Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Mississippi: Home of the Blues

Everyone knows that Mississippi is the home of the blues. It's the place Robert Johnson supposedly met the Devil at the Crossroads and was given the vision of the music, like Moses getting those tablets.

But until I went there, I don't think I really understood the blues, and I've been a big fan most of my life.

It didn't take a Devil to make this music. Just hanging in this land of blistering heat, sweltering cotton fields and bottomless poverty, the soul of this sad and heroic music quickly became clear.

The blues is living in a see-through home, where you can see always see daylight through the cracks in the wood walls.

(Tunica moon)

It's feeling like you are underwater, always weighted down by the humidity and heat. And this is only spring.

It's looking at buildings and not being able to tell if they are about to be torn down, or are open for business.

The blues is going to the local pharmacy, which has a quaint 1940s-style ice cream fountain, and an armed guard because people are cashing pay checks here to pay their phone bills. Even the cops are on line to pay their bill at noon, before the phone is shut off.

It's seeing Muddy Waters shack reconstructed in the lovely and new Blues Museum in Clarksdale (built in the old train station), and realizing that you can see the same shack, occupied, just down the street. (PS, every blues musician I met said he stole a piece of Muddy's shack for inspiration...and Billy Gibbon's of ZZ Top has a guitar made from it. Either that thing is going to fall down, or it's not all original anymore.)

(Muddy's cabin)

It's getting a bucket of crawfish and fighting hard with them for a tiny sliver of poor man's lobster, and knowing your hands and clothes will smell of it for a week.

It's smoking allowed just about everywhere. Why the rush not to die?

It's hearing music on every corner, late into the night. And then, when the bars close, jamming until dawn, and basking in a little bit of cool air.

I was passing through too briefly to attend the Blues Awards in Tunica, Miss. at a new Harrah's casino. Despite being new, there was a lot to be desired in this Disneyfied version of the blues.

The only food in the hotel after midnight was from vending machines or a hamburger stand and the vending machine was broken. The best thing about it? The air conditioning. And the wireless connection worked.

The awards were nice, especially seeing them go to people over 60, 70, 80 and hearing them say, "good things come to those who wait." I saw Bettye Lavette drunk in the hotel, dancing. I saw big winner Bobby Rush in the elevator. He had to skip getting two of his awards because he had to pack and hit the road by 3 a.m. for his next gig.

I saw too many bluesmen carrying their own bags through the airport.

Next day, I went to Clarksdale, the small town by the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49, a place of Baptists and blues. Realtors here put crosses on their signs, letting you know of their devotion: money and God.

Others try to capitalize on the blues. There's a cotton museum in town, that was never open while I was there, but you could see the big bale of cotton outside.

The rock museum had a lot of posters and a guy playing boogie woogie piano, who wanted $5 for the privilege of seeing his artifacts. "I gotta make a living."

I had been in Japan a few weeks earlier...and Mississippi was a lot more alien. I asked a woman for a bag to carry the T-shirt I bought from her.

"A bag."
"A what?"
"To carry the T-shirt," I said with the same hand signals I used in Japan.
"Oh, you mean a sack. I haven't heard a Yankee talk in a long time."

The locals were friendly enough. More friendly than in Japan. They came right up to me and started talking, where ever I was. They could tell I wasn't from there, and were curious about why anyone would visit.

Yet, in all that poverty, the actor Morgan Freeman has a five star restaurant, and owns part of a blues club that has big-name talents all week long and draws more tourists than locals.

That's the real blues. The people born in the middle of it don't really listen much. A hip-hop club would do better.

Soul singer Jackie Payne, from Alameda, outside Ground Zero

me at delta hardware...

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