LOW ROADS AND RICH LEGENDS in the HEARTLAND OF THE BLUES
|Booba Barnes on Nelson Street (c. Alan Weiner)|
By Elli Light - The Record (New Jersey) - July 30, 1989
Booba Barnes place seemed easy enough to find: Drive along the levee past the marina and the boatyard, take the steep road down, and turn onto Nelson Street, the main drag through the black quarter of Greenville, Miss., a port city on the edge of the Mississippi Delta.
But where is 928 Nelson St.? Where is Barnes Playboy Club in this shambling business district where stores have no signs, doors have no numbers, and lots of people hanging out on a warm, late December afternoon apparently have nothing to do?
I make a U-turn in the 1000 block, grip the wheel, and tell myself: OK, time to roll down the window and ask.
There is no need. Barnes is standing in the street, watching, waiting for me to recognize him, just a hint of a smile on his intense, deeply lined face.
"Jim O'Neal told you to come, right? " he asks eagerly, and disappears into the huge white Cadillac parked at the curb, pulling out so I can have the space directly in front of the club I'd driven past.
Roosevelt "Booba" Barnes is a blues musician, and his Playboy Club is what is often called a "juke joint," a country store or shack or place in town where beer is served, blues is played, and the grinding reality of menial work, or no work at all, disappears for a while.
He is one of many musicians continuing the tradition of blues playing in the Delta, and his first album, "Heartbroken Man," will be out by the end of the summer on O'Neal's Clarksdale-based Rooster Blues Records label.
Inside, the Playboy Club, a former warehouse, is cavernous. Folding metal chairs and formica-topped tables are casually scattered about. A bicycle and a shopping cart full of empty beer cans sit near the stage.
Barnes tinkers with the juke box, and suddenly his recently released Rooster Blues 45, "How Long This Must Go On," is reverberating off the cement floor, graying plaster walls, and high wooden ceiling. He offers a beer, talks very briefly about himself, then insists, almost urgently, that his visitor return Friday night.
Blues grabbed mamachild,
tore him all upside down.
The Mississippi Delta is a relentlessly flat, extraordinarily fertile plain stretching from Memphis, Tenn., in the north to Vicksburg, Miss., in the south, from the central Mississippi hills in the east to the Mississippi River in the west. Some say it is where the blues was born. It probably is not.
While musicologists have traced the roots of blues from African musical forms through field hollers and religious songs of African-American slaves, no one knows exactly when or where the blues originated.
What is known is that by the early 1900s, an intense, percussive, hypnotic form of blues was being played at cotton plantations all over the Mississippi Delta. Eventually referred to as Delta blues, the music would become the foundation of rock-and-roll and a significant influence on jazz and country music.
For anyone interested in blues, the Delta, as Mississippians call it, is an intriguing place to visit; Clarksdale home to the Delta Blues Museum is a good place to begin; and Booba Barnes Playboy Club is an inspiring place to end up.
Highway 61 south from Memphis is the best way to get there.
The 70-mile drive, or rather descent, from the bluffs of Memphis down into the low-lying Delta, especially in the summer toward dusk, can be stunning.
Beyond the whirligig of Memphis beltways, down beyond the projects and auto-body shops and more projects, just past a cluster of trees and some dips and rises and dips again is, suddenly, a land vast and flat and pine-emerald green, its sky big and endless, its light orange, lavender, gold, and pearl-gray playing softly down over mile upon mile of cotton and soybean fields.
Clarksdale, by comparison, may seem a little anti-climactic, as may the blues museum. The city of 21,000 spreading out from Highway 61 is the commercial and administrative center of Coahoma County and has the look and feel of Hackensack.
The museum, located in the heart of town, on Delta Avenue, is housed in the third story of the Carnegie Public Library. The floors creak, the paint is peeling, pipes are exposed, and in winter an electric space heater is the only source of warmth.
