Words Jeff Buchanan — Photos Kelsey Degideo
Deep in Mississippi. Gracing the dented bumper of an aging Cadillac creaking its way down the potholed Main Street of a backwater town, was a bumper sticker that read; The Gods Love the Blues. How apropos, the rusted Detroit iron—gold paint severely oxidized, having suffered decades of door dings, the dangling muffler belching exhaust—seemed a proper ambassador to usher visiting pilgrims to Clarksdale, birthplace of the Blues.
I was merely a tourist here (a tragically white tourist I might add) delving headlong into the land from which emerged a vital and influential musical form wholly indigenous to the American south. This unique music genre was conjured from the ancestral hollers of field workers, embellished with primitive string instruments into songs a mix of joy and sorrow. The music stands as testament to the hardship of sharecroppers’ lives in the early 1900s, transforming suffering into soulful lyricism. So, where did the Blues begin, and when? One of the great Bluesmen, John Lee Hooker, is credited with saying; “When Adam met Eve, that’s when the Blues began.” A touching, esoteric Biblical sentiment, perhaps steeped in hard truth. However, it is possible to track the beginnings of this musical genre that grew from unabashedly humble roots to touch every corner of the globe. We’ve come to see it, hear it, and ride it.
The sojourn had begun a few days previous in New Orleans, courtesy EagleRider; the world’s leader at facilitating two-wheel dreams. The lively atmosphere of the French Quarter served as baptism, removing us from our safe and familiar enclaves of urban life on the coasts and dropping us into the heart of the south. Following a traditional crawfish dinner at EagleRider headquarters, we toasted the spirits of Halloween at the Loa Bar before retiring for the night in anticipation of the journey ahead.
The next morning, as New Orleans—the streets of the French Quarter wet from a night rain—receded in the mirrors, the landscape was quickly transformed into the sultry atmosphere so arduously associated with the south. Given the theme of the tour; an exploration into the history and landscape from which emerged a wholly American music, the bike of choice was, quite naturally, another wholly American creation; Harley-Davidson. Quite specifically, a Classic Heritage Softail.
The lugubrious aural note of our small cadre of Harleys split the motionless air and rising heat as we blasted our way north. The famous humidity of the south, branded with a sultriness that has lent its charms to a slew of lusty literary masterpieces, fosters a prodigious overgrowth of foliage. Nowhere is this more evident than the Spanish moss hanging from trees in curtains of shaded cool. In every small town there are cemeteries bordered by ornate wrought iron fences, granite headstones shaded by large oak trees draped with sensuous folds of the alluring hanging moss. The Spanish moss helps conceal local Sheriff’s cars, watching the flow of traffic roll through their small rural towns. Thoughts of ‘good ole boy’ law enforcement quash any temptation to showboat for the local kids, who encourage bad behavior with enthusiastic twists of their wrists as they watch the parade of Harleys roll by.
Crossing from Louisiana into Mississippi the miles of open road unfolds a tapestry of sprawling crops and sun-faded barns, broken by small towns comprised of either dilapidated main streets with sagging facades or red brick buildings reborn as hip coffee shops and art galleries. It’s a study in cultural contrasts, the ebb, and flow of economics; new and old. With each food stop we were indoctrinated to the south’s penchant for deep-fried cuisine; cafe menus offering a spate of dishes loaded with catfish and crawfish, black-eyed peas, dumplings, grits, and the ubiquitous sweet tea. A charming aspect of the south; locals are always free with a wave and a greeting. Our hosts; living characters having stepped from the pages of a Tennessee Williams play.
As the trek took us deeper into the heart of Blues territory there were increasing examples of homage to the genre’s greats. Faded portraits adorning café walls and gigantic murals splashed across the brick façades of buildings. The reverence is palpable. The tributes—whether illegal graffiti or commissioned bronzes—honor those that ushered the music out to the world. Great Bluesmen with names like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Big Joe Williams, Willy Dixon, Albert Collins, Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, and the Kings; B.B., Albert, and Freddie, to name just a few. However, the black man doesn’t have a monopoly on pain. Women belted out their share of Blues, with stars like Ma Rainey, Etta James, and Bessie Smith, among others.
The Blues found their way across the pond, influencing all the major rock groups of the sixties, perhaps most prominently the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Jimi Hendrix married the Blues with psychedelics, becoming the Blues’ most audacious pop pied piper. Janis Joplin ushered in a powerful white female presence, her soulful sound—drenched in the Blues—conquering AM radio, introducing the Love generation to the music. Other white musicians who embraced the Blues as ‘their’ sound were Paul Butterfield, Michael Bloomfield, the Winter Brothers, and the amazing Stevie Ray Vaughn, all heavily influenced by the music and bringing their own signature to the genre.
Arriving into Natchez, on the mighty Mississippi, we settle into The Grand Hotel. A short walk into the quaint town we arrive at Rolling River Bistro. Over the next two hours, serenaded by an 80-year old Bluesman, palates are stimulated as waitresses keep a steady flow of plates streaming from the kitchen, Cajun cooks seducing us with their cuisine magic; deep-fried turnips, fried green tomatoes, Lamb Lollipops imported from New Zealand dipped in a tangy chili sauce. The main course was pork chops, prepared Sous-vide (the chef explained through a strong Cajun accent, his French pronunciation superb), a French process where the meat is cooked in a water bath for seven hours at low heat. The result is an extremely moist chop. With the bikes safely parked for the night, we indulged several bottles of red wine with the meal. The experience thoroughly ruined us for lamb or pork chops prepared any other way. And everything served with infectious southern hospitality.
New day. Humidity climbing. We headed dead-on for Clarksdale, Mississippi, the epicenter of Blues folklore. Cotton fields stretch to the horizon, the hot, still air quivering the distance. The heat draws a laziness over everything. The prettiness of the landscape, with its brilliant white blanket of cotton, holds echoes of hardship and toil that unfolded here under the abuses of the unrelenting sun.
