Blues Train

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Posts.


Flat flat
flat out there, as far as the eye can see, and few creatures stirring. It’s
just too hot to move. It was up around 100 again today, and crushingly humid,
as it is most days in August in the Mississippi Delta. It scarcely cools down
at night. If you dipped your toes in one of those catfish ponds it’d feel
like a hot bath drawn 10 minutes ago, much warmer than lukewarm. By late summer
the endless weeks of blinding sunshine and soaking humidity have reduced all
life in the Delta to the level of the insect and the pace of the amphibian.
A slow, timeless, antediluvian world fit only for mosquitoes, gators and those
catfish.

At the back
of the lounge car, a couple of guitarists plug into small amps and begin to
noodle and slide some shunting, chugging train-kept-a-rollin’ blues. "Mount"
Everette Eglin, from New Orleans, and Jeff "Baby" Grand, from Detroit,
their nicknames reflecting their relative physical statures. Mike Voelker, a
soulpatched hepcat also from New Orleans, takes up a shuffling rattle on the
washboard hung from his neck. Three white guys. The Blues Scholars.

Passengers
drift into the car. Large black ladies, gnarly old crackers, kids, some young
black men in crisp Amtrak attire, who must be sleeping and dining car staff.
Take seats, begin to tap their knees and nod their heads. And smile. A live
blues band to break up the monotony of the long trek north. What a fine idea.
Why doesn’t every long-distance train offer something like this? Why isn’t
every train through the South a blues train?

John Sinclair
stands in front of the band. At 60, he’s a big bear with a billygoat beard
and his gray hair in short curls–a "half-fro," one of the guys
in the band fondly jokes–and a large voice that growls, drawls, sometimes
roars. Sinclair is the blues scholar, a celebrity in New Orleans, where
he’s lived for more than a decade, for his weekly "Blues & Roots"
radio show on WWOZ, broadcast from near Congo Square just outside the French
Quarter. Since the mid-90s, Sinclair has been performing the history of the
blues as a standup poet, a blues griot, building his intensely evocative work
out of the lives, songs and words of the greats–Muddy Waters, Howlin’
Wolf, Sunnyland Slim, Tommy and Robert Johnson, both Sonny Boy Williamsons.

Sinclair
has just put out a new book of poems and accompanying CD on Okra-Tone, both
called Fattening Frogs for Snakes, and has just hit the road with his
three-piece band, a two-person film crew, his wife Penny and a handful of others.
There’s a lot in Fattening Frogs about how the blues migrated around
the Delta and then north to Chicago by rail in the first half of the 20th century.
The Illinois Central (now, humiliatingly, the Canadian National Illinois Central),
the Southern, the Pea Vine Special, the Yazoo & Mississippi Delta. Sinclair’s
management contacted Amtrak and proposed that the Fattening Frogs tour
should travel the same way. Amtrak agreed, comping the tickets and meals for
an extensive trip up from the South, through the Midwest and into the Northeast.
(The tour comes to New York City this weekend.)

Aboard the
City of New Orleans, the Sinclair entourage has the run of an entire two-deck
car. We can smoke, drink, play music, whatever. The last car on the train, a
sort of beatnik ghetto caboose. We are escorted into the dining car and fed
steaks–one of the best meals the band’ll get for a while. Outside,
flat little railroad ghost towns like McComb, MS, slide by. Occasionally a skinny
black kid on a bicycle will lift a hand in a slight wave, the only sign of life
or movement as we roar through his town. We raise our glasses in toast as we
pass through tiny Hazelhurst, birthplace of Robert Johnson in 1911, and in Jackson,
where Sonny Boy Williamson II made his first recordings.

And then
Sinclair and the Blues Scholars perform in the lounge car.

