Clarksdale Mississippi has an abandoned, ramshackle air of neglect in the air. It is a place where that much over-hyped notion ‘The American Dream’ has not materialised yet and is unlikely to any time soon. When we first drove through the downtown area nobody was walking on the streets, just the odd car pushed slowly through the intensely hot and sticky air that wrapped itself around everything. But people do seek Clarksdale out as it is famous for being a focus for the extraordinary music that spread out from the Mississippi Delta: music forged in a cauldron of fear, cruelty and despair. The Blues, possibly the most sublime and pure synthesis of African and American culture that there has ever been and ever will be.
My own relationship with the Blues goes back to England in 1990 when three wannabe guitarists bashed out 12-bar blues and sang songs laden with references to a faraway place and history that we barely understood. Hidden deep in many of the songs were clues as to how and when to escape and reach the ‘underground railway’ that spirited runaway slaves from the south to the free states in the north.
There aren’t many of the original blues men left, once slaves and sharecroppers they have passed on their legacy and gone on to an appointment with the white man’s God. There are also not too many of the old ‘jook joints’ left. These ‘negro pleasure houses’ were where the blues was honed and played to groups of slaves desperate for some relief from the seemingly endless toil and suffering that comprised their often short lives.
Sitting in Red’s with a cold bottle of Southern Pecan in my hand felt authentic and the right place to be. Our performer for the evening was one of the old guard and at 80-years old he cut a dashing figure in red patterned suit and wig. He sat on a tall metal stool as he tuned his beat up Telecaster guitar. A brittle wail erupted from the amp sat on the floor behind him scorching our ears. His drummer and bass player had let him down so he had called on family for back up: his wife thumped out a plodding root note bass line whilst his nephew played the drums live for the first time in a half-hearted amateurish manner. We returned to the Ground Zero club a few blocks away where a house band was rocking along nicely whilst hosting an open mic night. A few songs later a shabbily sexy female guitarist who looked like Kurt Cobain’s sister delivered the guitar highlight of my stay: understated, beautifully phrased riffs combined with rhythmic chord shuffles. This was the real deal. My own passion for the blues has dimmed gradually over the years after a glorious few years playing lead guitar in a band. But it still has the power to move me and not too many months pass without a CD from those days being turned up loud.
Whilst in the south we had also visited the Sun Recording studio in Memphis where a young Elvis Presley first recorded ‘It’s alright Mama’ in his own inimitable style. As the saying goes ‘the blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll’. The white man’s appropriation of the blues had begun and was to replace, and, for quite a long time, obliterate, the original raw Delta sound. Race music as it was known to early DJs was dubbed ‘Rhythm and Blues’.
The Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot is also in Memphis and is now the setting for a superb civil rights museum. To read the history of the southern states of America is to learn of the white man’s inhumane treatment of his African brother. How the rich whites cunningly set the poor white slaves against the black slaves. An awful, shameful period that was perpetuated by other foreign agents as well. How in this vast country founded on truth and brotherly love did things go so wrong? How could they profess to be godly and yet do the things they did? I remembered how in a Tennessee motel the receptionist’s casual racism came naturally and without fear of reproach. Talking about President Obama living in the White House she muttered “ . . . The one we got in there now . . . “. It is often not easy to be surrounded by a culture where the notion of segregation and of ‘otherness’ is quite so close to the surface.
The BB King museum in Indianola is a fabulous tribute to the life of that great musician. From sharecropper to international star he always stayed true to his roots, his music and to the town he came from. I had always liked his music for its sparse, sweetly pure guitar sound. After a long and enjoyable visit of the museum we walked outside to where BB is buried. His music played on loudspeakers whilst the Mississippi sun beat down like an anvil causing beads of sweat to run down my back. It was impossible to imagine having to stay outside for too long let alone having to labour all day beneath that tyrannical orb. Pictures from Memphis came into my mind: police beatings, lynchings, white faces twisted in hatred, ranting politicians shouting “we make our own laws down here . . . “
BB sang ‘If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all’. A powerful upwelling of anger and sadness at all that misery, hatred and cruelty overtook me and tears ran down my cheeks. I wiped my eyes and touched the black granite top of the grave inscribed with BB’s signature in gold letters. The Blues never really left the Delta.