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Sunday
May282017

Mississippi Delta, 2017: Part 3 (Indianola to Memphis in the footsteps of B.B. King; bringing it all back to W.C. Handy's Home)

When we left off we were in Moorhead, where "the Southern cross the Dog." We got back on Highway 82, which runs between Greenwood and Greenville—that is, right through the heart of the Delta. We were headed for Indianola, B.B. King's hometown. Our destination: the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, a handsomely appointed, smartly curated museum. It made for a moving visit and a great warmup for Memphis, our last stop.

We start at the beginning. After King's mother's death in 1935, his father moved him out to the edge of the Delta, but in 1938 he hopped on his bicycle and rode back to Indianola. Back to the heart of the Delta. He had people there, and he could work in the cottonfields.

The museum traces the African roots of blues and gospel. You can listen on headphones to recordings demonstrating key concepts of African music, like polyrhythms and syncopation.

Saturday night on Indianola's Church Street, one of the great blues streets of lore, is the stuff of legend! As a youngster, Riley King (the future "B.B.") could peak through the door of the Jones Night Spot and espy the likes of Count Basie and Louis Jordan. The club's owner, John Jones, also opened the historic Club Ebony, just a block or two off Church. This exhibit displays signage and a bar stool from the heyday of Club Ebony, which we'd later visit. (We'd also find the Church Street curb where B.B.'d sit and play for passersby—see below).

Moving through King's life, learning about his origins, gave us a new understanding of what it meant to make it on Memphis' Beale Street. 

Funny story: B.B. arrived in Memphis in 1948 virtually penniless, hoping to work at black-operated WDIA radio with Nat D. Williams, legendary disc jockey, teacher, and host of the famous Amateur Night at Beale Street's Palace Theater (B.B. played it, of course). Arriving at the station, B.B. stood by as the boss told Williams the show had a new sponsor: a "tonic" called Pep-Ti-Kon. Glancing B.B.'s way, the boss said, say, can you write a jingle? By all means, said B.B., and came up with a tune extolling Pep-Ti-Kon's wonders right on the spot. You're hired!, cried the boss. A video installation shows B.B. being interviewed late in life: he was still happy to recall the Pep-Ti-Kon jingle that got him his big break. He sings it for us; it's catchy. (Who knows what was actually in the stuff!)

Wending movingly through the storied life, we find this near the end. 

Finally, we paid our respects at the great man's final resting place, on the museum grounds.

 

We hopped back in the car and made it over to the corner of Church Street and Second Street. This was the curb where B.B. used to sit and play for passersby, when he was too little to get into the clubs. Ah, Church Street: Sonny Boy Williamson II used to jam in its clubs, as did the aforementioned Louis Jordan and Count Basie, not to mention Jay McShann's band featuring Charlie Parker, and many more. Little B.B. noticed he got compliments when he played gospel...but cash tips when he played blues. Blues it is, he decided. From this corner to the greatest concert halls in the world.

"On June 5, 1986, King placed his footprints, handprints, and signature in the sidewalk where he used to sing," writes Steve Cheseborough.

Indianola musician Bobby Whalen made this painting of Lucille.

We found historic Club Ebony over on Hanna Ave. Virtually every year since 1968, B.B. played the annual outdoor Homecoming concert in Indianola in remembrance of Medgar Evers. Afterwards, he'd play a set at Club Ebony, est. 1948. In 2008 B.B. bought it from Mary Shepard, who indeed shephered the club for 34 of its most storied years. We were gladdened to see they still have live blues here.

Back at our traditional Delta homebase, Clarksdale, we had to hit Red's, one of the last of the authentic juke joints. (As a side note, B.B. King was no stranger to Clarksdale. He was known for going live on the air with Early "Soul Man" Wright, one of America's first black deejays, on his pioneering blues programs on Clarksdale's WROX radio).

At Red's, "Ms. Judy" was backing it up as Anthony "Big A" Sherrod played fiery blues. Anybody who's spent an evening at Red's knows the blues is a living music.

It was on to Memphis! In 1935, David Cohn famously wrote that "The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg." Here we were at the end of our tour, back at "the beginning" of the Delta. (As Cheseborough notes, Cohn "was not only defining the Delta's geographic limits, but also contrasting the lifestyles of those who sell cotton and those who work in the fields.")

