Saturday, October 30, 2010

Southern man

I've seen some cool things in Clarksdale.

Charlie Patton "Pony Blues" 78 - one of only six known in existence
Original Muddy Waters & Chuck Berry Chess 78s
Muddy Waters' log cabin
Sam Cooke's old home

Cotton blows off the plants and gathers on the sides of the roads here.

Sam Cooke's childhood home is about a mile from where I'm staying, at the corner of 7th & Illinois. I walked the long way through the countryside to get there, then cut back in through the neighborhood. It's rife with churches back there. Baptist, mostly. Got a lot of looks while I was walking; a lot of pickup trucks stop. Men sitting three deep in the front of the truck, each asking me how was I doing and if I want to kick it with them. When I first entered the neighborhood, I passed an elderly woman slowly walking down the street with a cane. Had another conversation with a nice verging-on-elderly man who raced off his porch to greet me as I walked by, wanting to know if I had just moved into the neighborhood. He was dressed in a wonderfully dapper suit, was drinking juice and listening to a local R & B station on the radio. We had an engaging conversation which ended with me telling him I was going to New Orleans and him saying that I better be careful down there and do I believe in Jesus? Because there's a lot of black magic down in New Orleans and if I just keep my heart set with Jesus, I will be fine.

I don't know what this area is called, but every time I go into one of the shops downtown and chat up a clerk, or to one of the numerous art galleries here and meet the owner, they all say, "Well, I don't go to that part of town," and seem very interested in how my motel stay is going.

I went to the "Ground Zero" blues club last night; one of three main venues in town. I feel very popular at the clubs because the men here are like vultures. As soon as I walked in, the doorman informed me that I didn't have to pay the cover charge, and that he would be buying my drinks. He bought me 3 and gave me one for the road in a Styrofoam cup with a top and a straw. Mississippi is casual like that, apparently. Especially since, as he explained to me, he is well known around these parts by the police and everyone in town as an upstanding citizen and that we won't be bothered by them if we were to take a ride to the after hours club together. I really wanted to do this because the place he was proposing to go is one of the very last true juke joints in the state and only open on Thursdays. However, it's tucked well into the farm country 35 minutes away. Considering all factors put me on the fence, though. I made a concession to my dad and didn't go. This is one of those times it would have been much more convenient to have someone with me.

Abraham was very open and wanted to impress me. He told me how he's been at Ground Zero since day one, and how well co-owners Mr. Freeman (actor Morgan Freeman) and Mr. Luckett (local politician) have treated him.

After Abraham bought my first drink, another man came up and asked me to dance. After declining on the basis of having not worn my dancing shoes, I met a bunch of the local art dealers and musicians. Three people recognized me from my brief stint at the show I went to on Tuesday. One does not stay a stranger long in Clarksdale.

The fellow I talked to the longest last night, besides the door man, owns a gallery on Delta Avenue, right downtown. He grew up on a farm near Clarksdale, then went to Ole Miss and abroad to teach English and art in Asia and is now back. After I told him about my project, he told me to come by and listen to an album he has of female inmates at Parchman (which is only 40 minutes away). I went today and fell straight in love with the record. I didn't realize until I heard it and read some of the liner notes that the Mattie May Thomas recordings off of American Primitive were from Parchman. It's a really amazing record and he made my week by giving it to me. Most of the recordings were done in the sewing room of the prison.

Mississippi is fruitful in that I've made a lot of contacts for booking and publicity, but unfruitful in terms of my real reason for being here. The people I am looking for are nonexistent, extremely spread out, extremely old, and extremely suspicious. There is a very hearty blues community in Clarksdale, and they claim to play "hill style" blues (as opposed to old style, meaning slide), gesturing to the surrounding countryside as they explain, but it is all electric and all full bands. I've found one youngish person who I am very interested in but he's on tour. It is clear to me that the elderly blues players are not going to be immediately taken with my particular brand of muted enthusiastic chirping. Trust issues run deep, and while the most visible folks in the blues community here (shop owners) may respect what I am doing and say as much, they are apparently unwilling to stick their necks out for me even a little bit. My confidence is going down with each occurrence of this and I become less insistent and less creative at finding ways to push my agenda. Bad.

