Blues Train


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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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