Cheating. Grudges. Abandonment. Shootings. Woman trouble. Man trouble. Too much whiskey. Not enough whiskey. Flophouses and fixin’-to-die. The blues has it all.
It’s a musical world rife with ”I’m-down-here-in-the-ditch-and-I-can’t-get-out“ resignation, if that’s what you want or need, but there’s more to the blues than down-and-out. Forced to describe the blues in a single word, I wouldn’t choose sad or depressing any more than I’d choose anguish, tribulation, or despair. When I think of the blues, I feel like traveling. The music overflows with highways and journeys, crossroads and railroads, picking up and leaving, heading home or wandering off to Chicago, Memphis, or Anywhere-But-Here.
Robert Johnson went down to the crossroad. Tab Benoit’s night train is rollin’. R.L. Burnside did some rollin’ of his own, and a little tumblin’ for good measure. R.L.’s grandson Cedric and his buddy Malcolm bought a lemon of a car and ended up having to hitchhike home. Cedell Davis says he’s gotta be moving on and suggests we might want to be heaving ourselves out of our chairs to start packing. Sitting around’s not going to get us anywhere.
Unfortunately, no one who packed their bags and headed to Clarksdale, Mississippi for this year’s Juke Joint Festival arrived by stepping off a southbound train. Amtrak’s City of New Orleans speeds straight from Memphis to Greenwood, bypassing Clarksdale and its historic depot. They couldn’t come by Greyhound, either, because that historic terminal has closed and functions now as a museum and meeting place. For travelers intent on experiencing the blues, hitting the road is the answer, just as it’s been for decades of bluesmen. Some Festival-goers arrived at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 in “bluesy” cars - Chevys, Fords and broken-down trucks - while others tucked their distinctly non-bluesy Volvos, BMWs and SUVs into the far fringes of the town’s parking lots, perhaps hoping to appear a little more “down home” once separated from their vehicles.
The variety of people emerging from those cars was astonishing. There were J-Crewed families with infants and toddlers, Japanese tourists from Hong Kong and elderly couples from the Dakotas sporting Western-style shirts with pearl snaps. There were men in bib overalls and women in spike heels, teen-agers carrying skateboards and Goths with pierced everythings.
The professionals were there, of course. Photographers and videographers struggled with bags as big as guitar cases and lenses bigger than the CDs they snapped up. There were notebook-jotting journalists and laptop-toting bloggers. And always there were the musicians, sidemen and session players mixed in with nameless, not-on-the-program exemplars of persistence hoping to get a hearing and a break as they hooked up to battered amps in doorways around the festival’s periphery.
The bluesmen – and women – who’d been scheduled for the venues had done some traveling of a different sort to get to Clarksdale. When Lightnin’ Malcolm and Cedric Burnside were joined by T-Model Ford and Cedell Davis on Saturday afternoon, the electricity running through the crowd was palpable. Most of the people who’d drifted into the alley next to Rust Restaurant had come to hear Burnside and Malcolm, and had no idea two blues legends would be sitting in. As friends helped Cedell, a victim of polio, get settled in his wheelchair and T-Model worked the crowd, shaking hands and grinning, the alley began to transform itself into a house party. Some family and friends were getting together to make a little music. In the process, the gathered crowd would catch a glimpse of shared roots and shared lives impossible to grasp at a concert.
Cedric Burnside, grandson of blues great R.L. Burnside and son of drummer Calvin Jackson, has played for years with a variety of musicians including Junior Kimbrough, Kenny Brown, the North Mississippi Allstars, Bobby Rush and Widespread Panic. After teaming with Steve “Lightnin’” Malcolm, another young Mississippi native who lived for a time with Cedell Davis, the pair began writing and composing with flair and self-awareness. “I don’t just sing about the blues, but I live it, too“, they begin, and then add, with a straight-faced irony no doubt lost on many of the Blues tourists, “Some people say they read about the blues, been readin’ about it for a while. Well, I don’t have to read about the blues, ’cause I been livin’ it since I was a child.”
Cedell Davis, a native of Helena, Arkansas, was one who started livin’ the blues as a child. Contracting polio at age nine while living near Tunica, Mississippi with his brother, he was forced by his disability to give up harmonica and re-learn his guitar skills. He grew creative, telling an interviewer,
“I was right- handed, but I couldn’t use my right hand, so I had to turn the guitar around; I play left-handed now. But I still needed something to slide with, and my mother had these knives, a set of silverware, and I kinda swiped one of ‘em.”
It was the perfect solution for someone unable to put a slide on a finger and use it in the conventional way. He wasn’t the first to use a knife, but he was in good company. In a famous passage from his autobiography, W.C. Handy remembers his experience in the Tutwiler, Mississippi train station:
A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags, his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song too, struck me instantly. “Goin’ to where the Southern cross the dog.” The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.
