This article is about a
blues trip through the Mississippi Delta by Terry Messman and his wife
Ellen, visiting the wonderful series of blues museums, State blues
markers, murals, grave sites and birthplaces of the Mississippi blues
musicians. The article was published in the April 2012 issue of 'Street
Spirit', a publication of the American Friends Service Committee in the
San Francisco Bay Area, for which Terry Messman is the editor. You can
see the on-line edition of Street Spirit
Terry sent me a copy of the article as he wanted me to read it and we
thought it would be interesting to share with Earlyblues readers so it
is reproduced here with Terry's permission.
"I truly hope my
article will bring more attention to the beautiful work that has been
done by so many Mississippi residents and Blues fans to honor the legacy
of the Blues."
- Terry Messman, Editor, Street Spirit
If you would like to send
any comments about the article, please email me at
This is a story
about how poverty, segregation and racial discrimination harm human
beings. This is also a story about how beauty flowers from the fields of
brutality. This is a story of the blues. “This is where the soul of man
never dies,” as Sam Phillips said about Howlin’ Wolf.
“The Blues Trail: From Mississippi to
The state of Mississippi has placed State Blues Markers to honor more than 100 sites related to blues music. Ellen Danchik photo.
This is a story about people living in
one of the most impoverished places in America, with substandard
housing, poor health care, and lowered life expectancy. This is a story
about how segregation and racial discrimination harm human beings. And
this is a story about how beauty flowers forth from the fields of
This is a story of the blues. “This is
where the soul of man never dies,” as Sam Phillips of Sun Studio said
when he first heard legendary bluesman Howlin’ Wolf.
On the Trail of the Blues
Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National guitar.
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the Civil War.
I’m going to Graceland, Graceland,
- Paul Simon
The Mississippi Delta was shining in
sacred light, shining like the National steel-bodied guitar that was
played so furiously by one of Mississippi’s most amazing sons - Son
House, one of the first Delta blues musicians, a man who played with
such heartfelt passion I would have followed that soulful voice
Howlin’ Wolf’s Real Folk Blues CD on
Chess Records. Howlin’ Wolf was one of the greatest blues musicians of
Sam Phillips famously said of Wolf, “This is where the soul of
man never dies.”
Such highly influential blues masters as
Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson were first inspired by Son House’s
overpowering voice and slide guitar. As my wife, Ellen Danchik, and I
drove through the Delta cotton fields that gave birth to the blues, we
listened to Son House’s darkly unsettling music, his tortured, raw-edged
voice growling in a fever about his search for some kind of redemption.
In our lives, the music of the
Mississippi Delta had become so compelling that we had to make this
pilgrimage to the birthplace of the blues.
We were on the trail of Son House,
Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Little
Walter, Robert Johnson and Elmore James, following the most legendary
blues highway of all - Highway 61 - along the flat floodplains of the
Mississippi gave birth to an
overwhelming majority of the world’s finest blues musicians, and we came
to visit an amazing network of blues museums, juke joints, birthplaces
and gravesites of legendary blues masters - all marked by more than 100
distinctive, dark-blue markers on the Mississippi Blues Trail that honor
the legacy of music that flourished under some of the most oppressive
economic conditions in the nation.
As we drove on, we listened to Son House
sing, almost as a warning:
but a lowdown shaking chill
If you ain’t had ‘em, boys,
I hope you never will.”
The greatest blues musicians have always
captured both the thrill of being alive and the fear of impending death.
When House sings, “The blues ain’t nothing but a lowdown shaking chill,”
he is giving an unflinching glimpse into an inescapable dimension of the
Despite his dire warning about the
blues, I had dreamed of making this pilgrimage to pay my respects to the
brilliant blues masters whose music haunts me, so when James Douglass, a
lifelong peace activist and nonviolent theologian who lives at a
Catholic Worker house in Birmingham, Alabama, invited Ellen and I to
attend a retreat on Gandhian nonviolence with Narayan Desai, Gandhi’s
close friend and biographer, my heart leapt.
I knew the time had come to take the
blues highway from the heart of the Mississippi Delta all the way to
Beale Street and Graceland in Memphis, Tenn.
The Blues and Bondage
After Ellen and I arrived in Jackson,
Miss., on March 17, 2012, we drove west to Vicksburg, the city known as
the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy” during the Civil War. We were indeed
driving down the highway “through the cradle of the Civil War,” just as
Paul Simon sang. And that was appropriate, given that one of America’s
greatest art forms had grown out of the sweat and toil of sharecroppers
laboring on the Delta’s cotton plantations - poor farmers whose
ancestors had made the unwilling journey to the United States on slave
As we drove to Vicksburg, we listened to
B.B. King’s defiant declaration, “Why I Sing the Blues,” a song that
reveals how this music first came to America on slave ships, and was
born amidst oppression, hunger, deprivation, and police abuse. King’s
glorious, gospel-soaked voice roared out a devastating indictment of our
historic legacy of chains and enslavement:
first got the blues
They brought me over on a ship
Men were standing over me
And a lot more with a whip.
everybody wanna know
Why I sing the blues.
Well, I’ve been around a long time
I’ve really paid my dues.”
That is the central paradox of the
blues. An art form of joy and radiant brilliance was created by
musicians who transformed brutality into beauty, like alchemists of the
The Blues and the Joys
Yet, the blues aren’t just about having
the blues, of course. The blues are also about the joys. Some of this
music is tinted with the light blue of melancholy, or drenched in the
despondent dark blue of heartache. But so much of it is joyously colored
with the hopes, the high times, the wild passions, love affairs,
parties, and the exaltation of the human spirit.
Some of the best parties in the world
were held by people who labored as sharecroppers all week, and then
crowded into a Mississippi juke joint to drink moonshine and dance while
a wandering blues musician played slide guitar.
The blues flourished in the midst of
gruelling hours of labor by hundreds of thousands of workers in bondage
to the plantation system. The first blues musicians were as nameless and
faceless as the countless sharecroppers who gave their sweat, their
blood, their very lives, to a system of economic bondage.
Crossroads of Despair and Hope
The blues grew on the intersection of
endless toil and hoped-for deliverance - the crossroads of despair and
Long before the first blues musicians
were ever recorded, and achieved a small amount of respect for their
musical skills, many were despised even in their own communities,
considered worthless ramblers pursuing a morally dubious calling. Yet
they went on to create something of lasting beauty. Poor people living
in humble shacks on plantations created one of the most important art
forms in the world.
A wall-sized portrait of B.B. King
painted on a building in Leland, Miss. Ellen Danchik photo.
It’s all there in the B.B. King song
we’re listening to as we drive north on Highway 61 out of Vicksburg.
“Why I Sing the Blues” is an amazing political outburst that begins its
journey on a slave ship, then moves forward through time and space into
modern American cities where the singer endures harrowing poverty and
the heartless indifference of welfare officials.
in a ghetto flat, cold and numb
I heard the rats tell the bedbugs
to give the roaches some.”
Trying to escape poverty, he only runs
into lying politicians with false promises of affordable housing. Anyone
who has ever been poor, or tried to help homeless people, knows what
happens next. He seeks help at the welfare office and is shot down by
their stonehearted denial:
I’d go down to the welfare
To get myself some grits and stuff
But a lady stand up and she said
‘You haven’t been around long enough’
That’s why I got the blues.”
Finally, after King’s fluid guitar
echoes his anguished voice in crying out in anger and heartbreak, he
delivers a deeply moving lamentation for a blind homeless man who is
criminalized by the cops (the “rollers”) simply because he asks for a
on the corner
Begging for a dime
The rollers come and caught him
And throw him in the jail for a crime
I got the blues
Mm, I’m singing my blues.”
B.B. King’s stinging guitar and richly
expressive voice expose the entire history of a nation’s shameful
mistreatment of African Americans, poor people and the disabled. His
song should be claimed as the national anthem for all poor and homeless
‘The Longest Road I Know’
As we continue driving north on Highway
61 on our way to Leland, Miss., we listen to Mississippi Fred McDowell
sing, “Lord, that 61 Highway is the longest road I know.”
For countless Mississippi residents, the
highways and railroad tracks, the train depots and bus stations, were
passages leading away from a life of hardship to better opportunities in
Memphis, Chicago and Detroit. Many great blues musicians traveled these
same paths as they left behind hardscrabble lives working as
sharecroppers on plantations and playing in Mississippi juke joints, and
headed on up to Memphis, and points north.
