Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mt. Zion in SCLC: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference National Magazine

Marking the Blues (1998)
By Anne Rochelle
Duncan, Miss. — Rosetta Patton Brown wasn't there when they buried her father, Charley Patton, the first great Delta blues man, in an unmarked grave at the edge of a plantation in Holly Ridge.

“We got lost,” she recalled, still surprised 64 years later.

It was 1934, and Brown was a teenager when her father died after a gig one night—from a heart condition—at age 43. Her mother and stepfather were driving her to the funeral when they lost their way. By the time they made it to the cemetery, the body was covered up.

"I cried so hard," says Brown, now 80 and a widow living among her children and grandchildren in Duncan, a Mississippi Delta town not far from Holly Ridge. She spits a wad of chew into a basket next to her fuzzy-slippered feet. "I wanted to see the body."

Brown didn't miss the second service honoring her father.  It was in 1991, when a new headstone was placed at his grave in the corner of the old cemetery, between railroad tracks and a cotton gin.

Rock star John Fogerty didn't miss it either. Nor did Delta blues legend Pops Staples. There were cameras and speeches, and a new fancy headstone decorated with a black-and-white photograph of a young Charley Patton. The carved epitaph reads, "The Voice of the Delta: The foremost performer of early Mississippi blues whose songs became the cornerstones of American music." The stone stands out like a Cadillac in a junkyard; the graves around it are marked with names carved crudely into concrete slabs or wooden crosses, and many of them have fallen over or sunk into the soft, black soil.

Also at the ceremony was the blues fan who made the new marker possible: Skip Henderson, a former social worker and music store owner from New Jersey who founded the Mount Zion Memorial Fund in 1991 to honor deceased blues musicians from the Mississippi Delta.

"It was just going to be Robert Johnson, but there were so many of these blues legends with no headstones," Henderson recalls, explaining how the project got started. He named the fund for the little church in Morgan City where, a few months before the Patton service, he placed the first memorial, which was to Johnson, the blues singer who inspired the Rolling Stones and other rock greats and who claimed he sold his soul to the devil to get his guitar-playing gift.

The Mount Zion Fund has erected eight markers and unveiled the ninth March 14 in Hollandale, for Sam Chatmon. Henderson has at least four others in mind.

"It's a well-intentioned project," says Howard Stovall, executive director of the Blues Foundation in Memphis. "It has focused attention on the fact that even though these musicians are well-known, and their music is still popular, their fame is not reflected in their final resting place."

Mt. Zion Memorial Fund Preserves 'Holy Ground' Landmarks

Mt. Zion Memorial Fund
Preserves 'Holy Ground' Landmarks 
By Panny Mayfield - 1990 


In the first EVER newspaper article written about the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund (Panny Mayfield, Clarksdale Press Register, November 24, 1990), founder Skip Henderson makes it plainly known that the obelisk
near Morgan City was never intended to mark a grave.

"It's a great shame Mississippi has endured an unfair reputation," for events that happened 60 to 80 years ago. These are "faded snapshots people carry in their mind. There’s more violence in two days in New York City than in a whole year in Mississippi." 

These comments are from a telephone interview with vintage guitar dealer Raymond "Skip" Henderson of New Brunswick, N.J. Henderson, who is featured in the Nov. 12 issue of Newsweek Magazine in a Prominent article "There's Blues in the News" will be in Clarksdale this weekend. 

An avid blues enthusiast who first came to Clarksdale a number of years ago at the urging of ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons to visit the Delta Blues Museum, Henderson is personally responsible for a blues preservation campaign of his own. 

Its focus is the blues giant Robert Johnson immortalized as the modern-day Faust who sold his soul to the devil at the "Crossroads" to play the guitar. Although much of Johnson's life and death in 1938 is a mystery, his intense music is legendary. The recent remastering of his records by Columbia Records has been a surprise best-seller, sky-rocketing on the Billboard charts and drawing national media attention. 

Describing Johnson's music in the recent Newsweek article, Columbia producer Lawrence Cohn says "There is so much emotion there, I find it .disturbing." What New Jersey blues fan Skip Henderson finds disturb-ing through all the hoopla is the possible exploitation of blues sites in Mississippi. 

