to need them.
Way down in Lula, hard livin' has done hit
Way down in Lula, hard livin' has done hit
Lord, your drought come an' caught us, an' parched up all the tree
Aw, she stays over in Lula, bid that ol' town goodbye
Stays in Lula, bidding you the town goodbye
'Fore I would come to know the day, oh, the Lula well was gone dry
Lord, there're citizens around Lula, aw, was doin' very well
Citizens around Lula, aw, was doin' very well
Now they're in hard luck together, 'cause rain don't pour nowhere
I ain't got no money and I sure ain't got no hope
I ain't got no money and I sure ain't got no hope
??...come in, furnished all the cotton and crops
Boy, they tell me the country, Lord, it'll make you cry
Lord, country, Lord, it'll make you cry
Most anybody, Lord, hasn't any water in the bay
Lord, the Lula womens, Lord, puttin' Lula young mens down
Lula men, oh, puttin' Lula men down
Lord, you outta been there, Lord, the womens all leavin' town
Son House wrote a couple of songs on the subject. If it ain't water, it's the lack of water that causes troubled times down here. Here's Part 2 of Dry Spell Blues.
It's near Lula we find 49 splitting north off from 61 to form a crossroads...not the 'official' one in Clarksdale where the two highways don't intersect, but it is a cross road where roads actually cross.
A quick jog into Friar's Point to take a picture of what is left of Hirsberg's Drugstore. It was out front of this shop that Muddy Waters first saw Robert Johnson play.
They used to sell t-shirts commemorating that event but the store has recently closed.
"Lord, I'm goin' to Rosedale, gon' take my rider by my side
Lord, I'm goin' to Rosedale, gon' take my rider by my side
We can still barrelhouse, baby, 'cause it's on the river side"
Robert Johnson Travelin' Riverside Blues
A great ride down Highway 1, a two lane road that hugs the Mississippi River. The intersections of Hwy #1 and #8 is considered a candidate for the alternate crossroads for Robert Johnson. I vote no...it's a T intersection anyway.
A little farther south, through the town of Beulah, with a little perseverance, you can locate the desolate crossroads used in the movie starring that Karate Kid kid. This is the place that gets my vote for the mythical location. I went to the cross road, I fell down on my knees.
Dockery Farms is my favourite place in the Delta. Home to Charley Patton (on and off) it is, in my mind, the place where blues were born. It's still a working farm but you are allowed to go past the main building to a few out buildings. One of them has a button to push. Push it, you will hear Patton serenading you.
Tutwiler MS is the center of the Delta. All roads lead here. Well, 49 and 3 and 49E and 49W anyway.
This platform is where the rail station once stood. Sitting on a bench here WC Handy heard his first blues singer, a raggedy old man repeating the refrain "where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog". The wall murals depict that moment.
Sonny Boy Williamson II is buried near here.
Using the directions on the wall mural we head out to find the gravesite. JUST KIDDING. You best have better information than the slight details provided on that wall. We did. So we found it.
Driving though Drew we have Howlin`Wolf on the car stereo. Not everything is planned but sometimes things fall in place. The Wolf spent 10 years in this town, honing his skills. I`m still a touch pissed him for his mistreatment of Son House in the 60`s, when I get over that I`ll dig into his life a little bit more.
Here's an 8 minute youtube video with Howlin' defining the blues...and ripping into House.
We drive by Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary where black men were put to the services of the state, working the land. It was easy to get labour. Any black man who failed to walk right, or staggered, ended up with a stint.
Bukka White (Fixin`to Die Blues) and Son House spent some time here. House says it was because he killed a man in Lyon but it's more likely a bootlegging conviction as he spent only two years in jail. Lomax came by to record anyone who held a guitar. You can`t stop near here because it`s still a working prison. (Next to churches, Mississippi has the most prisons per capita of any State.) America`s problem with incarcerating blacks at a high rate has not changed much in 70 years.
Off the Drew-Merigold Road you can find Po' Monkeys Juke Joint...maybe. This is also not as easy as it should be, it requires a little more than you can find on Google. My saving was a blog where someone drew a picture. Even that wasn't perfect as the side road off Hwy 61 is not named, you really have to be on Old 61 to get to the dirt road that leads to this building.
Making our way back to the Shack Up Inn, up Highway 49E, we happen upon Glendora MS, birthplace of Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) and home to the Emmett Till Museum...it's not open. It was at the Glendora Gin Mill that Emmett was tortured and killed , the city is trying to do it's best by his memory. Another unexpected find, with all the planning you do it serves you well to keep your eyes open as you meander these small roads. We're not done with Emmett yet.
If you ever visit this area book ahead at The Shack Up Inn. It's no 5 star but it's exactly what you need to wrap your head around the purpose of your trip. We spent a few lovely evenings listening to the live blues wafting over from the commissary. A perfect companion to a day of driving the backroads.
We had a piano in our room!
It's on the grounds of the world famous Hopson Plantation. It was the success of International Harvesters cotton pickin' machine on this spot, in 1944, that made the need for a large seasonal labour force a thing of the past. So began the great migration north.