 

When the
train runs
through your back
yard
you know it’s
hard to stay
in any one place
too long…
And when it’s darkness
on the Delta
you can hear that
train coming
from a long way off
& it’s so
easy to ride…

 

Sinclair’s
poetic strategy is deceptively simple. His narratives are often built around
stories the bluesmen told other great blues scholars and biographers whose books
Sinclair has devoured and practically memorized–Robert Palmer, Sam Charters,
Peter Guralnick. Like the blues itself, it looks simple, but it wouldn’t
work without a great heart and a true soul. Sinclair performs them like a country
preacher, with passion and tremendous charisma. When the spirit descends on
him in climactic moments, it sometimes appears to levitate his large body a
few inches off the floor.

 

& the
music of the Delta
would be appropriated
& exploited beyond
measure
by the descendants
of the slave holders,
& their bank rollers…
& nothing would be returned
to the people of the
Delta…
this is what they mean
when they talk about
the blues,
this is what the blues
is all about:
"fattening frogs
for snakes"
& watching the
mother fucking snakes
slither off with the
very thing you have made

 

A few times
the train’s whistle will fortuitously echo the slide guitars as we thunder
through a deserted country crossing. Voelker’s thimbles on the washboard
mimic the clackety-clack of the wheels on the tracks under us. We tunnel on
into a dusk that ghosts up out of the exhausted land, land laid low by centuries
of use and abuse and hammering sun. Gloom gathers on the isolated trailer parks
and rusted-out cars that flash by, the lonely sheet-metal shacks, the small
stands of trees agonizing in the vampiric embrace of smothering kudzu, the white
clapboard country churches with crooked crosses on their stubby bell towers.

Later that
night, as we’re stuck on a siding waiting for a freight train to pass us
about an hour south of Memphis, the lights and a/c abruptly go off, and the
darkness from outside seems to flood the suddenly silent train, as though we’re
being drowned in the soupy blackness of the nightbound Delta. A flotilla of
rusty, abandoned-looking tractor trailers hunkers on a weedy patch of macadam
beside the tracks. Someone in our car mutters, "Man, it looks like a Fruehauf
graveyard out there." It sounds like a line from a blues song.

 

The
Fattening Frogs tour started out in sweaty New Orleans a few days
before, with performances at the House of Blues, the Louisiana Music Factory
(one of the best record stores in the country), the Cutting Edge music
conference and elsewhere. I met several transplanted New Yorkers at these
gigs, including Mike O’Donoghue of the late, lamented Tramps.
A good friend of Sinclair’s, he would come and see the tour off at
the New Orleans station.

 

It’s
always fun to mosey around the French Quarter on foot or by old bicycle with
Sinclair, who’s treated like a year-round king of Mardi Gras by the locals.
Every day he breakfasts in the Clover Grill at Bourbon and Dumaine, the favorite
24-hour diner in the world of anyone who’s ever eaten there. The Clover
is like a live-in John Waters set, all pink tiles and kitschy sayings and big,
loud, loving queens like Earl, a kind of black Divine, the favorite waiter in
the world of anyone who’s ever eaten there. Earl’s in perpetual motion,
bumping and singing along to Madonna on the jukebox, joking and flirting with
every customer, greeting everyone with a "Hello, babies." Sinclair
calls it "the Breakfast Show." At 2 or 4 in the morning, when the
rest of Bourbon St. is glowering like a mean fratboy hangover and the rest of
the French Quarter is buttoning up for the night, the Clover’s counter
is a haven and a godsend.

At the Sinclairs’
kitchen table on N. Rampart St. the night before the tour begins, he broods
and worries with his entourage. This is going to be a long, complicated tour,
and, not unusually, some pieces of it appear to be coming unstuck. Cash that
was supposed to be wired has failed to arrive. A couple of key gigs have mysteriously
fallen through. Miscommunications between Sinclair’s management and Amtrak’s
publicity people. The filmmaker’s agenda clashes with the tour schedule.
Pre-tour jitters abound. At the Clover the day we’re to depart, Sinclair
tempts fate by joking darkly that it’s his "last meal."

It will
prove prophetic. Problems will compound during the first few days on the road.
Accessing tour vans and accommodations turns into a logistical nightmare. Credit
cards are quickly maxed out. A certain journalist is briefly forgotten and abandoned
at a fleabag Motel 6 in Memphis. ("Can’t wait to see the headline
of this article," Eglin morbidly quips. "The only question
is will it be ‘The Dumbass Tour’ or ‘The Extremely Dumbass
Tour.’") The tour manager, down from Boston, will abruptly go home
in disgrace and disarray.