I notice I am the only young woman at the clubs. I think my age is causing confusion for some of the people I'm talking to.

I found out the Riverside Hotel, which I talked about in the last post, is also where Ike Turner wrote "Rocket 88." I drove by it again today and, now being more familiar with the layout of the town, noticed it is right in the heart of the black neighborhood downtown. Each of these little towns in Mississippi have railroad tracks running straight through them and the "wrong side of the tracks" remains a relevant adage in most places. My walks make it very clear where the blacks live and where the whites live.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


I love Clarksdale.

The population as of 2000 was only about 20,000 people, but this is definitely a place I could see myself living for a little while. I do not understand it here, and I want to. Clarksdale is straight in the heart of the poorest of poor Mississippi. The most visible source of economic viability in Clarksdale is its blues history. The towns all around here are much smaller than this; I drove through some towns with signs that said things like "Pop. 623" to get here.

There is still some real fallout still going on here from the days of segregation, and a very noticeable divide in the behavior between generations. The young are like the young everywhere-- oversized clothing and endless hiphop blasting. The elderly are much different; much more reserved, with a distinct air of cautiousness.

Clarksdale has a strange sort of vibe, something is a bit off-kilter or creepy about it as a whole. It's hard to describe. The people are generally quite pleasant. I walked into a corner store today and three elderly black men were sitting amongst the remnants of their lunch. They all three immediately nodded their heads and greeted me. I heard one of them say to the others, quietly, "Now there's just what I needed to see!" The two chuckled in response. I guess my dress is shorter than they're used to around here.

Three times now I've been waiting in line behind a mother with a young black child (talking young, like six or under) and the kid gazes at me without smiling even after I wave or smile at him or her. His mom will finish her business at the counter and they walk away, and I see the child scurrying to catch up, pulling on his mom's hand and pointing at me with wide eyes.

I don't know what this means. What is remarkable about me? White? Dark hair? Different type of dress? (I have never felt like much of a sophisticated dresser, but I feel like a real city slicker here, even with wearing clothes that have been rumpled in the suitcase for a month).

But it does personify what is strange about this part of Mississippi. WHAT IS WITH THE LOOKS? There are so many very polite people, but they stare for soooo long. It makes me feel everyone is very suspicious.

I'm staying at a motel that's less than a block from the storied 61/49 crossroad. Though I did want to see this, just to say I have, staying so close to it was entirely circumstantial, as this happens to also be the cheapest motel in town. Good for me, unless the devil happens to frequent this area. Which it kind of feels he does. It probably sounds hokey but this really is a strange town. The motel, like the one I stayed in last night and the night before, is run by a married Indian immigrant couple. The office smells heavily of curry and I have the impression these couples work solely for the benefit of their children; to send their children to college so they can create a better life. I walked out of my room twice tonight to get something from the car, and both times I caught the woman exercising in the emptiness of the U-shaped building, pacing and raising her hands up and down with each step. I couldn't figure out what she was doing until I saw it was the owner's wife, but it made me nervous because she was looking so crazy.

I think I have alluded to this in a previous post, but poor country is a different thing than poor city. In the city, even in Detroit, there's almost always someone around, and behavior is more predictable. The chronic alcoholic asleep on the curb with his ribs and hipbones defining his entire silhouette and the neighborhood crackhead with his bright pink eyes tend to be predictably unpredictable in the city (at least during the day). The country has a similarly desperate tinge about it, but with less of a sense of how the truly down and out are going to behave. Though I guess the thing that really gets my heart rate up in both locales is the same-- the solitary figure slowly roving down a dark street. There is a man who thinks he has nothing to fear. The neighborhood streets are much darker here; most do not have street lights. I keep to myself as much as possible while away from the safety of shows and stores, and try to make it seem as though a man is with me. Motels are prime picking for evil minds. I've heard them talking in the parking lots at night.

