In an attempt to put our time and money where our good intentions were, the Reykjavík Grapevine travelled to the poorest state in the US, Mississippi, in the wake of Hurricane Rita. Our journey to Clarkdale, Mississippi, often described as a rough backwater where Robert Johnson sold his soul and where John Lee Hooker and Ike Turner fled from, was nothing near an act of compassion—it was pure pleasure.
The Search for the Easy Story
There are, essentially, two main roads in Clarksdale, Mississippi, even now, 70 years after American myth claims Robert Johnson walked down to the town’s crossroads, Highway 61 and 49, to trade his soul for the ability to play guitar. It is the one place in the South where the tradition of turn-before-you-come-to directions works fine.
So if you get to Clarksdale, Mississippi, you can get to the Delta Blues Museum, which is, of course, at number one Blues Alley, just off Delta Avenue. If you’re there, you can find anything you ever wanted to know about the blues. On our visit, we saw footage of the great Son House playing for friends in a tiny studio in 1967, we saw Muddy Waters’ log cabin, reconstructed inside the museum, the telegram The Rolling Stones sent to Muddy for his birthday, thanking him for the musical influence. Anything we ever wanted to see of BB King or John Lee Hooker or Pinetop Perkins we could have seen.
The Delta Blues Museum is more than a place to look at artefacts or even screen movies—in the weeks before our trip, I had been listening to the series the museum sponsors called The Uncensored History of the Blues, a podcast of pre-World War II blues without parallel. But the museum itself didn’t do much for me.
Like many a subpar journalist, I came to Mississippi looking for easy writing about the blues. I want the great bluesman RL Burnside telling me “I can’t outrun em, and I can’t beat em, so I got to shoot em” to explain why he was deputised to carry a hand gun. I want blues great Paul “Wine” Jones shouting at various white people “Gimme a cigarette, chinaman.” I want T-Model Ford telling me “I ain’t have a white women til I was sixty, but when I did I liked it.” This is all to say I wanted the new approach to blues, following Matthew Johnson and his Fat Possum Record Label.
Of course, part of the reason we had come to Mississippi was because Paul Jones and RL just died. But everything going on in the blues these days pointed to a revival of the original raunchiness, or exposure, really, to the raunchiness that white audiences never heard before.
Through the Delta Blues Museum website, I had heard the legendary “accidental” recording of Lucille Bogan’s Shave em Dry from the early 1930s. Her white audience lyrics were coy and boring; her accidental recording included the lines: “I got nipples on my titties, big as the end of my thumb. I got something between my legs that would make a dead man come.” Along with less subtle lines like “I’ve fucked all night and all the night before baby, and I feel just like I wanna fuck some more.” These were, essentially, the opening lines. She got raunchier.
But the Delta Blues Museum itself takes the high road.
I ask Maie Smith, the tour manager at the museum, about the new breed of blues recordings, among them A Ass Pocket o’ Whiskey by RL Burnside and Jon Spencer.
An easygoing person, she turns her only scowl of our conversation.
“It’s not right what they did. I know Fat Possum is doing other good things, but that RL record wasn’t right. Getting an old man drunk and up in front of a band.”
Still, Fat Possum does some things right, and she hands me a flier for the surprise concert for the T-Model Ford concert we were planning on attending and promises to meet us there.
Keep It Clean
More compelling than the Delta Blues Museum, and almost as crammed as artefacts, is a local blues music and folk art emporium, Cat Head Records. It is here that we try to do prep work for our meeting with T-Model, a man so rugged and bluesy that he’s been written about by Jay McInerney as the baddest of the bad in blues—true, Jay McInerney, in Bright Lights, Big City, demonstrated knowledge of coke and models more than music, but he’s an American great, so that must mean something. T-Model’s been drawn by Joe Sacco, the cartoonist who carried the mantle from Crumb. The PR statement about T-Model by Fat Possum has been copied in dozens of magazines and it goes like this: “T-Model’s credentials as a bluesman are impeccable; if anything he’s overqualified…” and goes on to explain his time on a chain gang. Sometimes you read about him getting his first guitar at the age of 58 from his fifth wife, just before she left him. His first wife left him with his own father.
Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head, is as earnest a music fan as you can find, and his affections for T-Model are remarkable. He tells us of T-Model’s blue Lincoln, of T-Model’s trailer, in which Roger has dined on occasion.
The stories of T-Model, his love of loose women, and his taste for corn liquor are great but familiar. Or they’re great because they’re familiar. What never comes up in these stories is a description of his music. What’s more, while I always hear coy references to T-Model’s lyrics—Roger tells me, “I tried to interview him and all he told me were nasty things I couldn’t dare print”—I never get specifics. What, exactly, is so nasty that it can’t be printed in a blues magazine? Who thinks that a discussion of the blues has to be clean?