”Weird” is right. A metal knife handle on metal strings produces a sound some delicately call “alternative tuning” while others describe it as a first cousin to fingernails and chalkboard. While it’s true an initial encounter with Cedell and his guitar can be uncomfortable, there’s nothing uncomfortable about meeting the man himself. Rolling through the gathered crowd in his wheelchair he had a word and a handshake for everyone in his path, and took obvious delight in sharing the spotlight with the other surprise of the afternoon, T-Model Ford.
T-Model, a man with as much hard living and bad luck behind him as you could have and still be alive, is a bit of a wonder himself. He began playing guitar when he was 58 years old, on the night his fifth wife left him. Every report I’ve read indicates he’s still unable to read or write, since the 88 year-old white woman who was teaching him was raped and murdered. Born James Lewis Carter Ford in Forrest, Mississippi, perhaps in 1924, he had a pacemaker implanted in 2008 and anticipates another twenty years of bluesing it up. One can only hope the next twenty are less dangerous. Writing about Fat Possum Records and their artists in the London Guardian, Richard Grant lays out the highlights:
T-Model’s life reads like a horror story. At the age of eight, his father beat him so badly between the legs with a piece of firewood that he lost a testicle. His ankles are scarred from the chain gang. His neck is scarred where one of his wives slashed his throat. He has been shot, stabbed, pinned under a fallen tree with a broken ribcage, beaten unconscious with a metal chair. He watched his first wife go off with his own father, watched another die after she drank poison to try and induce a miscarriage. The only woman he ever really loved poisoned him at the breakfast table; he woke up in hospital that afternoon and never saw her again.
Unbelievably, T-Model doesn’t seem willing to apply words like anguish, tribulation, or despair to his own life. As he says himself,
“I play the blues, but I don’t ever get the blues. After my sister died I prayed to God to please let me live like a tree. Tree don’t care if them other trees is dyin’. Tree don’t care about nothin’. When they raped and killed that white lady, I felt bad – she was a good old white lady – but I didn’t let it get me down. I don’t let nothin’ get me down.”
As Grant notes in his article, most people aren’t able to stay happy because they’ve decided to be happy, no matter what – but it seems to work for T-Model.
Certainly he seemed happy enough in Clarksdale. Basking in the palpable affection that surrounded him, firm and straightforward in his singing, he obviously enjoyed playing with Cedric. The set finished, T-Model rose, steadied himself on his cane and bantered a bit with the musicians around him. Then, a model of graciousness, he went on to take his place in the crowd while Cedell and Malcolm, the old and the young, the black and white, the root and the branch, began to edge through another song, just as they would have when they shared the same house .
Suddenly, in a seemingly spontaneous and casual gesture, T-Model reached down, picked up and flipped his cane, and began to “play” in rhythm with Malcolm. Watching him, it was as though he’d become the embodiment of the blues, the music the sustaining rhythm of his life. “Look at that,” said the fellow from Chicago sitting next to me. “Just look at that.” At my other elbow, a photographer stopped in mid-focus to ask, “Can you believe that?”
What they saw I can’t say, but what I saw was T-Model Ford, the old reprobate, the “old tail-dragger” with the sweetest smile in the world, breathing in life and breathing out blues in a process as easy and natural as Cedell’s table knife slicing music into a plateful of chords. He just couldn’t help himself, and everyone saw it.
When Lightnin’ saw what T-Model was up to, he caught Cedric’s eye, and the Two-man Wrecking Crew grinned at one another across the crowd. Seeing Lightnin’s amusement, Cedell looked over at T-Model, who gave a deep, elegant bow in return. With only a pause, one song ended and another began as Cedell’s voice strengthened, the rhythms intensified and the chattering, admiring crowd began to grow quiet.
It was then, in a back alley hidden from the world, that travelers from Rotterdam, Rochester and Rolling Fork leaned forward in anticipation as they felt the Blues itself begin to travel. Pitted against the low mumurings of a threatening storm, the music rolled and tumbled from one guitar to the next, from one singer to another. As the clouds heaped up and chords grew heavy in the air, Cedell sang, and Lightnin’s guitar flashed and the music poured down, running like an unbanked river through hearts flattened and scoured by life. Channeled down the alleyway, it flooded out into the streets, spreading and leveling as it flowed.
Washed clean of inattention, the fellow from Chicago stopped talking, leaned back and closed his eyes. Surprised by an unexpected surge of joy, the photographer from Jackson lowered his light meter and set his camera aside. Smiling back at Cedell, T-Model winked, folded his hands over the crook of his cane and lightly tapped a foot over the fine, raspy grit of the alley. Off to the West, the rain rolled down and the River tumbled on through the Delta, the source and the life of the Blues.
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