Unmapped
Issue 23

The blues highway

By Tash Peskin

Twenty hours after landing in America I trip out the club with cyclonic giddiness, hanging off someone’s shirt. ‘It’s so bright!’ I shout at The Shirt, looking up to check the time. I guess 7am. It was definitely midnight a couple of hours ago. But now, after an unfathomable time warp of lost hours trampled into the sticky dance floor of a dreadful Bourbon Street club, the Sunday sun is thawing the sleep from its morning workers. Café waiters, hotel porters, taxi drivers, and deliverymen all stretch and yawn through the streets like cats uncurling in the sun. Daylight has flooded the town with colour and it takes me a moment to remember where I am—New Orleans!

I stumble over a train track and climb a grassy bank, dodging the sunrise joggers. ‘Holy Shit!’ I shout, grabbing The Shirt as I tumble over rocks to the water’s edge. I need to sit down. The enormity of what I have just discovered sets in as I try to regain my composure. I have just crashed, blind drunk, into my first meeting with the Mississippi river, and this wasn’t exactly how I imagined I would introduce myself.

I perch on its rocky lap in silence to absorb this moment. Inches from my feet are the muddy waters that have herded man and his song over thousands of miles, across two centuries, from New Orleans to Minnesota. These mighty waters were the only constant to the nomadic man that built its levees, ploughed the fields it nourished, fixed its boats, manned its cargo, and navigated its twists and turns in search of a better life. If my journey to find the roots of modern music were a play, the Mississippi would be narrator, leading us through the acts as we course from decade to decade, state to state and from blues to soul to rock ’n’ roll and beyond. And yet, here it flows with a humbleness that belies it ferocious speed, quietly going about its morning with little knowledge of the impact it had on the people and music it carried. Here is the aorta of the American landscape, the lifeblood to modern American music, one of the most important landmarks in music’s history, and here I am at the beginning of my journey and the beginning of blues.

An apt place to start, taking us back to 300 years ago when the first African slave stepped off the boat in New Orleans and paved the way for the birth of a new American – the African-American. It would be one of most significant points in America’s cultural history and would lead to the creation of a completely new music to add to our aural lexicon. It would, of course, take centuries and generations to create what would become the first recorded blues songs. It would require one of the most remarkable stories of triumph over adversity – a story of an impoverished and disenfranchised community who thrived against all the odds.

But blues may well have been abandoned in the prologues of American music had it not been for the mighty Mississippi. This river was the surging life force that caused African American musicians to ebb and flow through the southern states looking for work – affixing to the blues its restless legs. It was this restlessness that would become its elixir, keeping it evolving as it wandered across decades. And just as the river flows across America, so too did the workers in search of jobs. In the first half of the 1900s, six million African Americans left the sweet magnolia of the Deep South, travelling across the dusty crossroads and railroads of the Delta to the slums of Chicago’s Southside. It was this final stop for the unsettled soul of the bluesman that would prove to be the most significant marker on our map of modern music, for it was Chicago that really gave blues to the rest of the world, and well, the rest is history as they say.

I toss a stone in the river hoping it will skip, but promptly watch it drown. It seems metaphorical. It’s day two of my trip and ahead of me lies 7,600 miles of road and twelve states – a 94 day journey that will see me trace the footprints of blues from New Orleans to Chicago, experiencing first hand the legacy that the blues has created. It’s too early and I’m too drunk to think about this. I’m sinking.

      

Three weeks later, I am driving northbound on Highway 49W from Natchez to Clarksdale, Mississippi. Either side of me is covered in a rich, dense, green carpet of Kudzu weeds. It swathes the grasslands, wraps around tree trunks, dangles off telephone wires and drapes over foliage, upholstering every inch of land and building for miles and miles. The hills all roll and rise with the same pitch of green, blanketed by the spongy, tangled weed.

Imported by the Japanese in 1876 to landscape the Japanese Pavilion, people soon started to plant Kudzu in their gardens and on their farms to prevent soil erosion and feed cattle. But so fertile is the soil, so rich in nutrients that the weeds just took root and spread, and spread and spread, growing a frightening foot per day until it covered over 250,000 acres of land, engulfing everything in its path. It’s no wonder the Mississippi Delta became the farming heartland of America, if this rampant Kudzu is anything to go by.

