Mississippi sings the Blues: TRAVEL

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Across the highways from Clarksdale down to New Orleans, Paul Trynka tracked the true bluesmen. On

crumbling porches and in iron huts, with dogs and cicadas for descant, they keep alive the spirit of the South

I'M IN a chair staring at my own reflection. Behind me I can hear a cut-throat razor being stropped in a snickety-snick rhythm. Suddenly the blade glints in front of my face, and Wade Walton, the Blues Barber of Clarksdale, boasts, "I can play tunes on this, you know." I nod in appreciation, lean back in his chair, and ask for a Number One, back and sides.

Exploring the land of the Blues is an obsession for many tourists: Clarksdale, and Walton's salon, marks a first stop for many of them. The home town of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, Clarksdale straddles Highway 61, the traditional migration route for black Americans looking for work in Memphis or Chicago. Once a vital stopover for musicians travelling through Mississippi, the city is now depressingly quiet, and its attempts to emphasise its Blues heritage seem slightly desperate. Only vestiges remain of a once-thriving music scene - notably Walton.

A skilled guitarist, harmonica player and razor stropper, Walton remembers Clarksdale at its height, when Muddy would return in search of Mississippi cooking, or when Sonny Boy Williamson II checked in for a haircut so that he'd look natty on his King Biscuit radio show: "He'd be doing King Biscuit Time from Helena, across the Mississippi, and he'd show up for a haircut an hour before he was due on the radio. Man, the times he used to turn up late for his show! We'd get all the guys coming through, Ike Turner - that guy was always a slick dresser - BB, back in the days when he was thin. They were some good times."

Now Walton's main customers are tourists rather than musicians, and he doesn't get to wield his clippers too often. His son runs a tiny recording studio in the next room, and comes in and chats while Walton Senior douses me with pungent, doubtless eco-unfriendly potions. As the clippers buzz away, Walton tells me how he was swindled out of his old salon on Fourth Street, a sad story now commemorated in one of his songs. He is unenthusiastic about the city's remaining Blues scene: only October's King Biscuit Festival in the small town of Helena, a family occasion which reunites all the Delta musicians who played on the influential Forties KFFA radio programme, meets with his approval. Still, I'd only come for a haircut, and although my hair was set like concrete for a week, it was eight bucks well spent. With Walton's tales of Fifties Mississippi still floating around my brain, I hit Highway 61, headed 100 miles south and another 20 years back in time.

Bentonia, Mississippi, is a two-hour drive along dusty roads punctuated only by rusty cotton gins straight out of an Elia Kazan. In the South to research a book on the Blues, I was on the trail of Jack Owens, a fragile 90-year-old who is the only surviving exponent of the Bentonia Blues, a uniquely haunting minor-key style popularised by Skip James - a legendary figure who, like many Bluesmen, boasted of an unhealthily close relationship with the Devil. Owens was one of the few local musicians who owned a phone - I'd been given his number by a festival organiser who'd been trying to get hold of him for weeks without success. I pulled into Bentonia, a two-store town divided by the railroad tracks of The Southern, the legendary line that featured in the earliest Blues songs. One of the stores had a phone outside; I dialled his number and hit lucky. Bring a bottle of Hogmouth gin, he said, and I could come straight by. Where did he live? "Ask anyone," he replied, and the line went dead.

The owner of the one liquor store in town knew Owens' approximate whereabouts - but he didn't stock Hogmouth: "Ain't had any in 10 years." He offered a pint of Seagrams and vague directions. Turning down the first likely- looking unpaved road, I was at Owens' house within minutes. His shack conformed to type to an almost ludicrous extent: brightly painted and broken-down, with chipboard panels nailed over rotten sections in the roof and walls. The Seagrams was acceptable: "This stuff make me feel good sometimes;" he paused - "sometimes it make me feel bad." He gave me a swig and settled down with the bottle on a decrepit chair while I fetched his guitar.

Inside, the shack was even more run-down, a framed letter from Bill Clinton underlining the bareness of the furnishings. As I handed him his guitar, Owens told me he'd won a $10,000 grant from the state government, and pointed out the GMC truck in his yard on which he'd spent much of the money - $2,000 on an engine overhaul for a vehicle worth $1,000. I didn't know whether to weep or smile as he indicated the other rusted hulks in his yard and said: "They only need a battery to get 'em going."

Today, in the Mississippi sunshine, the Seagrams made both of us feel good as Owens played guitar and sang. He said he was sorry that his regular partner, harmonica player Bud Spires, was bedbound after a heavy drinking bout. I was pleased, for without his younger accompanist, Owens reverted to a style straight out of the Thirties. Hearing his rendition of the Bentonia classic "Cherry ball", it was clear that he could have achieved the fame of his mentor if he'd ever chosen to leave his home town.

