a juke-joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi, just across the tracks from
the Ground Zero Blues Club. On the third night that I went in, the
place was empty; except for Red, who was engrossed in a newspaper,
and an obese black man I’d never seen before who was scribbling in a
notebook at a table next to the stage, necking Tanqueray from the
bottle and in a world that only he could see.
up to the bar. Red looked up, nodded at me, produced a bottle of Sam
Adams and then carried on reading.
by Slim Harpo was playing on the juke-box; I placed a five-dollar
bill on the bar and sipped my beer to the hypnotic swamp-blues vibe.
Harpo stopped singing and the juke-box fell silent. The fat man
lifted his massive head and blinked at me slowly.
dig the blues, White Boy?”
that I did.
man grunted. “I ‘member one time, Muddy Waters stopped by here,
stood ‘sac’ly where you standin’
now. Man that cat could play.”
gave three hefty chuckles, took another drink and then belched.
“What are y’all doin’
him I was following the blues trail and was stopping in Clarksdale
for a few nights.
another white boy wants t’
play the blues, huh?”
yo’ accent from?”
him it was from England.
he said. “This heyah’s what the blues is now. Blues is fo’
white folks, but it ain’t the real blues. I knows where the real
blues is, ain’t that right, Red?”
didn't look up but his head moved slightly. It could have been a
over heyah, son,”
said the fat man.
he reeked of booze and body odour; beads of sweat covered his bald
head, and the black t-shirt stretched across his huge bulk and black
sweat pants that encased massive thighs were covered in stains that
I didn’t want to think about. He cleared his throat and blinked
slowly as he fought to salvage discarded words from his gin-soaked
he said. “They’s a place where the blues is still like it was.”
He leaned closer. “I can show yo’
that place, if yo’
of a mind?”
maybe and asked him his name.
man blinked at me, his eyes glazing as he processed this, and then
said, “I’ll get back to yo’
stood up, wavered unsteadily and then left the bar through a door at
the back of the room.
returned to the bar and asked Red who that was. He didn’t look up
from his newspaper.
all I’m sayin’.”
to his word, Red remained silent. I stayed for another beer and then
appeared from an alley at the side of the building.
this place where the blues is at?”
wondered what sort of scam was about to be played. Maybe he was a
hustler for another club?
I ain’t no hustler. This place I knows, it ain’t no club, but is
see. Blues is wid y’all.”
him what he meant.
“I saw yo’
got the sickness. Yo’
got the blues sho’
him how the hell he knew all that.
heyah three nights on yo’
the booze an’
got a dark aura, kinda sickly. Somethin’
bad be hangin’
I said I
had to go. Fat Man stepped in front of me. “Hear me, White Boy," he
said. "I knows a place yo’
would ‘preciate. I’m talkin’
Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Willie Brown.”
Now I was
certain he was drunk. I reminded him that they were all dead.
winked. “Maybe they is, maybe they ain’t. Maybe yo’
ain't far behind ‘em. An’
I ain’t drunk, I jus’
been drinkin’. We gon’
talk again soon.”
around him and walked back into town.
drinks later I was sitting on the bed in the apartment I’d rented
above the Ground Zero Blues Club, staring at my phone as it swam in
and out of focus. I dialled her number and for a long time my thumb
hovered over the green icon, then the realisation kicked in and I
pressed cancel. Rose was gone.
replayed the conversation with Fat Man. I was intrigued about what
he meant by the real blues. Clearly he was off his head on God only
knew what, but would I take him up on his offer?
was still out.
I woke up
twice with raging night sweats that I put down to the amount I’d
drunk - you can fool all of the people some of the time. I was on a
countdown and the next morning I was fifty years and five days old.
I took my
hangover to breakfast - it was the least I could do - but it took
several refills of coffee to persuade it to leave.
wandered out into the bright morning sunshine and explored the
streets of Clarksdale.
later I found myself standing next to my car in the parking lot of
Ground Zero. A cloud passed over the sun and I shivered at the
sudden drop in temperature. I got into the car and drove out of
61 was quiet as I headed south, the sun glinting off pools of water
that littered the rich, fertile, dark grey soil, serving as a
reminder that the delta is nothing more than a playground for the
sleeping giant that is the Mississippi River.
flat landscape of endless cotton fields flowed beneath the sapphire
Mississippi sky, I felt enveloped in a calmness that had been
missing for a long time.
Twenty-five miles south of Clarksdale, give or take, is a town
called Leland. Here I headed east for five miles on Highway 82 and
then turned north.