In the hours that I spend in the store, I form the kind of friendship with Roger that music geeks around the world share, and the store is a testament to the blues. But two points leave a certain taste. While at a blues session the night before, I had talked with locals about the difficulties of Clarksdale: methamphetamines have slammed into the town and done a lot of damage, the education system in Mississippi is 49th of the 50 states, and Clarksdale is one of the poorest cities in the poorest state in the union. Other musicians have pointed out that racism is so pointed that even southerners might blanch. A drummer tells me, “You’re in the third world now.” Another tells me, “There’s a whole lot of bluesmen here because there’s a lot of blues—you don’t sing the blues when you’ve got money.”
I ask Roger if there are cultural differences between his native Ohio and Mississippi, and he tells me “there’s no good bread and I have to order my beer.” I ask him what kids here listen to, and he says just hip-hop, but he doesn’t carry it in his store. While we’re at Cat Head, nobody under 50 enters the store.
Bright Lights, Big Bluesman
“Hey, criminal,” T-Model shouts at me, calling me to sit down with him. “You got a girlfriend coming out tonight?”
“No. No, girls don’t like me,” I say.
“Well, T-Model is a Ladies Man. If you come out here dancing with your lady, dancing to my music, and she looks good, and she starts looking at me. Put a stamp on her. Put a stamp right here (he traces his left nipple and breast), and if she comes back you’re good. Cause if a woman flags me down, she can get on!”
“And that’s for god damned sure,” Red shouts from the bar.
“And that’s for god damned sure,” T-Model repeats.
Red is the owner of the juke joint and a key part of the attraction. When we came in, he shouted “White People!” When we aren’t talking or drinking, he tells us that he’s sure we work for George Bush. And until he passes out, he makes a point of shouting or echoing “That’s for god damned sure” along with T-Model.
Our photographer laughs, catching T-Model’s attention. He is sent out to T-Model’s baby blue Lincoln to get a small bottle of moonshine and T-Model’s amp.
“Yeah, I can’t read and can’t write, ain’t never been to school a day in my life. My daddy started me on a mule when I was six years old. I worked all of my life. I had a dirty daddy. He beat me…”
And here I attempt to interrupt. Poignant as it is, I’m familiar with the story. It has been retold in a number of magazines, and even Joe Sacco’s comic, The Rude Blues, word for word.
But T-Model is here to tell his story.
“Uh huh. Yeahhhh. Dirty man to me.” He says, getting louder as he goes through the script, “He beat one of my balls off.”
That I laugh proves I am both a horrible human being, and that I can’t follow a script, as again, he was going straight from his comic.
“Sure did. I ain’t got but one. One big one. It works. I got 26 children. Uh huh.”
“How many grandchildren do you have?” I ask, following the script of the Jay McInerney interview I read years ago in the New Yorker.
“I can’t tell you that, they’ll all want to get paid. Heh heh heh. Yeah.”
T-Model has a great bunch of lines, but I have read them all, and my frustration is obvious—even blues standards are supposed to have some improvisation.
I mention Roger Stolle, and T-Model smiles. “Roger knows all about T-Model. He’s gonna bring me something to drink tonight.”
“Roger told me that you had some stories, that all you told were stories he could not repeat or write down. I can tell you that anything you want to say, I’ll print in my magazine,” I tell him.
“Yeah, I know you will.”
“Anything you want to tell me.”
“Oh you’re talking to a man. I ain’t no boy. Everybody like this old man. Everywhere I been and went to everybody got something nice to say about this old man.”
I return to the old script and ask something like the story McInerney asked. “Where have you been since Fat Possum put out your records?”
“Yeah. Whew, I been all over the world. All over. Overseas. Everywhere. I probably got married overseas about nine years ago. To a white woman. My first time. She’s waiting for me. She’s still waiting for me.”
T-Model is in his comfort zone, and he takes his first sip of corn liquor of the night. He hands it over to me, and I take a sip, feeling it immediately in my eyes and the back of my head.
He waits. I wait.
We’re supposed to talk about women, now. Every interview I’ve seen has references to T-Model “riding em hard,” or to how his 80-year old member “can still raise” with the right woman. I say nothing, and I notice that he’s wincing.
“Whew. It’s hot in here. I gotta stand. Ah my leg’s all messed up. A tree done fell on me. Thank the lord I’m still living. If he’d have let that transformer short out, that would have left me. That tree was that big (shows girth of 30 centimetres with his hands). Tree got knocked over in a heavy wind and landed right on me. About five years ago.”
