October 28, 2011

Back to Mississippi: Exploring the Delta, part II

Freaking hell, it was cold in Clarksdale when I woke up on this day.  And still grey as a tomb, though the sun ended up breaking through the clouds after I got on the road and headed along the very scenic way towards Tennessee and Nashville.

After the same breakfast as yesterday again at the Rest Haven, I steered the Shark up route 6 to route 55 with the plan to stop in Como on the way to Senatobia in order to find the gravesite of Mississippi Fred McDowell.  Como's so small it didn't even have a stoplight, but it did have Blues Trail markers for both Fred and fife master Otha Turner.  Fred's mentioned that he was buried north of town at Hammond Hill Missionary Baptist Church on Hammond Hill Road, but the young guy at the gas station where I asked didn't know where it was.  Just for shits'n'giggles, I decided to head up route 51, which parallels the larger, four lane route 55 up to Senatobia.  Went a little ways looking for Hammond Hill Road, but when I crossed into the next county it seemed that I was on the wrong side of the north end of Como.  So I decided to turn around and head back to check out the other side of town.  Picked a random side road in which to pull a u-turn and, lo and behold, there was a sign for Hammond Hill M.B. Church that wasn't visible from the direction I'd been headed.  

That road ended at a T intersection, but there were no more signs specifying a direction to the church.  Made another random decision and headed right (The first sign said "keep right", right?).  About a mile down, tucked next to a crossroad between pine and sweetgum woods on one side and empty fields on the other, was Hammond Hill M.B., with the cemetery on the hill across the street.  I always get a hell of a kick out of such serendipitous discoveries.

Hammond Hill cemetery had many of the same style of home-made headstones I'd seen yesterday at Charley Patton's gravesite, in addition to newer ones on which much more money has obviously been spent.

From Como, the Shark and I headed up to Senatobia, then juked east toward Holly Springs to see if I could find a record shop listed on the Mississippi Music Tourist Sites map-- Aikei Pro's (Pronounced "ecky", as in "ecky thump". Some of you will catch the White Stripes connection...)  Stopped first to choke down the worst fried green tomato po'boy in the history of southern cooking (fried green tomatoes should be breaded, not battered), then asked at the lunch counter if they could direct me to the street where the shop was located.  The woman who worked there didn't have any idea, and when she asked a local who'd come in to pick up carryout, we were told that the record store had closed.  I went back out and drove around anyway, and within five minutes had found both the old town cemetery (of course, I have a built-in radar for these things) and Aikei Pro's.  Wondered whether perhaps the woman at the lunch counter was correct, because when I peeked in the door it appeared that there were piles of records and magazines and Lord knows what other sorts of junk leaning up against each other just inside.

Photo from thefrontlinemusic.com
It was hard to tell if there were any signs of life inside, though.  Started to head back to the car, where a down'n'out local started to pester me for a ride to somewhere, when the door of the shop opened and out squeezed a college-aged white girl and a grizzled little old black man.  After she thanked him and wandered off, I squeezed as far in as I could get (which was about one foot), said hello to the grizzled guy and told him I'd heard this was the place to come for good records.  He laughed and started talking, and it was an hour before I got myself back into the car.  Mr. Caldwell talked to me about how there's no such thing as hill country blues-- That's something created by the white folk because they came along and wanted to be a part of things.  All blues are delta blues, no matter whether the musician playing them came from Mississippi or Texas. He went on to describe his experience of coming to Mississippi from Kentucky after serving a handful of years in the army in Europe-- After being called a nigger for the first time in his life and being told to go back where he'd come from, he decided that, no sir, he was going to stay put.  In his time in Holly Springs, he's since seen them desegregate the local schools and elect a black mayor. I can't help but think that he had at least a little to do with that.  But he also told me that if we went back to the lunch counter that very afternoon and ordered coffee, that he wouldn't be served.  I'd like to think that's not true, but we didn't put it to the test.  In hindsight, perhaps I should have offered to buy him a cup.  He's apparently also pretty famous amongst blues aficionados (he showed me a couple of magazine articles he's been interviewed for), as well as a good friend of Junior Kimbrough.  The one thing I could actually see in the shop that I wanted to buy was a record of Junior's up on the wall, but Mr. Caldwell told me that album wasn't for sale for any price. I'm unable to embed the video from this link, but you have to go and watch it in order get a feel for the place and the man-- Portrait of a Record Dealer: Holly Springs, MS - Aikei Pro's. (If the video there doesn't work, go here. Or check the one below that I found when updating/editing this post on 3/13/2017)