Cheseborough also notes that the Peabody "has an important place in blues history as a site of field-recording trips by northern records companies in the 1920s and 1930s. The companies would rent a room at a hotel in a southern city, then call for blus singers for auditions and on-the-spot recording sessions." In 1929, the likes of Furry Lewis and Big Joe Williams recorded here.

Sam Phillips and Marion Keisker, whom the world will long remember as the first people to record Elvis Presley, once surpervised musical broadcasts from the Peabody Skyway, where we've spent many a happy evening (see below). 

We headed out to paint the town "blues." A. Schwab Dry Good Store is one of the few remaining original buildings on Beale Street, still going strong after over 130 years. As we'd discover when we dropped in later (see below), it's no ordinary store.

Once again, we were walking in Robert Johnson's footsteps. Did you note the King's Palace Cafe in the image of Beale Street at the B.B. King Museum, above? The Cafe is still there, and we trooped up to its upstairs Absinthe Room, which was once the black-owned Hooks Brothers photography studio. As Steve Cheseborough writes, Robert Johnson is believed to have trod these very boards himself in 1935. It's thought that that great photograph of him in a pinstripe suit on the cover of the 1990 boxed set The Complete Recordings—one of only two known photographs of him—was taken here. 

At the Rum Boogie Cafe's Blues Hall, Karolyn boogied with a new friend while we grooved to a stirring performance by Queen Ann Hines.

Next door, The Rum Boogie Cafe itself which boasts the original sign from Stax studios.

The next day, we visited A. Schwab Dry Goods Store, the last of Beale Street's original businesses, est. 1876. As Cheseborough notes, their slogan was, "If you can't find it at Schwab's, you're better off without it." He also notes the store began selling voodoo supplies because people who bought blues 78s (three for a dollar) were also interested in voodoo. You've heard bluesmen sing about Mojo Hands and John the Conqueror root? Well, at A. Schwab, you can get them. (In New Orleans, we'd learned a lot about the traditional Afro-Caribbean faith of voodoo on a walking tour.) For a fascinating tale, read the "High John the Conqueror Root" display below.

Finally, we made it over to W.C. Handy's Home, moved to Beale Street from its original location 10 blocks south. Handy—ithe first man to write down and publish the blues, which had previoulsy been an oral tradition passed down from singer to singer. He moved to Memphis from Clarksdale in 1905 and lived there until 1918, when he moved to New York. We'd begun our explorations of the Delta by walking in his footsteps in Tutwiler, where he "discovered" the blues, as it was played for him by a vanished bluesman at a vanished train station. We'd traced his steps in Clarksdale, where he lived at the time of the Tutwiler discovery, circa 1903. (There's an empty lot and an historical marker where his Clarksdale home once stood.) Now, we visited his Memphis shotgun home, a small house packed with history. A highly informed guide walks you through.

We'd brought it all back home. Southern Road Trip 2017 was in the books.

 

Monday
May152017

Mississippi Delta, 2017: Part 2 (Leland to Nelson Street, Quito to Moorhead: From the "Hellhole of the Delta" to where the Southern cross the Dog

We continued exploring the deep Delta, the area between Greenville and Greenwood. Earlier in the trip, we'd stood in Congo Square in New Orleans, birthplace of jazz and funk. Now, if you like, we were immersing ourselves in the incubatorthe crucible, perhapsof the blues. When we left off, we were at the Highway 61 Blues Museum in Leland, Mississippi. Just outside of Greenville, Leland was known circa 1908 as the "hellhole of the Delta." The museum restricts its focus to musicians from around Leland. 

(I should mention that Leland is the birthplace of Kermit the Frog. The wonderful Jim Henson grew up here, and there's a museum dedicated to his boyhood in the Delta. We unfortunately didn't get a chance to check it out.)

At the museum, we were non-plussed to learn we'd been in the presence of a star, Eden Brent, when we dropped in at Teddy's Juke Joint outside of Baton Rouge at the outset of our trip. We'd noticed an unassuming woman in street clothes mingling with Teddy and guests as Selwyn Cooper & the Sharecroppers jammed. Later, she casually moved over behind the keyboardist and, much as you see in the photo below, offhandedly began tickling the ivories from over his shoulder. We were absolutely blown away by her virtuoso boogie-woogie runs. How could we have know then that this was Eden Brent, who'd learned at the knee of the great Abie "Boogaloo" Ames, one of the Nelson Street greats—indeed, the "Mozart of the Delta."  