But it contains a tantalizing collection of records, videotapes, photographs, posters, paintings, musical instruments, memorabilia, books, and journals that pay tribute to the blues legends the Delta has spawned: Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Howlin Wolf, Frank Frost, Houston Stackhouse, and B. B. King, to name a few.
The museum has sponsored concerts and symposia, been host to State Department tours, and become known internationally especially in Europe and Japan as a major point of interest for blues lovers visiting this country. It attracts about 2,000 visitors a year.
It was the brainchild of Carnegie Library Director Sid Graves, a native Deltan who saw the museum as a way of enhancing local pride and attracting new patrons to the library. But as the collection has expanded, so has the vision for the museum.
In May, the Texas-based blues band ZZ Top, in conjunction with New York City's Hard Rock Cafe, began a million-dollar campaign for the museum. With that money and hopefully with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and other sources, Graves foresees the museum including an auditorium for blues performances and lectures, a research library, a guitar collection, recording and video equipment, an oral-history program, a full-time professional curator, and professionally designed exhibits showing the history of the Delta and Delta blues and how Delta blues has influenced other musical forms.
At about the same time ZZ Top announced its campaign, Carter Stovall, heir to Stovall Plantation, announced a donation of a different kind: the shack that was home to McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters.
The shack still sits on Stovall Farms, three miles outside Clarksdale. According to blues lore, Stovall's father, Col. William
Howard Stovall, refused to raise Morganfield's salary from 22 1/2 cents to 25 cents an hour, so, like many black Deltans, he boarded an Illinois Central train for Chicago, there to become the driving force behind modern, urban, electrified blues.
The museum intends to use the remaining wood from the shack, which has been nearly demolished by a tornado and vandals, to reconstruct a typical Delta front porch or juke joint.
I got to keep movin',
Blues fallin down like hail...
I can't keep no money,
Hellhound on my trail.
The explosion of creativity among Delta blues musicians in the early decades of the 20th century parallels the region's booming agricultural economy.
Although some planters and small farmers were living in the Delta before the Civil War, it was not until the second half of the 19th century that it opened up. Devastated by the war, white Mississippians and other Southerners saw the swampy, mosquito-infested forestlands as a new frontier, a land of opportunity.
They drained the swamps, leveled the forests, and planted the rich, alluvial soil in cotton, cotton, and more cotton. And they made a killing.
By the 20th century, Delta planters had become famous for their wealth, and Delta plantations, with their seemingly boundless opportunities for work, had become magnets for blacks in search of work. Indeed, so impressive were the fortunes being amassed by planters in and around Clarksdale that in 1921 Wall Street dubbed it the "Magic City. "
Always in search of better wages and better living conditions, workers moved from plantation to plantation, as owners, ever in search of more hands to pick cotton, competed with each other for labor. Blues musicians went where the most people could hear them play.
For blacks, Clarksdale's "magic" was in its music and its trains. Saturdays, when workers streamed into the city from the countryside, blues could be heard everywhere on streets, in stores, in taverns, and especially at the Illinois Central railway station, where those who saw little in cotton but drudgery were boarding trains for cities to the north. The musicians were not far behind.
Today, the Delta is neither so rich, economically or musically, nor such a magnet for workers, black or white.
Plantations have become corporations, and machines and chemicals have replaced mules and men. Catfish farms and rice paddies are increasingly common, and there is much talk of attracting industry to what was once considered land too fecund to use for anything but agriculture.
In the last decade, unemployment has reached into the double digits. Food stamps are a common sight at supermarkets. And the sons of planters, worried about mortgaged lands, often leave the region to find work, as tens of thousands of Delta blacks before them have done.
Though Clarksdale is no longer a blues center, the creation of the blues museum has attracted several blues-related businesses and complimented others already in existence.
Around the corner from the museum, on Sunflower Avenue, is Sajjas, a nightclub that occasionally features blues. Next door, in a building with the facade of a Mississippi steamboat and a potted cotton plant at the door, is Stackhouse Records. The store specializes in blues, and is owned by Jim O'Neal, a founding editor of Living Blues magazine.