In other news, I went to the Delta Blues Museum this morning, and happened to drive by the Riverside Hotel, the place where Bessie Smith died after having her arm torn off on Highway 61. It's a small, tired looking building that doesn't seem to have changed much in the subsequent decades, aside from raising their rates to $10 more a night than every other motel in the area. The museum was really fantastic and had a lot of cool artifacts, including a very nice exhibit on Muddy Waters, the highlight of which was the actual log cabin he resided in when Alan Lomax paid him a visit. They also had one of the six known copies of Charlie Patton's "Pony Blues" on display. Maybe the most valuable thing I've seen in person. Certainly the most valuable record I've been near.

I also caught a show at an art gallery tonight. I felt lucky finding a show on a Tuesday but it didn't turn out to be much of anything. I met a woman from Baltimore who travels with her husband all over the US to attend blues festivals. We had a ten-minute conversation in which she told me her in-depth theory as to how popular music is leading to the downfall of American civilization. A blues fan who's way too serious about music-- what a shocker.

She did tell me, though, of the festivals they hold in the area every so often which bring all the old, old, old folks down from the surrounding hills and into town to play. What is this secret network and how do I find them... This is the other half of the reason I think I would really like living here. I want to meet these people, and I don't think I can actually get the type of recording I'm looking for without really knowing them first. And that is going to take more than a week because they are hard to find, they are spread out all over the region, and it takes more time than it does up north to build trust.

I need funding.

The woman I met tonight warned me of the time she hugged an old black bluesman because she was so happy to meet him, and how quickly he stiffened up, not knowing how to react, as though I would do the same. Foolish... You can't do that to a man who lived through Jim Crow. She was nice enough, but geez.

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Now, I'm not a racist, but..."

Como, Mississippi is a small town about 45 miles south of Memphis. Main Street consists of the United States Post Office, City Hall, the library, two restaurants, two Baptist churches (one for blacks and one for whites), an abundance of parking spaces, and a recording studio. Como is on my radar due to it being the hometown of Fred McDowell, commonly known as "Mississippi" Fred McDowell, but known around here as "Shake 'Em," owing to his most popular song in the region. McDowell died in 1972 but Como is now a marked site on the Delta "blues trail" due to his accomplishments. The townspeople of Como seem generally uninterested in their main claim to fame. As with everywhere else in the US, rap is definitely the preferred music style amongst black people under the age of 50.

On Friday, I finally left the boarding house in Memphis to head into Little Rock, Arkansas. Little Rock was to be my sanity break. I was committed to spending a week in Memphis, birthplace of rock'n'roll, after having paid the weekly boarding house fee. Knowing the history of music in Memphis, I thought I would be able to find a few old timers to record, or a youngster with an appreciation for older styles and traditional tunes. Unfortunately, blues in Memphis leans very heavily on bass, electric guitar, and a few tired chord progressions. Out of the 100+ bands I glimpsed on Beale Street, I didn't see a single musician displaying anything that would sound special outside the confines of the band. Together, they were fine. Separate, they would have been soulless and monotonous. I'm not claiming to have exhaustively searched Memphis, but I did what I could in a week.

When I left Memphis, I was unsure as to whether I was going to head straight down into the Delta, or go to Little Rock where the Entrance Band was playing. I decided to give myself a break and go to Little Rock to see some vaguely familiar faces after dealing with that damn crackhead all week. I know the folks in that band, but not that well. I figured they might also be happy to see a vaguely familiar face in the middle of Arkansas. I think it was the correct decision to go because we all had some nice chats, I briefly reengaged myself with a genre other than straight roots, and I met a very nice woman at the bar next to the venue who let me sleep on her couch and made me an omelette with fresh basil and string cheese the next morning. It was delicious.