Pat Thomas, son of the great Leland bluesman James "Son" Thomas, continues his father's legacy, both as a musician and as a sculptor. The museum contains several of Pat's funky folk-art pieces. I believe this cool log sculpture is one of his. It's like some kind of voodoo reliquary, containing sculpted skulls, with painted panels telling the mythological tale of the crossroads.

Back on the street, we knocked about a bit. Cristen Barnard, whose murals we'd admired in Tutwiler, was the "Tom Sawyer" behind this mural in Leland, which she painted in 2000 along with Jay Kirgis and a cast of locals. It is restricted to bluesmen born within 25 miles of Leland. You've got Boogaloo Ames, Jimmy Reed, Little Milton, Eddie Cusic, Willie Foster, James "Son" Thomas, and Johnny and Edgar Winter, all clustered around the Highway 61 sign.

Nearby is a mural dedicated to B.B. King, who hailed from Indianola. (We'd get over that way ourselves, soon.) 

There's also a mural depicting "Delting Dancing" at Lilo's Italian restaurant, which is still there. Back when Boogaloo Ames was alive, he'd play there with young Eden Brent. Quite a great Mississippi story, incidentally, the friendship between the old black bluesman and the young white woman. I understand there's a film about it, Boogaloo and Eden: Sustaining the Sound (1999).

Speaking of Nelson Street in Greenville, that storied street of blues lore, at the museum we'd seen this placard.

So we had to roll over to Greenville and take a look. Unfortunately, as Roger Stolle, fount of blues knowledge and proprietor of the funky Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art shop in Clarksdale, would later tell us, the only reason to go down to Nelson Street today is to score some crack. Checking our supply of crack, we noted we were all stocked up and thus had no reason to get out of the car. We snapped a picture of this mural from the window of our rolling car and beat it out of town. Very sad. At the far left in the mural you see Milton Campbell (Little Milton), who had a hit record with "Annie Mae's Cafe," about Perry Payton's legendary Nelson Street club, The Flowing Fountain.

Back at home base, there was a gorgeous sunset over the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale. As the sky burned over our Red House, I thought of that line, "the sky was red from off towards New Orleans."

 

 

That evening, we went over to the Hambone Gallery and caught a set by Terry "Harmonica" Bean. Before he began a song, he'd tell us how his grandfather used to play it, and then he'd demonstrate. Harmonica Bean is a living link to a departed generation of Mississippi Delta bluesmen.  

I also got to hang with Watermelon Slim, one of my heroes and a certifiable cool cat.

The next day we set out for Quito, a town near Greenwood so small it's not even on the map. On the way we passed the spot off highways 82 and 49 where the Three Forks juke joint is believed to have once stood. That's where Johnson played his last note, jamming with Sonny Boy Williamson II prior to—as legend has it—being poisoned by the owner of the club, who objected to Johnson's dalliances with his wife. 

We were looking for Payne Chapel, near where we knew to look for one of the three existing graves for Robert Johnson. Now, it's generally agreed today that Quito's not where Johnson's really buried: his true resting spot is likely north of Greenwood.

We'd been there back in 2014, when, inspired by Rosanne Cash's fine, haunting album "The River and The Thread," we'd driven down Money Road over the Tallahatchie River and out to the cemetery at the Little Zion M.B. Church. As we went over the Tallahatchie Bridge, we were thinking about Emmett Till and Robert Johnson all the way. ("A lonesome boy in a foreign land...And a voice we’ll never understand/One lies in the Zion yard, And one sleeps on the river bar/Neither one got very far, Out on Money Road."Rosanne Cash, "Money Road")

Oh, and Bobbie Gentry. Why did Billy Joe Mac Allister jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge? (The next four photos are from 2014.)

Back in 2017, it was still fun to find the Payne Chapel and the grave.

