Looking for Real Delta Blues? Go to the Very Juke Joints Folks Advise Against

Looking for Real Delta Blues? 
Go to the Very Juke Joints Folks Advise Against
Rheta Grimsley Johnson
Mobile Register (AL)
February 15, 1995 

CLARKSDALE, Miss. Write it down. Jim O'Neal's general rule of thumb for finding the raw, nitty-gritty, gut-bucket blues in the Mississippi Delta:

"The places where people will tell you not to go are precisely the places you should want to go. Incidents do occur but if you don't mess with somebody (or somebody's mate) then they're not likely to mess with you either...However I will adopt this motto: If I get killed in a juke joint, I promise not to recommend that anyone else go there..."

Ah, sage advice from O'Neal's "Delta Blues Map Kit," written for outlanders who come to his Rooster Blues recording studio and record shop asking for directions to a state of mind: the blues.

In the packet you get a map to Sonny Boy's grave and Robert Johnson's alleged death and burial sites, a guide to blues festivals and clubs, advice about offering honoraria for private, front-porch concerts and blues trivia. Lots and lots of trivia.

"This area is Jerusalem, Mount Zion to blues fans,'' O'Neal says. "Outsiders used to be afraid to come to Mississippi, but that's changed some."  Acknowledged by those who know as a protector of the true blues, O'Neal first spent 20 years in Chicago. He recorded blues artists and helped start Living Blues magazine. In 1987, he returned to the South he grew up in Mobile and to the birthplace of the blues.

He set up shop on Clarksdale's Sunflower Avenue in a former ice cream parlor built to look like a riverboat. There once was a big ice cream cone between the smokestacks.  O'Neal asked a few local bankers for help, but they took one look at the pony-tailed, low-key entrepreneur under the ice cream cone and just said ``No.''

"They'd give someone money to plant cotton, but not to plant the seeds of the blues,'' O'Neal says, smiling.  It's been a struggle, but O'Neal has managed.  "I just wanted to make enough money to pay the bills,'' he shrugs. ``Still do.''

He explored the Delta, sought out and recorded artists who otherwise might have played the rest of their lives in obscurity. And the kind of obscurity the delightfully slothful Delta affords is some more kind of obscurity. 

O'Neal worries about two things. One, that popularity will change the music. (''It changed in Chicago while I was there.'') And he worries that, once discovered, all the musicians will leave. "I didn't want to see the blues dry up at the source. After all, it's an export business.'' But that hasn't happened yet. A new generation is coming up, too, ready and able. When legendary bluesman Son Thomas died, his son, Pat Thomas, started singing his father's music. [Tons of people make money off of blues tourism, but Thomas can't even get his teeth fixed today.]

Lonnie Pitchford, for instance, is 39 and has a new CD that includes an update of Robert Johnson's ``If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day'' and other classics. Today Pitchford is helping with a construction project at Rooster Blues Records. The messy, friendly shop seems like a family affair. [Lonnie Pitchford died only a few years later in the prime of his career]

There are bins of blues, jazz, reggae, rock and gospel, handsewn mojo bags, books and those map kits, ``which,'' O'Neal notes, ``we will gladly exchange for cash, stamps or Charley Patton 78s.''

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