Map Problems Lead Me to the Delta
By the time I reached Episode 5 of The Nervous Nellie Story I was having map problems. The Story is set in an allegorical North America more than 1,000 years into the future, and it is inspired by the thirteen cross country trips I made between Los Angeles and Deer Isle in my graduate school and early artist years on the West Coast. In writing the story, I am exploring an alternative world closely linked to our own. But I'd discovered some anomalies: like why was most of Canada under water? I found a map in the Scientific American: North America 65 million years ago, in an era of higher sea levels. The cartographic match was almost perfect. Glitzburg correlated with Los Angeles and Urbs Quatrivius with Las Vegas; the Sacred Hills near Rapid City, SD are right where they should be, and always have been, according to Lakota tradition. And the City of the Beeves would correspond with Memphis, which in this world is at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The trouble was this: Memphis is a big, modern city---the new South---and the Nellie Story world is one in which the river of time took a different fork at some point in the 1960's. I needed to work with a city which had not changed a lot since then. So Anne did some research and turned up Clarksdale, the county seat of Coahoma County, Mississippi, not much more than an hour's drive south of Memphis: the Crossroads of the Blues. A literal crossroads: US Highway 61 (think of Bob Dylan's breakthrough album, when folk music merged with rock and roll) and Highway 49.
I journeyed there and stayed at a nearby motel court made up of sharecropper's shacks. Guy, one of the owners, directed me to a juke, located on the wrong side of the tracks in Clarksdale. "It looks like a good place to get killed," he told me, "but actually, it's a good place." Not being a late-night type, I arrived at seven. A man in his eighties was playing an electric guitar, a Fender, sitting on the amp. I listened, mesmerized, to the drone and growl of Delta blues and left, exhausted, at midnight. The old man never took a break, nor even stood up; he gained sustenance from a bottle of whiskey in a damp paper bag. Later, I heard many hours of great music in other jukes and blues clubs. As a youth in the 60's, searching for the meaning of my times, I used to hang out in small clubs listening to Linda Ronstadt, Janis Joplin and Buddy Guy. Listening to the Delta blues felt like coming home.
What is the Delta?
The Mississippi Delta is a leaf-shaped area between the Mississippi and Tallahatchie rivers. It has been defined, with literary flourish, as beginning at the Peabody Hotel (the fine hotel of Memphis) and ending in the red light district of Vicksburg. I visited Vicksburg, and as far as I can see, it is too poor and collapsed a city to have such a district. It would have been on the waterfront, but the river has moved westward. Now, there is only a dismal casino in a fake riverboat floating in a murky concrete pool.
The Delta, at the time of the Civil War, was an impenetrable wilderness---as anyone who has read tales of Grant's Vicksburg campaign will know. In the postwar years, a system of levees was built, first to harvest the timbers of this wilderness, then to plant cotton in its fertile soil. Camps arose with levee builders who rivaled the Paul Bunyans of northern log drives---and the work songs and field chants of the antebellum South evolved bluesward. The levees on the Arkansas side were weaker, so Arkansas men would try to dynamite the Mississippi side, breaching the levees there to save their own. They were countered by gun-toting Mississippians and many a body sank below the opaque brown waters.
With cotton came the railroads; Casey Jones was a Delta railroad man. W. C. Handy, who brought the blues to Memphis, first heard them at a railroad station in the Delta, near Greenwood. A man, waiting for a train, picked his guitar using a jackknife for a slide. "I'm goin' where the Southern meets the Dog," he sang. That would be the Southern Railroad junction with the Yazoo Delta Railroad (known as the Yellow Dog). When I stayed near Money, Mississippi, on the banks of the Tallahatchie, I heard the train whistles wailing as they approached this celebrated junction.
Robert Johnson's World
I spent several nights at the Hopson plantation where sharecroppers' shacks had been moved (and plumbing added), to make a kind of motel court. It was the first plantation to harvest cotton mechanically. In the first year that McCormick manufactured cotton harvesters, their assembly line turned out sixteen and thirteen went to Hopson. Guy, who had worked there as a child, told me, "Hopson had 4,000 acres of cotton. Forty acres to a sharecropper---that's a hundred families, three generations, a thousand people on this plantation."