Next, we made it over to Moorhead, to visit another legendary spot in blues lore. As recounted in the last episode, in Tutwiler we'd stood where W.C. Handy did in 1903, when he heard a bluesman singing about "I'm goin' where the Southern cross the Dog." The fellow was talking about the point where the Southern railroad crossed the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad (the "Yellow Dog"). As Steve Cheeseborough recounts, Handy would go on to appropriate the line for his own "Yellow Dog Blues," and blues greats who sang about it included Charley Patton and Big Bill Broonzy. If you could get to Moorhead, you had a shot at getting out of Mississippi.  

 

 

 

Sunday
May072017

Mississippi Delta, 2017: Part 1 (Tutwiler to Dockery Plantation to Leland: The "Discovery" and "Invention" of the blues)

We set out to explore the Mississippi Delta, the flat, fertile cotton lands where the blues began—"the most Southern place on earth," per Richard Knight in his book The Blues Highway: New Orleans to Chicago. "No music better reflects its environment." 

Down a lonesome stretch of road in Tutwiler, we found the grave of Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) (1910-1965), perhaps the greatest harmonica player in the history of blues (well, him and Little Walter). 

We'd never have found Sonny Boy without the aid of a kindly old fellow tending the first graveyard we came to. He's not here, he said, then gestured out over the fields in the right direction. This gent would turn up several times as we explored Tutwiler, making sure we didn't get lost.

Sonny Boy's sisters, who both died in a fire in 1995, are buried nearby.  

Tutwiler has another claim to blues fame. It's where W.C. Handy "discovered" the blues in 1903. As we approached the site of the old train station where the deal went down, Cristen Barnard's murals beckoned us on.

On the fateful day, Handy was waiting for a train in Tutwiler when a man sat down next to him. In Handy's own words (as reprinted by Richard Knight): the "lean, loose-jointed Negro commenced plunking a guitar...His clothes were rags, his feet poked out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings...and the effect was unforgettable."

Per Knight: "W.C. Handy had discovered the blues."


Cristen Barnard's mural depicts the scene, below. 

Knight goes on: "The bluesman went on to sing the line 'Goin' where the Southern cross the Dog' which, Handy discovered, referred to the point where the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley railroad, nicknamed the 'Yellow Dog,' crossed the Southern railroad in Moorhead." Later, we would stop in Moorhead and visit the very site this anonymous, and world-changing, man was singing about.

The Tutwiler station's no longer standing, but the old track's still there.

The old gent who'd helped us back at the graveyard reappeared. Just wanted to make sure you didn't get lost on these back roads, he said. He tipped us off to one more thing we shouldn't miss. Right around the corner stood the site of the funeral home where, in 1955, they prepared Emmett Till's body to send back to Chicago. A white man, he spoke of Till in an almost apologetic tone, though he'd only been five years old at the time. A reflective tone, as though there were something he wished he could have done. The farmers came in the middle of the night and dragged him out, he said, and they tortured that poor boy, and that's the true story. (As if there'd ever been some other narrative that needed countering. Maybe if you grew up white in the south, there had been.)   

Outside of Cleveland, we visited the site many scholars agree is the very birthplace of the Delta blues, the Dockery Plantation. The cotton gin bears the family name.

"Charley Patton grew up here learning at the feet of Henry Sloan who played a rhythmic guitar style which Patton later developed into blues," writes Richard Knight. "That contribution is hard to underestimate. Robert Palmer, in his definitive book Deep Blues, claims, '...he [Patton] inspired just about every Delta bluesman of any consequence. He is among the most important musicians twentieth century America has produced.'"


Charley Patton lived on Will Dockery's plantation overlooking the Sunflower River, after his father moved the family there in 1897. We liked to imagine him playing for the people on this porch. Howlin' Wolf learned from Patton, here at Dockery. Pops Staples grew up here, too. Pops' "beautiful guitar playing is based on the downhome Delta blues," writes Steve Cheseborough in his book Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues

The great, old-school "Coca-Cola" Dockery filling station is down on the corner. 

Later, at the Highway 61 Blues Museum in Leland, we'd find a model of the Dockery Plantation. There's the Coca-Cola filling station on the left, the Baptist Church for the plantation's black workers on the right. The Dockery cotton gin's in the middle, the porch we were standing on partially obscured behind it.