For some, it turned into a highway of
loneliness and unfulfilled dreams. For others, it led to liberation.
Sometimes it led to the valley of the shadow of death.
Mississippi Fred McDowell sang:
“Lord, if I
have to die, baby,
Before you think my time have come,
I want you to bury my body,
out on Highway 61.”
For all of its overwhelming influence on
the music of the whole world, the Mississippi Delta is a relatively
small area, only about 60 or 70 miles wide by 200 miles long, bounded on
the west by the Mississippi River and on the east by the Yazoo River,
and extending from the cities of Jackson and Vicksburg in the south,
about 200 miles north to Memphis, along either Highway 61 or Highway 55.
The Delta is the flat floodplain where
the Mississippi River overflowed its banks over and over again
throughout history, creating some of the most fertile topsoil anywhere,
some of the richest cotton plantations, and some of the most
impoverished farm laborers and sharecroppers in the nation.
Blues Music and Civil Rights
Strange to say, I love blues music for
many of the same reasons I’ve always loved the U.S. civil rights
movement. The unimaginable bravery of Southern civil rights workers who
endured beatings, jailings, bombings and martyrdom in their fight for
freedom is mirrored in the way that the beauty of the blues grew out of
Brought in chains from Africa to toil
without pay or freedom or human rights on Southern plantations, African
Americans endured a barbaric form of slavery that prevailed far longer
in the United States than most other civilized nations.
After the Civil War and the Emancipation
Proclamation, African Americans would suffer the cruel oppression of
racial discrimination and segregation for another century until they
took their destiny into their own hands, and formed a freedom movement
that would overcome staggering odds to topple the system of segregation.
I still consider the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to be
the bravest and most beautiful movement in our nation’s history.
But the blues blossomed into a beautiful
art form decades earlier in our history, back in the 1920s and 1930s,
while segregation was still fully in effect. This music, which was to
become one of the most important and lasting American art forms, was
born in the midst of racism and poverty, and flourished despite the
violence of night riders, lynchings, terribly inadequate schools,
wretched health care, and the exploitative conditions faced by
sharecroppers picking cotton or driving tractors for such low wages that
their debt only grew larger, year after year.
It is a testament to the human spirit
that the breathtaking beauty of the blues and the heroic courage of the
civil rights movement were both able to arise out of the worst
conditions of deprivation and hardship. Both movements gave this nation
so much it is almost beyond belief.
Paul McCartney’s song “Blackbird,” from
the Beatles White Album, captures how this beauty was born in the dark
night of the soul:
“Blackbird singing in the dead of
Take these broken wings and learn to
All your life, you were only waiting
for this moment to arise.”
A photograph taken by Son House’s
manager, Dick Waterman, captures something essential about the meaning
of blues music in America for me. After his “rediscovery” in the 1960s,
Son House was photographed standing next to the Liberty Bell in
Philadelphia. But the bell designed to ring out in freedom is cracked.
The blues were not born in a free land for African-Americans. A tragic
crack ran through it from the beginning.
Son House at the cracked Liberty Bell in
Philadelphia. Dick Waterman photo.
Blindness and the Blues
As we continue driving north on the
Mississippi Blues Trail, McCartney is still singing a song of profound
“Blackbird singing in the dead of
Take these sunken eyes and learn to
All your life, you were only waiting
for this moment to be free.”
On top of economic hardships and racial
discrimination, so many great blues singers suffered terrible illnesses,
premature deaths, and disability and blindness, either from birth,
accident, or disease.
As unfair and miserly as disability
benefits are today, imagine being blind in Mississippi or Alabama 70
years ago. Except for the kindness of families who often were very poor
themselves and barely able to survive, what help was available for a
Black child or adult afflicted with blindness?
Yet despite these overwhelming
obstacles, some of the very finest blues musicians of all time were
blind. These musicians faced life with what McCartney called “sunken
eyes” and yet went on “singing in the dead of night,” waiting for their
“moment to be free.”
We’re not talking about also-rans who
overcame blindness to create decent but unexceptional music. We’re
talking about legendary blues geniuses and masters. In Blues Guitar
Heroes, a 2010 English publication, Eric Clapton was asked what
advice he had for today’s aspiring musicians. He said, “Listen to the
Clapton explained that most people
remain unaware of where the blues came from, and said that people today
should “go back and listen to Robert Johnson, Blind Blake, Blind Boy
Fuller, Blind Willie Johnson and Blind Willie McTell.”
Stunningly, Robert Johnson was the only
blues master on Clapton’s list who was not blind. And his list didn’t
even include Blind Lemon Jefferson, one of the very first blues pioneers
and an incredibly gifted guitarist; nor Blind Rev. Gary Davis, the
impassioned, gruff-voiced singer and virtuoso guitarist who inspired so
many musicians in the 1960s; nor Sleepy John Estes, an exceptionally
fine blues vocalist who lost the vision in his right eye as a boy and
became completely blind in both eyes when he was middle-aged; nor Sonny
Terry, the sightless harmonica player who performed with Brownie McGhee;
nor Ray Charles, the greatest blues/soul/gospel singer of his
The birth of such beauty out of such
tremendous suffering is the same thing we saw happen again and again in
the civil rights movement. The human spirit arrives at the crossroads
and, instead of going down the roadway to despair, musicians found
another path, where suffering is transmuted into joy.
Highway 61 Blues Museum
We finally reach Leland, Mississippi, at
sundown on our first day on the road. Leland is a small town located on
the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 82. When we arrive, the Highway
61 Blues Museum is closed, and we’re downcast to find that we have
missed out at our first stop on the Blues Trail. We realize we might
never make it back to see this museum.
But we see a sign on the museum door
with a phone number, so we dial it and we’re overjoyed when Billy
Johnson, the incredibly friendly curator of the Highway 61 Blues Museum,
tells us he’ll drive right down to give us a private tour.
Ellen and I found that level of
friendship and hospitality virtually everywhere we went in Mississippi.
Friends in Oakland, black and white alike, had warned us that this trip
might be dangerous, but time and again, the warmth and decency of the
people we met in Mississippi - black and white alike - were wonderful to
As we waited for Johnson to arrive, we
went to look at the four large blues murals on the walls of nearby
buildings that honor local blues musicians. Many hometown heroes hail
from the Leland area, and on the murals, these local blues legends never
left, and they never died. They are enshrined just as they were in their
glory days, larger than life, still playing and singing their hearts
Only a half-block from the museum, a
building-sized mural portrays local legends who became international
stars, including Johnny and Edgar Winter, renowned blues singer and
guitarist Little Milton, Jimmy Reed, and James “Son” Thomas.
Mural, Leland, Mississippi © Copyright 2008 Alan
White. All Rights Reserved.
Plaque painted at the side of the Mural
© Copyright 2008 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.
Johnny Winter, the long-haired, albino
bluesman who is one of the most sensational guitarists of our era, and
who earned an honored place in blues history by producing and playing on
Muddy Waters’ Grammy-winning comeback albums, is one of the only white
musicians in the Blues Hall of Fame.
Winter grew up in Texas, but he was born
in Leland, Miss., and his family has deep roots in this small town. His
father was the mayor of Leland. In addition to being depicted on the
mural, Winter’s musical journey is also profiled on a State Blues Marker
a block from the museum. Winter composed “Leland Mississippi Blues” on
his self-titled first album for Columbia back in 1969. He sang:
“I’m going to Leland, Mississippi,
You all know that’s where I come from
Right down on the Delta, man.”
Now Winter is always “right down on the
Delta, man” - profiled on the blues marker, displayed on the mural,
enshrined in a special exhibit in the museum.
When Museum Curator Billy Johnson
arrives, we realize he has uncomplainingly interrupted his supper to
generously give two strangers a private tour. When he finds out how
excited we are to see the museum, he refuses to let us pay the normal
Johnson is warm, friendly, fiercely
loyal to his Mississippi roots, and dedicated to keeping the spirit of
blues music alive in Leland. He has been a mainstay behind the creation
of the blues murals, and operates his museum as a labor of love run
almost entirely by volunteers.
Museum Mission Statement © Copyright 2008
Alan White. All Rights Reserved.
Johnson is highly knowledgeable about
every blues musician I ask about, and his great love for the music
overlaps with his love for his home state as he tells us the remarkable
truth that literally hundreds of internationally famous musicians come
So who is his personal favorite, I ask.
