A Mississippi Blues Tour Finds Plenty, Including
Real-Deal Delta Bluesmen
James "T-Model" Ford
was waiting in the afternoon shade
of his front yard, sipping Jack
Daniel's with a splash from a white
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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."