“And you keep on touring? Didn’t you drive three hours just to play tonight?”
“Yeah. I ain’t quit.”
“I would take a break if a tree landed on me.”
“I’m a man, not a boy.”
I acknowledge that he is a man, not a boy. And point out that as I would not tour after a tree landed on me, I am a boy.
“Feel my hands,” he says suddenly.
“Yeah, I saw you doing this to that woman. I thought it was just a pick up line.”
He keeps them out.
“Well… Okay,” and I reach out and his right hand. The size of a skillet, it is the exact texture of a former girlfriend’s grandmother’s cheek. I also had to touch that person’s skin to acknowledge how smooth it was.
“Well, you don’t seem like you’ve ever worked. They’re so smooth. I thought you said you worked since you were six. That’s 77 years of hard labour.”
“Well, you take care. Don’t be ramming em into things. Scarring em up.” T-Model leans close to me, “I keep em like that so when I feel a woman’s titties I don’t scratch em. Ain’t no bunions or nothing on them. That’s my pickin hand right there. It’s all soft. Ain’t nobody else’s hand that soft.”
T-Model’s eyes glaze over a little. He looks towards his Fender amp and puts his hand on his leg.
“Let me get over there and get me a stool and let Black Nannie come out,” he says, tired of the interview. “And let’s get to feeling good. That ain’t real Black Nannie, but they found one and put my initials on it.”
In a few minutes, he has plugged in and started his concert, an hour before the starting time. To half a dozen people.
Playing Soft Hand
While the show is an obvious success, the bar filling in a few hours with people who adore T-Model, one can’t help but notice that everyone who comes in is white and middle-aged. The one time a woman under 30 enters, T-Model sees her first, turning away from his microphone to say, with a gorgeous smile, “Why hello there,” and pausing long enough in the song that the whole crowd had to wonder if he would just stop the concert to talk with the girl. The song he played immediately after she took her seat, a low, relaxed version of Muddy Waters’ Rolling Stone was the best of the night.
T-Model gets properly drunk, so that as the night goes on he repeats the song Sweet Home Chicago one, two, three, and finally, seven times. Were the show to be judged on song selection and crowd, it wouldn’t be a positive review. But it turns out the T-Model was an incredible guitar stylist—great enough that if, in the past few years, cultural magazines had written about his guitar work more than his record, there might be a more compelling body of T-Model literature.
Like other folk blues guitarists from the Delta, T-Model plays thumb and forefinger. Unlike them, he learned on electric and has a producer’s ear for tone. His technique, entirely his own, is attached to the soft hands he is so proud of. By running his right forefinger lightly over the strings, his chords have a better high end than most blues guitarists—likely influenced by the gorgeous chord work of his label-mate Junior Kimbrough, another man whose lifestyle overshadowed his music; the fact that T-Model plays the bass lines with his thumb while giving a full, separate high end with his forefinger might astound conventionally trained musicians.
For four hours, I watch and listen to him and his assistant, an adept young bluesman playing drums in order to study T-Model, Lightnin Malcolm. Neither Malcolm nor T-Model is thrilled with the show, T-Model saying repeatedly between songs, “Something just ain’t right.” But my friends and I, having travelled 2,000 miles in the hope of finding great music, are more than satisfied. I have never heard the genre played better.
On our way out of Clarksdale, we stop at the crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 where, legend and a popular Japanese manga claim Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil so that he might play guitar better. It’s an easy jump to claim that in 1992, Matthew Johnson of Fat Possum Records sold blues to the devil in order to help regain its popularity, marketing based on personality instead of music, but it’s an inaccurate one. Johnson gave journalists some easy stories, and they took them. His musicians, however, have delivered consistently amazing music—if the marketing paid for the music, it was worthwhile.
The crossroads are not in a good neighbourhood. To ease our photographer’s mind, I walked with him as he tried to find a shot of the signs for the blues. The whole time, we were being passed by people on their way to church, looking at us like we were out of our minds for wandering around a busy intersection. A blues landmark didn’t seem remotely important to the people who lived in the neighbourhood, especially on a day when decent people should have been in church.
Mentioned in this article:
Cat Head Records, www.catheadrecords.biz.
The Delta Blues Museum, www.deltabluesmuseum.org. (Uncensored History of the Blues Podcast Available at the museum website.)
Fat Possum Records, www.fatpossum.com
Not mentioned but worthwhile:
WROX 1450 AM Clarksdale, www.wrozblues.com
Arthur Magazine, featuring advice columns by T-Model Ford, www.arthurmag.com.