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In Search of the Blues Strains of sorrow and joy flow in Mississippi's Delta

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Clarksdale, Miss. -- e were sitting beneath a shade tree, Bear Taylor and I, sitting in the still of a lazy, hot Mississippi Delta afternoon, and old Bear, 88, was singing.

"Oooohhh, you know when I was in jail, come for you to get me out. Oooohhh, you said, I was too damn crazy, I ain't gon' never help you get out of jail no more."

It was part field holler and part prisoner's lament, music that predates the blues. I did not expect to hear such a sound. I'd come to the delta to see this sun-beaten land where black men with guitars fashioned music from their joys and sorrows. I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of that music.

I've had a blues jones going on 20 years now. It began with Jimi Hendrix, wrenching tears from a Fender Stratocaster guitar. Then came Muddy Waters, his "Rolling and Tumbling" sounding spooky and pure to my teen-age ears. Muddy led me to Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and Son House, the bluesmen at ground zero -- the Mississippi Delta.

A creative Big Bang occurred here a hundred years ago. Songs like old Bear's blended with spirituals and the music carried on the river. By the early 1900s, the Delta Blues, grandfather to rock and roll, had been born.

The delta is farm country. Traffic on the narrow, two-lane highways backs up behind slow-moving tractors. The air is alive with the drone of propellers, crop dusters dipping low over fields of cotton, then pulling up and banking in wide, graceful turns that bring them around again.

Cotton bales, some small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, are everywhere: museums, cultural centers, the lobby of the Comfort Inn. This was once King Cotton's empire. Now rice paddies and catfish farms are common. Even the McDonald's serves catfish.

The river lords over the delta. It is a huge, brooding presence, treacherous and indifferent. Its floods, like those this summer, have drowned towns, created lakes, bayous, swamps. Early settlers found the delta abominable, often impassable. Mosquitoes and malaria made it unlivable until the swamps were drained, the trees cleared, the restless river tamed.

You can see for miles. The monotony of land flat as a table top is broken only by stands of mulberry and magnolia, green with spring's flowering. Here and there are small towns with modern commercial strips built along the highways; clusters of houses surrounded by broad fields; abandoned tin-roofed shacks collapsing in ruin; gas stations out of business for years, their rusting pumps from an era of uniformed attendants and full service. And there is Big Muddy, dividing the continent as it spills into the Gulf of Mexico.

I drove through the delta 10 years ago, but didn't linger. Then, last January, I saw an advertisement in Blues Revue Quarterly:

"Think about it! Spend a whole week in the Delta hearing the kind of music you love; traveling from Greenwood to Clarksdale, to Helena . . ."

Here was a dream vacation, as much as visiting Vienna might be for a fan of Mozart, or the Louvre for an art historian. I talked about staying at the Riverside Hotel and sleeping in the room where Bessie Smith died, holding my own midnight seance at the intersections of U.S. highways 61 and 49 -- the crossroads -- where legend says Robert Johnson met the devil and struck a deal: his soul for mastery of the blues.

I wasn't afraid of Mississippi, even though the name still conjures images of bloody civil rights battles and fallen heroes. Michael Schwerner. James Chaney. Andrew Goodman. Medger Evers.

My wife, Jean, said her mother once told her Mississippi was the one place she should avoid. That was true 30 years ago, when a freedom worker wrote of being "stunned by the danger like a deer by the headlights of an oncoming car."

Nowadays blacks and whites mingle as freely here as elsewhere in America. They work side-by-side in restaurants, department stores and motels. Some folks are so intent on shaking the past they have taken to calling the delta the mid-South. Marvin Flemmons, who promotes the Pops Staples Blues Festival in Drew, said he and others see the festivals as a way of bringing in outsiders and changing "the way they perceive Mississippi."

I realized what he meant the day we poked our heads in a Greenwood barber shop, seeking directions to a blues festival. A roomful of older white men stared at us, surprised, confused about what to do with these black Yankees who'd casually entered their domain. Their silence seemed interminable. Then the barber spoke to one of his friends: "Well, go on and tell them where it is." We left wondering how the encounter would have played in 1963.

