Published January 13, 2006
When my attempt to interview the blues legend T-Model Ford in one of his favourite juke joints of Clarksdale, Mississippi fails, I take the offer of his colleague Lightning Malcolm, and take a sizeable swallow of corn liquor. T-Model, who is eating a piece of chicken across the room and preparing for what will be a six hour, no break, gig for the 87-year old performer, laughs.
“You got a taste for the corn liquor now, whooooo!”
“Jesus,” I say when my brain stops hurting.
I had been watching T-Model take hits of the moonshine that he brought with him in his baby blue Lincoln Continental from his hometown of Greenville, Mississippi. As a man who enjoys the occasional glass of bourbon, and a person in good health under the age of 30, I assumed a mouthful of corn liquor couldn’t hurt me.
“I don’t drink too much of this stuff,” Malcolm confides to me. A large, thirty-something white man who grew up in Missouri, but tells me “I’ve been to California some,” Malcolm seems to know his way around life, around talking and drinking.
Malcolm turns out to be a man of remarkable talent, playing a folk style of blues drums that fills out T-Model’s rough sound. He drums solely to watch T-Model, as a type of residency, though on occasion he gets up to aid as a guitar tech.
The evening at Red’s juke joint proves to be a high point for me as a music lover. However, the fact that I remember it at all is dedicated to one stroke of luck—when Malcolm winced at his tiny shot of corn liquor, I took the hint and didn’t take another sip. The effect of roughly an ounce of corn liquor on Malcolm, who weighed roughly 220 pounds, and on juke joint owner Red, also a large man, demonstrated that corn liquor should be tasted, but nothing more.
Still, the strange, slightly sweet, slightly plastic taste that warmed the back of my throat and seemed to heat up my hypothalamus, the point in my brain just below my ears in the back of my head, felt something like a blues communion, and I have little doubt that were I ever to return to the South, I would take the tiniest sip at least one more time.
My nights out among the less desirables in Iceland have exposed me to landi, the local moonshine typically made from sugar. The culture of Iceland and Mississippi may not have all that many parallels, but in moonshine they are at least united, and this hints at other similarities. The act of drinking moonshine is a revolt, not just against one’s body and the judgements of modern medicine, but against the idea of authority, if only faintly symbolic now. A sip of something that hasn’t been taxed or approved by the people who decide how you will live.
Of course, consuming poison is not the most productive act of rebellion under the sun. But the sheer stupidity of the action, and the abandonment of class that seems to be a part of such an action give it a certain authenticity—French poets drank Absinthe, and drugs are, by their level of illegality, an upper class activity.
The night after seeing T-Model, I am interviewing another Mississippi blues figure, Dr. Feelgood Potts, who now has a regular gig at an established blues club on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. I tell him I was at a juke joint in Clarksdale the night before.
“A real juke joint, yeah I know those. You have some of that corn liquor?” he asks.
He does a double take when I say I enjoyed it, though I lie and say that I drank it growing up in Iowa.
“Yeah, you gotta be careful with that corn liquor.”
Disclaimer: Corn liquor is legal in a few states in the US, and is marketed as the 198 proof drink spirit Everclear. Moonshine, illegal corn liquor, can kill or cause blindness, as can Icelandic moonshine, known as landi.