Things will
finally begin to gel by the time the band reaches Chicago, but one keeps remembering
something Eglin said at the height of the confusion. "We may not be a real
blues band," he sighed, "but this sure is a blues tour."

 

or
waiting in the dark

for the train
to make it
down the track
& jump on board
because anywhere else
is better than this place…

 

 

The
City of New Orleans drops us at the Memphis station. After stowing the band’s
equipment we cab to that fleabag Motel 6, on a dead strip of highway out
near Elvis Presley Blvd. We haven’t even put our bags down when a large,
sweet-faced black hooker, in shiny tights and an XL miniskirt, is scratching
at our doors, going room to room, asking if we want to party. In one of
the rooms the palmetto bugs outnumber the humans maybe 10 to one. All the
rooms are barely habitable, even for a band on the road. We spend much of
the night standing outside them, shooting shit, drinking beer, delaying
as long as possible lying down on those mildewy sheets.

 

Next morning
we cram into a pair of rental vans and drive 75 miles southwest on Highway 61.
More miles of cotton fields. A cluster of highrise resort casinos shimmering
like Oz in the flat, green distance. Fireworks shacks. Bait shops. Cinderblock
roadside joints with handpainted signs like EAT • SHOOT POOL.

Clarksdale,
MS, is a small, beat-down, boarded-up little town whose wan claim to fame is
that it’s the capital of Delta blues country. Clarksdale is where Highway
61 crosses Highway 49. In blues legend, this is the crossroads, the place
where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil. That’s a conflation of
several mythologies–it was originally Tommy Johnson who was said
to have made that infernal deal, and it wasn’t at this spot. But the legend
has stuck, and Clarksdale, in a desultory, Deep South way, does what it can
to capitalize on the meager tourism it attracts. The handful of shops that aren’t
boarded up feature the word "Blues" somewhere in their names. W.C.
Handy-slept-here plaques stand next to weedy abandoned lots. At the small Delta
Blues Museum, sited in 1999 in Clarksdale’s brick train station, Tony Czech
tells me they get about 15,000 blues tourists a year, mostly Europeans and Japanese.
"For a town of 20,000, 75 miles from the nearest airport, I’ll take
it," he shrugs.

At night,
Czech also runs the door and the sound at Ground Zero, Clarksdale’s one
big nightspot, located in what I’m told is an old cotton warehouse next
to the tracks. The walls are covered in graffiti and concert posters (Otis Clay,
Big Jack Johnson, Super Chikan, Roosevelt Booba Barnes). There’s a bar
at one side, two pool tables, a small kitchen serving chicken tenders and the
ubiquitous fried catfish, Christmas lights strung from the rafters, stage in
the back. Up on that stage, Sinclair says he feels like a parish priest invited
to the Vatican to say Mass for the pope.

The Blues
Scholars are followed by the Deep Cuts, a hometown boogie and blues band clearly
beloved by the locals. Blonde Southern belles in tight knit tops and push-up
bras line the stage and sway and flirt openly with the handsome young black
bassist. One of the two guitarists is a diminutive white girl, 11 years old,
a remarkable prodigy; she plays fierce leads, then fills in on bass, then plays
drums. Her mom sits near the stage smiling proudly. "Mr. Johnny,"
a dignified elderly black gentleman who’s taught many local youngsters
like that girl, gets up and guests on guitar and vocals. I’m startled when
the actor Morgan Freeman jumps up there and sings one song (badly); turns out
he’s from Clarksdale, half-owner of Ground Zero and is around often enough
that the locals take his presence for granted.

By 2 a.m.
there’s little else going in Clarksdale on a Friday night. Walk the dark,
deserted streets of its two-block downtown area and it’s so quiet the only
sound is the shouts of the frogs and cicadas in the trees that line the small
Sunflower River on the edge of town.

