A Mississippi Blues Tour Finds Plenty, Including

Real-Deal Delta Bluesmen


November 30, 2008
St. Louis Post-Dispatch Via Acquire Media NewsEdge

James "T-Model" Ford was waiting in the afternoon shade of his front yard, sipping Jack Daniel's with a splash from a white plastic cup.

Which was fitting, because I had listened to his CD, "Jack Daniel Time," on the drive down Highway 61 from Clarksdale.

At 88, Ford moves slowly, so he asked me to fetch his guitar and amplifier from the back of the van in the carport. Inside the tidy house, Stella, his common-law wife -- "Five marriages is enough," he said -- gave me a power cord and pointed into the bedroom.

"Look here," she said. "I laid out clean clothes, but he wouldn't put them on. Stubborn ol' man."

Plugged in, Ford began playing and singing. A late bloomer, he picked up the guitar at age 58. Ford isn't quite as accomplished as other Mississippi legends like Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Albert King, Son Thomas, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Pinetop Perkins, Ike Turner, R.L. Burnside and John Lee Hooker. But his raw, driving guitar and growling vocals were pure down-home Delta blues.

"I got my mojo workin', jes won't work on you."

The epicenter of the blues was, and is, Clarksdale -- one reason actor Morgan Freeman named his club there the Ground Zero Blues Club. Ironically, Clarksdale was home to the Hopson Plantation, which in 1944 produced the first cotton crop with mechanical equipment. That led to the Great Migration of blacks from the South in search of jobs in northern cities. They traveled up Highway 61, the "Blues Highway," taking their music to cities like St. Louis, Memphis and Chicago. Somewhere along the way, the blues gave birth to rock 'n' roll.

Rave reviews about the B.B. King Museum, which opened in Indianola in September, inspired me to head out on a road trip through Mississippi, which is busy setting up highway markers for a Blues Trail. But I didn't want to make a dead-man's tour of markers, museums and grave sites. I wanted live legends, "real-deal" Delta bluesmen, as Roger Stolle calls them.

Stolle owns Cat Head's Delta Blues & Folk Art in what is left of downtown Clarksdale. In the spring of 2008, he teamed up with Jeff Konkel, who runs Broke & Hungry Records in St. Louis. They roamed the Delta, followed by engineer Bill Abel in a Volvo turned into a mobile recording studio and cinematographer Damien Blaylock. The result is a CD and DVD titled "M for Mississippi," showcasing the state's bluesmen performing at house parties, juke joints and in their living rooms and front yards.

Stolle, a white guy who left a job in marketing, moved to Clarksdale in 2002 in search of the blues.

"Of the real-deal solo blues musicians, still active, there are probably about 15, not counting bands," Stolle said. "The blues will never go away, most of the bands have somebody young in them. What you won't have is another guy like T-Model Ford, or Robert Belfour, coming up. Those guys are what they are because of really hard times."

CHASING THE BLUES

In the shade of his front yard, with Stella watching from the screened porch, Ford would have played all afternoon but stopped to talk.

"I was born in Forest, Miss., picked cotton, plowed mules, worked in a sawmill," he said. "Can't read, can't write, never been to school a day in my life. Taught myself how to play the guitar. When I was 18, guy tried to kill me. I killed him and went on the chain gang in Tennessee. It didn't make a bad man out of me, made me a good man. I been quiet ever since."

Although his doctor told him to cut back on the Jack, Ford still tours and just got back "from this place with a great big blue lake." He couldn't remember the name, but Stella, who is 50ish, yelled from the porch, "Barbados."

Ford rattled off the names of the bluesmen who grew up around Greenville, and explained why the Delta was the source of a sound that resonated in the works of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Bonnie Raitt, J.J. Cale and nearly every other modern-day musician.

"The cotton fields, that's where the music came from," he said. "Chopping cotton, picking cotton, had to have a good mule to stand up in front of you. Soon, everybody be singing to chase away those blues."

ME AND MUDDY

The Riverside Hotel "Home of the Delta Blues" is another of Clarksdale's legends, but I almost bolted. From the outside, the place looked grungy, the door was locked and nobody answered when I followed the directions on the scrawled sign: "Top red bell to see Rat."

I was back in my car when a black pickup pulled up with Frank "Rat" Ratliff driving. He is the son of Z.L. Ratliff Hill, who in 1944 bought the two-story building that once housed the city's African-American hospital. Blues singer Bessie Smith died in the hospital after a car accident in 1937. Mrs. Hill ran a hotel that catered to black musicians who came through town.

"Once people come in, they satisfied," Rat said as he ushered me inside. "I ain't never had anybody walk back out that door."

A corridor with a worn wood floor led by a wall of celebrity photos to rooms that had the doors wide open, revealing neatly made beds and the original wood dressers and nightstands. The hotel has communal bathrooms, updated and clean.

