Donna Orchard: Highway 61 Road Trip
The beginning of the Blues, as the story goes, was in 1903. W.C. Handy, a composer and musician, observed Henry Sloan, a hobo at the Tutwiler , MS, train station playing the old blues with a knife for a slide. He fell in love with the sound and is credited with getting it out into the world. Handy described it as “the weirdest music I ever heard.”
According to David “Honeyboy” Edwards, The blues kept me on the road; it was always leading me somewhere. That’s what the blues is, it’s a leading thing, something on your mind that keeps you moving.”
When I walked into the Shedhead Blues Festival , near Ocean Springs, MS, a novice newspaper reporter , I looked around at the huge crowd sitting high on the grassy terraces that encircled the venue. Folding chairs cascaded down the hills to the dusty floor below, the luckiest fans jammed right up to the vast outdoor stage.
I smelled the barbeque as I wandered around taking some shots with my camera before the band took the stage. When I ordered my pulled pork sandwich, all I got was “Sorry, Ma ‘am the barbeque is sold by the pound.” Was I supposed to have a bun in my back pocket? No beer for me either. They wouldn’t take my debit card. I was clearly not prepared for what was to come.
Suddenly someone yelled “Blue Bland” and the crowd began swaying side to side while bobbing their heads. When I looked up Bobby “Blue” Bland , the main attraction, stepped onto the stage with only a microphone, a six piece band behind him. He was dressed in an oversized brown suit with white open shirt and white handkerchief in the pocket, a style that punctuated his big band sound. When I wondered aloud how old he was, a fan heard me, “He’s still the man and he’s eighty years old.”
Ain’t no sunshine when you’re gone.
Soon I became a head bobber too when I heard Blue Bland’s high pitched, mellow voice, a single guitar droning behind him, repetitious, long and hard.
And this house just ain’t no home,
Anytime she goes away.
The horn players strutted side to side belting their sound to the beat then clapping with the crowd.
And I know, I know, I know, I know, I know
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know…
The crowd knew what to expect and were hypnotized within the slick guitar riff that lasted minutes. On the final cord, the blues groupies rose to their feet with long applause to bow in reverence to one of the last great Mississippi bluesmen.
“The blues is a leading thing. A Highway 61 road trip through the Mississippi Delta got on my mind, picked me up and started me moving.
I called my sister, Marilyn, in Portland, OR, to see if she wanted to join me on the trip. Portlandia, the name of a new TV show, is a jig on her hometown. This is understandable to people like me who shop at an unnamed big box store and fail to recognize anything in her kitchen cupboard when I go for a visit. Every label begins with organic, but after that, it’s better to ask. When we go shopping for dinner at Trader Joe’s, we stop at the cage free, free range, free nesting chickens. It’s usually nine o’clock and I’m hungry.
Marilyn begins. “Do you know how most chickens are raised? They are packed into dark warehouses, as many as they can get into a space. Then they are fattened up until their bodies are too big for their tiny legs and finally they fall down on each other and smother, lying in their own feces and…
“Wait, Marilyn, I’m glad this chicken was happy, but could we talk about this after we’ve had dinner? “ I wasn’t sure I was still hungry.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my sister, having left our home in Louisiana thirty-five years before, had always wanted to go on a blues road trip through the South.
Blues music cuts a wide swath across Missisippi with 100 plus trail markers along its roads. Marilyn came to Ocean Springs where we planned our trip north on Highway 61, the famous route that runs through the Delta, from Vicksburg to Memphis and Beale Street, home to the blues “chitlin circuit.”
We found Clarksdale, Greenville, and Leland on the map, and even Foxfire Ranch where fans show up on three-wheelers or motor cycles.
Moving through back roads, we began hearing from shop keepers and gas station attendants bits and pieces of what we were about to experience. At the Pride gas station near Greenville, the owner in red plaid shirt and overalls asked us why two young ladies were on the road .
Flattered with the young comment, I explained while pumping gas, “We’re hunting for the blues.”
“You know why Mississippi sings the blues?” He looked at me, “We lost,”
Marilyn felt obliged to explain that to me later.
“You better watch out,” he continued, “that Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil at the crossroads.”
“Where’s Crossroads? We’ll stop there.”
“Well, it’s not a place, little lady. A crossroads means a place where you can learn something, something that goes on to change your life.
As we rode along, we sisters found our own blues bubbling to the surface, said things we’d left unsaid for years.
Marilyn reminiscing, “Do you remember why I didn’t marry Rel? He had given me a beautiful engagement ring right after I graduated from Tech.”
