Jukin’ Through the Delta w/ Hodding Carter III

By Hodding Carter III – Chicago Tribune - September 8, 1991

Audrey imagined it is a sweet potato with a pointed top and a rounded bottom. That's the home of the blues—the Mississippi Delta—beginning 10 miles south of Memphis and circling to a close at the foot of Vicksburg's red clay cliffs: bordered on the west by Ol' Man River and on the east by Faulkner’s low-lying hills. 

As she drove down out of Memphis, the Delta spread out before her. First, it was less than a mile wide, but soon, only a short way down the road, she could no longer see where it began or ended. This rich, black earth, swaddled by the flooding Mississippi River for thousands of years, consumed every inch of space, and all around her the land was level. Not flat, though—like Kansas or some dead prairie—because flat would be lifeless, but so level that you could glimpse a man turning the soil five miles down the road.

Audrey was in search of the blues. She had begun her journey a few years back when she first heard Elmore James, Howlin Wolf, and Robert Johnson on tapes, records and CDs. She then haunted the odd blues festivals that found their way through the northeast during the '80s, watching from the balcony of monstrous auditoriums as the likes of B.B. King lit the stage.

But she sensed she was missing something—something of the mournful soul. Then she read Birney Imes’s Juke Joints, a photographic essay of the Delta's musical roots. In those stark, unpeopled pictures of the hard-wrought music clubs, she could actually see the blues—in the peeling paint, along the uneven floorboards—and it struck her that the only way to find the, blues would be to go there.

Fear of the Unknown

Her journey to the Delta, though, began with unqualified fear. This steadfast Brooklyn girl was headed into the Deep South, and she could only imagine fat, red-faced white men sitting in pickup trucks spitting out globs of tobacco between their teeth.  [This was] a descent into the unknown; her brush with hell and, maybe, Deliverance.

She stayed calm far past the Mason-Dixon line, not breaking a sweat until she reached the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. The gentle rolling hills, fresh with budding spring, and the approaching Smoky Mountains had lulled her into some form of acceptance, but then came the dreaded Midway truck stop.  While her husband, a born-and-bred Delta boy, hovered over an entire table of Goo-Goo clusters, recalling how many of these chocolate-covered gobs of marshmallow, caramel and peanuts it took to make him sick.  Audrey faced a much more threatening vision in the women's room. A large, black swastika seared into the stall finally reminded her where she was. Audrey and her husband didn't waste much time getting to Tennessee.

The next stop was at a Stuckey's, a clean roadside stop that like kudzu has spread all over the South. At its worst, Stuckey's might have had one too many log rolls (similar to Goo-Goo's in sweetness but made of pecans and marshmallows); but there was certainly no racist graffiti.

B.B. King had just announced the opening in Memphis of a 300-seat nightclub bearing his name, and Audrey was expecting what the city was now calling itself: "Blues Capital of the World." What she found was another theme-park stop on the endless string of plastic attractions that is modern American tourism—some-thing akin to New York's South Street Seaport or Boston's Faneuil Hall.

Soulless Tourist Strip

A few years back a local developer renovated Beale Street long known for its seedy bars of hearty jazz, into a sterile, soulless tourist strip that pushes Memphis and the blues. While some, of the music playing on the street is authentic blues, in the bars it rang rampant commercialism--about as natural as a blues band from. Delta Junction, Alaska!

She did like the brass notes embedded in the sidewalk to commemorate past jazz, blues, and soul musicians: There was Otis Redding, W.C. Handy, and scribbled into the wet concrete below Maurice Hulbert’s note was etched "Calvin Williams," a local Kilroy.  But what best reflected Memphis and the blues was a huge legend on a billboard on the corner of Beale and Third Street: "Target Your Black Market in Memphis."

"Beale Street is great if you like Disney World. It’s all clean, simple, and commercial," Patty Johnson of Rooster Blues recording company explained later that night. "But if you want  to sink your teeth into the blues, you know, hear the real thing, you’d better come, on down into the Delta."