I have gotten quite a few quality recordings on this trip, but being in the midst of it and not being sure where I'm going to sleep tonight, or tomorrow night, is creating a significant amount of stress for me. I am trying to roll with the punches as much as possible but it's hard to impose on people. Finding sleeping quarters is becoming increasingly difficult the farther south that I get. Last night, I met with the fellows who run the recording studio on Main Street to see if they have any recommendations for locals I should record. They were playing a gig at the restaurant four doors down, so I followed them down there and met all their wives. EVERYONE down here is married, and married young. The men were less than forthcoming with their recommendations and thinly veiled their suspicions about my motives. The women were much more forthcoming and friendly, but significantly worried about how I am going about this project (alone, female). Their concern is disconcerting to me, and I am still trying to place how much of it is valid and how much of it is racism. And, while friendly, I have also caught many of them giving me short, suspicious glances as though as a single woman in her mid-20s, I am surely there to sleep with someone.

I had a nice conversation with a local songwriter last night while we were at the restaurant show. In the middle of it, perhaps four or five drinks deep, after I had told him of my experiences in North Memphis he said, "Now, I'm not a racist." I braced myself.

"But as far as I'm concerned," he said. "Niggers is niggers and white trash is white trash. Just some uneducated people, you know how they go. I don't care what color they are, it's just the type of person. You need another drink?"

He bought me three drinks last night. One nice thing about southern men is they're much more forthcoming with the free drinks. I've had more bought for me in the last week than I have in three years in Detroit.

He was very interested in my project and invited me to stay in their living room last night. So, I did, I think much to the chagrin of his wife. When we got home, they fed me takeout from the bar. "How do you know we're not going to murder you in your sleep?" she drunkenly asked me in their kitchen after prancing around for a bit.

I REALLY hope to catch up with the number one recommended guitarist tomorrow. I tried to catch him today, but he and his wife were not home either time I went to their house. He is 87. I asked bass player and the singer's wife last night if Fat Possum has already snatched up all the area talent and they both immediately said, "Oh, no. Goodness, no, not at all. There's a lot of good folks unrecorded." That was great news for me, but now it is a matter of finding them and actually getting them to sit for me. I feel that I am close but I will be very disappointed if I leave the region without much to show for it afterward. Time is strange on this trip because the immediate circumstances are often up in the air (where am I staying? where can I shower? what should I do with this interim 5-hour period?) but the days are flying by when I look at the calendar, see it's October 24th and I have not yet recorded any Mississippians. I'm planning to hit New Orleans in the first week of November. It seems simultaneously too near to and quite far from now.

Heading to a couchsurf in Oxford (home of Ole Miss) tomorrow. 45 minutes away in cotton country is not too far. I've been taking the back roads as much as possible since interstates all look the same, generally, and I want to see this part of the country as the people who live here tend to.

In all my travels throughout Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi, I've noticed that the towns are generally really down and out economically. There are empty storefronts EVERYWHERE-- cities, towns, and villages. America's changed from how it was decades ago and there doesn't seem to be any economic reasons for a return to the independent business model. For the most part, the only businesses actually staying in business are the chains near the interstates. Mississippi is rife with Family Dollars, Dollar Generals, and Citgos. Tennessee was sprinkled with BPs (at least half the gas stations there seemed to be BP), Walgreens and Church's Chickens.

Friday, October 22, 2010


My downstairs neighbor, Aaron, whom I did not profile in the last post because I had not yet met him, has apparently taken a shining to me. Last night, he came and visited me in my room. We had a nice conversation about Memphis, blues, movies, the "urban horror" werewolf book he's writing, and, of course, the other people in the house. "It's not often I get to have intelligent conversation in this place," he kept saying. "This is nice."

Aaron works at a biomed lab during the day, and has to make his way through rigorous screening each morning on his way into the buildling. He has a friendly face and light complexion. He frequently wears a baseball cap and rim wired glasses.

Tonight, he knocked on my door holding a bag of popcorn and his laptop. Clearly, he was going to sit with me for the movie we talked about last night that I said I wanted to see, and which he has on his computer, Larry Clark's "Bully."

