Booba Barnes: Living the Blues

Booba Barnes: Living the Blues
Story by Robert L. Koenig for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch 1990

"The blues is more or less a feeling that you get from something that you think is wrong, or something that somebody did wrong to you...and the onliest way you have to tell it would be through a song." - Li'l Son Jackson, bluesman

GREENVILLE, Miss.

HE'S PLAYED Jook joints on Arkansas' dusty back roads, blues clubs on Chicago's South Side and smoky bars on mean streets in East St. Louis.

But after 40 years of singing the blues, Roosevelt "Booba" Barnes made it to his own club — a place where the dance floor is bare concrete, the stage light comes from naked bulbs and many of the fans are hookers who wander in from Nelson Street.

"Barnes' Playboy Club" reads the faded sign, painted on a sheet of graying plywood, warped from the sun and rain. There's no cover charge and not much to drink —just beer and soda at the bar.

But the club offers plenty of music by a 54 year-old bluesman who can play the electric guitar with his teeth, who duckwalks like Chuck Berry and sometimes jumps into the crowd to dance while he sings.

After a career that took him from blowing harmonica at age 7 to playing with big blues bands in Chicago in the 1960s, Barnes finally cut his own album — "Heart-Broken Man" — to be released this month by Rooster Blues Records in Clarksdale, Miss.

Like Barnes, the Mississippi Delta blues have been around a long time. And they've seen better days, back when singers like Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Son House roamed the Delta with their guitars. But the Delta blues may well be coming back.

Jim O'Neal ought to know. He owns Rooster Blues and the Stackhouse record shop In Clarksdale. He was a founder of "Living Blues" magazine and helped put together Clarksdale's Delta Blues Museum. Now O'Neal is compiling a Delta blues history map.

Some sites in that fertile delta along Highway 61:

The weed-overgrown gin at the vast Dockery Plantation and the old sharecropper house nearby where Patton began playing the blues.
 The weathered "shotgun" shack outside of Clarksdale where bluesman Muddy Waters grew up.
The gravestone of harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson in the weeds outside an abandoned church near Tutwiler, Miss.
The site of the Tutwiler railroad station, where W.C. Handy said he first realized the potential of the blues as he listened to an old man playing the guitar in 1903.

That old train station is gone now, and downtown Tutwiler looks like a ghost town. The young people listen to rap and pop music on their radios, and many of the old folks don't listen at all.

"Blues left here a long, long time ago, " said Will McClinton, 100, who has lived In Tutwiler since 1916. 'Trains gone, and the station's gone too.

Used to be a lot A music here." Used to be a lot of blues played all over the Delta, the fertile plain that stretches southward from Memphis  'long the Mississippi River. Originating with "field hollers" sung by slaves on plantations, the blues emerged as a musical form in the 1890s that was popularized by Handy on Memphis' Beale Street in the early 1900s.
“Beale Street went into a steep decline after World War II, and retained a seedy district until Memphis began to redevelop the area in the late 1960s. 

Now Beale — a stretch of bars, blues clubs and shops — is one of the city's big tourist attractions, although it has some financial troubles. 

Beale remains one of the first stops for the blues players who emerge from the Delta with their guitars. But it's only one stop in a blues scene that runs from tiny jook joints in Leland, Miss., to swank clubs in places like New Orleans, St. Louis and Chicago. And- tens of thousands of blues fans from around the world converge each fall at music festivals like Greenville's Delta Blues Festival and the King Biscuit Slues Festival in Helena, Ark.

"Back in the 1930s in Helena, you heard the blues all over," said "Sunshine" Sonny Payne, who has announced the "King Biscuit Time" blues show on Helena's Radio KFFA since 1941.

"The players would go to these clubs with their guitars or harmonicas and let off steam. They'd sit on street corners or on the floodwalls down-town and just play and play," Payne said. "I'd sure like to see those days come back."

While Helena declined along with the blues in the 1960s and 70s, some city officials are hoping that Helena can develop some tourist attractions — including a Delta Cultural Center — to bring in blues fans. For example, Alderman Bubba Sullivan, who runs a blues record shop in Helena, wants to make a museum out of the crumbling skid-row boarding house where blues-man Williamson died in 1965.

Community activists in Greenville are also making the Delta blues part of their effort to revitalize the city — and to help keep bright young people from heading elsewhere. An organizer of the annual Delta Blues Festival is Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE), an activist group.

"One of the reasons the music started to decline is it's hard to make money playing blues," said Larry N. Farmer, president of MACE. "The music still has its Delta tradition, but many young blacks associate the blues with hard times. But with these festivals, we're associating the blues with good times."

There is some evidence of a revived interest in the blues by young people. 

Terry Taylor, 23, the drummer in "Booba" Barnes' band, has been playing blues off and on for about seven years. He also plays for a rap band and a disco band. "The blues is steadily reaching out," said Taylor. "Cause of true feelings. It's more honest than other kinds of music." Leaning against the chipped Formica bar in his club, Barnes said he hoped more young people would start playing the blues, which he first picked up as a boy south of Greenville.

c. James Fraher
"The blues is coming back — I feel it coming back," Barnes said in a voice you might call boozy — except Barnes said he's sworn off liquor now "cause it was making my hands shake."

With his hair greased back and his eyes bugging out, Barnes in his T-shirt looked all of his 54 years in the dim afternoon light that struggled through the screen door. But that night, Barnes — in a pink shirt and a gray sharkskin suit — played the blues like a young man.

"He's the great one around here," said Hazel, a slim woman in a red-and-white dress who sat with a flask of Heaven Hill whiskey and a screw-top bottle of Thunderbird wine.

Hazel says she's 54 and he great-grandchildren. But she dance a blue streak on that concrete floor, in the shadows ca three lightbulbs that twirl from tric cords.

As Barnes sings "Louise," s smelling of barbecued chicken through the open door from a stf in the back of a pickup truck p outside. Depending on the crow his mood, Barnes plays till 2 a. later on Friday and Saturday nights.

"Sometimes we play all night,” said, “Til you start seeing the light coming through the door."

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