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Monday, February 20, 2017

Only Remembering Robert (Not Claiming to Mark a Damn Thing)

Greenwood Commonwealth, Mar 26, 1992.

by John Butch (in the Greenwood Commonwealth December 29, 1999)

Arthneice Jones has played the blues most of his life and doesn’t expect it to live much past his generation of musicians. Truth is, said Jones, a Glendora native in his mid-50s, the younger folks don’t know the blues he knew growing up in a rural, segregated, dead-end Mississippi. And they wouldn’t want to.

Walking down Issaquena Avenue during Clarksdale’s Sunflower Blues Festival this fall, Jones looked toward the refurbished train station that will house the expanded Delta Blues Museum. He then pointed beneath the railroad trestle to the decay of what used to be the “black” downtown where President Clinton stood for his photo opportunities during his July visit.


“The blues ain’t on this side of those tracks,” Jones' said. “It’s on that side.”

Many say the blues are as dead as the legendary Robert Johnson in the Delta, killed by the mechanical cotton picker and technology, the depths of yesteryears pain soothed by todays easy comforts and universal civil rights.

Musically, it has given way to hip-hop, soul, country - nothing resembling the piteous moan of Johnson’s vocals. A few older players still teach, but more in the manner of historians keeping a traditional craft alive than as a living, evolving art form. Socially, Jones maintains, life has become too comfortable and predictable for even the most down-and-out. 

James Thomas Jr., whose father Son Thomas was one of the Delta’s more well-known latter-day bluesmen, said he sings to honor his father’s memory. Thomas hopes the next generation of African Americans rediscovers the blues and adopts it as its heritage.

“When I go play, it’s something for him and me to go promote his music--to get everybody to feel the blues,” Thomas said of his father. “Like he said, there’s a lot of ways to feel the blues. Have a good woman, she quits you, that’s the blues. Ain’t got no money, that’s the blues. You know if you’re broke you got the blues right there. I’m living a life of music I hope will mean more later on.

A $10,000 cenotaph honors a person buried elsewhere--the legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson--at the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church cemetery in Morgan City. The other side has a photo of Johnson (right). NO BIRTH OR DEATH DATES--a prime indicator of grave markers.


Tom Hagenaars, 33 (left) and Irene Smits, 31, both of the Netherlands, share stories about Johnson with Bert Robertson, Greenwood fire-fighter and former Morgan City. catfish farmer, and Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church pastor the Rev. James Ratliff Jr. (right). while looking through guide books in the Mt. Zion cemetery where Johnson is not buried but honored like a BOSS.

“He died back in 1938, and I didn't even get on this earth until 1948," said James Ratliff Jr., pastor of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, where Robert Johnson is reportedly buried. Ratliff said he believes Johnson's body would have been buried away from the church near the highway. “lt he was out here at all,” he said.

What’s left are the memories, museums and the music. And the legacy of the musicians. In Morgan City, for instance. they come from around the world to pay homage to Robert Johnson.

Once there, visitors like Dutch couple Tom Hagenaars and Irene Smits do the things common to modern-day pilgrims who seek cultural icons where their ancestors might have sought religion. They compare notes with their travel guide. Pose for pictures with the “King of the Delta Blues Singers” monument erected in Johnson’s honor, and chat with the Rev. James Ratliff`Jr. of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, where a $10000 stone obelisk stands on the spot where Johnson's ole evil spirit would have caught that afterlife Greyhound Bus, and took off smooth into the never...... 

Hagenaars. 31, doesn’t play an instrument, Smits confided as her boyfriend circled the monument. Smits, 25, watched as Hagenaars carefully stepped over plastic flowers, beads. cigarette butts, guitar picks and other flotsam left as Johnson’s tribute - reading every word of the rich engraving. He lives for the music, she said. “lt`s because I`m a big Rolling Stones fan that we came. If you dig deeper into their music, you have to come here," Hagenaars said. He was delighted to find Love In Vain, which the Stones covered on their 1969 album Let It Bleed, at the top of the list of Johnson’s songs etched into the marker

Don‘t Get Their Due

With few exceptions - the obvious being BB. King, who has transcended the genre by recording with major stars across the rock and pop universe, and John Lee Hooker, who no longer records because of ill health -- white musicians from the Stones to Erie Clapton to the late Stevie Ray Vaughn to Johnny Lang have become the blues guitar heroes.

"Disco and rap music got the rap generation with Boom! Boom! Got the one beat to it." Thomas said. "Lot of young whites play good blues and are really interested in it. I think the white players like it because of the feeling they have, something really fascinating – the sound. The feeling is different, but a good blues sound is good music and they like to listen to it.”