The life of a hobo musician was not for him, he explained. Travelling bluesmen were under constant threat of being arrested for vagrancy, particularly if plantation owners suspected they were distracting their workers from the cotton crop. For just a few seconds, Owens paused, and his face furrowed in remembrance: "We had bad times here. Bad times. They'd hang a nigger just like he was a squirrel."

Hours passed as we talked about life in the South. Owens played, and we emptied his Seagrams. With the gin inside me, I began to regret my restraint in not bringing a guitar. I'd had a good time in Chicago playing Country songs with veteran guitarist Dave Myers, who'd made my day when he called up a friend and told him: "This boy showed me some licks I ain't never seen before." On the other hand, there was the time I'd duetted with Jimmie Walker, a stalwart of the Chicago music scene since Al Capone. I was contributing a two-note bass line on the piano, but as he switched chords I got too ambitious and changed to a four-note pattern. Walker stopped playing, shot me a withering look, and said "you need to practise some". Owens' version of the Blues, though, was best played solo. The only accompaniment was the cicadas and the occasional howl of his dog, who'd turned up one day and stayed. "He don't have a name. I just call him Boy."

As the sun went down I popped back to the store to pick up some food for Boy, and cornmeal and doughnuts for Jack. I felt guilty about leaving. With only Boy for company, Owens was lonely, and paranoid about being robbed by his neighbours. But if I stayed longer we'd both be drinking more Seagrams than we needed, and I had to get to Greenville by nightfall.

Over subsequent weeks I zig-zagged across the highways of the American South, and encountered more musical riches than I'd ever hoped for. In Greenville I met Eugene Powell, who'd recorded with The Chatmon Brothers in New Orleans back in the Thirties, while over in Louisiana I found the zydeco accordion tradition in the rudest of health, with a 600-strong crowd packed into Slim's Yai Ki Ki roadhouse in Opelousas. I went to Baton Rouge clubs with Larry Garner, one of the city's finest songwriters, and was driven round Slidell by bluesman and honorary sheriff Clarence Gatemouth Brown, in full cowboy regalia and police badge, his .45 between us on the bench seat. Then there was New Orleans, despite its tasteless commercialism a magical source of jazz and R&B. But I had to get back to the real Blues, and for that I had to head north again.

Most people think of of Mississippi as endless flat cotton fields, and for the most part they are correct. But the north-east boasts green fields and hills, and suffered far less from the migrations of the Forties and Fifties that emptied much of the rest of the state. So there are places where the music has survived unchanged for 60 years; around the Como area there's a tradition of fife and drum music that is a hangover from black Americans' African roots. I wanted to track down Jessie Mae Hemphill and Otha Turner, two of the best-known fife and drum players. I was given Turner's address by his daughter, Bernice, whose number I got in Clarksdale. "Turn up any day," she said. "But make sure you get there by seven in the morning. Otherwise he'll be out hunting 'coons."

I drove through a luminescent Marshall County dawn to get to Turner's house at the allotted time. It stood alone in the featureless landscape, a few broken chairs on the porch and a barking dog the only sign of life. He was already up and out, but turned up an hour later. He was brusque: his chickens and cow had escaped from his small yard and he was trying to enlist his grandchildren to catch them. My offer of help was rejected, but he'd spare me some time if I could pay for it, he said. "I'm like an old mule. Give him something to chew on and some water and he's gonna hold out. But keep working him for nothing and he's gonna fall over and die, that's right."

Turner learned how to make a "fice", or fife, from a length of bamboo before he reached his teens. Local musicians would also make their own drums from strips of tin, cow hide and hickory wood. The fife and drums were unbeatable for raising a crowd: "The fice and drums, they go back to African times. It's a calling thing. When they give a picnic, they'd get up way early, take the drums right up over that hill, and play them. Then after a few hours people would be coming from miles around, it ended up you'd get so many folk turn up for the picnic they have to turn sideways to get through."

We sat on his porch as Turner played me his favourite tunes, singing and blowing the fife. A few feet away a cockerel crowed, while Turner's two grandsons cantered up and down the road on horseback, chasing his fugitive livestock. It was hard to see how the landscape, or the music, had changed at all over the last 100 years.

Leaving Turner in pursuit of his chickens, I drove to the nearby town of Senatobia to see Jessie Mae Hemphill. The last of the area's best-known musical dynasty, Jessie was bedridden following a stroke, but was eager to share her stories of granddaddy Sid Hemphill, the legendary violinist, fife and drum player. All too aware of her own mortality, Jessie informed me that she'd turned away from the Devil's music, and would only sing spirituals now. Sitting in her caravan, with her prized yellow Lincoln parked outside and the sizzle of frying chicken accompanying our conversation, Jessie spun tales of when Sid would host picnics for blacks or conduct square dances for rich whites: "But I ain't writing no more Blues songs. All I'm playing from now on is special songs, church songs."