Without hesitation, Johnson answers, “Jimmy Reed,” and shows us his
well-designed museum display of Reed.
Reed was born on a plantation near
Dunleith, Miss., and grew into an influential singer and guitarist who
racked up an amazing number of hits on the pop charts - far more hits
than blues legends like Muddy Waters or Elmore James. His songs include
“Bright Lights, Big City,” Honest I Do,” “Big Boss Man” and many others.
Yet even as his songs shot up the
charts, Reed’s life fell apart. He plunged into out-of-control
alcoholism and uncontrollable epileptic seizures, The blues seemed to
reach out and claim this man. His record company went out of business,
and he released one last single, a song with the tragically ironic
title, “Don’t Think I’m Through.”
His downfall from epilepsy, alcoholism
and hardship ended in one of the terribly hard deaths that seem to haunt
the blues. Reed died on August 29, 1976.
But in Leland, Miss., Jimmy Reed still
lives on in the Highway 61 Blues Museum and his larger-than-life mural
image still plays the blues in living color. One of the large outdoor
murals is devoted exclusively to Jimmy Reed.
A nearby mural is devoted to B.B. King
from nearby Indianola, and spans five decades of King’s amazing career.
B.B. King plays for Obama
After lovingly looking at every exhibit
in Johnson’s fine museum, it was time to leave Leland and head east on
Highway 82 to Indianola, Miss., the home of one of my all-time heroes,
B. B. King.
Less than a month before we visited the
Mississippi Blues Trail, B.B. King played a blues concert with several
other musicians at the White House for President Obama, a concert
broadcast on PBS in honor of Black History Month.
“This music speaks to something
universal,” Obama said at the concert. “No one goes through life without
both joy and pain, triumph and sorrow. The blues gets all of that,
sometimes with just one lyric or one note. “
That is certainly true of King’s
brilliant playing. King is now 86, but he still is performing hundreds
of concerts a year. For Obama, he played “Let the Good Times Roll,” and
his exquisitely haunting signature hit, “The Thrill is Gone.”
B.B. King has won nearly every award a
poor sharecropper from Indianola, Miss., could ever have dreamed of
earning. He’s been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the
National Medal of Arts, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the
Kennedy Center Honors award. He’s received an amazing 15 Grammy awards
over the years, and was elected to both the Blues Hall of Fame, and the
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In 2010, in a special issue of an English
publication, Blues Guitar Heroes, King was chosen as the finest
blues guitarist in history, “the true living embodiment of electric
‘One Kind Favor’
As we drove to Indianola, Ellen and I
listened to “One Kind Favor,’ a record of exquisite beauty that King
released in 2008 at the age of 83. “One Kind Favor” is a glorious return
to his roots in the pure blues, and he covers songs by the most deeply
authentic blues masters, including the Mississippi Sheiks, T-Bone
Walker, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Lonnie Johnson.
Despite all these incredible songs, on
the drive to Indianola, we played only one song over and over and over -
“See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” a song written by one of the very
first bluesmen of all, the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson.
King’s voice and guitar on “See That My
Grave Is Kept Clean” are exceptionally moving. He sounds like an
interfused mix of growling bluesman and inspirational gospel singer. His
amazing vocal performance can only come from the heart and soul of one
who sees and feels, all too clearly, the shadows of looming death.
I hesitate to quote from this song
because the lyrics are very dark. But King’s music gives us a
fundamental truth about the human condition. While other forms of music
may focus almost solely on love, romance and good times, blues musicians
have always tried to express the whole truth, the whole range of
humanity’s emotional experiences - not only joy and love, but also the
heartbreak and anguish of the human soul.
B.B. King is gentle and modest, friendly
and open almost to a fault, even after he has signed his 300th autograph
of the evening. His music conveys such a sense of joy and gladness that
it leaves you happy even when he is singing from the deepest, darkest
corner of the soul. But King began life working as a sharecropper, and
he truly has paid his dues. So he can sing from a deep, dark-blue
dimension of the soul with revelatory force - the dimension of heartache
Many kinds of heartache
Heartache doesn’t just come when a love
affair has ended in sorrow, or when someone wakes up feeling bad, or
they’re broke and the wolf is at the door. The blues can also come from
a deeper source of sorrow. None of us get out of this world alive, as
the great Hank Williams sang on his very last song before his own
The Best of Sonny Boy Williamson on
Williamson was one of the finest blues singers and
In a state like Mississippi, hard lives,
poor pay and inadequate health care ended all too often in sickness and
early death. The great blues singers didn’t shy away from these
So as we drive to Indianola, we play
“See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” over and over and over.
“Did you ever hear the church bell
Did you ever hear a church bell tone?
Then you know that the poor boy’s
dead and gone.”
King sings these stark words with
haunting fervor and intensity. His voice is powerfully expressive and
utterly beautiful. This song absolutely knocks me out every time I hear
It’s not just because King is singing a
sorrowful truth we all must face. Rather, hearing this song somehow
makes me feel all the joy and sorrow of being alive. I admire King for
singing this truth right out of the depth of his heart and soul. It
seems crazy to say, but each and every time I hear B.B. King sing this
song, I feel so happy, so exhilarated, so inspired.
By now in his career, almost everyone
realizes what a great and hugely influential guitarist B.B. King is. But
what a singer this man is. I am astonished that an 83-year-old
veteran of a life lived at breakneck pace could sing a song this
powerfully, this evocatively.
As we enter Indianola, a small town of
about 10,000 people where King spent the greater part of his youth, “See
That My Grave Is Kept Clean” is playing for the seventh time in a row:
“Well, my heart stopped beating
And my hands are cold.
Well, my heart stopped beating
And my hands are cold.
I believe just what the Bible told.”
How in the world can a song so drenched
in deep-blue reflections on mortality make me so happy? With this
unforgettable meditation on the final chapter of the singer’s earthly
life ringing in our ears, Ellen and I visited the street corner that
honors the very beginning of King’s life as a musician.
The teenaged B.B. King first began
performing gospel and blues songs in public on the corner of Church
Street and Second in Indianola. In 1986, King pressed his footprints and
handprints into the same patch of sidewalk where he once played as an
unknown street musician. The street corner also was memorialized with a
State Blues Marker and a large portrait of the young King on the wall.
B.B. King portrait, Indianola © Copyright
2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.
B.B. King handprints & footprints, Indianola © Copyright 2006 Alan
White. All Rights Reserved.
Next, we walked one block away to see a
huge, colorful painting of B.B. King on the wall of a building. Finally,
unable to contain our excitement any longer, we walked to one of the key
sites of our pilgrimage, the B.B. King Museum, which opened in September
Just as King is one of my very favorite
musicians, his namesake museum is one of the finest museums I have ever
seen. The B.B. King Museum stands at the site of the 1910 cotton gin
where King once worked, and it is strikingly attractive.
The museum utilizes multi-media displays
to brilliant advantage, but, most importantly, it is perhaps the best
single place in Mississippi to discover how the beauty of the blues
emerged from the poverty and grinding hardships of life in rural
The museum does a wondrous job of using
multimedia exhibits to show the progression of B.B. King’s career
through the years, and to show the presidents and Popes he has performed
for, and the staggering number of blues musicians and rock musicians he
has directly inspired. You can listen not only to many of King’s own
songs but also to the music of dozens of his musical descendants — the
rock and blues musicians he inspired.
It is an extremely well-thought-out
museum and conveys the joy of the blues in a brilliant display of
storytelling, short films, vintage memorabilia, and wall-sized
photographic displays that take you on King’s odyssey from the
Mississippi farmlands to the sophisticated night clubs on Beale Street
I fell into a state of awe and
inspiration the moment I entered the first stop on the museum tour and
watched a short film of King’s life. As the film begins, B.B. King, now
one of the biggest musical superstars in the world, visits the
Mississippi Delta cotton fields where he was born. Although King has
reached a peak of international acclaim, he still returns to the small
town of Indianola every June to play a free blues concert.
‘Depressed by the Oppression’
Even though he expresses affection for
his Indianola roots, B.B. King’s journey into the blues was rooted in
poverty, long hours of backbreaking toil in the cotton fields and a
segregation system aimed at breaking people’s spirits.