Tuesday
Oct252016

Interview with Steve James (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Steve James, a filmmaker I've long admired, at the 52nd Chicago International Film Festival. You may read the interview at CINE-FILE Chicago, here.



Friday
Sep162016

Snowden Live

 

On September 14 I took in the "Snowden Live" event, which featured a screening of Oliver Stone's new paranoid thriller about the man who alerted Americans they were under mass surveillance by their government. The movie was followed by a good-natured live Q&A session. Moderated by a dapper, buoyant Matt Zoller Seitz, editor-in-chief at RogerEbert.com and TV critic at New York Magazine, the panel featured Joseph Gordon-Levitt (spot-on as Snowden), Shailene Woodley, and a nicely disheveled, slightly uncomfortable Oliver Stone in New York. Snowden himself was piped in from Moscow. Zoller Seitz, who has a new book out on Stone, The Oliver Stone Experience, asked good, intelligent questions while not letting the proceedings become somber, despite the serious human rights issues at stake. The playful affair even ended with a cake and a "happy birthday" singalong for the director's 70th. "Happy birthday, dear Oliver," I sang. 

Stone characterized his approach in the film as an attempt to humanize Snowden, and so a lot of it details his relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay (Woodley). Some critics have found the movie a bit less than thrilling. It is overlong, and the Hollywood thriller elements feel a bit shoehorned in. It plays like the commercial movie it was very much made to be. (With less of an imperative to entertain, Laura Poitras' documentary on Snowden, Citizenfour, is spookier.) Still, I thought it a well-crafted, absorbing story about a thoughtful, gentle young man who did something very brave. What it reveals makes you shiver. And it's about something, which you can't say of a lot of what comes out of Hollywood. (In order to get access to Snowden, the filmmakers had to agree to buy the rights to, and base the film on (but not really), a potboiler novelization of the Snowden story called "Time of the Octopus" by Snowden's Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena.) I do wish the whole thing had the zip and humor of the pre-movie PSA, where Stone cautioned us to silence our cell phone, because there's enough on it "to burn your life to the ground." This was followed by a winking disclaimer where a voice assured us that the theater did not necessarily endorse the views of Olive Stone, and we were welcome to turn our phones back on after the movie. 

Stone is a product of the 60s, yet he's a bit of a Hollywood classicist at the same time. In some sense his stories really aren't that removed from, say, Frank Capra. Not in tone, of course, and I don't say he has that touch. Still, his hero begins as a patriot, sometimes played by an actor associated on a meta level with American values (think of Kevin Costner in JFK). Then, he finds the principles were all just pretty words, and in fact are regularly violated. (Snowen's friend calls him "Snow White" for his innocence.) The Snowden we first meet is a genial, tolerant, conservative young man, who believes he is serving his country by working computers for the CIA and NSA. He is increasingly appalled by what he sees behind the veil--mass spying, drone strikes. He warms to Obama under the tutelage of the liberal Lindsay, believing the new president will staunch the abuse. Of course, he does not. Such violations turn American values into lies, and those who believed in them into dupes. Whereas Snowden began with blind faith, he comes to learn the government lies. It's an arc traced by Stone's generation, forged in the crucible of Vietnam. I wouldn't say his heroes come to question their patriotism, exactly. Rather, they tell truth to power as a way of insisting the country live up to its creed. Like Snowden, they won't have the pretty words become lies. 

In the Q&A afterwards, Snowden came across as wry, reflective, soft-spoken, and self-effacing. He drew our attention to the whistle-blowers who had gone before him, and paid the price, such as Thomas Drake, who was in the audience in New York. A former NSA man, the government hit him with the Espionage Act.

A few words of Snowden's especially resonated with me. He was asked to comment on how he'd respond to someone who reasoned, well, I have nothing to hide, so why should I worry? Snowden began to talk about what privacy means to him (and here I paraphrase): 

Privacy means you get to share with the world the part of you that says, this is who I'm trying to be. And in turn, you get to protect the part of yourself you're still experimenting with. It's a right to the self, and if we don't have that, we have nothing.

These words hit home with me, as a writer. Imagine not being able to keep private your works in progress, the experiments on the page where you're letting yourself think those thoughts you might not even want to think. Before deciding for yourself whether it's something you want to share with the world.