*

The heat was fearsome that day. On our way to the Greenwood festival we stopped in Grenada, where the soda machine outside the Wal-Mart sells Cokes for 35 cents. Sam's, the local brand, costs 20 cents. It wasn't just hot, but run-for-cover hot, go-to-the-Wal-Mart-and-enjoy-the-air-conditioning hot; it could melt a cassette left on a --board. I thought about slaves and sharecroppers picking cotton under a white-hot sun. All day long? They called it working from can see to can't see. I wouldn't walk a mile in that heat, let alone strap a 9-foot-long sack on my back and drag it across dusty, shadeless fields until I'd filled it with 100 pounds of cotton. How could anyone do that in this heat? But people did. My mother did.

I made other emotional connections. Road signs for Dockery, Helena and Rosedale spoke not of small towns, but storied places of song. I thrilled at the sight of those signs and frowned whenever reality intruded. Like the time we rolled up on Parchman, home of the state penitentiary. I thought they'd closed it down, perhaps turned it into a museum for slap-happy )) blues fans. Son House and Sonny Boy Williamson did time at Parchman. Bukka White sang about his stay: "Listen, you men, I don't mean no harm. But if you wanna do good, you'd better stay off of Parchman Farm." I never got on Parchman Farm. The sign near the penitentiary read: No stopping next two miles.

3' But such disappointments were rare.

Muddy Waters' childhood home, four walls of wide, hand-hewn cypress logs packed with mud, is still standing on the Stovall Plantation. It has no roof, windows or doors. It sits at an angle, having survived a tornado a few years back. Yet it is a shrine. Standing there, looking on the cotton fields Muddy worked, the sense of place and of history became real.

Verses I'd heard a hundred times took on new meaning. At the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, I saw a video of Houston Stackhouse singing "Canned Heat," a Tommy Johnson song about being addicted to drinking Sterno. I've heard Johnson's version countless times, but never heard the pain in his words.

L "Crying mama, mama, mama, crying canned heat is killing me."

Some of the bluesmen died young. Robert Johnson was 26 when he drank poisoned whiskey in 1938. Yet he lived long enough to pull together the rural blues styles of his time, give them a modern twist and point the music toward its future in Chicago. Almost 60 years after his death, he still evokes mystery. We visited both of his grave sites: the one at Payne Chapel Methodist Baptist Church in Quito, and the other 10 miles away at Mount Zion Methodist Baptist Church north of Morgan City. Some say the true grave is 100 miles down the road in Money. Who knows?

I do know this: When you drive on the levee at Friar's Point and look down on Big Muddy, you know Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy were telling the God's honest truth when they sang, "When the levee breaks, mama you got to move."

The music and the sights tell part of the story. The front-page of a 1920s-era Chicago Defender on display at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Ark., completes the history. A banner headline screams: "Three Blacks Burned At Stake In Georgia." A local sheriff had given them over to a mob. Another headline says: "Mob Slays Arkansas Family." Yet another story tells of a reverend in Palatka, Fla., who was beaten and run out of town. It was a mean world to live in. Charley Patton knew it. In "Down the Dirt Road," he sang:

"Every day, seem like murder here."

He also sang of the Southern, the Yellow Dog and the Pea Vine, railroads that are only memories now. Their rusting, overgrown tracks lead nowhere. Their once-vibrant whistle-stop towns struggle to survive. Empty storefronts, banks and warehouses line the downtown streets that parallel the old tracks. In Sunflower and other small towns, you can still see segregation's legacy: modern homes and broad, well-kept lawns on the white side of the tracks, older, less comfortable-looking houses on the black side. One innkeeper told us there's no middle class in the delta. Them that's got has. Them that's not don't. And it shows.

*

I was not alone in my search for the blues. The B.B.C. was there, and a group of journalists from Japan. Italian television had been through. Fred Tsao, a lawyer from Illinois, and Susan Ruel, a free-lance writer andprofessor at the University of Delaware, joined us on a daylong tour. We joked about being a traveling United Nations, searching for memories.

I found one in Holly Ridge -- two stores and a handful of houses a mile off Highway 82. It is the site of Charley Patton's grave. I found the New Jerusalem Methodist Baptist Church, but no graveyard. Then a man walked out of the neighboring cotton processing plant.