Today was a little nutty for me. I lost some of my bearings and confidence in Memphis due to not getting as much done here as I wanted to. I think this may come as a strange statement to some of you reading this since every trip or unusual endeavor I embark on, I receive multiple comments on my bravery, foolishness, luck, independence, and intelligence, sometimes all in the same breath. The loss of confidence is not an unfamiliar feeling to me, but one which I wish I were better in handling. Publicly, you can tell when I'm in a bad way with it because I'll speak in a higher pitched voice, flit my hands around a little bit, dart my eyes around the immediate surroundings, and spring up and down on my toes slightly and gradually. I also do this combination of actions when I'm nervous and excited, so don't take too much away from this description for the next time you see me. Privately, as with most people, there is a whole other set of demons that race through my mind when experiencing troubles.

Tomorrow I leave for Oxford, Mississippi, then back this way a bit to go to Como on Saturday. The further I get into the Delta, the more of my confidence in my project I want to maintain. No one likes to interact with a wilting flower, and no one will think your work is important unless you do. But weekends make me nervous because of the added pressure to scout a good show, and the knowledge that it's almost time for church again. (I have been attending a different denomination church every Sunday to record wild sermons. Me at church will probably be a separate, future post, but the gist is that I usually do not feel comfortable at church).

So, the pressures of the upcoming weekend are ringing in my mind. When I saw Aaron at the door with his eager smile, computer and bag of popcorn, my protective and strangely effeminate state of mind immediately came up with a lie after his proclamation that I need not live like a monk on my last night in Memphis. "Oh, gosh, that's so nice, but I'm going out soon! You're so kind. I'm sorry; I'm planning to go out in an hour." His face fell like a movie, urging me to continue with my guilty apologies. "Really, I'm sorry. You've been so nice to me and look at you there with the popcorn and everything, that's so nice."

Am I supposed to apologize for having the moves put on me?

I met a man on my 8.7-mile walk this morning who said he had seen me in another neighborhood while he was riding the bus. He couldn't believe I was now in this neighborhood, since it was so far away. His name was Fred, and he was standing a block away from the barber school while his friend was in there. "I don't mean no harm. Can I get witchyoo?" he asked immediately and without shame. This type of forwardness always gives me a mild sense of relief at maintaining attractiveness to middle aged hoodrats. I really like how they always inquire about my marital status and where my man is.

"No, sorry," I said to him, as well. "Sorry, I have to go home." I walked on.

30 minutes after my initial brushoff, Aaron knocked on the door again with a piece of paper. "I wrote this about you at work this morning. It's about the first time I saw you."

He handed it to me and I read the first line. "Carrie's legs take the long way up Carries skirt,..."

"Oh, that's really sweet!" I quipped, bouncing on my toes slightly. My mind raced for something kind to say. "What was I wearing?"

"I don't know; something similar to what you are now," he said. In my state of mental disrepair, I have been wearing the same dress for a few days. I wondered what he thought of me wearing the same thing as yesterday.

"Should I read it now, or wait till you go downstairs?" I asked, looking for a respite. He shrugged, then continued standing in front of my door. I guessed that meant to read it immediately, so I continued in front of him.

"...divide then remeet on the way to Carrie's shirt. It's a long journey, but the way is smooth, the scenery sublime, and fraught with fragrant loveliness.. When she stands, she's a wishbone of pale allure, the divide glorious to behold."

"I like it! This is very nice; I don't think anyone's ever written something like this for me before," I said, starting to close the door. "You've been really nice to talk to; have a good night!"

He said, "You, too," and I shut the door.

I don't know why I made such a long post about this. It would probably do me well to write a little more about my project and a little less about my interactions with the local derelicts, but the house has been a wealth of source material. What really strikes me about these types of situations and has made me write a too-long narrative about it is that romantic misses are so much more common than mutual interest. That seems like the real heartbreaker.