Jessie Mae's belief that Blues music was the province of the Devil came back to me two days later, at Al Green's Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis. Green was preaching to the improvised accompaniment of a five- piece electric band - every time their music got too raucous he would berate them, and ask: "Who do you think you are, Muddy Waters?" Attempting to sneak out early from the three-hour service was an even more heinous sin. When one musician disappeared through a side door, Green yelled: "Somebody find me a hammer, and the Lord will find us some nails, then we can nail up that door!" By the end of the service the congregation was emotionally drained, several of the more impassioned participants had fallen over in a dead faint, and I was thinking of religious conversion. But not before I had a chance to check out the Devil's music one last time in America's finest remaining rural juke joint, the one place where the Blues is thriving, rather than merely surviving.

One hour's drive out of Memphis along Highway 78 I hit the small town of Holly Springs. Junior Kimbrough's Juke Joint is 10 miles out of town on Highway Four, which winds through an eerie hilly landscape populated by distorted tree stumps. The leafy kudzu vine, introduced into the region to feed grazing cattle, has over the years strangled every tree in its path, and in the dusty twilight its victims create a bizarre prehistoric skyline, seemingly populated by sinister green figures. In the dead quiet of the countryside, the Milky Way dazz-lingly clear overhead, it is a spooky drive until you come across 40 or 50 cars pulled up at the side of the road. Here, almost literally in the middle of nowhere, there are no lights visible beyond the glow from the front door of a wood and corrugated iron shack. Crunching through gravel, I can hear a beat over the lazy chirruping of the cicadas. I walk to the shack and hand over two dollars to a mute doorwoman.

Once inside it feels like I'm in a psychedelic church, with garishly painted wooden pillars separating off two side aisles which house ancient disembowelled sofas. I sink into one, chatting to a 16-year-old couple nursing a pint of gin. Above the pillars, where you might find the Stations of the Cross in a Catholic church, is a series of oil paintings modelled on covers of Ebony magazine, while the gaudy red and blue paint contrasts with a plain concrete floor and a huge dusty fan at the back of the room.

The club's proprietor, Junior Kimbrough, is the finest Blues artist to be discovered in the last two decades, his music a throwback to the Forties or Fifties. A sturdy man in his sixties, he takes his position in a corner, and starts to play a slow Blues to the enthusiastic whoops of a packed crowd, all black except me and one other. His music is basic, its repetitive, rhythmic structure a powerful reminder of its African origins. Song blends hypnotically into song as the audience screams its approval. Junior's singing style is powerfully moving, and I could understand why many who've been here talk about it in reverent tones for months afterwards.

Kimbrough may be in his sixties, but his club is no historical artefact: the teenagers in his joint would rather listen to him than to rappers such as Snoop Doggy Dogg or Jodeci. Kim-brough's music, audience and club represent the best possible reminder of the unique blend of cultures that comprises the United States. It reminds me of Charlie Parker's dictum: "I can definitely say that the music won't stop. It will go forward." Forget Disney, Spielberg or Ronald McDonald: Junior Kimbrough, retired farmer and musical genius, represents the true spirit of this great country. !

GETTING THERE: The nearest airport is Nashville, Tennesse. Airtours (0181-559 7797) offers flights direct to Nashville from Gatwick, starting from £299 plus £32 tax. Campus Travel (0171-730 2101) has flights for under 26-year-olds starting from £317 return to Nashville.

ORGANISED TOURS: Trek America (01869 338 777) offers a variety of tours including 'The Southern Delights', a 21-day round trip from Miami through New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville for £666 peak season, excluding flights.

FLY/DRIVE: American Dream (0181 470 1181) offers a fly/drive deal to Nashville starting at £491.

GETTING AROUND: Avis (0181-848 8733) provides car hire from Nashville airport starting from around £98 for 7 days, plus insurance, state and airport tax.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Lofthouse Enterprises (01462 440787) provides information on Mississippi, including brochures, maps and general attractions.

For a comprehensive "Blues Map" of the Delta area: Stackhouse Record Mart, 232 Sunflower, Clarksdale (601) 627 2209.

CLUBS AND FESTIVALS: Margaret's Blue Diamond Lounge, 4th and W. Talla- hatchie, Clarksdale; Red's, 395 Sunflower Avenue, Clarksdale, (601) 627 3166;

Green's Blues Lounge, 2090 Person, Memphis (901) 274 9800; Junior Kimbrough's Juke Joint, Highway 4, Chulahoma, Mississippi, Sunday nights only. For information about the King Biscuit Festival in Helena, ring radio KFFA (501) 338 8361.

BARBER: Wade Walton, 317 Issaquena Avenue, Clarksdale. Haircuts from $5.

CHURCH: Al Green's Full Gospel Tabernacle, 787 Hale Road, Memphis, Tennessee (901) 396 9192. Sunday services begin at 11am.