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 your preference, but there’s more to the blues than blank despair. If I were forced to describe my feelings about the blues in a single word, I wouldn’t choose sad or depressing any more than I’d choose anguish, tribulation or woe. When I hear 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, to Memphis or Helena, to 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 gonna be moving on and suggests we might want to heave ourselves up out of our own chairs to start packing. Sitting around’s not going to get us anywhere.
Unfortunately, James Lewis Carter Ford has done the last of his traveling – at least in this world. Known as T-Model to friends, admirers and detractors alike, he died at home of respiratory failure on July 16 at the age of 88 – or 83 or 93, depending on which report you read or whom you choose to believe.
I first met T-Model Ford in Clarksdale, Mississippi at the annual Juke Joint Festival. I’d stopped by the parking lot behind the Rust Restaurant on Saturday afternoon to hear Lightnin’ Malcolm and Cedric Burnside play. Like most people, I had no idea T-Model and CeDell Davis were planning to join them. When the men appeared, palpable shivers of excitement and anticipation began to run through the crowd.
As friends helped CeDell, a victim of polio, get settled in his wheelchair, T-Model worked the crowd, shaking hands and grinning. Slowly, the crowd began to transform itself into a house party. Some family and friends were getting together to make a little music, and in the process the gathered crowd would catch a glimpse of shared roots and shared lives in a way impossible 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 and the North Mississippi Allstars. After teaming up 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 sing, before adding, with a straight-faced irony possibly lost on the blues tourists surrounding them, “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, is one of those who began livin’ the blues as a child. Contracting polio at age nine while living with his brother near Tunica, Mississippi, he was forced by his disability to give up the 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 conventionally. He wasn’t the first to use a knife, but he was in good company. In a famous autobiographical passage, 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 that could be charitably described as unique. Others describe it as akin to fingernails on a chalkboard. While it’s true an initial encounter with CeDell and his guitar can be discomfiting, 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, including his old friend T-Model.
T-Model, a man with as much hard living and bad luck behind him as you could have and still be alive, was a bit of a wonder himself. 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.
He began playing guitar at age 58, on the night his fifth of six wives left him. She’d presented him with a guitar as a parting gift and Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head Delta Blues recalls, “He stayed up all night drinking white whiskey and playing that guitar. He kind of went on from there.”
Indeed he did. Unbelievable as it seems, T-Model wasn’t especially eager to apply words like anguish, tribulation, or despair to his own life. As he said,
“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 [an 88-year-old white woman who was teaching him to read and write] 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. Still, it seemed to work for T-Model. “He plays the north Mississippi hill-country hypnotic boogie-groove like nobody else on earth,” commented Memphis musician Jim Dickinson, producer for Ford’s album Bad Man (2002). “His music is not a complaint of self-pity, but a celebration of life.You could see it in his smile.” Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys noticed the smile himself after driving to Greenville on a whim, just to see if he could find T-Model and play with him.
“We jammed all afternoon and played a juke joint that night, then slept on his floor. He was nothing but nice – all smiles. There’s nothing like T-Model’s smile, and boy, he’ll use it! He’ll find the prettiest girl in the audience and just smile all night.”
Certainly he seemed happy enough in Clarksdale. Basking in the palpable affection surrounding him, firm and straightforward in his singing, he clearly enjoyed playing with Cedric. As 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 took his place in the crowd while CeDell and Malcolm, the old and the young, the black and the white, the root and the branch, began to edge through another song, just as they would have done when they shared the same house .
As he watched and listened, T-Model casually reached down, picked up his cane, flipped it under his arm and began “playing” in rhythm with Malcolm.
“Look at that,” the fellow from Chicago sitting next to me said. “Just look at that.” Next to us, a photographer stopped in mid-focus to stare, before saying to no one in particular, “Can you believe that?”
We watched, transfixed, as the old reprobate, the “ol’ tail-dragger”, a man with a checkered past and the sweetest smile in the world seemed to breathe in life and breathe 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 small Delta town nearly hidden from the world, that travelers from Rotterdam, Rochester and Rolling Fork leaned forward in anticipation, feeling 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 the other. As clouds heaped up and chords grew heavy in the air, CeDell sang on while Lightnin’s guitar flashed and the music poured down, running like an unbanked river across hearts flattened and scoured by life, flooding 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 pavement. Off to the West, the rain rolled down and the River tumbled on, sluicing through the Delta, the source and the life of the Blues.