“Mother did something. What happened, now?”
“Well, Mother called his parents when she was drunk. They didn’t tell me what she said so I could only imagine. His father was a Baptist minister and Rel was heading off to med school. I was so embarrassed that I called off the engagement. I couldn’t get past the shame I felt.”
“I remember that you were depressed for a long time. Do you wonder what your life would have been like if you had married Rel? I don’t think you would be that traumatized if something like that happened today. You would probably go on and marry a man,if you loved him. We’ve both worked hard to deal with our background, our difficult upbringing.
“Oh, Donna,I heard recently that Rel had to go to prison for some kind of money thing, fraud of some kind. I was shocked. Can you believe that?”
“You’re kidding me. To prison?”
“I wouldn’t want to marry somebody and have to wave him off to the big house!”
“That’s not as bad as Robert Johnson who sold his soul to the devil. That’s spooky. Rememeber what that gas station attendant said?. I read that as a young man, Johnson was an average guitar picker. One night he went to the Dockery Plantation at midnight where he met the devil. The devil grabbed Johnson’s guitar, tuned it and played a few songs. In exchange for his soul, the devil taught him, made him master of his instrument. After that he was able to play the blues that made him famous.”
“Where’s the Dockery Plantation? Let’s gooooo,” Marilyn said in a fake ghosty voice, and throw a scare into us.”
“It’s called the Commissary now. Look at this map. Here’s Clarksdale where we’ll stay in the Shack Up Motel..
“That gave me chills when the attendant cautioned us as we pulled out of the station, “My grand maw told me, you can’t sing the blues on Saturday night and sing church songs on Sunday morning. Our granny would have said the same thing. You know it, Marilyn.”
We planned to get to Clarksdale in three days, going down country roads, digging around for live blues bands at night. We wanted to be at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Club by Saturday.
Greenville was our first stop because Danny, owner of the Walnut Street Blues Bar, said when I called, “You have to come Thursday night. That’s when the working people are here. Come early, about seven.”
Walking into the bar through a thick haze, sure enough, Marilyn, my sister from Portlandia, was being dramatic and very annoyed to see smoking in a blues club in Mississippi. I made it clear, “I’m not leaving.” We found a friendly crowd, a mix of everybody in Greenville at the bar, greeting each other, drinking beer, and catching up on the news.
The John Horton Band lit up the stage an hour late, blues time. Plastered on the wall behind them was a life-sized picture of Elvis and next to it a huge tin “Coca Cola,” sign. Horton, a big fellow wearing a blue flowered Hawaiian shirt and a Panama hat did the vocals and played lead guitar. On bass across the stage, Tom Wildcat Collins in a red shirt, twisted a white pearly guitar on his hip.
I’m broke and I’m hungry
Ragged and dirty too…
But if I clean up, pretty mama
Can I stay all night with you?
When the amorous music started, it touched Marilyn, so I stopped worrying that she might tap a big guy on the shoulder and tell him to put out his cigarette. We sat in the back and soon slipped into the dreamy mood of the “dirty blues” made famous by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson.
During a break Horton told me he drove a bulldozer by day.” I’m a good guitar
player, but I’m the best damn bulldozer operator there is. Just like my daddy.”
I woke up this morning
feeling round for my shoes
know bout (how) I got these
Hwy. 61 old walkin’ blues.
Got up this morning
My little Bernice was gone
Lord,I feel like blowoon (sic)
My lonesome home.
“Walkin’ Blues” by Robert Johnson
The next morning the Highway 61 Blues Museum was our next move, just five miles down the road in Leland. Huge murals on the old store front building capture the excitement of weekends in the town during cotton’s heyday and depicts Mississippi in the 1930s at the downtown intersection.
The museum honors local bluesman James “Son” Thomas with a marker out front.
Just inside the door a big snaggled tooth smile greeted us, a man in a straw hat carrying a guitar.
“Glad you’re here. Is there anything you want to hear?”
“We’re sisters on a road trip, I explained, and we’re just going to walk through the museum.”
When we paid, I asked the young man who the interesting fellow was at the door.
“He’s Pat Thomas, son of the famous James “Son” Thomas on the marker out front. He’s at the museum most days greeting visitors and adding to the history of his father.”
Going from room to room I gradually became aware of music. I stopped walking.
The sound was quiet, mournful, and understated. If I moved I missed it. I decided to sit on some dusty steps right in front of Pat to listen.