Rev. David Matthews, a Baptist minister
in Indianola, says on the film, “The blues were born and not written,
because in those days it was oppression and you were depressed by the
oppression. Black folks had no rights. It was badder than bad. I was
there. I know.”
Yet, in King’s odyssey from Indianola to
international icon, we once again see how beauty and hope and love
flower forth from the fields of heartbreak, hardships, involuntary
servitude and racism.
Eric Clapton, one of King’s many famous
admirers and students, described the way music transmutes hardships into
hope. “The principle of listening to the blues is, you get joy. It’s a
music of hope and triumph over adversity. That’s what B.B. King has
shown us most of all.”
Transforming sorrow and deprivation into
joy and beauty sounds like a lovely idea, but the reality was that
simply surviving was often a life-and-death struggle, given the economic
exploitation faced by sharecroppers in Mississippi.
The B.B. King Museum is rooted in the
cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, and its first set of exhibits
and films portray the farmers and sharecroppers who worked long hours
for low pay in a desperate effort to survive.
Riley B. King was born in 1925 in a
small cabin on a cotton plantation between Indianola and Greenwood,
Miss. In his 2005 biography, B.B. King: There Is Always One More Time,
David McGee writes, “Working in the fields for long hours, King learned
about the economics of sharecropping, how the paltry wages paid for
backbreaking work underwrote the plantation owners’ opulent lifestyles,
and perpetuated the sharecropper’s misery.”
A film in the museum illustrates this
point by showing that no matter how hard sharecroppers labored, they
faced high interest rates and frequent trickery that left them in debt
that grew year after year.
‘From Can to Can’t’
Rev. David Matthews, an African-American
Baptist minister in Indianola, described how this economic captivity
ensnared the poor farmers, no matter how many hours they worked.
Sharecroppers worked in the cotton fields “from can to can’t” every day,
meaning they began work as soon as they can see daylight, and
worked until they can’t see at night.
All those hours of work were to no avail
if the economic system was rigged against sharecroppers so as to keep
them from ever getting out of debt. Rev. Matthews said, “They got you on
the price of the groceries. They got you on the grade of the cotton you
sold. They got you at every corner.”
At age 12, King saved money from his $15
monthly wage on the farm to buy a used acoustic guitar. The guitar gave
him a first glimmer of a new life - an escape from the trap of
never-ending work for ever-growing debt.
The film and exhibits not only display
the economic hardships he faced, but also the oppressive system of
segregation he endured. King had white friends in Mississippi and worked
for a white farmer, Flake Cartledge, a “fair and liberal” man who
treated him humanely and with much respect. Still, throughout his youth,
the state of Mississippi was ruled by a cruel form of racial
In the film showing King’s homecoming to
Indianola, a white former governor of Mississippi states bluntly that
the state had “allowed itself to be overcome by an evil system of
segregation.” The fact that a former Mississippi governor condemned that
system so forthrightly is one indication of how the South has changed.
In a major public address in 2004,
William Winter, the Democratic governor of Mississippi from 1980-1984,
publicly thanked the civil rights movement for helping to reform the
South. Gov. Winter said, “Impressive advances have been made in race
relations since the tumultuous 1960s when the South was freed from the
burden of defending the indefensible system of racial segregation. For
that, we Southerners, and especially we white Southerners, owe a huge
debt to valiant civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and John
Lewis and Medgar Evers and so many others.”
Winter added, “All of us were prisoners
of a system that enslaved us all and that dictated how we lived our
lives. It caused us all to live in fear and mistrust and ignorance of
each other. The tragedy is that freeing ourselves of that bondage took
so long and caused so much needless and useless suffering and violence.”
Music as an Escape
Music was a form of escape for many
white and Black sharecroppers in the Delta - if not economic escape, at
least spiritual or emotional escape.
Rev. Matthews described music as a
saving grace for King and many other plantation workers, “A pacification
for black folks was singing the blues and singing spirituals so they
wouldn’t drift into nothingness.”
Music enabled King to leave an anonymous
life toiling on the Delta plantations and take his first steps into
worldwide fame when he traveled to Memphis, a thriving scene where the
blues, soul, country and rock ‘n’ roll were all played and mixed
together and cross-fertilized.
In his invaluable tour book, Blues
Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues, author Steve Cheseborough
explains what an important destination Beale Street was for people in
King’s era. He writes, “For almost a century, Memphis’s Beale Street was
the focal point not only of the Mississippi Delta, but of black America,
eclipsing even Harlem in its crowds, excitement, and music.”
King soon began recording in the famed
Sun Studio in Memphis where country, rock and rockabilly greats
including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison,
Charlie Rich and Carl Perkins were first recorded. In the early 1950s,
Sun Studio began recording a dazzling list of future hall-of-fame blues
musicians, including Howlin’ Wolf, Little Milton, Junior Parker, James
Cotton - and B.B. King.
In Memphis, the young Riley B. King was
transformed into B.B. King. He began working at radio station WDIA as a
singer and disc jockey, where he was nicknamed the Beale Street Blues
Boy, later shortened to Blues Boy King, and finally to B.B. King.
The final stages of the museum tour
remain vivid in my memory. They show the worldwide stage that King
ascended in his later years, playing with Eric Clapton and U2, being
honored at the White House, and performing at the Vatican’s Christmas
concert, where he presented the Pope with his famous guitar, “Lucille.”
A crucial step in his growing fame came
in the 1960s, when King first played for large audiences of white
countercultural youth in San Francisco’s Fillmore West. Up until then,
most of King’s audiences had been overwhelmingly African American. He
was very confused that his manager had booked him to play at the
Fillmore before a huge audience of long-haired, white, young people.
This beautifully colorful mural in
Leland, Mississippi, honors the life and music of blues great Jimmy
Reed, who was born in Dunleith, just east of Leland. Cristen Craven
Barnard and Jay Kirgis painted this mural, located on the wall of
Stovall’s on Broad Street and South Deer Creek Drive East.
King recalled that he’d never played for
that kind of people before, so he just played the best blues he knew
how. When he finished, he received rapturous applause and standing
ovations that went on and on. He was shocked and moved to tears of joy.
So, he played encore after encore, and the wild applause and adoration
of his newfound white fans stunned the veteran bluesman.
The hours we spent in the B.B. King
Museum were so exhilarating, it was hard to move on, but it was almost
dark, and we had to make it that night to Clarksdale, Miss., home of the
Delta Blues Museum.
We drove north on Highway 61 through a
dark, stormy night, and it began to rain heavily as we finally reached
the crossroads leading into Clarksdale.
Clarksdale is haunted by the spirits of
the blues masters of the past. The great Son House learned to play
guitar in Clarksdale, and Muddy Waters found lasting inspiration by
listening and learning as House played the blues at a Clarksdale-area
juke joint. Junior Parker and Ike Turner also played here. John Lee
Hooker was a native of Clarksdale until he left home at the age of 14
and went to Detroit where he became one of the most widely recorded
blues musicians of his time.
Reaching the Crossroads
As we reach the intersection of Highway
61 and Highway 49, our spirits rise at the sight of giant blue guitars
on top of a large light pole and a highway sign that says, “The
Crossroads.” Signs for Highways 61 and 49 are perched atop the whole
The blue guitars mounted on the
Crossroads sign make up a well-known symbol of the Mississippi Blues
Trail - it’s on the front cover of our Mississippi tour guidebook. Yet,
in all likelihood, this is not the legendary crossroads that Robert
Johnson sang about so eerily in “Cross Road Blues.”
“I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above, “Have mercy,
save poor Bob, if you please.”
Even though the crossroads that Robert
Johnson wrote about were very likely some lonely, deserted intersection
out in the country, this crossroads at Clarksdale is the intersection of
the legendary Highways 61 and 49 which so many blues musicians sang
In Blues Traveling, Cheseborough
writes: “This Crossroads is important for what it is: the intersection
of the two main blues highways, the roads on which countless blues
singers and other Delta folks walked or rode as they sought work,
migrated north, or just rambled.”
On the drive into Clarksdale, we listen
to Robert Johnson’s high, haunting voice on his original version of
“Cross Road Blues,” followed by Eric Clapton’s lightning-fast guitar
runs on Cream’s version of “Crossroads” on their “Wheels of Fire” album.
Johnson’s powerful lyrics have made the myths live on, whether it’s the
legend of a lonely bluesman sinking down on his knees in a desolate
area, or selling his very soul for guitar mastery.