Wade Walton. 76, a Clarksdale barber for 55 years. signed his first blues recording contract in 1958. He said many of the white players like Vaughn and the local bands that circulate through Southern blues festivals have the music. But they don’t have the personal experience to make it original. “The way we lived was a lot of it. When they come to town, they had a curfew, 12 o’clock. That was for black people,” he said “I’ve been mistreated in this town. The police, they was all white then, used to go upside my head with a blackjack.”

Walton said he began wearing his trademark barber’s coat as a form of identification, hoping police would recognize him and leave him alone: “The blues come from that kind of stuff. Hard times. Good times. No money. The blues come from that. I wouldn’t think a lot of the kids understand. A lot don’t pay attention to it. They don’t seem to get into the blues.”

An Early Lesson

Marco Stewart, a Clarksdale native, learned about the blues sitting in Walton’s barber chair as a kid. The older man played harmonica and the strop, beating out time as he sharpened his razor on the thick leather.

A successful West Coast rap and R&B producer, Stewart is attempting to showcase some of the old blues artists as well as expose the Delta to other live music through Mingles Sports Bar & Coffee House. The first of what he hopes will become a Delta franchise has opened in Clarksdale’s train depot, which he’d like to see turned into a miniature Beale Street.

Stewart said he plays around with the blues but never plays it. It does, he said, influence his musical style as a producer. "lt takes listening to someone who created it and was around it years and years. You never get the full understanding of it in a week or two weeks: it`s impossible. That’s why you’ve got to have so much respect for old blues," Stewart said.

“I don’t see that much of it anymore. Not that that’s bad, but you can’t take away from what was real. Years ago, in the '50s and ’60s. it was real. Now, basically, we’re just copycats. We’re trying to copy the style, trying to copy Muddy Waters and Ike Turner. If we want to keep that tradition alive, it takes time, practice and dedication. You really have to be sincere with it.”

To countless thousands of visitors from around the world, the Delta, with its vast cotton fields, cypress swamps and rich, flat land, is the blues. This is the land that spawned King and Hooker. Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. Son House and, of course, the man whose grave Hagenaars came to see.

It can be argued that without Mississippi’s bluesmen, seminal British rock bands like the Stones, the Yardbirds, Cream and Led Zeppelin never would have existed. Their albums carry songwriting credits by Mississippi-born bluesmen, many of whom left to form the core of the Chicago blues scene.

Ratliff had never heard of Johnson until 1991, when a New Jersey music preservationist approached his congregation with the idea of placing a monument in the cemetery where Johnson was once rumored to be buried. That’s after the Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Quito, a couple of miles north on Mississippi 3, which [IS NOT HIS BURIAL SITE], turned down the opportunity. Johnson, as history tells it, was poisoned by a jealous woman after performing in a Three Forks honkytonk. [PROBLEM WAS THAT THREE FORKS IS UP NEAR FORT PEMBERTON NOT QUITO] 

“Some of the older people don`t think the blues ought to have no connection with religion,” said Payne Chapel church deacon Richard Johnson, no relation. And certainly not with Robert Johnson, whom legend has it sold his soul to the devil at a Delta crossroads.

Mount Zion had no such qualms regarding Johnson, Ratliff said. “He died in 1938, and I didn’t even get on this earth until 1948,” he said. “I’ve always been open-minded. Blues don’t have nothing to do with salvation. If you believe in Jesus, that’s all you need to do. There’s no harm in this monument out here. Folks could use churching up.”

Ratliff believes Johnson’s body was probably buried by an old oak tree near the road in the Mount Zion cemetery. “if he was out here at all." The Payne Chapel contingent, who have since laid a small headstone with Johnson’s name on it in their cemetery, have the word of one of Johnson’s old girlfriends “before she got too old and started forgetting.” Richard Johnson said. The dispute is friendly enough. Both churches get their share of visitors. [NOT TOO MUCH ANYMORE]

International Language

Bert Robertson. a Greenwood firefighter and former Morgan City catfish farmer had never heard of Johnson either until the tourists began coming in. Though Robertson has met visitors from all over the world two bewildered Japanese tourists encountered in the Morgan City post office rank among the most memorable.

Robertson speaks no Japanese. Their English wasn’t much better. After failing to understand “Where grabe?" - repeated loudly a number of times apparently to overcome the language barrier. Robertson said one of the tourists tried another phrase. Only later, Robertson said, did he figure out it was air attempt at "blues singer." 

Frustrated. one finally began playing an air guitar. “I said, `Oh, Robert Johnson. Come with me. I`ll show you where he is.` " Robertson said, laughing at the memory. “They came all this way and couldn’t even speak English. They flew from Japan to Los Angeles and drove a car to Morgan City to see this. “It happens all the time."