"Excuse me," I said. "I'm looking for . . ."

He cut me off. "I know what you're looking for. He's right over there. In the corner. See those head stones?"

I followed his directions to a grassy field. People across the street yelled: Back, back, yeah, right there. A granite headstone proclaimed Patton as "THE VOICE OF THE DELTA." On the ground next to the headstone lay a Fender guitar pick and a dusty nickel, tokens left by others who'd made this pilgrimage.

I left nothing. Instead, we stopped at the Holly Ridge Store. Patton played there, and on that day so did I, strumming my guitar and singing: "You can shake it, you can break it, you can hang it on the wall . . ."

I was, as the sanctified souls say, slain in the spirit.

And before I was ready, I was heading home. I never saw Sonny Boy Williamson's grave, never stayed at the Riverside Hotel, never held that seance at the crossroads. Yet I had seen the land, had stood in a park in Indianola with the red, glowing full moon rising slow overhead as B. B. King swung his guitar, Lucille, to his side and yelled into the screaming crowd gathered for his annual homecoming concert: "I can't hear you, Mississippi!"

And, I had met old Bear, who used to live next door to Howling Wolf and even played guitar with Wolf; old Bear, who lives with Miss Jannie, his tobacco-chewing wife of 63 years.

I can see him now, worn cane at his side. I can hear his melodic, deep delta voice. It didn't matter that time had nearly stolen his mind. We were connected by the music he and his contemporaries gave to the world, the music he once played, the music I play.

I came looking for ghosts. Instead, I found a man who'd walked beside my heroes, shared their lives, and who still sang in the old, old style.

"Oooohhh, you know when I was loving you, baby, you had me put in jail. Oooohhh, you know when I get out of jail, gon' buy me a thirty-eight and kill you one more time."

IF YOU GO ...

* The Sunflower River Blues Festival will be held in Clarksdale, Miss., Aug. 6 and 7. Call (601) 627-3392 or (601) 624-4461.

* The Mississippi Delta Blues Festival will be held in Greenville, Miss., Sept. 18. Call (601) 335-3523.

* The King Biscuit Festival will be held in Helena, Ark., Oct. 8 and 9. Call (501) 338-9144.

If you don't feel like driving south, your best move is to fly into Memphis, a town that is no slouch when it comes to blues history. Beale Street, which had fallen upon hard times not too long ago, now thrives. B. B. King's blues club and restaurant is at 143 Beale St., Jerry Lee Lewis has a club a few blocks north, and there are plenty of other restaurants and clubs.

To really get a taste of the delta that lies a few miles down U.S. Highway 61, stop by the Beale Street Blues Museum, in the old Daisy Theatre at 329 Beale St. It houses a fascinating collection that includes displays of black life in Memphis, recordings of W. C. Handy discussing his life, and copies of the studio contracts for Robert Johnson's recordings. The contracts say Johnson received no royalty for his work.

Touring the delta can be done two ways. John Mohead of Mississippi Resources, P.O. Box 368, Lula, Miss., 38644, has been giving guided tours to journalists and other "blues scientists" for the past two years. His coach bus tour costs $59 -- private tours run about $100 -- but the price is negotiable. Mr. Mohead covers all the sites and provides his own narrative of the area.

One of the stops on the tour is Stackhouse Records, 232 Sunflower Ave., Clarksdale, Miss. 38614. Its Delta Blues Map Kit includes 31 sites on an enclosed map. It's essential for finding gravesites and some of the better-known blues clubs.

Also on the tour is the Delta Blues Museum, 114 Delta Ave., Clarksdale, run by the Carnegie Public Library. The museum celebrates the musicians who made the Delta Blues.

Cross Big Muddy on U.S. Highway 49 and you'll arrive in Helena, Ark., home of the Delta Cultural Center, 95 Missouri St., 72342. Exhibits there recount the delta's history.

Comfortable motels and hotels are easily found in the delta. Hardier souls might want to check out the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale. Uncle Henry's Place on Moon Lake Road, about 20 miles north of Clarksdale, is a fine bed and breakfast with an equally fine restaurant and its own bit of history. Tennessee Williams mentioned Moon Lake in some of his plays.

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