My Chevy zips over bridges, rising and dipping, my stomach flipping at each drop. I realize this is the first time I’m being confronted by scenery - something other than wide beige highways, billboards of smiling families and concrete overpasses. And then suddenly, somewhere just after the junction of Highway 49W and Highway 3 North, I take an ascent over a blind hill and quickly drop into a new, very unexpected landscape. As it turns out, it would be the last rise of land I would see for over a month. Now, for as far as I can see, there’s not a dent or mound in the horizon, only neatly ploughed fields and row upon row of crops, flickering like the lines across a broken TV set as I speed past. Yet despite the monotony of this reclining land, it is spectacularly emotive. I stop singing and switch off my radio. For some three hours or so I am quiet, wrapped in a sudden sense of the past and all that has happened here.

The 4pm sun wearily soaks the crops in a golden lustre. The rusty abandoned train tracks sink into the grass banks every now and again, disappearing and emerging, disappearing and emerging. In this moment, the image of the blues if I could close my eyes and picture it, has never been clearer. I can see the travelling bluesman with his guitar on his back, walking the tracks until he jumps on a freight train, riding his luck until he hits the next town. Two days ago I had a passed the state sign on my way into Mississippi: ‘Welcome to Mississippi, Birthplace of America’s music’, it read. It’s only now I feel like I’m here, where it all began.

I arrive at the Shack Up Inn, two miles outside of Clarksdale, just before sunset. I drive over an abandoned train track and up a gravel path where I come to a group of run-down shacks guarded at the threshold by a large white wooden building. Above the porch, the word ‘Hopson’ has been hand-painted in red, crowning the façade. Both sign and shack are weathered and chipped by what looks like over a century of use. A rusty tractor has collapsed in front of the building, weary from neglect. 


In front of me, beyond the Hopson commissary and across the patchy gravel courtyard, are thirteen sharecropper shacks – some painted with worn blues or pinks, some boarded with corrugated iron, rusting round the edges. They bulge and shrink in width and height, the result of a hundred years of barely living. They are dilapidated and rickety, but dazzling with nostalgia amongst the strewn rusty machines and sun-blistered 1950s pick-up trucks. There is not a sound except the dancing blackbirds. I try to suppress my inner delight as I open the door to the ‘Tinth shack’ and see my new home for the first time. It is about eight metres wide and five deep – in the middle, up against the left wall, lies a double bed with a soft fleece quilt, an old butchers sink in the far corner with makeshift shelves for crockery, and a bathroom just behind it. It has been decorated with vintage mismatched treasures in keeping with the ramshackle style; an old broken TV set tuned to a local blues radio station, a gramophone case, broken rocking chairs, oil lamps, a battered guitar and blues magazines with curled yellowed edges. The room and its cyprus tree walls glow with the ochre of a dim lamp.

It’s a romantic fantasy, my little porch with two rickety rockers; one for me, one for my lover. But as I will find out, the story of these shacks have quite a different past to the future I’m now playing out over my rather speedy wireless connection.

      

I’m in St. Louis, Missouri to meet Big George Brock. He is completely blind now and partially deaf. He’s sitting bolt upright on his impeccably-made bed facing a wall and wearing burnt orange trousers, a matching checked shirt, a magenta cowboy hat with a gold trim, and sunglasses. His helper cradles his elbow and walks him to his armchair.

      

George grew up near Clarksdale Mississippi not far from my Tinth Shack; in fact, in a similar shack to the one I was staying in. He was born on May 16th 1932 and I’m sure, not long after that, he knew he wanted to leave as soon as he could. Everyone did. It was a provincial town in a poor state that didn’t offer any sort of life for a black sharecropper and his family. Most were paid less than six cents per pound of cotton after the Great Depression – a job that would take them from sunrise to sundown to pick just 300 pounds if they were healthy and of course, from the money earned, there was the loan to pay the farm owner as well as a cut of the profits. George was driving mules and tractors by the time he was twelve, earning 50 cents a day. On the weekends George, his brothers and sisters would hide under their shack, as ‘coon hunters’ went inside looking for black families to beat mercilessly. George remembers finding his grandfather wrapped in a blood-soaked sheet on the porch of his mother’s house where he had been left for dead. They brought him inside, knowing a hospital wouldn’t take any better care of him, nursing his wounds with salt solution and greasing his body so he wouldn’t stick to his bed sheets. George was one of seventeen brothers and sisters and at any one time, up to seven of them were living in a small shotgun shack together. Either work, a woman or music was going to have to take George out of Clarksdale. As luck would have it, it was music.

