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.


Elizabeth said...

Morgan Freeman co-owns a bar in Clarksdale?! I wish I were out there with you right now, but also with my own bed, electric blanket, dark curtains etc.

cch said...

Oh, yes! Abraham said Mr. Freeman lives about 40 minutes away. I wish you were here, too.