What New Jersey blues fan Skip Henderson finds disturbing through all the hoopla is the possible exploitation of blues sites in Mississippi.

In awe of 10 counties of Mississippi which Henderson says produced the roots of America's major musical culture, he labels the landmarks, "holy ground." 

In his business he's witnessed European and Japanese collectors zapping up American-made guitars. "They're a active and rabid group of collectors." 

"One night I sat straight up in bed," he said. 

What if some obsessed collectors found about the lien on Mt. Zion Church where Robert Johnson is supposed to be buried, bought it and put up a gift shop advertising 'See Robert Johnson 's grave." 

The threat of this potential desecration sent Henderson into action.' 

Through Clarksdale attorney Walker Sims, Henderson organized a non-profit corporation to raise donations to pay off the church's indebtedness. 

According to Sims, CBS Records has pledged $10,000 and a number of smaller donations have come in. 

Mt. Zion Church, pastored by the Rev. James Ratliff of Hollandale, has services once a month. Sims says it is located in a bean field in Leflore County between Morgan City and Itta Bena. 

Donations to the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund: Inc. will pay off the church's debt for repairs, plumbing work, and pews, Henderson says. Funds also will be used to clear the cemetery and put up a marker. 



"The marker an obelisk will not claim to be Johnson's grave site. It will be an historic marker placed near the highway," says Henderson. 

Although Henderson admits he may be viewed by many of the congregation as someone "who walked off a spaceship" he's looking forward to attending church services there. 

"I'm trying to return something to the people of the Delta. People will come to realize the area's vast richness." 

On his visits here Henderson says he has been struck by the state's poverty, but also by its "great beauty." "I'm taken by Mississippi." 

Donations to the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund Fund may be sent to P.O. Box 1114, Oxford, MS 38655. OR www.gofundme.com/headstonebluesinitiative


Saturday, April 22, 2017

John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson

John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson Remembered
By Dan Morris

On a hilltop, under an oak in southwest Madison County, a tombstone is adorned with harmonicas and coins left by visitors.

Aside from songbirds and gusts of wind that rustle the leaves, it is a quiet place, far removed from the boisterous nightclubs of south Chicago in the 1940s.

John Lee Curtis "Sonny Boy" Williamson is buried beneath that stone, but his legend lives on in the world of blues music. He made his name in Chicago as a musician, singer and songwriter and is regarded as the first great blues harmonica player.

Sonny Boy was born 100 years ago today near his grave. Artists still record his songs and at-tempt to duplicate his magic with a harmonica.

He was 34 and enjoying another nationwide hit with his recording of "Shake the Boogie" when he was murdered in Chicago in 1948.

His wife, Lacey Belle Davidson, brought him home, granting the request he made known in a verse of one of his songs: "I want my body buried in Jackson, Tennessee."

Mentor Mourned



William "Billy Boy" Arnold was 12 when Sonny Boy died. Hearing the news was the most shocking moment of his young life.

"I rang the doorbell of his apartment house on Giles Street here in Chicago," Arnold said. "He lived on the second floor. A lady stuck her head out of a window and asked who I was looking for. I said, 'Sonny Boy.' She said, `Oh, baby, ain't you heard? He got killed.'"

"I was so sad," Arnold said. "Sonny Boy was my buddy. He was going to show me how to play the harmonica like he did." 

Arnold had heard Sonny Boy's records and was in love with the music. He got a harmonica and tried to play like his idol. When he discovered that Sonny Boy lived nearby, he recruited a cousin and friend to go with him to try to meet Sonny Boy. 

Obituary: David Kimbrough

David Kimbrough, Musician
Obituary, The Clarion Ledger, 1998

HOLLY SPRINGS — David "Junior" Kimbrough, 67, a professional musician and a former employee of Holly Springs John Deere Tractor & Equipment Co., died of heart failure at Holly Springs Memorial Hospital on January 17, 1998. 

Services were noon the following Saturday at Doxey Auditorium, Rust College, with burial in Kimbrough Chapel Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery in Hudsonville.

Visitation was at eleven a.m. the following Friday at J F Brittenum & Son Funeral Home.