Blue guitars on the Crossroads of
Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
“Standing at the crossroad, baby,
rising sun going down
I believe to my soul, now
Poor Bob is sinkin’ down.”
Muddy Waters at the Crossroads
Perhaps the single most influential
bluesman in the world found his own crossroads in Clarksdale. Muddy
Waters had lived in a tumbledown cabin on Stovall Plantation, a few
miles outside of Clarksdale, for 25 years, picking cotton and driving a
tractor for 22 and one-half cents per hour.
Waters lived with his grandmother in the
small, wooden cabin on this plantation from the time he was three years
old, until he quit his job and left Clarksdale after having a dispute
with the plantation manager over his poverty wages.
In 1943, when he was 28, Waters went to
the Clarksdale Station and boarded a train for Chicago, setting off on
what has now become a nearly mythical journey for the blues. In a few
short years, Waters assembled an outstanding band that began
transforming the Delta blues into the modern electric blues, the music
that would be heard all around the world.
Waters began recording a series of
legendary blues recordings for Chess Records in Chicago, with himself
and Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Otis Spann on piano, Willy Dixon on bass,
and one of the most phenomenal blues players of all time, Little Walter,
In a few short years, the electric blues
perfected by Muddy Waters, and also by Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy
Williamson and Little Walter would travel across the Atlantic Ocean to
England and inspire a new generation of rock musicians.
“The blues had a baby, and they named
it rock and roll,” is how
Muddy sang of the foundational role the blues played in jumpstarting the
Delta Blues Museum
As we drive up to the Delta Blues
Museum, we pass the old Clarksdale Station, built in 1926, the very
railroad station where Muddy Waters bought that ticket of destiny to
Chicago in 1943.
The Delta Blues Museum is located at “1
Blues Alley” in the old Freight Depot, a brick building constructed in
1918. It hosts many wonderful displays that help to pierce the veil of
history and take us back in time to the forgotten street corners and
Mississippi juke joints where both famous and obscure musicians played
for decades, as the Delta Blues slowly evolved.
The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale,
Mississippi. Ellen Danchik photo.
The small cabin that was Muddy Waters’
home on Stovall Plantation was taken down, moved and reassembled. Now it
is on display inside the Delta Blues Museum. Ellen and I make a beeline
for the rough-hewn home built from axe-cut planks, and soon we are
sitting in the cabin and watching a movie of his life.
It is a truly moving experience to sit
in this roughly built little cabin, and watch Muddy Waters leading his
legendary blues band on a tour through Europe, playing classic songs
like “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” “Rollin’ Stone,” Louisiana Blues,” “Trouble
No More,” “Mannish Boy,” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin.’
It is awesome to realize we’re sitting
in the very cabin where Muddy’s blues were first recorded back in 1941,
when folklorist Alan Lomax recorded Waters for the Library of Congress.
From these humble beginnings, Muddy then
took the country-style Delta blues to Chicago, electrified the music so
it could be heard in the noisy bars on Chicago’s South Side, and then
took his legendary band to Europe, and electrified the world.
The Rolling Stones took their name from
the Muddy Waters song, and the Stones always championed his work, for
which he was very grateful. So many of the great British Invasion bands
found their greatest inspiration in the blues music recorded by Muddy
Waters and Howlin’ Wolf for Chess Records.
When the Beatles first visited the
United States, they told interviewers of their great admiration for
Muddy Waters, and the Stones visited Chess Records in Chicago, the great
shrine where the blues music they loved had originated. Many of the
finest English rock groups - including the Stones, Cream, the Yardbirds,
John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and the Animals - paid the highest tribute
to U.S. blues musicians by recording their songs.
At the end of our tour, we went to the
museum’s gift shop and bought the CD entitled “Muddy Waters: The
Complete Plantation Recordings,” the first recording of Muddy playing
the Delta Blues, along with the interviews Lomax taped with him at the
I’d wanted to have this CD for a long
time, but I made myself wait until I could buy it at the Delta Blues
Museum. I went back into Muddy’s cabin to open the CD booklet, and saw
photos of the same cabin where I was sitting. Muddy played all the
brilliant music in this recording on the porch of this cabin when he was
still a sharecropper and tractor driver.
One of the first songs he ever sang is
on this CD, “I Be’s Troubled.” It’s nearly a perfect statement of the
rambling ways of blues musicians, and describes how loneliness and a
worried mind build up to a strong desire to escape. Muddy sang these
lyrics in 1941, and listening to them now, we can almost feel the
momentum building up so powerfully that Muddy would leave Mississippi
for good only two years later. Muddy sings:
“Well if I feel tomorrow, like I feel
I’m gonna pack my suitcase,
And make my getaway.
Lord I’m troubled,
I’m all worried in mind
And I’m never being satisfied,
and I just can’t keep from crying.”
Muddy learned to play the blues here in
Clarksdale and his major inspiration was Son House, one of the key
founders of the Delta Blues. Waters told Down Beat magazine, “He
was my idol coming up in my young life, Son House was.”
Son House was playing at the same place
in Clarksdale for four weeks in a row, and Muddy was there every single
night, listening to House’s incredibly powerful, soulful, roughly
expressive voice and his slashing attacks on his bottleneck slide
guitar. Waters said that when he first heard House playing, it was so
overpowering and moving, that “I should have broke my bottleneck.”
“I was there every night,” Waters later
told Down Beat. “You couldn’t get me out of that corner,
listening to him and what he’s doing. Really, though, it was Son House
who moved me to play. I was really behind Son House all the way.”
So Ellen and I visited the Son House
exhibit in the Delta Blues Museum. It was an extraordinary experience -
the spiritual peak of the entire trip for me - just to see so many
photographs and other artifacts of Son House I’d never seen anywhere
before, and to contemplate the life and music of perhaps the most deeply
soulful of all the great Delta bluesmen, in the very town where he
played for Muddy Waters.
The museum exhibit traces Son House’s
nearly unbelievable journey through the blues. Along, with his friends
Charley Patton and Willie Brown, Son House was the father of the Delta
Blues, the man who most inspired Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. His
impassioned singing is one of the most intense experiences in the blues,
and to many who witnessed House playing, he seemed like a man possessed.
A trancelike possession
Thrashing away on his National steel
guitar, House would launch himself into the blues with an intensity that
seemed to put him in a state of trancelike possession, as if he were
having a seizure - a musical seizure that would, in later years, deeply
move his listeners, whether in New York coffeehouses or European
When he was a young man, Son House
preached in Baptist churches, and for the rest of his life, he found
himself torn between the emotional extremes of preaching in church or
“preaching the blues,” as he called it. He turned away from his calling
as a Baptist preacher, but often felt intense anguish over his choice to
leave that calling to play the blues.
The museum displays many of Dick
Waterman’s wonderful photos of Son House following his “rediscovery” by
blues scholars in the early 1960s. Back in the 1930s, Son House had made
a few classic blues recordings for Paramount Records, and then was
recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax in 1941-1942 for the Library of
Congress. The museum even has on display the old, rusted sign from
Clack’s Grocery, where Lomax recorded Son House on Sept. 3, 1941.
After those few tantalizing recordings,
Son House left the scene and seemed to fade away into oblivion. He
recorded nothing further, and even set his guitar aside for decades. If
anything, his disappearance into obscurity only made his legend all the
Then, in 1964, at the height of the folk
revival, three young blues researchers, Dick Waterman, Nick Perls and
Phil Spiro, discovered House living quietly in Rochester, New York, and
convinced him to take up the blues he had laid aside more than 20 years
earlier. Waterman managed Son House for the rest of his life, getting
him a recording contract with Columbia Records, and arranging
appearances at the renowned Newport Folk Festival, the New York Folk
Festival, Carnegie Hall, and the college and coffeehouse circuits. In
1967, House made greatly heralded concert appearances in Europe, as part
of the American Folk Blues Festival.
Son House is very strong medicine, not
for everyone, and definitely not a starting point for those just getting
into the blues.
But it is mesmerizing to listen to that
rasping, rough-hewn voice, so loud and soulful it could lift your
spirits or wake the dead. It’s a paradox to say his music can lift your
spirits, though, because he sang about the real, downhearted blues, the
blues as felt by someone who knew sorrow and torment all too well.
“Some people tell me
the worried blues ain’t bad
But it’s the worst old feeling,
Lord, I ever had.”