John F. Kennedy Jr. "stayed one night in this room; he was here for the King Biscuit Festival," Rat said as he led a tour. "John Lee Hooker and the original Blind Boys of Alabama stayed here. Sam Cooke stayed in Room 7. Room 9 is Ike Turner's room. Room 4 had the Siamese Twins from Chicago. Their mother put the beds together so they could sleep. That was back in the '50s."

I chose Room 5, which, Rat said, had served extended stays to Muddy Waters, Robert Nighthawk and Sonny Boy Williamson II.

"I'm known all over the world," Rat said. "I don't do any advertising. Word of mouth sends them here."

Indeed, the name above mine in the guest book was Caupil Edmard of Paris, France. If the Riverside was good enough for Caupil , it was good enough for me. The charge was $65 a night, cash only, and I stayed two nights.

I wonder if Muddy and me really slept in the same bed.

GETTING THAT SOUND

Clarksdale has two blues museums, three if you count Red's Lounge, a classic juke joint where T-Model Ford and others have recorded albums.

The centerpiece of the Delta Blues Museum is a cypress log cabin that once stood on Stovall Plantation and was part of the home of McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters. His likeness sits inside, guitar in hand, while a video overhead shows vintage performances and homages from rockers like Keith Richards and Bonnie Raitt. "Muddy was playing when I was plowing," said B.B. King.

The Rock 'n Roll & Blues Heritage Museum is the pride and joy of Theo Dasbach, who first heard the blues some 50 years ago on a crystal receiver that brought Radio Luxembourg into his childhood home in the Netherlands. During a career in law, Dasbach bought every rare record, poster and piece of music memorabilia he could afford and now displays his coveted collection in a storefront in Clarksdale, after rejecting Memphis as too commercial.

"I always thought, 'Where is this great music coming from?'" Dasbach said. "We wanted to do the museum in a place with historical significance."

Red's certainly has historical significance, but not much else. While the Ground Zero Blues Club is a busy nightclub, you wouldn't know Red's was even open, except for the cars parked out front. The building looks dark and foreboding, then the door opens and the music flows out onto Sunflower Avenue. Inside are bar stools, sofas and a tip bucket on the dance floor.

Maybe 50 customers crowd in on a good night, paying $5 admission and sipping 24-ounce beers, while listening to music that won't let you sit still. On two visits, I heard Robert "Wolfman" Belfour, who played a sizzling guitar and moaned the blues, and the Robert "Bilbo" Walker Blues Revue.

Two young musicians, one from Toronto the other from Japan, sat at the bar and stared intently at Belfour's fretwork. "He's basically playing one chord," the Canadian said. "But how does he get that sound?"

THE GRAND MASTER

The second room of the B.B. King Museum in Indianola has a receipt showing a young Riley B. King borrowed 40 cents to buy a cotton sack for picking that fall's crop. A later video shows B.B. meeting the pope and standing before the Eiffel Tower. A whole lot of ground is covered in between, and the museum tells, and shows, it all with memorabilia and slick videos.

"The earliest source of the blues I can remember is one guy plowing by himself," B.B. says in a video. "And, usually, you can hear this guy singing."

King gave the museum his blessing, and his horde of personal items, including the entire recording studio from his Las Vegas home. Still touring at the age of 83, he is the star of the videos, which begin with his first visit to the spot where he was born at Berclair, 16 miles east of Indianola.

Jim Abbott, a retired newspaper editor and one of the movers in creating the $14 million museum, said King returns to Indianola each June to play a concert in the town park. The museum's goal, Abbott said, is to be the southern anchor in Mississippi's Blues Trail, an attraction that will draw tourists worldwide.

"There's still too much poverty in the Delta, and a huge disparity in incomes," Abbott said. "We could use a shot in the arm."

Motherless at 9, Riley King lived with his grandmother, who died when he was a 14. He then was brought up by a white family, which insisted he went to school. After performing with the Famous St. Johns Gospel Singers and at the classy Club Ebony, he hitchhiked to Memphis. He named his guitar Lucille after a woman who caused a fight, and almost got him killed, in a juke joint where he was playing in Twist, Ark. The black radio station WDIA broadcast his records in 1947 and made him a hit. He needed a catchy radio name so Riley became Beale Street Blues Boy, then Blues Boy, then B.B.

A turning point in his career came in February 1967 when Bill Graham booked him into the Fillmore in San Francisco. When his bus pulled up, and B.B. saw white people lined up to get in, he sent his road manager to make sure they were at the right place. "This is us, boss," the manager reported. B.B. says in a video: "All these white kids, they stood up and applauded. That got to me so much, I stood up there and cried."

He appeared on Ed Sullivan, opened for the Stones, and was the first performer to go behind bars to entertain prisoners. Clapton says on a video: "I can tell B.B. from one note. Most of us can. He's the grand master."

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