The only other thing to mention about Aaron (really about Charles) is that, in conversing with him last night, I found out why I have not heard a peep out of Charles since confronting him about when he tried to use his key to get into my room while I was in it. "Don't be trying to get in my room; there's nothing in there for you," I said when I confronted Charles in the hallway, trying to be a hardass in the face of the self-proclaimed "former biggest dope dealer in Memphis."

Aaron told me everyone in the house (particularly Charles) thinks I am a spy for the FBI or CIA because I have a car with Michigan plates and a computer, and that I am recording everything that happens. This paranoia confirms my suspicion of Charles being a drug addict, but I am ok with the conclusion since it means I haven't seen him in days.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

How Bukowski

Presently staying in a boarding house in Memphis, Tennessee, about three miles out from Beale Street. Rent is paid by the week, so I paid for a week and signed the “lease.” The $25 deposit was quickly waived once I realized it was non-refundable and told the woman I would be staying elsewhere. The local hostel would be cheaper if the deposit hadn’t been waived, but she took it off the total real quick and I am now a weeklong resident of 1505 Jackson Ave., Memphis, Tennessee. My room is outfitted with a full-sized bed that immediately broke on one side when I sat on it, two dressers, a stout coffee table, end table with a lamp, two small and dirty mirrors, and two windows with cracked glass covered by maroon curtains.

The other tenants are Charles, a lanky man with braids in his late twenties; Larissa, a stocky black woman in her thirties; Larissa’s husband Dre, a small but attractive man also in his late twenties; and Mr. Shaw, a black gentleman who appears to be in his mid-sixties and enjoys television.

They all looked on with great interest while I moved the few belongings I’ve got with me into the room for the week. “You’ve got nice, white teeth,” were Charles’ first words to me, can of Colt 45 in hand.

“You let me know if you need anything,” Larissa said after knocking on my door. So I asked her immediately where the blues clubs were. The real ones are what I’m after, not the Beale Street tourist venues. She directed me to a bar down the street that has no music at all. As luck may have it, this house is actually only two blocks away from the supposed “hidden gem” of Memphis’ blues scene, a bar where the only beverages served are 40s and the only seating comes in the form of long wooden benches. “Located in an old strip mall in the middle of a (somewhat sketchy) residential neighborhood,” says a Yelp reviewer. So far, this house seems like the sketchiest part of the neighborhood.

An attempt to relieve myself in the common bathroom was cut short by the realization that this is the type of joint where everyone uses their own toilet paper and their own soap. From what I can tell so far from my room’s position next to the bathroom, this results in no one ever washing their hands.

After checking out the bar Larissa mentioned, I saw her standing on the lawn sharing a cigarette with a disheveled white man in his late thirties. “New here? Just moved in? Second floor, end of the hallway?” Nathan asked me. “I just moved out of there last week.”

I asked them for directions to the grocery store. Larissa asked to tag along, as she needed to return the headphones she got from the Family Dollar and didn't want to have to take the bus again. She bought them earlier today and they immediately zapped out. We got in the car. “That man ain’t nothin’ but a god damn junkie,” she said as soon as the door shut. “Asshole stole $65 from me and still be denyin’ it to this day.” I thought about the recent activity my room has seen. "Put his cigarettes down on my table next to the money and next thing I know, the money gone. Nearly got me evicted on account of that being my rent money!"

Larissa is a good immediate, tentative ally to have as the only other woman in the house. As I’m writing this, I can hear the buzz of her husband’s tattoo gun as he tattoos her name onto her lower back down the hall. We talked about a variety of things in the car on the way to Kroger, mostly delving into her enthusiastic knowledge of the blues scene in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where she is originally from, once she heard what, exactly, I am trying to do down here. As we turned back onto Jackson Avenue, she spewed forth another bit of wisdom: “Nearly all the bad ones are out the house now, but watch out for Charles; he tellin’ me he gonna kill me last week when me and my husband and him was all drinkin’. Lord, we do stay up late drinkin’! Makin’ a bit of noise!” With this, she glanced at me to gauge my reaction to see whether I am likely to complain to the homeowner or not. “My husband made him apologize but I know he didn’t mean it.”