“You can come to my house the next time you’re here,” Pat said. “I have lots more stuff there. Did you see my sculpture? Walk back here with me. My daddy taught me the guitar and folk art. Here’s one.” He held up the plastered head that looked vaguely like an African with colorful paint on the face. Then he pointed to the yellow teeth. He smiled. See where my teeth are missing? I used them in the mouth of this fellow when I made him.
“Those are your real teeth, Pat!” I gasped.
“I told the dentist to give ‘em to me. I had a use for them.”
We took a picture in the warmth of a hug. I got another move on my mind, a trip back to visit Pat’s home.
The Depression changed the blues from the early Delta blues style of Charley Patton, Son House, and John Hurt. Like any other art form, the blues is dynamic. It grows and evolves.
It’s not surprising that it was BB King, now eighty-four, born near Indianola, who brought the Mississippi blues national and even international attention. During the Civil Rights era many young African Americans viewed the blues as the older generation’s way of thinking wedded to images of sharecropping and social conditions that created the blues. Singing the blues with a pop sound in the 60s, King felt himself an outsider, “like being black twice.”
BB King still makes an appearance in June at the $16,000,000 BB King Museum in Indianola. We stayed for dinner at the Blue Biscuit Cafe across the street hosted by the owners, Trish and Harlon.
Robert Johnson heard recordings of field hands in Clarksdale near Hopson’s Commissary on Pixley Road. Marilyn and I stayed in the Shack Up Inn, a B&B (bed and beer) in back of the Commissary. Sharecropper shacks are renovated with modern conveniences to welcome visitors. We got two bedrooms, bath, a common area and a sitting porch for less than $100.00 a night. Blues lyrics painted on inside doors and walls add to the charm and the Shack Up has become a favorite stop for Europeans.
Morgan Freeman, the actor, took a special interest in his hometown of Clarksdale in 2001 and opened a bar, restaurant and music venue. Ground Zero, designed after an old juke joint, has a huge bar running front to back, graffiti on the walls, Christmas lights strung from the ceiling, pool tables, and a blues stage in the back. The crowd can count on music Friday and Saturday nights plus the best barbequed ribs in town.
When we got to the club the band was more jazz than blues that particular night. “Go right over the railroad tracks to Red’s.” someone suggested, “if you want a real juke joint.”
We rode around and around, no lights to guide us to a club. Finally, we saw a boarded up building with “Reds” scrawled on the front door.
There was no doubt who Red was. He was the broad guy behind the bar wearing dark glasses. “Here’s my debit card,” I said, asking for a Coors Light. Without so much as word or a smile, he waved me off.
The music was in progress. One musician—he called himself “Slim,”—
sat behind a microphone with a left-handed slide, the guitar in his lap. I heard a lonesome call as he looked up at the end of every refrain and seemed to howl. I was in the right place. When I heard the traditional blues he wrote, some from his truck driving days, I knew Watermelon Slim, with his raspy voice, was an original. You couldn’t put him in a box. There’s the traditional “dirty blues, hill country blues, Afrissippi (the African influence) and Hip Hop. Slim did it all: honky tonk, boogie woogie, and Appalachian.
Many blues musicians began their journey in church, singing spirituals, just as Slim did. “I started performing when I was six years old when I realized I could sing harmony.”
A sad, melancholy feeling hung over the crowd like a dark cloud after the music stopped. When I left Reds that night I couldn’t get one of the refrains out of my mind.
Clarksdale was our last stop. We didn’t get all the way to Memphis on this trip.
After a couple of days of rest back in Ocean Springs, I decided to try to contact Watermelon Slim to get the lyrics I couldn’t remember. I was surprised to find that Slim’s manager would give me his phone number, and even more surprised when he answered, “This is Slim.”
“I know! I can’t believe it’s you!” In the phone interview, Slim attributed this song to Bryant Willie Johnson, (1929). “I’ve been singing it all my life.”
What a special moment when he sang every verse to me.
You’re gonna need somebody on your bond.
When time comes at midnight
And old death comes trippin’ in your row
You’re gonna need somebody on your bond.
When you were busted a gambler
No one would go your bond
Get down on your
Knees and begin to pray
For Jesus to go your bond.
When time comes at midnight
And old death comes trippin’ in your row
You’re gonna need somebody on your bond.
I called Marilyn when she got back to Portland and we giggled about the list we made of questions you don’t ask in rural Mississippi:
“Where can we find a Sunday brunch?”
“Do you have fresh squeezed orange juice?”
“Where’s the Starbucks?” .
We agreed that, in subtle ways, we had gone to the crossroads. Something had changed us.
The old timers explained, “We sing the blues to get rid of the blues.”