My sister Donna and I recently took a self-guided blues tour of the Mississippi Delta. It was an extraordinary experience. I grew up in the South, but it never visited the Delta, the emotional heart of the blues. The area runs from Vicksburg, Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee. This is the rich land which former slaves worked as tenant farmers. The area has a history of slavery, followed by Jim Crow and the Klu Klux Klan. It was and still is characterized by illiteracy, poverty, and steaming hot weather. It is also noted for some of the most authentic and moving music being made anywhere in our country today. Most people will recognize some of the names associated with the area, such as BB King, and Muddy Waters. If you know about the history of the blues, you will have heard of Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and Son House, early blues musicians, all from the Delta, and now long gone, but still influencing American music.
We started our tour in Ocean Springs, where my sister lives, and worked our way north. We had only five days, so we missed a lot, and never made it to Memphis, but what we saw and heard touched me and changed me. Greenville and the Walnut Street Blues Club was our first stop, where the legendary John Horton band was playing. The music was loud and the cigarette smoke was heavy. Everybody was drinking Bud Light. We ordered a couple ourselves and settled tentatively into a back table, wondering if we could really handle all the smoke, but the music soon drew us in. When the band took a break, Horton asked if others in the house would like to make music, and two black men, a guitarist and a singer with amazing talent took the stage. We were hooked. Our tour had begun.
From Greenville we went north to Cleveland and then onto Clarksdale, where we visited Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club. Clarksdale has enjoyed something of a renaissance, I am told, since Freeman started club there, and citizens from the area have opened storefront businesses nearby. But for someone like me, who had never been there, Clarksdale looked like a war zone, with vacant lots everywhere and boarded-up businesses. We were not excited about the group at Ground Zero, so my sister and I visited Red’s, which is a real juke joint, with absolutely no commercial flavor. We had trouble finding the place, which was across some railroad tracks, unlit on the outside, and looked as if it were boarded up. Finally we saw the one word RED’S in red paint on the door, so we ventured in. Red himself was behind the bar, and silently waved me off when I offered plastic for a beer. Watermelon Slim was playing, and he was the real deal. He played with his guitar on his lap, and made it yearn and sing with a pick and a miniature whiskey bottle. He also had a half pint of whiskey nearby, which he tippled from time to time.
Other highlights of the trip were a visit to the BB King Museum in Indianola, which turned out to be first rate, and also the Highway 61 Blues Museum in Leland, where we were treated to a spontaneous concert by Pat Thomas, son of the better-known and influential Robert Thomas, musician and folk artist, now long gone. The museum is small and inconspicuous, but has pictures and artifacts of famous musicians from the area; a very knowledgeable young man on-site gave us information not only about the history of blues, but also information about lesser-known sites such as the grave of Charley Patton in nearby Holly Ridge. Our last day was spent at the eighth annual Mississippi Delta Regional Blues Challenge, held at the Blue Biscuit in Indianola. A 17-year-old named Reed Smith won second place, and Sean “Bad” Apple and Martin “Big Boy” Grant took first place.
What struck me about our trip to the Delta was the amazing music that came out of this poverty-stricken area. People sang about desire and betrayal and loss, always loss. The music is raw, and it is real. So much in our lives these days is the opposite – is phony or stripped of true emotional content. This music of the Delta is from the heart, with nothing held back. It reached a place in me where few other art forms are able to go. I think that maybe its power comes from the universality of the feelings expressed. No matter what station in life we hold, all human beings long and all human beings lose. Maybe it’s just that the hard lives of these people in this hardscrabble place enables them to express in a truer form what we all experience.
The other interesting thing is that these clubs and juke joints we visited are the most racially integrated places I have ever been. And we’re talking here about Mississippi, a state in a part of the country so widely reviled for its racism. I experienced black and white musicians playing together, and black and white patrons gathered together listening to the music. Perhaps it is the music and its acknowledgment of the common human experience that has drawn the races together here in Mississippi.
I know I have been changed in some subtle way by my trip to the Delta. The music touched some deep place in me that wants to be authentic, is tired of the superficiality of most of American culture. Why is it that we must go to the margins of our society to find what is real? Perhaps it is only at the margins where people have so little to lose that they are free of pretense, unwilling to play the games which draw the rest of us in too much of the time. My trip reminded me that when I hold myself away from those who struggle just to get through the day, I am the one who loses the most.