Clarksdale
is one of those little Southern towns where whites and blacks may mingle amicably
enough in a very few selected spots like Ground Zero, but otherwise they party
among their own kind, and all you have to do to find the exclusively white and
blacks-only hangouts is to cross the tracks. On the white side of the tracks
we stop very briefly in a rock bar where a terrible band plays Southern rock
classics and the crowd is all sullen young crackers and the drunk blondes who
love to egg them on. The beer-and-amphetamine mood is just this side of ugly.

So we cross
the tracks and search out the black juke joints. They have grand names like
Blues Station, Club Champagne, Club 2000, but they’re uniformly one or
at best two tiny rooms, with linoleum floors and low drop ceilings, maybe a
bar that can accommodate two stools, five or six card tables. We’re the
only white guys in any of them. When we enter, the handful of males strewn around
the tables will stare at us impassively. The women invariably light up. White
men have arrived! With money and cigarettes! Hey honey, give me a cigarette.
Hey Mick Jagger, buy me a beer. You wanna dance with me, baby?
It’s
not a request. These gals are big and gold-toothed and strong and they yank
us out of our folding chairs and drag us to the tiny "dancefloor,"
where the cheap disco lights under the low ceiling flash right in our eyes.
Come on with me, we’ll get some pot. You smoke pot don’t ya, Mick
Jagger? Come on party with me.
The men just sit there, watching.

The jukeboxes
in these places are incredible repositories of r&b and blues. Eglin, who
has an encyclopedic knowledge of this stuff, trades endless trivia, over 24-ounce
cans of Bud, with an equally adept black girl who moved to Clarksdale from Detroit
a few years back. I gawk at how much these two know. The Alexandrine Library
of black American music, a juke joint in Clarksdale at 3 a.m.

At 3:30,
tapped out and tired, we rise to leave–and that 11-year-old white girl
and her mom are just coming in. Warmly greeted by all, the girl gets some quarters
from Big T, the affable owner. She goes to the pool table in the back room,
racks them up and proceeds to beat the pants off a black male competitor. The
kid’s a freak of nature. We make our goodnights and shuffle across deserted
Clarksdale to the Uptown Motor Inn, which, incredibly, is even a worse fleabag
than that Memphis Motel 6.

 

This is
where the music
was born & bred
in miles & miles
of cottonn fields,

one room shacks,
dirt roads stretching
across the countryside,
standing at the crossroads…

Director
Steve Gebhardt made short films with John and Yoko, produced Ladies
and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones
and filmed Escalator Over the
Hill
, the Carla Bley avant-jazz extravaganza. For some years he’s
been working on a film of Sinclair’s life, with the working title
Twenty to Life. The title refers to Sinclair’s infamous 1960s,
when he managed the MC5, chaired the White Panther Party and became a
celebrated political prisoner on a bogus pot bust. Gebhardt’s film
will span from those days to Sinclair’s more recent incarnation as
a blues poet.

 

The truth
is Sinclair has always been into jazz and blues, before, during and after his
brief if more celebrated time as a rockin’ revolutionary; his knowledge
of it is broad and deep. Gebhardt wants to shoot him out in the Delta at some
key spots in blues history. I’m invited along to be on-camera, so Sinclair
isn’t just talking to himself.

We drive
off into the country under a brutally fierce sun. The region south of Clarksdale,
embraced by the two-pronged Highway 49E and 49W, is where the blues was born,
home and stomping grounds to most of the great blues artists in the first half
of the 20th century. They worked on the huge plantations around here, like Dockery,
which I’m told had 50,000 workers living on it at its height. It was in
sharecroppers’ shacks and juke joints on those plantations that they first
created and developed and heard one another play the blues. The great Charley
Patton, for instance, worked on Dockery Plantation, where Muddy Waters first
heard him play. The area’s also home to Parchman Farm, the vast state penitentiary-cum-plantation
on Highway 61 where a number of the early bluesmen did time for one infraction
or another.

