'If a kid has a guitar in his hand, it means he don't have a gun in his hand'

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The land south of Memphis is at the mercy of a mighty river. Matthew Brace continues his Mississippi series with a visit to the birthplace of the Delta Blues.

We sat out on Panny Mayfield's porch in the warm Southern evening: Joel, Julian, John, Miss Laura, Panny and me. On a similarly fragrant night 70 years ago Tennessee Williams sat here, too. He lived just up the street and knew the owners, and would pop over for dinner and inspiration.

This was Clarksdale, Mississippi, a small town on the Delta. When Southern folk talk about the Delta they don't mean the area south of New Orleans, where the mighty Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico at the end of its 2,500-mile journey. Rather, they refer to a flat pan stretching south from Memphis, Tennessee, to the Civil War battle site at Vicksburg.

The Delta is the home of the Blues, the music that grew out of the slave chants in the cotton fields and later inspired rock'n'roll and just about every other kind of modern music. I'd broken my Mississippi journey and jumped ship to pay homage to the devil's music.

I met Panny, a journalist, at the 20th Delta Blues Festival in Greenville. We were at the side of the stage, sweltering in 99 degrees of soupy heat, trying to photograph the veteran harmonica player Willie Foster, who writhed and twitched in his wheelchair as he blew for the crowd. She insisted I go to Clarksdale the next day to see the Delta Blues Museum, and stop by her house.

We ate beef, pasta and okra stew, drank dark beer and chatted. Miss Laura (Panny's daughter) and John (the museum's curator) rocked on the swing seat; Joel and Julian (work experience interns at the museum) lolled in their chairs. John and I discussed our beloved river. When he is not working at the museum, John runs wilderness canoe excursions for hardy tourists, sleeping and eating out on sandbars and islands.

For him, the Mississippi is a spiritual thing. "I get a feeling of closeness to God and closeness to Nature," he said. "It's always articulating new shapes and forming new meanders."

Many older Delta folk would rather forget the river's force and unpredictability. In 1927, before embankments were built, the Mississippi flooded spectacularly. Its banks burst and the floodwater formed an inland waterway 1,000 miles long and 150 miles wide. A million people were displaced. So great was the deluge, it forced the Ohio and Yazoo to flow backwards for two days. A 12ft wave swept up the Yazoo, swamping all in its path.

"You must respect the river." Those words resounded around Mark Twain's head when he was training to become a riverboat pilot.

Across town, Evelyn Turner was opening up the Crossroads Club for a night of beer and Blues. This was an upmarket juke joint.The jukes were boozy, tumbledown shacks where up-and-coming Bluesmen would play for free. Here, as the Negro legend went, you could sell your eternal soul to the devil in return for the ability to play faultless Blues guitar.

But in Evelyn's club the jukebox worked if you slapped it hard enough; the sky-blue walls were only partially chipped; the clientele was prestigious. Perched at the bar was Michael James - "Dr Mike" - but tonight without his band, the Interns. Next to him, in black suit and tie, was Johnnie Billington, a Bluesman on a mission. "Mr Johnnie", 61, now dedicates himself to teaching Blues guitar to young Delta kids.

We cracked open our beers and he told me his Blues survival plan. "A black child growing up on the Delta feels down-sided - crushed, you know. Eighty per cent of these kids will get in trouble before they get to 18. If a kid has a guitar in his hand it means he don't have a gun in his hand."

The Delta is a poor, hard place to call home. The Blues are trendy for whites who can do what I was doing - cruise in, enjoy it, and take away a memory to middle-class suburbia. For the blacks, it is all they have.

Mr Johnnie knew the pressures of the Delta, and how fragile the life of a young black can be. His mission began with a few kids who would come past his house and hear him playing. Eventually he got a band together and they played a gig downtown in Clarksdale. That event grew into the Sunflower River Blues Festival, now a mainstay of the town's arts calendar, and saved those kids from an uncertain future.

The Delta is home to numerous graduates from Mr Johnnie's school of life. His current band, the Midnighters, tour often, cramming into his ageing motor-home and trundling off all over the state. One of his proudest moments was when he was doing some music workshops at a predominantly white school in Jackson, Mississippi, and got an offer to take a young band to New York to perform.

"The school thought there was no way it was going to work," he said. "Imagine it: a black man, a Blues player, taking four little white kids to New York City for a week. Ain't no way their parents are going to go for that. But they all did, and we went. We broke down a barrier that day."

Mr Johnnie was due on stage; I was delaying the jam session. Dr Mike, a former student of Mr Johnnie's in his garage classroom, pointed after his mentor as he walked away. "Now he is a real Bluesman. Takes bad news and makes it good. That's the Blues, right there on stage in the suit."