I woke up this morning
All my shrimps was dead and gone
I was thinking about you, baby
While you hadn't even been born
I got dead shrimps,
Someone's fishing in my pond

Robert Johnson; "Dead Shrimp Blues"

"Driving along Highway 61—the road that either God or the devil made to take the bluesman to Chicago and bring him home again when the playing was done—Audrey's fears slowly slid back north. Ragged balls of cotton, unclaimed during last fall's harvest, waved in the wind as the road stretched past row after row of rich black earth.  She could smell the heavy soil through the closed, car windows.

Blues and Barbeque

The first stop came an hour and a half south of Memphis, at the crossroads of 61 and Clarksdale, Miss. The legendary Robert Johnson made a pact with the devil here, trading his soul to become the best bluesman of his time. Audrey and her husband weren't meeting the devil, but eating the best barbecue in the world at Abe's BBQ, where a room-length mural of a pig lets a traveler know that this is a pig's shop. The double-decked sandwich of crispy coleslaw and. Large-helping of slow, pit-cooked, pork--topped off with a homemade barbecue sauce--completely displaced the nasty culture shock that had nagged Audrey since North Carolina. If she could fit the whole thing in her mouth in one bite she would have.

To burn off their midafternoon meal, they walked a few blocks through Clarksdale's downtown. The little country seat, built on an ancient Indian trading site, is arguably one of Mississippi's oldest communities, and its downtown, just for its sheer existence, is a modern-day anomaly. The nearest shopping mall is in Greenville, a good 90 minutes away. People actually greeted them as they walked along the unfettered streets. Once on Delta Street, Audrey and her husband entered the town library and followed a blue stripe painted on the floor to the dowdy, one-room Delta Blues Museum, which sits on the second story. 

In one corner of the room stood a life-size wax figure of Muddy Waters, whose heavy face smiled at them as they climbed the stairs. The other corners and walls were covered with pictures of blues artists: Little Son Jefferson, Furry and B.B. King. Son Thomas' portrait commanded attention, the singer scowling from beneath a straw cowboy hat.

It felt as if Clarksdale was the emerging blues capital of the world. "This little town's never seen anything like this!" Sid Graves, the founder and curator of the blues museum, exclaimed. "Ever since ZZ Top put out its latest album dedicated to Muddy Waters, we've had overnight success. We had 568 visitors to the museum in February and expect to have 2,000 a month during the summer. Before ZZ Top it was only a couple dozen a month. 

ZZ Top is one of the few bands out there today that financially acknowledges the debt that American music owes to the blues, donating $100,000 to the museum. As Sid explained it, the debt goes something like this:

W.C. Handy, a successful jazzman by the turn of the century, heard local musicians playing the blues while performing at a country club in Yazoo City.  He played some standard minstrel tunes for a while but noticed that the people weren't dancing.  He asked them what they wanted to hear, and they pointed to the waiters. Those fellows got up on stage, played their blues, and the floor spilled over with dancers. Pretty soon Handy was backing some of these Delta musicians and publishing the blues as well.  

Within two decades George Gershwin, after hoboing onto the blues train with "Rhapsody in Blue," wrote on a copy of the piece, “Mr. Handy, whose early blues are the forefathers of this work. With admiration and best wishes, George Gershwin, August 30, 1926." That autographed copy now sits in the Delta Blues Museum, and the rest became history.  


You know, the blues is the mother
Don't forget it, brother
Been havin' sex with the world a longtime
It's just been underestimated
'Cause we're segregated
Now, the story's really bein' told
You know the blues da baby
The whole world’s callin' it rock and roll

Muddy Waters, “The Blues Had a Baby"

Goin' to Muddy's Place

A little later a mysterious man—her husband—whisked Audrey off in their convertible, the top down even though the sky was threatening to let loose any moment. All he said was, "We’re goin’ to Muddy's. place."  Six and a half miles later they were. There, on the edge of the old Stovall Plantation. A very small blue and black sign announced and pointed to Muddy Waters' Home.” 

All that was left of the square shack were the walls and floorboards. Ever since Muddy: died in 1983, people have been stealing bits and pieces for souvenirs and building material.  As Audrey started walking toward the faded red walls pieced together with five-inch-thick slabs of wood, an old hound dog howled from beneath the house. She decided to just look from beside the car, thinking that maybe this old dog was either Howlin' Wolf or Muddy himself come back to protect the Delta from scavenging tourists.