Back on the way towards Tennessee, the empty roads I'd become used to began to fill up with more and more traffic.  By the time I got to Nashville, it was well after dark, I was hungry, tired, and pissed off at being challenged on the highway by assholes in SUVs.  Much as I was looking forward to the plans I had for N'ville, couldn't help but wish I was back down in the Delta at the Shack Up Inn, listening to that cold wind blow outside the windows.

Complete set of photos from this trip, here.

October 27, 2011

Back to Mississippi: Exploring the Delta, part I

It's a cold, grey day in Clarksdale.  I've returned for a more extensive visit than last year's, back again at the Shack Up Inn, but with a different ride.  Lucifer the Pony, a black Mustang, has been replaced by a silver Camaro that, with it's wide mouth-like grillwork and side "gills", reminds me of a shark.

The weather, though, is just as unsettled as last year.  Woke up this morning to the sound of wind whipping around outside the windows of my Cadillac Shack.  Broke the night's fast at the Rest Haven restaurant, smoking a cigar while waiting for two eggs sunny-side up with a pork chop, surrounded by good ol' boys who were all also puffing away while waiting for their meals.  Smoking in restaurants is enough of a novelty these days, at least where I come from, but is even more exotic before breakfast.  Reminded me of my crotchety grandfather who began each day with coffee and a cigarette, which was soon followed up with the first of many Budweisers.  But back to Clarksdale-- The topics of conversation among the Rest Haven regulars that morning ranged from deer hunting to ant and roach control.  A handful of Japanese tourists then wandered in and squeezed into the booth in front of mine to complete the scenario.  William Least-Heat Moon wrote in Blue Highways that the more calendars on the wall in little country restaurants, the greater the guarantee of good food.  Rest Haven has only one calendar, but I've now had the same breakfast there three times and the pork chop has been perfect every time.  So much for Least-Heat Moon's rule.

Headed into downtown Clarksdale, such as it is, to re-visit the Delta Blues Museum, then stopped in Morgan Freeman's Ground Zero blues club for a post-breakfast Coke and peach cobbler.  Perhaps it's ignorance or snobbery on my part, but I just don't think much of Freeman's place.  His intentions are good, but it's like Bourbon Street is to New Orleans-- You get only a gloss of the real thing, a touristified version.  I'm sure the music booked at Ground Zero is very good, but the atmosphere, with the encouraged graffiti of visitors on every bare bit of wall and ceiling and the studied dilapidation, is just too cheesy for me.  And their peach cobbler leaves much to be desired.

While spooning up the gooey, soggy cobbler, I sat and contemplated the scribbles all over the bar and the wall behind it.  What is with the need people have to write on walls, anyway?  From graffiti to bathroom stalls to places like Ground Zero, where it's encouraged, to the shacks at the Shack Up Inn, where it's specifically not-- Is it some sort of cry for attention?  Or perhaps, on a deeper level, a fear of mortality?  So many people seem to have the need to be seen, recognized, remembered, even if it's only by anonymous strangers.  They need to leave a bit of themselves for eternity, even though their graffiti'd scribbles represent nothing worth being remembered for.  Though as I write this, it occurs to me that perhaps it's not all that different from babbling to the anonymous interwebs in some blog...

Braced by breakfast and the double shot of sugar from Coke and cobbler, I mapped a route around the Delta that headed east and then south on 49, east on 8, south on 7, then west on 82 to loop back towards the Mississippi River, north a ways along 1, and then back over to Clarksdale, then queued up the soundtrack for my wanderings--  John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Son House, and the White Stripes Live in Mississippi.  The last is significant because it was their final show as a band and was, ironically in light of Jack's deep love of Delta blues, the first and only one they ever played in Mississippi, at a venue between Clarksdale and Memphis.  John Lee's Boogie Chillun was the band's walk-on music to begin the show, and after a moody, brooding version of Death Letter, Jack very touchingly thanked Son House for letting him finally come home.  He ended that last show by saying God bless you to both House and Robert Johnson, and so I felt it was fitting and necessary to include this album in the day's listening.