His music expressed all the loneliness
of the human condition, the heartrending sense of loss.
“Don’t a man feel bad
when the Good Lord’s sun go down?
He don’t have nobody
to throw his arms around”
House sang those words in “Walkin’
Blues.” But things grew dramatically worse for him one day when he
stopped walking, laid out flat by strong drink.
Frostbitten and Blue
One freezing night in January 1970, Son
House walked home after a night drinking in a Rochester bar, according
to a new biography of House by Daniel Beaumont entitled, Preachin’
The Blues: The Life and Times of Son House.
He passed out and crumpled, unconscious,
on the side of the road and lay unconscious in the snow all night until
someone found him lying there and called for an ambulance.
House was in the hospital for several
days, and when he was released, his hands were so badly frostbitten that
he missed out on the greatest career opportunity of his life. The famed
British blues musician Eric Clapton loved Son House’s music and wanted
him as the opening act for Clapton’s concert with Delaney and Bonnie at
the Fillmore East.
According to Beaumont’s biography, his
manager had to turn down playing at the Clapton concert because House’s
hands were too severely damaged. Beaumont writes that, as a result of
this misfortune, “House missed what would have undoubtedly been the
biggest performance - and payday - of his career, losing out on the
ringing endorsement of Eric Clapton, an endorsement that would have sent
legions of Clapton’s fans to the record stores in search of Son House’s
In his later years, Son House stopped
performing, and he died in Detroit in 1988. On his grave there is a
picture of House holding his National steel guitar, and this
inscription: “The Father of the Blues.” On one side of his gravestone is
a tremendously haunting song lyric that says it all:
“Go away Blues, go away,
and leave poor me alone.”
On the reverse side of House’s grave is
Dick Waterman’s description of House singing: “It was as if he went into
a trance and somehow willed himself to another time and another place.”
Waterman managed so many prominent blues
stars, and heard so many others, but he would always say that House’s
performances were the most majestic of all. Waterman believes House is
at the very top of the Blues pantheon, and it is tremendously moving to
read this tribute he had inscribed on his friend’s grave:
“Other blues singers, great in their own
way, would watch Son House sing the blues and just shake their heads. He
was the benchmark of their artistry. He was the measuring stick by which
blues singers are to be forever judged. On October 19, 1988, every blues
singer in the world moved up one place in the rankings. There was a
vacancy at the very top.”
In the Delta Blues Museum gift shop, we
bought Waterman’s beautifully illustrated book Between Midnight and
Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archives. The book has highly
evocative photographs of the blues musicians Waterman has worked with,
along with his personal memories. In 2000, Waterman was inducted into
The Blues Hall of Fame for his fine work managing blues musicians.
Abe’s and Elvis
That night, we drove back to the
Crossroads and ate dinner at Abe’s BBQ, a renowned barbecue restaurant
that has been located at the Crossroads since 1937. The food was
incredibly delicious, and among all the music-themed posters we saw a
photo of Elvis Presley.
The Graceland mansion where Elvis
Presley and his family lived in Memphis, Tennessee. Terry Messman photo.
When Ellen innocently asked if Elvis was
supposed to have eaten there, she was quickly assured that Elvis enjoyed
eating at Abe’s, and that led to several customers sharing their Elvis
stories. I mentioned this earlier, but one of the best surprises on this
trip was the warmth and friendliness of so many people we met in
Even so, this night was really special.
A banker and his schoolteacher wife, and two truckers who seemed to know
more about Mississippi music than many of the museum guides we’d met,
began regaling us with stories about Elvis. I could have listened all
night long, and we almost did.
These Mississippians were very
knowledgeable about the blues, rock, gospel, country and soul music. As
they talked about the different kinds of music that are enshrined in
Clarksdale and up north in Memphis, I reflected on what a melting pot
for music the South really is.
All these kinds of music and diverse
musicians influenced and inspired and taught one another, and the South
mixed all these different ingredients into brilliantly inventive new
When we told our fellow diners that we
were driving into Memphis right after dinner, we were told with great
enthusiasm to check out the Stax Soul Museum, the Memphis Rock and Soul
Museum, the legendary Sun Studio - and Graceland.
At that point, Graceland was not even on
our schedule. I wanted to see the Stax soul museum and hear music at the
B.B. King Club in Memphis. But I soon discovered how much Elvis is
revered in Memphis.
With great passion, sincerity and
knowledge, the truck drivers, and the banker and his wife, described
Elvis Presley’s music, his life, his generosity to charities, the gold
records lining two long corridors in his home at Graceland. They
described Presley’s musical versatility, not just in jumpstarting rock
and roll, but also his love of singing the blues, ballads, country and
especially, gospel. I was told that Elvis had as many gold records for
Gospel recordings as for rock and roll at Graceland and that I must go
So Ellen and I listed all the museums
and blues clubs we wanted to see in Memphis, and we asked the diners at
Abe’s what we should see: “GRACELAND!!” was the unanimous answer.
After a few hours of driving, we got
into Memphis a little before midnight, feeling a bit downcast because
we’d have to wait until morning to see anything. Wrong! Beale Street was
still jumping, and in the next three hours, we bought Blues CDs and
T-shirts at the B.B. King store on Beale Street, and then went next door
into B.B. King’s, a restaurant, bar and blues club that is a monument to
how much lasting impact his music has in Memphis.
The Memphis Blues Masters
Then we went across Beale Street to the
Blues Hall Juke Joint and spent the next two hours entranced by the
high-spirited blues of The Memphis Blues Masters. It was nearly a
perfect place to hear live blues, in this overcrowded club whose walls
vibrated as the thunderous guitars, keyboards, drums and saxophone
wailed out glorious renditions of “Soul Serenade” and “Down Home Blues.”
The Blues Masters play on Beale Street
all the time, and they locked into superb, tight rhythms, and then, one
by one, each of the Blues Masters stepped forward to take solos. The
lead guitarist killed me, a big, overweight guy dressed in way, way
casual attire, and looking and acting even more casual than his clothes.
He strides nonchalantly up to the mike, so laidback he’s the opposite of
charismatic, and then just lets loose with lightning-fast, explosive
guitar runs that had the entire bar breaking into applause.
B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street
in Memphis, Tennessee. Terry Messman photo
Then their small, very thin saxophonist,
a very young African-American man dressed in a vest, very neat clothes,
and eyeglasses, looking like an honor student instead of a bluesman,
starts walking all thorough the bar, playing the most slinky, sensuous,
sax solos imaginable, stopping and swaying and playing right up against
several of the bar patrons, to their delight.
That did it for me. I went up while they
were playing and bought their self-titled CD, “Memphis Blues Masters,”
and as I walked back to my chair the lead vocalist thanked me, and then
absolutely made this whole trip down the blues trail a thing of glory
and wonder for me by performing an exquisite rendition of Otis Redding’s
“Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” Dock of the Bay has always been my
number-one anthem, the song of my soul, along with the Beatles,
“Strawberry Fields Forever.”
I couldn’t have been happier at that
moment, but then the lead singer sang Redding’s song so powerfully it
made my joy all the greater.
Otis’s immortal song was his last hit
single, released just after his death at a terribly young age in a plane
crash, and his lyrics have always been a vital part of my philosophy of
Otis sings about leaving his home in
Georgia to come all the way to the San Francisco Bay because he “had
nothing to live for.” But even after traveling 2,000 miles from home, he
finds that, “nothin’s gonna come my way.”
So now, the dock of the Bay is his only
home. He’s homeless, and as he watches the tides roll away out into the
vast distance of the ocean, he sings a line as blue as the waters: “This
loneliness won’t leave me alone.” I love that line, sing it again: “This
loneliness won’t leave me alone.”
Then, strangely enough, in the middle of
this lamentation and this loneliness, he finds his liberation. He
realizes he may not fit in anywhere, ever, but in his stark loneliness,
he discovers his own freedom to be truly himself. He can’t slave away
for others, or conform to what others want, or fit into society, and
that seems like a lonely kind of abandonment.
Yet, Otis Redding’s song always brings
me joy. The singer feels loneliness to the bottom of his soul, but when
he realizes he doesn’t fit in anywhere, and never will, he understands
he is completely free to be himself, and no one can order him around. He
is free to wander and daydream and watch the tides roll away.
“Looks like nothing’s gonna change.
Everything still remains the same.