Around six o’clock, they made it to the Stackhouse/Rooster Blues recording studio and store back in Clarksdale. When they walked into the store, which is decorated on the outside like an old riverboat, they met Jim O'Neal. With his long, scraggly hair, and full beard, O'Neal, a Mississippi native, looked like a young Grizzly. Adams, but they also knew him to be just about the most knowledgeable white man in the world on the subject of the blues.  He had been the [co-]founding editor of Living Blues magazine in Chicago, and after selling the magazine to the University of Mississippi he'd come to Clarksdale about three years back to make sure the real blues singers—the Mississippi Deltans—were recorded. 

Heart-Tugging Strains

Jim was listening to Early Wright on the radio. Wright, 76, has hosted "The Soul Man Show" on WROX since 1947. His deep, brassy voice made Audrey feel high and mighty. A song by Big Jack Johnson, a local bluesman, who still sings the plaintive cries that make Delta blues the most heart-tugging strains of all, was spinning to an end. "That was a beautiful record I dropped on you for your listening pleasure," Wright said and then asked for his listeners to call in. "If we drive by and honk our horn in front of the station, he'll thank us on the air for greeting him,” Jim said.

Jim and his wife, Patty Johnson, would serve as guides for the night.  Many of the bluesmen don't have phones, and so they'd have to go from joint to joint, searching for that evening's talent.  The first stop was Boss Hogs. It's not a juke joint, but, like Abe's, it also has the best barbecue in the world.  Large Jack Brinson, who easily tops '300 pounds, is the boss.  He has been barbecuing for thirteen years near the corner of fourth and Florida, standing out on the street until 4:00 in the morning, alongside an old propane tank that he into a grill. He can cook 60 pounds of meat at a time. 

Jim asked where they could hear the blues that night. Jack was not sure who’d be playing in Clarksdale, but he said Little Milton was due to be in Indianola.  In support of their quest, he donated a platter of his night's special—hog. maws smothered with mustard and hot sauce.  Due to renovations, the food stand's sign--"You don't need no teeth to eat this meat” had been' taken down, but the words still rang true. The hog maws were finished (all eaten) in just a few minutes.

"This is the meanest corner in Clarksdale," Jack claimed, looking across the street. Audrey followed the big man's stare to where' a group of young toughs were, busy riling up each other. "But they don't mess with me because 'I've got something waiting for them if they ever do."

They stood out on the corner with Brinson for a while, feeling quite protected, talking about the dangers of New York City.  All Audrey said was "Hmph," as she watched the commotion across the street escalate until it seemed like it’d all be choreographed for her benefit. Young men were laughing and heckling, jumping all over each other.  A while later the two couples took their nightly ration of BBQ sandwiches to a juke joint off Fourth Street called Margaret’s Blue Diamond.

A juke joint, according to Webster’s dictionary, is a “small, inexpensive establishment, for eating drinking dancing to the music of a jukebox." Put more simply, it’s a place where a whole lot of jukin’ is going on.  There is usually no windows, but if there are, two-by-fours block the outside from looking inside.  From the street they look like abandoned buildings. Inside there's always a juke box, but often there'll be a local band as well playing smooth-talking blues to lure you onto the dance floor.

Margaret did not have anyone playing, and so the juke box was in command. Margaret sat at round table in front of the bar, a clapboard stand painted light blue, just like the walls. Dressed in a pretty print dress, Margaret hugged Jim and Patty hello while Audrey and her husband found a table. None of the tables (or, for that matter, the chairs, some of' which were plush red sofas and vinyl bus seats) were the same, and so it was difficult to choose.  Audrey finally decided on what looked like a table with a pink top because of the red light overhead.

Jim and Patty came over with a couple of quart bottles (you only drink quarts or shots in juke joints) of Miller beer; and while a few of Margaret’s regulars danced to Little Jeno singing ‘Don't Look Now,’ Audrey's table finished off Boss Hog's sandwiches.  At first, Audrey felt like the girl in the bright yellow party dress who just said the wrong thing in a loud voice. But everybody was dancing and smiling at them and the feeling soon passed.  Margaret’s place was warm and hospitable, even to northerners.

