Cheating. Grudges. Abandonment. Shootings. Woman trouble. Man trouble. Too much whiskey. Not enough whiskey. Flophouses and fixin’-to-die. The blues has it all.
Blues can provide 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. As much as anything, the blues tend toward travel; they overflow with highways and journeys, crossroads and railroads, picking up, leaving town, heading home, or wandering off to Chicago, Memphis or Helena. If you’re ready to make a run to Anywhere-But-Here, the blues will be happy to ride shotgun.
Robert Johnson went down to the crossroad. Tab Benoit’s night train is rollin’. R.L. Burnside did some rollin’ and tumblin‘ of his own while grandson Cedric, along with his buddy Malcolm, bought a lemon of a car and ended up having to hitchhike home. CeDell Davis, who liked to say he intended to “live as long as I can and die when I can’t help it,” finally couldn’t help it and moved on, but before he left he suggested we might want to heave ourselves up out of our own chairs and get packing, since sitting around isn’t going to get us anywhere.
James Lewis Carter Ford — T-Model to his friends, admirers, and detractors — did the last of his worldly traveling in 2013, dying of respiratory failure at the age of 88 — or 83, or 93, depending on who’s doing the calculating. Davis outlived him by four years; he died at age 91 in 2017, thanks to complications after a heart attack. That either man lived so many decades may prove the old saying that the Lord protects drunkards and fools. On the other hand, it may have been sheer luck.
I met Davis and Ford in Clarksdale, Mississippi, at the annual Juke Joint Festival. On Saturday afternoon, Lightnin’ Malcolm and Cedric Burnside were scheduled to play in the alley behind the Rust Restaurant; most people had no idea T-Model and CeDell were planning to join them. When the men appeared, shivers of excitement and anticipation ran through the crowd.
While friends helped CeDell 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. While family and friends made a little music, the gathered crowd would glimpse shared roots and shared lives in a way impossible at concerts.
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.
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 —
been livin’ it since I was a child.
CeDell Davis, a native of Helena, Arkansas, certainly began livin’ the blues as a child. After 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.
Later, he told David Ramsey, in an interview for The Oxford American:
Almost everything that you could do with your hands, I could do it with the knife. It’s all in the way you handle it. Drag, slide, push it up and down.
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 around 1903:
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 an apt description, since a metal knife handle on metal strings produces a sound akin to fingernails on a chalkboard. Robert Palmer, the late New York Times music critic, called Davis’s guitar style “utterly unique, in or out of blues.” As Palmer put it:
Some people who hear CeDell’s playing for the first time think it’s out of tune, but it would be more accurate to say he plays in an alternative tuning, because the way he hears and plays intervals and chords is consistent and systematic.
The scraping of the knife along the strings of his bright yellow electric guitar makes a kind of metallic, gnashing sound that conspires with his patched-together guitar amplifier and his utterly original playing technique to produce some of the grittiest music imaginable.
Having mastered his own style of playing, Davis began showing up in various nightclubs across the Mississippi Delta. Eventually, he teamed up with Robert Nighthawk, considered to be the Delta’s finest slide guitarist by no less than the great Muddy Waters.
For ten years, from 1953-1963, Davis and Nighthawk worked the juke joints and clubs until, in 1957, Davis was trampled after a brandished gun led to a stampede at an East St. Louis bar. What polio hadn’t accomplished, the bar brawl did; multiple leg fractures put David into a wheelchair. Still, he continued to play, until a stroke in 2005 forced him into a nursing home.
Although the stroke left him unable to play the guitar, he still could sing, and sing he did: encouraged and assisted by a variety of musicians and supporters. After a return to live performance in 2009, he released two more albums: Last Man Standing (2015) and Even the Devil Gets the Blues (2016).
Debilitated by polio, confined to a wheelchair after a barroom stampede, unable to play the guitar and left with only his voice for music-making, he remained one of most positive people in the world.
As he rolled through the gathered festival crowd in his wheelchair, he was living large, with a word and a handshake for everyone in his path, including his old friend 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, was a bit of a wonder himself. Writing inThe 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 in Clarksdale 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, regardless of circumstances. 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’ it 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 chords into a plateful of music. 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 they grinned at one another across the crowd. Seeing Lightnin’s amusement, CeDell looked over at T-Model, who responded with a deep, elegant bow. As one song ended and another began, 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 another.
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 great river tumbled on, sluicing and singing through the Delta, the source and the life of the blues.