Kimbrough was a Holly Springs native. He was a member of Kimbrough Chapel M.B. Baptist Church. According to his daughter, Patricia Hawthorne of Memphis, he played blues guitar since the 1950s, but his music gained popularity in the 1990s after recording his first album, Do the Rump.  He played blues festivals throughout the United States and Europe and was featured in Newsweek and National Geographic.

“He loved people and playing in juke joints,” she said. “His life was playing for the audience.”  She said her father's last recordings will be released this year. "He is a legend in North Mississippi blues," she said. "Through his music, his legend will live on."

Survivors include: wife, Mildred; sons, the Rev Larry Kimbrough of Abilene, Texas, Da-vid Malone of Memphis, Kent Malone of Chulahoma and Robert Malone and Larry Washington, both of Holly Springs; daughters, Addie Boga and Patricia Hawthorne, both of Memphis, Effie Gray of Aurora, Ill., and Shirley Richmond of Byhalia; and 42 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.


Friday, April 14, 2017

Welcome and Project Updates


On-going Campaigns:

Bo Carter
Belton Sutherland

Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church (f. 1909) 

The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund (MZMF) is a Mississippi non-profit corporation named after Mount Zion Missionary Baptist (MB) Church (f. 1909) outside Morgan City, Mississippi. Organized in 1989 by Raymond ‘Skip’ Henderson, the Fund memorialized the contributions of numerous musicians interred in rural cemeteries without grave markers, serving as a legal conduit to provide financial support to black church communities and cemeteries in the Mississippi Delta. The MZMF erected twelve memorials to blues musicians over a 12 year period from 1990 to 2001. 


Deacon Booker T. Young and MZMF director 
DeWayne Moore in front of the present day 
Mt. Zion MB Church on the same site

The renewed efforts of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund since 2010 have been spearheaded by T. DeWayne Moore, a historian and scholar based out of Oxford, Mississippi. The relatives of Tommy Johnson and other interments in Warm Springs CME Church Cemetery obtained a permanent fifteen foot wide and half-a-mile long easement to the important site due in large part to efforts and compelling arguments of Moore, who took over as executive director in January 2014. Under his leadership, the military markers of Henry "Son" Simms and Jackie Brenston were located and restored. The MZMF has dedicated five new memorials--the headstone of Frank Stokes in the abandoned Hollywood Cemetery, Memphis, TN; the flat companion stone of Ernest "Lil' Son Joe" Lawlars in Walls, MS; and in Greenville, MS, the flat markers of T-Model Ford and Eddie Cusic, and the unique, yet humble, headstone of Mamie "Galore" Davis. In addition, the MZMF monitors legal actions involving cemeteries and provides technical assistance to cemetery corporations and community preservationists in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Mississippi, and South Carolina, such as the Friends of Hollywood/Mt. Carmel Cemeteries, which assists in restoring these two massive and abandoned African American cemeteries in Memphis "back to a beautiful place of rest for all" interments, including Frank Stokes and Furry Lewis.

Barbecue and Blues in Bayport

The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund wants to thank Chris Johnson for holding a benefit in support of our efforts to honor blues musicians by keeping their graves clean in Mississippi.   Here is a laudatory piece from the Minnesota Tribune from Summer 2014.  The restaurant has since exploded in popularity, but no longer serves as a live music venue/juke joint. Not since Nov 2015.

Not your daddy's blues at St. Croix River area barbecue joint.
By Anthony Lonetree - Aug 31, 2014


Not far from the Andersen Windows plant in Bayport is a barbecue place that billed itself (until November 2015) as a juke joint, and while not quite raucous, it's most definitely loose.

One night last week, there was no cover for the music, and no charge for a buffet of Texas-style barbecued chicken, pork and ribs. Everything but the beer, the wine and the moon-shine could be had for tips only — if customers were so inclined, of course. Jars were positioned onstage and on the band's merchandise table.
Minnesota
Star Tribune
Oct 17, 2014


And, yes, you read it right — moonshine, or white corn whiskey. There is no gin-and-tonic, and no light beer, either, at Bayport BBQ, 328 5th Av. N.