By the railroad
tracks in the tiny, exhausted-looking town of Tutwiler, a folk-artish mural
marks the spot where, in 1903, W.C. Handy, the entertainer who would become
the first great collector and popularizer of the blues, was waiting for a train
that was nine hours late when he heard a raggedy country fellow playing slide
guitar with a knife and keening about the place "Where the Southern cross
the Yellow Dog." Handy would publish "Memphis Blues," the first
known published blues song, in 1912.

Not so many
miles down Highway 49W, in the sleepy whistle-stop of Moorhead, we stand on
the very spot where the Southern crossed the Yellow Dog: a pair of train tracks
cross at perfect right angles, the Southern going one way, the Yellow Dog (Yazoo
& Mississippi Delta) crossing it. One line looks like it’s still in
use; the other ends in weeds a handful of yards to either side of the crossing.
I kick over a dented old scrap of metal: it’s a sign, CROSSIN, with the
G torn off the end. To me, this is the real crossroads. Clearly the disused
bit of track’s been left there for its historical significance, though
no tourist plaque marks the spot and no maps guide you to it.

Similarly,
the grave of Alec "Rice" Miller, aka Sonny Boy Williamson II, can
be found only by the dedicated aficionado. (There was already a bluesman named
Sonny Boy Williamson when, according to Sinclair, Miller was given that name
by the managers of a small radio station nearby, KFFA, in 1941–so that
he could advertise Sonny Boy Corn Meal. It’s this second Sonny Boy who’s
known to rock fans for his recordings with the Yardbirds and the Animals.) South
of Tutwiler, a country road turns from macadam to gravel, then gravel to dirt
as it wanders out into farm fields sizzling in the midday sun. There used to
be a tiny Baptist church on this road, but only its foundation stones are left.
To one side, you walk into a patch of wild corn and brambles, struggling toward
a little creek, and abruptly you come on a clearing, about as much area as you
could park a pickup truck on, and there’s a handsome stone to mark the
presumed grave of the harmonica legend. Previous visitors have left offerings
of liquor and a few rain-rusted harmonicas.

I’m
told the stone was funded by Lillian McMurry, a white woman in Jackson, MS,
for whose regional Trumpeter label Miller recorded his first songs. Humorously,
the back of the gravestone lists only those Trumpeter songs, not the many others
he recorded for different labels. Sinclair surmises that since she was paying
for the stone, she saw no reason to give competitors free advertising on it.

Robert Johnson’s
gravestone is easier to spot. (Well, he has two, but that’s another story.)
It stands beside the freshly whitewashed little Mt. Zion church, on a clean
lawn right by Mississippi Rte. 7, between the towns of Itta Bena and Morgan
City. It, too, was only recently erected. It lists a few dozen titles on its
back–"Love in Vain," "Terraplane Blues," "Hellhound
on My Trail," "I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom," "Come
on in My Kitchen."

A short
way away, we drive out a dirt road through unworked fields. Down this road,
Sinclair believes, was the juke joint where Johnson was poisoned to death by
a jealous husband in 1938–probably in a little tin-roofed shack like one
we pass, ancient and rusted, but with a brand-new mailbox outside.

 

In
Memphis, where the Blues Scholars play two gigs on a Sunday, I find that
Beale St. has been Disneyfied, just like 42nd St., since I was last there
in the mid-90s. What was then a downbeat and funky strip has been malled
and touristized. There’s a Hard Rock Cafe on the site of Pee Wee’s
Saloon, a favorite haunt of Handy’s, where the front door was taken
off its hinges so as not to impede the free 24-hour flow of patrons. An
Elvis theme restaurant is at the other end of the street. Schwab’s,
the world’s coolest we-sell-everything store, is still hanging on,
praise the King. But there’s a general sense of demoralization on
Beale St. now, a capitulation to the theme-parking and Hard Rocking of
America’s cities.