Stopped at a convenience store outside of Tutwiler for a package of dill pickle-flavored sunflower seeds and couldn't help but compare the real dilapidation of empty store fronts next door to the faux effects at Ground Zero.  The faces of a handful of older gentlemen lounging outside matched the buildings, but the freshly mopped floor of the bathroom inside the convenience store was spotless and had just enough of a bleach aroma to smell clean as a sunny day. 

I feel alien in places like this, with my fast rental car and my rock'n'roll attire, having slept comfortably the night before in a restored version of the sort of sharecropper's shacks that still line many of the roads down here.  What am I documenting when I snap photos around here?  I've felt the same thing driving through certain neighborhoods of Baltimore back home.  Am I romanticizing a place and people I don't fully understand?  My family was pretty poor when I was a kid and I'm far from well off now, so I have some idea of what it's like.  But this seems to be a level of poverty I've never experienced anywhere near firsthand.  Or is life around here really not as hard-scrabble as I imagine based on appearances?  What's the reality?  Without living it the way these people do, I'll likely never know, and that leaves me uncomfortable about pulling out the camera in these spots where I find a sort of desperate beauty and picturesqueness.

Heading down South 49W towards the site of the notorious Parchman Farm, you pass a sign that reads "Penitentiary area.  Emergency stopping only next 2 miles."  And yet there's a Blues Trail marker directly across the road from the prison, which is now the Mississippi State Penitentiary.  Of course I pulled over to snap a photo of the sign, then turned my head to look across the street and found a handful of inmates, in their distinctive green and white striped pants, lounging near the gate and watching the crazy tourist who wasn't supposed to stop.  One of the more notable inmates of Parchman was Son House, who spent two years there supposedly for killing a man in self-defense, though there is apparently some debate over the accuracy of that story.


Between stops, the Shark and I rolled past the ubiquitous, endless cotton fields of the Delta, which is not as monotonous as you might think.  Fallow fields of empty dirt rows alternated with harvested fields bordered with huge rectangular bales of compressed cotton, along which the roads were scattered with loose, dusty white puffs.  Occasionally you pass an unharvested field in full bloom and the white of the cotton against the brown of the plant stems creates a silvery shimmer that, on this day, mirrored the grey of the cloudy sky above.

Unfortunately, I got so caught up in the joy of moving fast on un-trafficked backroads that I missed the turn to the church where Mississippi John Hurt is buried outside of Avalon.  Wanted to also find Robert Johnson's gravesite (the official one, according to the Mississippi Music Tourist Sites map I was using as a reference), but drove around Greenwood without finding the right road.

Looked for something to eat while in Greenwood, too, but there appeared to be nothing except the usual fast food and chain restaurants.  Until I got to the edge of town and caught sight of a little shack with smoke pouring out of the side of the building and a bunch of cars out front.  Turned out to be the Rib Shack, of which Johnny Edwards is head chief (according to his business card).  I ordered a pulled pork sandwich with cole slaw and a side of baked beans.  Would have sat right there in the car to eat it, but felt I was providing a bit too much entertainment for the locals.  One gentleman asked if I was from around there.  When I said no, he confirmed that he didn't think so, 'cause he didn't think he'd seen a Camaro around town.  When my food was ready, I headed down the road and found an empty public park, where I sat and had a very windy picnic of gloriously succulent pork.  If you ever find yourself in Greenwood, MS, be sure to look around for Johnny's shack. 

One pilgrimage site I did manage to find was the gravesite of Charley Patton, in a sad excuse for a cemetery next to Hicks Cotton Gin outside of Holly Ridge.  Just a scrubby field scattered with graves, many with nothing but a small, plain white cross, some unmarked at all, and a few collapsed to the point that you'd fall in if you weren't watching where you were walking.  Most touching of all, for a reason I can't define, were the plain concrete slabs that had name and dates of birth and death scratched in by hand, like the way people scratch their names into freshly poured concrete on a sidewalk.  There was something very caring about those headstones, despite the bleak simplicity of them.