Ridge is a quarter of a mile stretch of about a dozen houses, a
cotton gin, a derelict wooden church and an acre of dilapidated
graveyard. It was deserted when I stopped and got out of the car.
my second visit and I knew where to go.
fifty feet from the road to a plot at the edge of the graveyard and
stood for a long time reading and re-reading the inscription on the
April 1891 -
April 28 1934
The voice of
performer of early
blues whose songs became
of American music
around the grave were coins of many nations, guitar picks and
plastic flowers. Mementoes left by visitors in deference to a mixed
race singer who stood five foot five inches tall, weighed a hundred
and fifty-five pounds and yet whose voice could be heard
five-hundred yards away.
accounts, Mister Patton liked to party hard and next to the head
stone someone had left a large glass bottle, half-filled with a dark
brown liquid that the sun-bleached label proclaimed to be Bulleit
seem out of place.
liked to party hard, sho’
lost in reverie and physically startled at Fat Man’s voice. He
walked from behind me to stand next to the headstone.
around. Mine was the only car I could see.
him where the hell he’d come from. Instead of answering he stooped,
picked up the bottle, unscrewed the cap and took a large swig,
spilling bourbon down his t-shirt and adding to the stains I’d seen
the night before. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he
grinned and offered the bottle to me.
my head and asked him if he was following me.
of answering he took several long pulls from the bottle, his throat
working noisily as he guzzled the dark liquor.
away from the sound and stared towards the old church. According to
a book I’d read, Charley Patton used to preach there.
belched. “Some say he knew he’s took bad, knew his time was short,
started to repent all his high livin’. Tha’s why he took up preachin’,
‘ventualities, you might say.”
reckoning, Fat Man had been chugging bourbon for the best part of a
minute or so. His eyes took on the liquid shine of a wet brain and
booze dripped from his chin. In one movement he replaced the cap and
returned the bottle next to the stone.
me a few seconds to realise that the level of bourbon hadn’t dropped
an inch from when I first arrived.
“I always was whatchoo might call a glass half-full kinda guy.”
around, tried to hide my nervousness.
to be scared, White Boy,”
he said. “Time enough fo’
him who he was, where he’d come from and what he wanted with me.
am, where I’m from, they jus’
he said. “Don’
in the grand scheme o’
things. What I want witchoo? Well now, tha's
an interesting question.”
his vast bulk against Charley Patton’s headstone and then caught the
look on my face. “Ain’t no sacrilege," he said. "Ain’t nothin’
but a stone with a bit o’
He cupped his ear and inclined his head towards the ground. “An’
grinned and then reached into his pocket, pulling out a packet of
Lucky Strikes and a book of matches. He lit a cigarette, drew deeply
on it and blew out a cloud of blue smoke.
said. “Heyah, we all is.”
another drag. “I’m heyah cos I think yo’
the full benefit of what a feller like me can offer the discernin’
that I had no idea what he was talking about.
at me for a while, took a final drag of the Lucky Strike, ground the
butt into the dirt with his shoe then looked up.
plays the gittar back home.”
It was a
statement, not a question. I asked him how he knew so much about me.
matter ‘how’, jus’
the gittar fo’
but deep down, in yo’
quiet time, yo’
dreams of playin’
slide gittar in a bar, an’
‘shamed of. Ever’
man deserves a little vanity now an’
gittar with Charley Patton, Son House or Willie Brown.”
feel myself blushing.
with that neither. Imagination’s a powerful force. Can be what
drives a man. In his mind, a man can do most anythin’; make his self
richer than a king, get his self a beautiful woman, drive his self a
fancy car, play the gittar in a Delta juke-joint. Make hell outta
heaven outta hell. Yessuh, inside the mind of a man can be a
paused. “A lost paradise, yo’
to himself, he blew out more smoke.
blues and playin’
the blues is all the riches yo’
strive fo’. Like a itch yo’
reach but needs t’scratch real bad. Blues is all yo’
right about now. Yo’
think blues has got the answer an’
tha’s the solid truth.”
stopped and I had nothing to say.
come all the way from England to drive roun’
goes into places where they puts a jukebox filled with blues records
and calls themselves juke-joints. Ever’one’s friendly, aks yo'
ever’one that yo’
seen the blues. That about right?”
about to answer when he aimed his Lucky Strike at me.
wants to see is the real deal. Yo’
a purist, yo’
wanna see it like it was back in the day; black man stompin’
out the blues on a ol’
Stella gittar, folks like Charley Patton raisin’
hell in a real juke-joint or shotgun shack, drinkin’
chasing wimmin an’
cos they got no desire to work on no cotton plantation.”
looked me straight in the eye. “What if I said
I can show y’all that? Take yo’
back to those times?”
how that was possible.
said, and then flashed a grin.
knows who lives in theyah.”
deeply on the cigarette and wreathed his face in smoke as he
exhaled. “This ain' no bullshit,”
he said. “I can do all o' that."
asked him what I had to do he waved a dismissive hand. “Thas’
detail," he said. "It ain’
dollar one, jus’
a little bit o’
of no consequence.”
paused. “In the grand scheme o’
smiled, and it was almost friendly.
today," he said. "Nex’
time we meets we can discuss this matter further.”
then I had no intention of seeing Fat Man again. I just wanted to
my intention to make yo’
he said. “But time waits fo’
no man an’
yo’ time gettin’
impatient, but I’ll move on now an’
up and walked past me. For a few seconds I stared at Charley
Patton’s headstone then turned to walk back to the car.
was nowhere to be seen.
drove, I tried to make sense of our conversation. By the time I
reached Clarksdale, I was none the wiser.