A Living Bluesman

But they still hadn’t seen a living bluesman in his natural habitat.  So they crossed town to the Rivermount Lounge.  The Rivermount ,if it had any windows, would look over the Sunflower River, and while it used to be thought of as a hangout for disreputable members of the community, it recently had become fairly upscale.  In fact it was almost too slick, with its matching tables and chairs and clean, U-shape bar. That night’s performers, the Clarksdale All-Stars, were eating deep-fried fish fillets of catfish.  They were a mixed lot; a black drummer named Bobby Little, who also works at Rooster Blues, two white guys from Jackson, another one from Clarksdale, and Charles, a black guitarist who just came from nowhere.

Their first song was just about what you might expect when white boys play the blues: a mesh of electricity and music.  And the audience talked right through the song.  Before the second number, Charles announced that they were going to sing a Muddy Waters song in honor of Muddy’s birthday.  Then somewhere in the middle of “Mean Mistreater” it happened.  The harmonica player stepped out, and the band found its soul. He appealed to the god of music, the devil and Muddy all in the same note.

“He’s the most tasteful harmonica I've ever heard," Patty said.  "Succinct, not overplaying.'' Audrey didn't know about all that, but one thing for sure, she couldn't stop moving her body.  Everyone loosened up. The All-Stars moseyed through "I Want to Know," ripped around "Got My Mojo Working,” and Charles, swinging his pink and green guitar to a standard blues riff, bellowed out an impromptu, "You know what you get in a cracker jacks box?” Candy-coated popcorn, peanuts and a surprise.  And we got a whole lot of surprise for you tonight!”

When the band took a break, the quartet drove 80 miles across the Delta through a thin spring fog, reaching Club Ebony in Indianola shortly after midnight. Little Milton Campbell, down from Chicago for a southern tour, had packed the place. “Little Milton,” Jim said as they made theoir way through the crowd, “is what a Delta bluesman aspires to.”  He grew up in Greenville and, after playing all the joints in Mississippi, made it big in Chicago. 

Club Ebony is a juke joint made big as well.  Everyone was dressed like Sunday morning, and the doorman extolled a cover charge at the entrance. People didn’t even buy beer in quart bottles. But in the back room, where the music was playing, the club’s distinction as a juke joint held fast.

Romantic Ballad Start

Up on the stage, strutting to two trombones, a drummer, keyboardist, bass and guitar players and two backup singers shaking like slinkies down a staircase, Little Milton soother the crowd.  For the first half of the show, his silky voice cried out romantic ballads that filled the dance floor, immersing the crowd in his trademark soul blues.

“I’d like to do this one," he said, wiping away sweat with his sky-blue handkerchief, “for my favorite species: the ladies.” At that, all the' women stretched their hands out to him, swaying to the music, with their heads slightly bent forward. They called out to Little Milton.

“Unh-hunh! And “Yeah, Milt!” they screamed. “Tell ‘em something Milt.”

A few guys asked Audrey to dance to a song while her husband wasn't looking. When she said no, they just smiled and moved on to the next victim. She laughed to herself, thinking how this would have gone over in New York.

As a waiter wearing a black arm band on his left sleeve delivered a plastic cup of Jack Daniels with a bowl of ice to the table, Milton called out from the stage, "There’s a great man out in the crowd everybody…Mister Jim O'Neal. He wants to hear the blues, so I guess I'd better do it now.”  The backup singers left the stage then, and Milton, pulling out his guitar, took to the front. It was a shame, what he and his guitar did, making that crowd forget there ever was a guitar named Lucille.

"You must be lovin’ somebody else baby," Little Milton lamented, “Cause you sure ain't lovin’ me. I’m gonna get that ole possum while he's nibblin' in the dark.”

The music did not stop for an hour and a half.  A little before two in the morning, the police came to make sure the show was going to end. Milton easily convinced everybody to stand up, and the he finished with a heavy-handed, Chicago sounding, show-stopping, "The blues is back. The blues is all right.” There wasn’t a stiff body in the building

In his dressing room the show, Milton let on to what it was all about, “Whatever you do, whether it's singing, writing, living, do it from the heart,” he said. “Tell the truth. It must be what you believe, what you see. Don’t make it objective. It’s got to come from you.

And for Audrey, the quest was over.  This cool Brooklyn girl had found out where the blues had always been.

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