 

We get away
from Beale St. and take the film crew to visit Memphis’ other monuments
to American music: Sun Studio and Stax Records. In the late 40s and early 50s,
before a young truck driver named Elvis Presley strayed in there, Sun was known
for its blues artists. Howlin’ Wolf (who had his own show on a radio station
over in West Memphis), B.B. King, Little Junior Parker, Little Milton, Rufus
Thomas all recorded there. Ike Turner, a snappy young talent scout from Clarksdale,
brought many of them to Sam Phillips. Who, when he first heard Howlin’
Wolf, was terribly moved, saying something along the lines of "This is
the soul of humanity."

And then
Elvis walked in the door and changed everything. "Elvis was a teenager
listening to good shit on the radio, just like me and thousands of us around
the country," Sinclair says as we sit broiling in the sun on the bench
outside the place, while clueless tourists keep straying between us and the
camera. He theorizes that Elvis probably first heard "Mystery Train,"
recorded by Junior Parker at Sun, on local radio. As Elvis and those who followed
him brought rock and rockabilly to Sun, its blues artists were being lured away
by bigger labels elsewhere. For instance, Chess Records bought Howlin’
Wolf "a Cadillac and he drove it to Chicago and stayed at Muddy Waters’
house for three weeks until he got on his feet," Sinclair tells me.

Stax is
down, at least metaphorically, on the wrong side of the tracks, in a beat black
ghetto. There’s a burned-down hulk across the street that I think used
to be a grocery store, and the whole time we stand there out in front of Stax
trying to film, older black men, attracted by the white guys with their van
and their film equipment, keep wandering into the shot to hit us up for spare
change, while younger black guys hit on Gebhardt’s female assistant.

Which is
only appropriate. It’s one of those telling ironies of American music that
Stax, the premier soul and r&b label of the 60s into the 70s, was founded
by white folks, the brother and sister team of Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton,
with no prior interest in or experience of black music. They went with black
music because they saw it selling. The Stax site was a failed movie theater,
which still has its marquee. They recorded in the theater, then sold the records,
hot off the presses, at the former candy counter in the lobby. When a new record
was cut, they’d bring the acetate out to the lobby and play it all day
for the neighborhood black kids, to get their reaction. If the kids didn’t
like it, they’d rerecord it with a better beat or whatever the kids said
it needed. Instant, primitive market research.

"Stax
finished off in Memphis what Sun started," Sinclair says. The blues-based
soul music that got its start there includes the work of Otis Redding, Sam &
Dave, Booker T & the MG’s, Carla Thomas. "Not only was Stax the
foremost purveyor of Southern soul," Sinclair says, but it took over blues
artists from Sun like Rufus Thomas, Albert King and Little Milton. "It
was really the last hurrah of blues records on the charts" in the mid-60s.
Stax would succumb to financial difficulties in the 70s. Lately, with government
and foundation support, the site is being resurrected as a tourism spot and
a youth music academy.

 

 

Stax
was as good a place as any to wind up my Deep South tour with the Blues
Scholars. The following day I took the City of New Orleans with them from
Memphis to Chicago, trying to catch some winks in the coffin-narrow sleeper
berths as the train shunted and rocketed and rattled its way up through
the Midwest. The next night I took another, more luxurious sleeper from
Chicago to New York. Where I look forward to meeting up with them again
this week. They’ve been gigging all around Sinclair’s old stomping
grounds, Chicago, Detroit, Ann Arbor, and then down to the Rock and Roll
Hall of Fame in Cleveland. I trust this second leg has been less hassle
than the way the tour started out. But somehow I doubt that Michigan was
as right and as symbolically rich a setting for them as the Mississippi
Delta.

 

John Sinclair
and the Blues Scholars will appear on Fri., Sept. 20, at the Oak Room at Warsaw,
261 Driggs Ave. (betw. Eckford & Leonard Sts.), Greenpoint, 718-387-0505;
on Sat., Sept. 21, at Lakeside Lounge, 162 Ave. B (betw. 10th & 11th Sts.),
529-8463; on Sun., Sept. 22, at CBGB’s Downstairs Lounge, 313 Bowery (Bleecker
St.), 677-0455; and on Mon., Sept. 23, at Tobacco Road, 355 W. 41st St.(9th
Ave.), 947-1188.

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