Free barbecue is not standard at the club; there were special circumstances involved on Tuesday night. Still, one gets the sense that Bayport BBQ owner Chris Johnson likes to improvise. Whether a band plays inside or outside — or, in the case of the group Gravel-Road, of Seattle, an hour earlier than scheduled — you can't be too sure.

Not to be questioned, however, is Johnson's love for the music of the passionate outsiders who fall under the wide umbrella of "deep blues." Johnson gambled and lost — financially — when he staged a few deep blues festivals before he opened his barbecue joint on Halloween 2010 to support and showcase the acts and their hard-edge sounds.

Seven days a week, Bayport BBQ offers a lunch buffet, and on a recent Friday afternoon, the clientele included a father and his son and a few groups in crisp casual work attire. Playing on a TV in the corner of the room was a live music performance featuring local roots-rocker Molly Maher. Under the screen was taped a message that read: "We are a music venue and will not turn down the music. You are certainly welcome to take your food to go."

Asked if his goal is to gain attention for the quality of the barbecued meats or to sim-ply offer them up to make the music possible, Johnson said that he sometimes will hear people say, "Pick who you are," restaurant or music venue.

To that, he replies: "We are what we are. If you like Texas barbecue and have an interest in food, we have that for you. And if it's the music, we've had bands call us from around the world to play here. We are a destination." Another way to look at it, he said, would be: "We aren't for everyone?' That's the slogan on the back of the club's T-shirts.



Thursday, April 13, 2017

Rappers Say Family Values Important

Rappers Say Family Values Important
By Anita M. Samuels - July 9, 1992


Behind the facade of a traditional-looking four-bed-room house in Jamaica Estates. Queens, the sound of the "Christian pianist," Dino Kartsonakis, blares on an elaborate stereo system. “At home we listen to cool-out music," declares the owner, Rev. Joseph Simmons — Reverend Run of the rap group Run-DMC.


Simmons, at the breakfast counter of his black, white, and red art-deco-style kitchen is trying to get his 5-year-old son, Jo-Jo, to stop gulping fruit juice. Nearby are his daughters, Vanessa, 12, and Angela, 7, and his 5-month-old son, Daniel.  Jo-Jo starts to cough. “Stop drinking it so fast," Simmons admonishes him, as his wife, Justine, pats the child's back.

This scene is typical in many families. But in a society that often perceives rap songs as the stealth missiles of smut and rap performers to be angry, misogynistic, and perhaps even criminal, such a family portrait would not sell records.

Which is why rap artists, perhaps more than other performers, have two distinctly different personalities: a public one and a private one.

Rap artists see themselves differently, at least when they are at home. They say society fails to realize that they, too, are trying to raise their children with “family values.”  Though in public they tend to put on a tough edge, many rap stars express the same fears for their children that other parents experience.

Of a dozen rappers interviewed—among them the Notorious BIG, from Brooklyn; Hammer, based in California; and Monie Love, who lives in Secaucus. NJ—most said they exercise what they see as their parental right to screen what their children see and hear. Often, that means their children do not see their own videos or hear their music.

Two who consider themselves hard-core rappers—Notorious B.I.G. who is awaiting trial on assault and robbery charges; and Kool G Rap of' Phoenix, AZ—say they are struggling to leave their gangsta personae at the front door and walk through it as old-fashioned fathers, shielding their children from the life that they rap about. They argue that in rap they can call women “hoes” and “bitches” and support the slaying of police officers without affecting their own children. and say it is the responsibility of other parents to explain to their children that the world includes bad women and bad police officers.

“I would advise parents to not be lazy and expect the media to raise their kids and stop looking for a scapegoat whenever things go wrong,” said Monie Love, 26. who has a 4-year-old daughter and lives in Secaucus. N.J. She tries to keep the child away from the more profane lyrics and lewd videos. "But if something slips through the barriers and she starts asking questions, I tell her this is not for you." Love said.

Darlene Powell Hopson, a clinical psychologist and author with her husband, Derek Hopson, of the book, Different and Wonderful: Raising Black Children in a Race Conscious Society (Simon & Schuster), said parents who are also rappers often display compartmentalization, by “explaining away” or denying the negativity of rap's messages.

"They shouldn't really focus on certain types of lyrics and expect it not to affect the kids," Hopson said. "As parents we can't just talk the talk; we have to walk the walk."