Like so many looking for an escape from the daily grind of post-emancipation farm-life, George’s first love was music. He would hear spirituals and field hollers on the farm and mess around on a homemade paper-comb harmonica, playing raspy versions of the songs he heard. One Christmas, close to his eighth birthday, his father gave him and his brothers their very first harmonica. His brothers dismissed it quickly, moving on to the next fad, but George kept practising on it whenever he could.

As the Mississippi summer sun nurtured the crops and scorched their attentive carers, so too would it warm the Mississippi waters, stirring the fish and their young into life. At dusk, as the air cooled and the moon rose, silhouettes lined the water’s edge, rods straining as catfish swallowed the bait. Sometimes, buckets of them would be carried home along dusty trails as the bull frogs and crickets whirred. If there were enough, George’s mother Mary would host Saturday night fish fries, serving up batches of breaded catfish and homemade moonshine. You could smell the food cooking from well before sundown, and by early evening guests from all over would arrive with accompanying dishes to dance and gossip the night away.

Soon a local boy in his early twenties would come and play his harmonica and guitar for Mary and her guests. He lived on the nearby Stovall farm and knew the family well. He had a roundish face with a warming smile, a wide nose, high cheekbones and a neatly trimmed thin moustache. George thought he was probably the nicest man he ever met. He would sit with eleven-year-old George on the porch, teaching him how to play harmonica as he sang and accompanied him on guitar. People called him Muddy, after the Mississippi creeks he spent his childhood messing around in. Unbeknownst to Muddy (or George) he was a few years away from becoming the most famous blues musician of all time.

As George and Muddy whiled away the evening playing together, George began to find interest in other local musicians; Sonny Boy Williams, Pine Top Perkins, John Lee Hooker – the whole of Clarksdale and its surrounding counties were buzzing to a new sound. Juke joints, fish fries, fields and houses all echoed and pulsed to the sound of the blues. It grew out of the ground and into the hearts of everyone it touched. By the time he was seventeen, George was hanging out at the local juke joints drinking sodas, eating burgers and watching the masters in action. He was well and truly hooked on blues. When Chicago came to take Muddy Waters away, George knew it was soon time for him to leave, and so he packed his bags and left for St. Louis to pursue a life of music, hot on Muddy’s trail.

      

On the surface, nothing much has changed in Clarksdale. I walk into one bar to find the same barman and the same farmer sitting in exactly the same place I first encountered them three years earlier. And I mean exactly, as though time had been frozen in a loop, unable to move on from the legacy that George, Muddy and his fellows left behind them over 70 years ago. But something about this slow re-enactment of time pulls me back again time and time again. In fact it is my fifth visit to Clarksdale over three years. Like an episode of a familiar soap opera, you can enter halfway through a scene and the characters haven't changed and the storylines pick up where you left them. You can kick off your shoes and feel at home. Many others also find comfort in the fact that time has stood still in Clarksdale. It’s no surprise that the only visitors that come through Clarksdale are middle aged men: they are all there to find the birthplace of America’s music and listen to blues as it was meant to sound, in its rawest unadulterated form.

I don’t meet anyone below thirty apart from the people that have grown up there. A young group of local artists and musicians are pushing things forward and injecting some much-needed energy into the area, but Clarksdale has lost its global relevance with young people and unfortunately so has the blues. For the most part, I hate to say it, the world might be right. What relevance does blues have today to the young music fan?

If you look hard enough, you can hear the blues anywhere, from hip-hop and soul to reggae and rock. A friend of mine once recalled winning a hip hop battle with a teenager using the lyrics from Muddy Waters' I’m Ready (I got an axe-handled pistol on my graveyard frame, that shoot tombstone bullets, wearing balls and chain). As you trace the DNA of blues through the history of modern music, it serves as a poignant reminder of the influence it has had on contemporary music at every stage since. Because blues is where you will find the flickering embers of our current musical language and to understand how far we have come from that musical big bang, we should take time to listen to the stories of those who have lived and died with the blues in their hearts.

     

Tash Peskin recently drove from New Orleans to Chicago (twice) researching for a book about the history of blues and the landscape that inspired it. She is a failed architect, ex-creative strategist and lover of blues and gin, especially when they’re served up on a porch in Mississippi. You can read more about her journey (and her drinking buddies) at www.theblueshighway.tumblr.com.

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