As a crop, cotton prospered handsomely in the 1800s, increasing demand for workers. Long before the cotton gin and mechanical pickers were invented the arduous work of harvesting the crops was done by hand. Picking seed cotton from the branches is hard work, bloodying the worker’s fingers as canvas long bags are filled, the burden of dead weight cotton dragged behind.
These are the conditions that gave rise to a musical escape among the workers. Pickers, predominantly black, communicated with cadenced ‘field hollers’ whose rhythms became the foundation of the Blues. The work songs and chants gave respite from the hardships of the fields, gradually being augmented with instrumentation and the introduction of the 12-bar Blues progression. This seeded the Saturday night ritual of gatherings where sharecroppers played and danced in makeshift shacks of plywood called juke joints. As the music evolved, songs with themes of betrayal and loss touched on shared human existence, often set to upbeat rhythms that defied their dour lyrics. The music was like a pressure valve release that gave solace to otherwise melancholy situations.
Yes, The Gods Love the Blues. That rippled Cadillac chugged us right into Clarksdale, Mississippi. This place owns a unique chapter in Blues lore in the form of one Robert Johnson. A dirt poor, itinerate black man, Johnson, who was born in 1911 and lived on a plantation, married his poetic anthems of hardship with a gruff and soulful voice, augmenting with an other-worldly mastery of the guitar. Johnson transformed and accelerated the form, earning the moniker; King of the Delta Blues.
What Johnson is best known for is creating the Blues equivalent to Greek mythology in the form of a story about selling his soul to the devil in exchange for fame as a Bluesman. The Faustian myth has all the gothic mystery you’d expect of the south. Johnson, desiring to become a great Bluesman, is instructed to take his guitar to a gravel crossroads near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he meets a large black man who gifts Johnson the mastery of the instrument in exchange for his soul.
The tale takes on a certain legitimacy when you consider Johnson’s meteoric rise to fame, his adept ability on guitar seemingly acquired overnight, and a hauntingly soulful voice that deftly illumed a life of struggle. Bolstering the haunting myth, Johnson was known to visit graveyards at midnight in order to practice without being bothered. Adding to the speculation over Johnson’s possible musical liaison with the devil was his abrupt end, at age 27, succumbing mysteriously to death for reasons unknown (the death certificate noted in handwriting; no doctor in attendance). One rumor is he died of syphilis. Most of the evidence points to poisoning by a jealous husband, supporting Johnson’s reputation as a ladies’ man. Furthering Johnson’s legend is the rumor that as he lay dying, talent scout John Hammond was searching for him to perform at Carnegie Hall.
In his wake, Johnson left behind 29 tracks, created between 1936 and 1937, in the emerging yet horribly primitive process of audio recording directly to vinyl disks. Among those early Johnson recordings are songs that have become anthems; “Cross Road Blues,” “Love in Vain,” “Hellhound On My Trail,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” and “Walking Blues.” The influence of Johnson’s recordings are best summed up by Rolling Stones’ guitarist, Keith Richards, when he said, “You want to know how good the Blues can get? Well, this is it.”
There is a lot of dispute about exactly which crossroads is the one referenced in Johnson’s myth. Several towns argue ownership. However, the most popular and accepted location is in Clarksdale, at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49. The romantic notion of two barren gravel roads converging in legend is usurped by the harsh reality of modern real estate development. The city has grown up around the once remote crossroads, turning it into a multi-lane thoroughfare with a traffic light, bordered by a McDonald’s and a Walgreens, effectively dashing any resemblance to the early part of the 20th Century. So, there was no crunching of gravel beneath leather-soled boots in quiet contemplation and remembrance of the great Robert Johnson. Instead; the hum of traffic, the peel of tires against wet pavement. There is a curbside monument commemorating this most illustrious—if often overlooked—cornerstone of a musical movement that has been somewhat drowned by progress. Thankfully, a portion of Johnson’s music has been preserved courtesy those early recordings, allowing us to actually hear what the great Bluesman sounded like.
As the sun set over Clarksdale, bringing on intermittent rain (appropriate atmospheric accompaniment to this search for the roots of the Blues), we blasted our intimate grouping of Harleys in unison for Memphis. The fields of cotton were now mostly just rows of bare-limbed plants, the cotton seed having been harvested and bundled by mechanization into huge rolls awaiting transport to mills. The somber fields slowly gave way to carefully manicured grass bordering Tennessee’s highways, then, the city of Memphis appeared under gray skies.
Settling in for one last southern meal at The Blues Café on Beale Street (a hefty plate of Barb-B-Q ribs, baked beans, cornbread and that wonderful sweet tea) before the departure for home, I am consumed by the honesty of the music in this part of the world. This music, born of intense hardship and human suffering has seeped into the ether with an unmistakable truth. The Blues don’t suffer imposters or posers well. It’s an authentic form that has deep connections to America’s often troubled and unjust history. It is a genre that enjoys a loyal following among aficionados everywhere. The Blues is music that speaks to those who listen.
“Choose your music carefully. It’s the background track to your life.” —Michael Bloomfield
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GROUND ZERO BLUES CLUB — Clarksdale, Mississippi
Actor and Blues aficionado, Morgan Freeman, is partnered in Ground Zero Blues Club, located in the heart of Clarksdale. The club is the real deal, having earned high marks as a music venue, attracting top acts. Arriving wet from a southern downpour we warmed up with coffee and ribs. Then sat back to listen to music and play pool.
When the management of Ground Zero asks you to sign the pool table due the novelty of being a visiting motorcycle journalist, you oblige.
NOTE: This story originally ran in RoadRUNNER Magazine 2017.