This is a telling time for the world of gangsta rap, as it is attacked by politicians like Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, who has called it a destroyer of the nation's social fabric. He has chastised Time Warner for its ownership of Interscope Records, which produces gangsta sap artists like Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur, who have particularly violent messages (Shakur was convicted of sexual abuse and is serving a prison term; Snoop Doggy Dogg is awaiting trial on charges that he participated in a drive-by murder.) Time Warner is trying to sell the label.

Many rap stars who have been sensitive to the issue say they do not want their children — who range in age from several months old to the early teens — to adopt their lifestyles. Like many parents, they say they want their children to go to college and have careers. And for them, rapping is not a 365-clay-a-year life style.

"I am not hip-hop 24 hours a day and I don't play my music in the house." said the Notorious B.I.G. who says he does not know who Dole is. "When I am home, I lay around, snuggle up and play games with my daughter." His wife, Faith Evans, says that the girl, who is 2, picks up "little words here and there," but adds "that's where parenting comes in." Evans does not think rap music is dangerous. “If there weren't guns and drugs there would be nothing to rap about.'' she said.

Simmons's children are limited to listening to the versions of rap music that are played on the radio, which have no profanity. “I can't have them listening to the craziest gangsta rap, it's crazy to me." he said. His own group, Run-DMC, is known for its relatively innocuous rap lyrics.

KRS-One, who weaves mini-lessons about black history into his songs, and MC Shan, a veteran known for his braggadocio, said they allow their children to hear and see all types of rap performers as long as they are followed by explanations from the parents.

Hurricane, a rapper who lives in Atlanta and is the disk jockey for the Beastie Boys, said he explains to his four children, the oldest of whom is 10, that what they are hearing is just a record, or a video, that it doesn't mean it's actually happening. "I let them know that a camera is there and that they can't just listen to a song and go bust someone in the head."

Both he and his wife, Dawn, insist that their children follow their value system. which includes staying in school and "picking the right friends." They enforce those values with spankings, and the loss of video-game privileges. "They al-ready know, once they start disrespecting us, it's time to go," he said.

Some rap artists are taking an active stance against negative messages. A new album, "Jazzmatazz" (EMI) by the rapper Guru, recorded with other artists, addresses the issue head-on, saying in one song, "Watch What You Say," that rappers who put out songs with negative messages are "weaklings" whose words are "pointless."

Hopson thinks all rap should offer positive messages, encouraging listeners to do productive things. "Rappers should attempt to show some degree of social consciousness in their music." she said. "It's hypocritical in music to have certain attitudes perpetuated. While their own kids know what they see is not real, how do others distinguish between the two?" she asked.

KRS-One, who lives in Englewood, N.J., doesn't find the way he is raising his two sons hypocritical at all. "I show them the good and bad of society," he says. "If you just show one aspect of rap, it's damaging because they are not getting the truth, but rather a made-up version."


What about rappers' misogynistic references? How do their wives react? Faith Evans, who is married to the Notorious B.I.G., doesn't object. "Now that I'm married to him I really see what happens with groupies and women in general. I'm not offended. If the shoe fits, wear it," she said. If his daughter should ask why he does this kind of rap music, he said he would tell her, "It's just a job to me."

Tutwiler - Tom Dumas

TUTWILER
“mainly a town of old  people”
By Murphy Givens - 1979
© Jimmy Dempsey August 26, 1979 Jackson Clarion Ledger
THIS SMALL Delta town lies on the map an index finger north of Jackson and a ring-finger's length south of Memphis. It is the railroad junction where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog. The town sits pretty much in the center of the Mississippi Delta, which is as much a state of mind as a geographically defined place. People tell you the Delta is, well, the Delta, as if to say that is all the explanation needed, or as if the Delta is beyond description. One of the best quotes comes from David Cohn. which is often mistakenly attributed to William Faulkner. The Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.”


It owes its official allegiance to Jackson, but it is north toward Memphis that the Delta looks. It is Memphis where the Delta Blues were “hearsed and rehearsed” giving the country a new style of music unlike anything else in the world. And it is to Memphis, first, where the Delta poor escape, trading the hot dusty fields for the steamy city asphalt.