O'Neal also owns Rooster Blues Records, a recording company with a roster of 25 artists, most of them born in Mississippi. Eventually, he would like to build a studio in Clarksdale to record gospel and country, as well as blues artists.
Another of O'Neal's enterprises is Saturday's Sunflower Riverbank Blues Festival, a daylong event at Martin Luther King Park, on the banks of the Sunflower River.
On Clarksdale's AM station, WROX, Andy McWilliams is host of "Clarksdale Saturday Night," a six-hour weekly blues show. The show is part of a long tradition of blues programming at the station. In l947, WROX hired the South's first black DJ, Early Wright, who is still playing blues on his weeknight "Soul Man's Show," and in whose name a scholarship fund has been set up at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.
Got up this mornin',Blues walkin like a man.Well, blues, give me your right hand.
Beyond Clarksdale, on Highways 61 or 49 or 81, or any of the smaller roadways crisscrossing the Delta, there is not so much as a hill or gentle rise to obstruct the view. Towns begin and end in fields, and fields stretch for miles and miles to the horizon, broken only by stands of willow and swamp cypress. A house, a barn, a church, a tree stand starkly silhouetted against the huge expanse of endlessly changing sky, which dwarfs the land and everything on it.
So dramatic and open and strangely beautiful is this land that a visitor can experience an exhilarating sense of freedom and timelessness driving through it.
Yet the Delta is also where masses of people lived and died planting and picking cotton from sunup to sundown. To imagine waking every morning in a shack in the middle of a Delta field, to a life of working cotton fields always owned by someone else, is, it seems, to imagine utter despair.
And so, there is something a little eerie, and perhaps a little fatuous, too, about driving past places where blues history was made: the town of Tutwiler, where bandleader W. C. Handy heard his first Delta blues at the train station; Parchman Prison, in which and about which many blues songs have been sung; Dockery Farms near Drew, where Charley Patton played and which may be where Delta blues originated; or Three Forks store below Itta Bena, where 26-year-old Robert Johnson supposedly was kn ifed to death by his lover's jealous husband.
Yet one studies the map, goes, and gapes, and tries to fathom the strength and courage and spirit of those who, despite the despair, created and played, listened and danced, laughed and cried to the blues.
Friday night on Greenville's Nelson Street, the Delta seems a long way off. The sidewalks are crowded and the muffled sounds of music infuse an atmosphere vibrant with the promise of good times.
As the door of the Playboy Club opens, the raw, fierce, thunderous blues of Barnes and his band, the Playboys, is overwhelming, and it is easy to see why people are smiling and laughing. It is as a world the direct opposite of sentimentality and despair.
Barnes, who plays guitar and harmonica, and his band, a no-holds-barred duo playing guitar and drums, are pumping out good-time, danceable music that has the crowd, young and old, on its feet for hours, and has a visitor feeling that this a place where people can, through the power of music, feel more intensely alive than perhaps at any other time in their lives is the heart and soul of the blues.
Archive of the blues
For blues lovers intent on academic research, the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, 60 miles east of Clarksdale, is without parallel.
Across the street from the university's 10-year-old Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the archive includes some 40,000 records and thousands of other books, journals, and documents associated with blues.
More than 80 percent of the record collection comes from three sources: B. B. King, who was born in Indianola, near Itta Bena, in the Delta; Kenneth S. Goldstein, a folklore professor at the University of Pennsylvania; and Jim O'Neal and Amy Van Singel, founding editors of Living Blues magazine.
The archive also has dozens of videotapes about blues and other aspects of Southern culture, including some made by William Ferris, center director and blues scholar. Ferris has also written a highly readable book called "Blues in the Delta," and once a week he hosts his own blues show, "Highway 61 Blues," on Public Radio of Mississippi.