I can’t do what ten people tell me to
So I guess I’ll remain the same.”
The last two lines always seem like a
triumph. “I can’t do what ten people tell me to do, so I guess I’ll
remain the same.” It’s all about the freedom of the individual soul, a
hard-won freedom found in the middle of alienation and aloneness.
To top off a perfect night on Beale
Street, I opened the Memphis Blues Masters CD and found that it included
“Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” on the list of songs!
‘We all will be received in Graceland’
When Ellen and I had first arrived in
Memphis after 11 p.m., we’d already found that all the hotels and motels
didn’t have any vacancies. We decided at the time just to enjoy
ourselves anyway, but now it was 3 a.m., and that decision didn’t seem
as brilliant as before.
We ended up driving down anonymous
streets and freeways in the dark, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, no
idea where we were, no motel in sight, in a city our friends at Abe’s
BBQ in Clarksdale had warned us was “dangerous at night.”
The Presley Family memorial in
Graceland’s Meditation Garden. Terry Messman photo
Finally, we saw a motel that had a quote
from John Lennon on its main sign: “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
That felt like an omen. So, we entered the motel’s office and found a
lavish, adoring shrine to Elvis, adorned with his memorabilia. The motel
had one vacant room, and as we sank into exhausted sleep, I wondered why
a motel in the middle of nowhere would have an Elvis theme.
When we woke up the next morning, we
found out why. We had unknowingly ended up on Elvis Presley Boulevard,
and, as unbelievable as it seemed, we were only one block away from
Paul Simon’s song had been echoing in my
mind the whole trip, and now it really resounded:
“I’ve reason to believe
We all will be received in
With this kind of providential sign, and
the highest recommendation from the great people we’d met the night
before at Abe’s in Clarksdale, we had to go pay our respects.
I’d never even wanted to see Graceland,
but I’m so glad we visited. Presley bought the pretty mansion with white
columns in part because he’d promised his parents they could live there,
and in part to find a protective space from the pressures of celebrity.
It was nowhere near as lavish (let alone
decadent) as I’d heard. To be sure, there were rooms with stained-glass
peacocks and a baby grand piano, pool tables and chandeliers, and the
so-called “Jungle Room” with a small, indoor waterfall. By today’s
garish standards for celebrity homes, Graceland is not that remarkable.
But for music lovers, Graceland is
something truly special. Videos about Presley’s musical accomplishments
play on the tour, and there are displays showing his music awards.
Graceland has an indefinable aura, a vibration, that makes one feel how
historical and masterful Presley’s music was, how iconoclastic and
Presley was one of the greatest singers
of his generation, and he found so many ways to creatively re-interpret
and intermingle all the kinds of Southern music he had loved growing up.
Presley’s genius was to create this innovative integration of Gospel
music, country, rhythm-and-blues, rockabilly, and the blues, and blend
them all into something new and moving and spectacular.
When we toured the Memphis Rock and Soul
museum later in the day, the exhibits there gave a very insightful look
at how hard the poor white and black farmers and sharecroppers worked.
It was the Depression and they were trapped in poverty, but these
hardworking country people, black and white alike, played and mingled
the blues, country music and gospel, and thereby brought to birth an
incredibly creative musical legacy.
How interesting that Jimmie Rodgers, the
long-ago father of country music, and Elvis Presley, the incomparable
vocalist who cross-fertilized the blues, country and gospel into a
potent mixture called rock and roll, both came from Mississippi.
Rodgers and Presley are two of the only
white musicians who are respected and admired as blues singers by many
blues musicians. Rodgers was born and raised in Meridian, Miss., and was
a railroad worker who became known as the “Mississippi Blue Yodeler.”
Presley was born into a poor family in Tupelo, Miss.
Once again on this trip, I felt
amazement in contemplating Mississippi’s musical contributions to this
While still back at Graceland, Ellen and
I had walked down the long corridors filled on both sides with Elvis’s
gold records and other musical awards. We were both hushed and somewhat
in awe in this corridor that felt like a sacred shrine to the music that
had changed our lives.
It was unexpectedly moving to see the
gold records for “Jailhouse Rock,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Don’t Be
Cruel,” and it was nothing short of overwhelming to see the gold records
stretch out so far ahead. The truck driver in Clarksdale the night
before was right: Elvis had as long a line of awards for Gospel music as
he did for Rock and Roll.
I’d heard Elvis sing Gospel before, of
course, but I found it very powerful to see how many Gospel awards he
had, and to realize that he’d begun recording Gospel at a very early
stage in his career. And he continued loving this music his entire life.
Seeing all his Gospel records somehow
prepared me to go outside and see the Meditation Garden where Elvis, his
parents and grandmother are buried. A memorial flame shines brightly,
and these words are inscribed nearby: “May This Flame reflect our
never-ending respect and love for you. May it serve as a constant
reminder to each of us of your eternal presence.”
I don’t want to get all supernatural and
eerie about this, but I swear you can feel Elvis Presley’s spirit here.
It moved me very profoundly, in a way I never would have expected. Maybe
it’s because this Southern boy, this hometown hero, is loved so deeply
by so many people in Memphis and Mississippi. Maybe all that love and
adoration makes it feel as though Presley’s spirit is here in the air
Maybe, I thought, Elvis’s music made
such a big impact on so many people, that he’s now the patron saint of
Memphis or something. I know that sounds so strange, and I never
expected to feel that, but Graceland did something for me.
The minute we concluded the tour, I
almost ran to the gift store. I knew what I wanted. A box set of every
Gospel song Presley recorded in his life has been newly remastered, so I
bought that four-CD compilation, entitled “I Believe: The Gospel
It is absolutely extraordinary. I’d
heard a few of his Gospel records before, but it is amazing to really
explore this box set and hear how brilliant a Gospel singer Elvis truly
I’ll always treasure his superlative,
sensitive, heartfelt spirituals. And I’ll always believe. That’s the
title of the first song on this beautiful set of music:
“I believe for every drop of rain
A flower grows.
I believe that somewhere
in the darkest night,
A candle glows.
I believe for everyone who goes
someone will come to show the way.”
I’ll always believe. And I have reason
to believe we all will be received in Graceland.
A Portrait of America in Black, White and Blue
Looking back at our revelatory
experiences on the Mississippi Blues Trail, I feel such gratitude for
the blues musicians who brought so much beauty into a country that too
often treated them as second-class citizens.
Right after our trip through
Mississippi, Ellen and I also attended a retreat on Gandhian nonviolence
given by Narayan Desai, hosted by nonviolent activists Jim and Shelley
Douglass in Birmingham, Alabama.
And after the three-day Gandhi retreat,
we toured the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, and visited the 16th
Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where the four young women were
killed in a racist bombing attack. We then visited the Montgomery
memorial to 40 martyrs of the civil rights movement that has been
created by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and we had a private tour of
Martin Luther King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where the Montgomery
bus boycott was planned. Next month in Street Spirit, I will
report on that visit.
All I will say right now is that the
martyrs of the civil rights movement were on our minds just as much as
the masters of blues music. The stories of the martyrs and the musicians
cast a great deal of light on each other.
You cannot listen to blues music for
long before you are confronted by the terrible and tragic history of
racism, slavery, segregation and discrimination in America. You don’t
often confront those issues in blues songs, because blues musicians
don’t sing of these issues that often. Even though most documentary
films on the blues begin with the cruel reality of the slave system, it
comes up only very rarely in the songs.
But when you honestly reflect about this
glorious legacy of soul-stirring music created on plantations where some
of the poorest, most oppressed people led lives marked by involuntary
servitude and racial discrimination, it becomes impossible not to feel
sick at heart.
When you first enter the B.B. King
Museum in Indianola, you see exhibits of the sharecroppers’ hard lives
in the cotton fields, and your heart sinks just thinking of so many
lives damaged and distorted by poor schools, inadequate health care,
shabby housing, and an unjust economic system rigged against the poor.
It’s hard to confront the fact that your
favorite musicians - and their families, and their friends, and hundreds
of thousands of people now lost to history - grew up suffering under
this unfair and inhumane system.
Above all, when you realize how truly
brilliant this music is, and how profoundly it shaped the music of the
world, it becomes impossible not to feel deeply ashamed that the music
of the great blues masters wasn’t more widely respected in their native
land. It is a disgrace that the blues is loved so deeply elsewhere, and
ignored so thoroughly in its homeland.
When Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’
Wolf and Muddy Waters and Son House toured Europe on the annual American
Folk Blues Festivals in the 1960s, they received the highest respect and
reverence from adoring audiences throughout Europe. And the greatest
musicians of the British Invasion unfailingly cited these American blues
musicians as their heroes, their highest source of inspiration, their
favorite musicians of all.
The Rolling Stones refused to play on
the television program Shindig unless their idol, Howlin’ Wolf also
played. The Stones were at the height of their international fame, so
their wish was granted. The five members of the Rolling Stones sat
almost worshipfully at Howin’ Wolf’s feet when he sang, and Wolf was
always grateful to the Stones for that. But that was the first and only
time Howlin’ Wolf ever performed on American television.
And yet, Howlin’ Wolf was one of the
most amazing blues musicians of our time. He had a wildly original vocal
style, an exceptionally hard-rocking band, and a bunch of outstanding
songs. When Sam Phillips, head of the legendary Sun Studio, heard
Howlin’ Wolf sing for the very first time, he knew he was the single
most brilliant vocalist he had ever heard.
‘The soul of man never dies’
Sam Philips famously said about Wolf’s
music: “This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.”
Phillips consistently called Howlin’ Wolf his greatest discovery of all
- a remarkable level of praise. Why is it so remarkable? Because Sam
Phillips and Sun Studio also discovered and recorded Elvis Presley,
Johnny Cash, B, B, King, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Phillips helped launch the careers of the most exceptional musicians in
America, and yet he always said Howlin’ Wolf was the greatest of all.
Now, think for a moment about how many
times you’ve seen Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis on
television, on radio, in movies, and in the newspapers. But in his
native country, Howlin’ Wolf - who was revered in England and Europe -
was virtually never on television, never in movies and remains almost
unheard by mainstream audiences to this day.
It is not usually a matter of individual
racism that millions of people have somehow remained unaware of the
exceptional talents of a Howin’ Wolf. But it is an outcome of a racially
divided society that has discriminated against African Americans in so
many fields of work, ignored or belittled their accomplishments,
bypassed their brilliance.
It doesn’t have to be the intentional
racism of an individual. Often, it is only the indirect effects of a
racially divided society. But the damage done is just as real, just as
severe, as if it were intentional. And, of course, sometimes it is very
Sonny Boy Williamson was a great,
legendary, blues musician, one of the very finest harp soloists and
singers. When I was visiting the Memphis Music Store on Beale Street,
Smokey Yates, the African-American “Bluesologist” who helped me, was a
fountain of insight about the blues. He wrote his graduate paper in
college about Son House and has plans to turn it into a book.
Smokey Yates loves Son House as much and
more than I do, and unlike me, he saw House play in his heyday. He saw
so many of the biggest blues musicians, back in the day when you could
see them play in Memphis parks or on Beale Street for a couple bucks.
As I found out after talking to him for
an hour, Yates has an encyclopedic knowledge of blues musicians and he
works in a store with the single finest collection of Blues CDs I’ve
ever seen. And who did Yates tell me he thought was the best blues
musician of all? Sonny Boy Williamson.
But as brilliant as Sonny Boy Williamson
was, he didn’t receive the acclaim he was due until he toured England
and Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festivals. In Europe,
Williamson was lionized, treated as a musical genius by young rock
musicians and blues fans there. He received ecstatic levels of praise
and love and applause in England, and it moved him deeply because he’d
never received the acclaim he deserved in his own country.
So Sonny Boy Williamson from Mississippi
began dressing like an English gentleman, with a custom-made suit
compete with umbrella and bowler hat, and an attaché case for his
harmonicas. He loved England so much and he appreciated the way he was
treated with respect there. So much so that when the other U.S. blues
musicians returned home after the tour, Sonny Boy stayed in England for
months, giving concerts all over the country to rapturous reception. He
was making plans to move to England. Unfortunately, before he could do
so, he died in 1965, while on a visit home to Mississippi.
Why did Sonny Boy fall in love with
England and begin dressing like an English gentleman? Because they
treated him like a gentleman there. He had to cross the Atlantic Ocean
to find that level of respect and acceptance. And, of course, he found
even more than that. He found that his music was wildly loved by
countless white people in Europe, even while he was rarely heralded in
his own land, the way he should have been.
Waters and Winter
I want to end this reflection on the
blues with a somewhat more hopeful story. After all, as Eric Clapton
said, “The blues is a music of hope and triumph over adversity.”
Johnny Winter (left), James Cotton and
Muddy Waters played together many times
and recorded on Blue Sky as part
of Muddy’s career renaissance.
One story about Muddy Waters gives me
hope for a better future. It’s appropriate that it’s about Muddy,
because he was more than just a great musician who left the Mississippi
Delta for Chicago and electrified the music of the entire world.
He was also a man of great dignity and
pride. He was a generous and magnanimous man who helped so many
musicians in his day, black and white.
In the 1950s, Muddy Waters created the
finest electric blues band of all, and, in terms of the music scene in
Chicago, Muddy was a king.
A few white kids named Paul Butterfield,
Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield wanted to play the blues, and when they
showed they had great love for the music and a lot of talent, Muddy
Waters was glad to share a stage with them. He could have seen them as
competitors or even as white usurpers of his music, but instead he
generously befriended them. And he did more than play music with them -
he helped protect and defend them. Muddy carried a great deal of weight
in some of the tough bars on Chicago’s south side. Showing the decency
and generosity that moved him to help so many musicians in the course of
his life, Muddy staunchly defended their right to play, and commanded
everyone to leave them alone.
Bloomfield, Butterfield and Bishop went
on to form the highly successful Paul Butterfield Blues Band. A few
years later, when Muddy’s career was experiencing a lull, Bloomfield and
Butterfield came through for him and worked with Muddy to create a very
successful collaborative album entitled, “Fathers and Son,” a
celebration of the Chicago blues. I love the thought behind that
record’s title. It is so fitting and poignant because blues players like
Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf were the fathers handing
down their beloved blues to the sons. And it symbolically shows that
black and white people can play in the same band and become part of the
After a few more years went by, Muddy’s
career went on a significant downturn in the mid-1970s. His albums
weren’t selling, and his longtime relationship with Chess Records was
severed. Things looked grim, but then Muddy was signed by Blue Sky
records, and one of his biggest fans, Johnny Winter, the long-haired,
albino, blues guitarist, was assigned to produce his next albums.
Muddy and Johnny worked together as
closely as father and son, and produced four great albums in a row that
won Grammy awards, sold well, restored Muddy Waters reputation to
perhaps its highest level, and helped him finally be financially
The first album that Waters and Winter
worked on was “Hard Again” in 1977, an amazingly great comeback record
that featured Muddy singing passionate vocals, Winters playing
spectacular slide guitar, and longtime Muddy associates, James Cotton on
harmonica and Pine Top Perkins on piano. The critics loved the album, it
sold well, and it won a Grammy award in 1977.
But to me, it’s a story about karma and
respect and redemption. Muddy Waters did so much to invent a form of
electric blues that inspired so many people. Like Sonny Boy Williamson,
Muddy Waters often was more well-loved in England than in his homeland.
In the early 1960s, when Waters was on
top of the Chicago blues scene, this man who had lived in a tiny wooden
cabin on a cotton plantation until he was 28, this man who worked for
appallingly low wages of 22 cents an hour set by the white overseer,
this man who had experienced a segregated society in Mississippi, this
same man was unbelievably friendly and helpful and protective to Paul
Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, two white youth, when they came onto
Sometimes, we reap what we sow. Johnny
Winters had been completely inspired by Black blues musicians, and
especially by Muddy Waters. Growing up albino and cross-eyed and
long-haired in Texas, Winter was an outsider himself.
When Muddy most needed help, Winter did
a great job of producing his albums and playing guitar on them. The mood
on the “Hard Again” record is exultant. Muddy never sang better and
Johnny screams with delight as Muddy sings his classic, “Mannish Boy.”
It sounds, for all the world, like Muddy
Waters has fatherly affection for Johnny Winter when he says,
“Play it, Johnny!” He sounds for all the world just like a proud father,
so pleased when Winter takes off on a blistering blues solo.
When Johnny Winter and Muddy Waters
began touring with this well-received album, Muddy often introduced
Johnny as “my adopted son.”
Fathers and sons. A tale of Black, White
and Blue in America.