Wandered about for a bit, but the place was so disorganized that I couldn't find what I'd come for right off.  The wind began to push me back toward the car, but then a good ol' boy wandered over from the gin and asked if I was "looking for Charley".  The way he asked-- not "was I looking for Charley Patton", but "looking for Charley"-- was so disarming I couldn't help but smile.  He pointed me in the right direction and walked with me a bit, asking where I was from, then headed back over to work while I trudged the rest of the way through the dusty grass to the spot.  Stood there looking at the headstone and accompanying empty bourbon bottle and tried to imagine the slight, ornery man with the growling voice and flamboyant playing style.  Patton was one of the first precursors to today's modern rock stars, though few of those rock stars probably realize it.  I couldn't help but wonder how Charley might've felt if he'd had any clue that people like me would make pilgrimages to his grave in the heart of the Delta, eighty years and more after his death.

Ended the day back at Ground Zero for some passable electrified blues.  Decent stuff, but not as moving as Johnson's or House's acoustic blues or as mesmerizing as Hooker's groove or Patton's growl.  And certainly not as gut-wrenching as any version of the blues from the White Stripes, but decent enough for an evening's diversion.  Fell asleep worn out from hours of driving, listening again to the wind blowing around the edges of the windows of the shack.

Full set of photos from the trip, here

October 10, 2011

Why don't you just take the night, wrap it all around me

I've written before about my fascination with the effect music can have on us.  I've read one book on the topic so far that unfortunately fell short of a satisfying explanation, and am currently in the midst of two others (Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia and Robert Jourdain's Music, The Brain, And Ecstasy)  in the hopes that at least one of them will provide more insight.  I want to understand this--  How can certain combinations of chords, melody, rhythm and, specifically for me, voice and words, sweep us to such intense heights of emotion?  How can a mere song inspire an addictive craving to hear it over and over and over again?  If anyone out there knows... please, explain it to me.

The latest song to have this effect on me is one that I first heard about a few weeks ago, when it was announced that Q Magazine was releasing a special issue including a bonus cd in tribute to U2's Achtung Baby.  Amongst the artists covering tracks from the original album was Jack White.  I immediately pulled up a video of U2's original to get an idea of what he'd be working with.

Took one listen for me to fall in love with the song.  I've never been an outright fan of U2, but this and other tunes like With Or Without You stir every romantic yearning I've ever had.  The blend of words, Bono's voice, and the music effectively brings me to tears.

But tonight... Tonight Jack's cover version was leaked onto the internet and moved me in a way I think nothing I've ever heard before has.  So many elements of it are typical of his style--  The interplay of acoustic and electric guitar, the high pitched vocals, the drama... but, at the same time, it's so very different from anything he's done before.  In this one song he's taken every one of those familiar elements to a higher level than I've heard from him before.  The man is known for passionate performances, most famously on the White Stripes cover of Jolene and the Raconteurs' Blue Veins, but this one contains a sustained tension and passion that tops anything I've heard from him yet.  As incredible as his own songwriting is, he's got a brilliantly uncanny ability to take other people's words and music and transform them into something so much more powerful than the original artist created.  I've been left with my eyes wide, my jaw dropped and my heart pounding, and I can't stop listening to it.   

Love is blindness
I don't want to see
Won't you wrap the night
Around me
Oh my heart
Love is blindness

In a parked car
In a crowded street
You see your love
Made complete
Thread is ripping
The knot is slipping
Love is blindness

Love is clockworks
And cold steel
Fingers too numb to feel
Squeeze the handle
Blow out the candle
Love is blindness

Love is blindness
I don't want to see
Won't you wrap the night
Around me
Oh my love

A little death
Without mourning
No call
And no warning
Baby...a dangerous idea
That almost makes sense

Love is drowning
In a deep well
All the secrets
And no one to tell
Take the money

Love is blindness
I don't want to see
Won't you wrap the night
Around me
Oh my love

From ology.com, a review of the song that uses words like "devastating" and "stunning" that I didn't have the presence of mind to summon up: Listen To Jack White Cover U2's "Love Is Blindness"