But the Blues came straight from the dusty fields and the Saturday night juke-joints of the Delta, and it was in the small town of Tutwiler where W.C. Handy, known as the originator of the unique ballad form, first heard this haunting music.

In his book The Father of the Blues, Handy says: "One night at Tutwiler, as I nodded in the railroad station while waiting for a train that had been delayed nine hours, life suddenly took me by the shoulders and wakened me with a start.

"A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags: his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar... The effect was un-forgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. “Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog.”

THAT IS ONE of two reasons for the visit to Tutwiler. There is a footnote to Handy's Tutwiler experience in a Mississippi historical brochure of a decade ago, and it shows a picture of man named Lee Kizart, called "a current Blues singer in Tutwiler."

I wanted to talk to Kizart about the Blues. And secondly, after living in Mississippi for eight years, it was time to test my toes in the Delta. There is just too much sung and written about it. One has to see for himself what all the commotion is about.

When visiting Jerry Clower in Yazoo City, he stopped his Cadillac at the top of a modest hill and pointed north. That is the Delta, and this is the last hill for...awhile." It is said that no two hills are exactly alike, but every-where on earth plains are one and the same. Texas and Oklahoma are no different from the Pampas in South America. Flat land is flat land. But that is not true of the Delta. It has that sameness, true, but it also has an infinite variety if one looks close enough.

The Delta is a great field of green plants — cotton and soybean — with dirt roads straight as plumb lines running at perpendicular angles off Highway 49, through the fields.

The monotony of all that flatness is broken by deserted brown-shingled tenant houses, sitting in the middle of the fields. They once housed share-croppers who have long since fled to the cities. It has been many years now that the weary backs gave way to the bright new machines — startling green cotton pickers that can swallow eight rows of cotton at a time, moving down the rows faster than 50 field hands.

Looking at the ungothic shacks, I remembered some-thing in a story about a letter found in an old abandoned home, something written from one sister to another that said, "We are not like to ever see each other again.”

“Singing & Living the Blues, But T-Model Ford Keeps Rolling On”

“Singing & Living the Blues, 
But T-Model Ford Keeps Rolling On”
By Donna St. George, Staff Writer
Philadelphia Inquirer, February 10, 1991
GREENVILLE, Miss. — His girlfriend died four days earlier, just collapsed at their bedside in the middle of the night, and T-Model Ford is hurting bad. Real bad. He talks about his beloved Jessie until his lined face wrinkles with pain.

"The finest woman I ever had in my life," he says sadly, thumbing through scratched Polaroid photographs of her at the car-repair garage where he helps out when he's not playing his guitar.

Ford is an old-time bluesman, little known except in the Mississippi Delta. There, in small towns that dot flat fields of cotton, he plays ram-shackle juke joints on weekends and scrapes together a meager existence in the hard living, hard-luck blues tradition.

His are bedrock blues of poverty and heartbreak, raw and roughshod, performed largely in obscurity. They recall the way the blues started — as the emotionally powerful, sustaining songs of plantation workers in the deep South.

In recent years, the blues have taken on more voices. Artists like Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan have turned a contemporary style of blues into a popular, multimillion dollar industry. And there is a generation of those who play Delta blues with the urban flourishes of a B.B. King.

Fewer are down-home traditionalists like Ford.

On this recent day, blues beguile this Delta bluesman. Ford is recalling that his "baby" was sweet, that they never argued, that she applauded him at every bar he played in for three years. Grief shines through his dark eyes.

Before long, T-Model Ford is plucking away at his heartache, a sound loud and dark and lusty. Right there in the middle of the greasy garage. "Ohhh, baby, honey, what's wrong?" he bellows, the paced, twangy music from his electric guitar overpowering his verse.

(c) Bill Steber
Ford is playing his concert in the garage as if he were playing Saturday night on Greenville's raucous Nelson Street. This burst of blues started after someone asked about his music. Ford was happy to demonstrate, and his guitar was stowed nearby, in his carpet-walled red van.

Now, in his smudged blue jeans and muddy work shoes — surrounded by dead engines and open hoods — his left foot taps, his head bobs and one song bleeds into an-other. All are about love and women. "I know you been around making honey, darlin', but you're going to sail back home."

It's an expansive sound from a small, resilient man. At 66, Ford is thin, with a thin black mustache, his hair showing only touches of gray; a gold cap on his front tooth is cut in the shape of a star. He drove logging trucks for a long stretch of his life, and a few serious accidents have left him with a bad knee and a stiff gait.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Clarksdale Historian Gives Famous Tours

Robert Birdsong: 
Clarksdale Historian Gives Famous Tours
By:Marshall Drew
 
“Everybody is going to learn something they didn't know," Birdsong says of his tours. "Even I learn new stuff all the time, and that's what keeps it interesting for me."

Listening to Robert Birdsong discuss Clarksdale's history is revelatory to the point of overwhelming. Stories of neighborhoods, businesses and people ranging from Hernando DeSoto to Sam Cooke fly from his lips as he hands you an impressive array of old photographs and documents. His love of history is obvious, and it is a passion he developed as a child growing up in downtown Clarksdale.

"Polly Clark [of Clarksdale's founding Clark family, lived across the street from my mother, and I would go visit Polly," Birdsong remembers. "She had hundreds of arrowheads and pieces of Indian pottery, and she would tell me stories about the Indians and the settlers. I grew up in what was the Tennessee Williams area of Downtown, so there was history everywhere you'd turn."

As a child, Birdsong also became familiar with the sounds of the delta blues, sneaking off to the black side of town in the highly-segregated Clarksdale of the early 1960s.

"By age seven, I was riding a bicycle," he remembers. "And the first instructions my father gave me were, 'Don't go across the railroad tracks!' So that was the first place I went. The blues bands played up and down Issaquena and in the clubs.

"In the daytime, I'd come to the Stag, which was a domino parlor, and I'd rack balls. Normally the black kids did the job, but I played with them, I knew them, so I was a rack boy too."

At the time, the young white boy was often chastised for socializing with local black people.

"I wasn't supposed to be over there," Birdsong says. "The police would run you off all the time: 'You know you're not supposed to be here!'"

Birdsong's love of culture, history, and blues music continued into his adult years. He joined the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival Association during the festival's early years, and he soon took notice of Clarksdale's growing status as a tourist destination.

"I'd see tourists at the Delta Blues Museum and walking around downtown," he says. "I'd ask them what they were looking for, what interested them, and I'd offer to show them around. Knowing the places downtown, I knew where to take them."

Over time, Birdsong's simple acts of southern hospitality developed into full-fledge tours. In the past decade, his tours have informed and entertained tourists, students, journalists and even Clarksdale's locals looking to learn more about their town.

So where might you go on a Birdsong Tour? Well, you'd probably start downtown, where Birdsong would tell you about WC Handy and his discovery of Clarksdale, responsible for exposing the blues to the world. You'd visit the Greyhound bus station, where millions of African Americans, including iconic figures like Muddy Waters, made their historic migration to the North in search of a better life.

From there you would head to the corner of Tallahatchie and Martin Luther King, the original "Crossroads" of Highway 61 and 49, overlooking the New World District, home to what was once known as the toughest crowd in all of the blues.

"If you could make it in the New World District," Birdsong explains, "you could make it as a bluesman."

From there you might head to the Riverside Hotel, where legendary blues and jazz singer Bessie Smith died in 1973. Then you might head to the birthplace and childhood home of rock n' roll pioneer Ike Turner. And after all these sites, you would have only covered a few blocks worth of Clarksdale's rich history.

Whether you're interested in the blues, Native Americans, or Tennessee Williams, Birdsong has a route picked out for you.

"People get a real sense of history and culture," Birdsong says of his tours. "You get to understand how important Clarksdale was and still is."

While his tours have been successful, even garnering a mention in The New York Times, they are, in Birdsong's words, "nothing that pays the bills." He still keeps his day job as a 26-year veteran of the Clarksdale Fire Department. Nevertheless, Birdsong remains passionate about his tours and exposing Clarksdale's history as well as its people.

"People are amazed by us," he says. "We’re used to the fact that people who don't know you will wave at you, but for visitors, that's incredible. It’s the people here that will always bring them back. The history is just the icing on the cake."