"So, when the machines came" (each one replacing a score of workers), "where did the people go?" I asked. He pointed north-towards Chicago-and grimaced. "The promised land…" he said. In this timeframe, recording companies began appearing. They found a market in blues (and sacred music) recordings for blacks. "Race records," they were then called. In 1930, a gifted musician, if he recorded in New York, could expect to get fifty dollars for a three minute recording-the same amount a sharecropper labored to make in a year, after he repaid the plantation owner for funds advanced. In reality, the payment did not always match the promise, but it was still big money in those times.
In the early days of the cotton economy, when all life was plantation-centered, sharecroppers with musical gifts were in demand at picnics and juke joints. There was sacred music, too, but only the piano and the organ were allowed in churches. Guitars, fiddles, harmonicas and so forth were considered the instruments of Satan. Many aspiring musicians strayed from the strictures of the church to imitate popular plantation musicians and itinerant performers at the jukes.
The advent of recorded music made available an unprecedented wealth of popular songs. The workaday music of black Southern culture-the blues-after decades of being suppressed by the church, was suddenly exalted. Sons of the plantation, like Robert Johnson, saw the prospect, however illusory, of making as much money in three minutes as their fathers earned in a year. The exodus of farm workers from the cotton-growing South, displaced by McCormick harvesters, created a diaspora in the northern cities, hungry for the music and culture of their Southern homeland. Radio amplified this music revolution in cities; rural plantations were not electrified, so neighboring families would chip in to buy a crank-operated Victrola and some records. Now there was a new and larger world for young musicians to absorb and synthesize, and one of the first of these new talents was Robert Johnson.
Initially, young Robert was so poor a guitar player that the bluesmen he hung around would yell at him whenever he started to play. He disappeared for a season or two. When he returned, he strode into a gathering of musicians, including the legendary Son House, picked up a guitar and started to play. None of them had ever heard the blues played like this before. Son House recalled the incident vividly many years later, when he told an interviewer that Johnson must have sold his soul to the devil, to be able to play so well. This view was widely held, and formed the core of the vast body of myth (and few known facts) that swirls around Robert Johnson. A drifter, a drinker and a ladies' man, he died young, poisoned by a jealous husband who owned a juke in Greenwood, MS. He reputedly endured a lingering death in the shack of his friend, Tush Hog, on the Star of the West Plantation. It lies between Money, where in the 60's Emmett Till was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman, and Greenwood, where early in the civil rights movement police loosed German Shepherds on blacks trying to register to vote. The Star of the West was a famous gunboat, captured by the Confederate army; they sank it in the Tallahatchie River to avoid its recapture by Ulysses S. Grant. The plantation took its name from this iconic symbol of victory and loss.
Nearby on the banks of the Tallahatchie stands the tiny Missionary Baptist Church of Little Zion. Robert Johnson was (probably) buried in the small cemetery there, under stately pecan trees. Several Delta towns have claimed to have his body in their cemeteries and have raised monuments to him. However, a lawsuit by his illegitimate son to garner a share of Johnson's royalties brought unexpected testimony from a woman who was present for Johnson's burial at Little Zion, so this venue now seems to be the most likely. Although Robert Johnson recorded (for the proverbial fifty dollars) and his songs were well known juke box hits, he was a penniless vagabond who played on street corners for the coins passersby would throw in the bucket at his feet. On Carrolton Street, on the wrong side of the tracks in Greenwood, a woman gave him a dime to play a hit song, "Terraplane Blues." He readily complied: it was his song. Picture Paul McCartney playing for change in an alley on the Lower East Side with his hat upturned on the sidewalk…. Someone comes along who thinks he's just a bum and asks him to play "Yesterday."
Robert Johnson's friends said that he could engage in conversation while a song played on the radio, then later in the day play the song, note for note. His recordings, twenty-some songs, were eventually rediscovered and inspired a generation of musicians, including Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. It is said that his style on the acoustic guitar, playing with a slide made from the broken-off neck of a beer bottle, prefigured the amplified electric guitar with an eerie precision.
The Crossroads at Midnight
Robert Johnson is the most famous bluesman reputed to have sold his soul to the devil for uncanny musical gifts, but by no means the only one. The picture is of a lonely Delta crossroads (there are a lot of them) at midnight, under a full moon, maybe the harvest moon in October, and preferably near a cemetery. A howling dog is good touch. (Mississippi to this day has a notable population of feral dogs.) This blues legend probably derives from Yoruba (West African) spiritual traditions, which slaves brought with them to the New World. Legba, a trickster god, was the god of the crossroads, and one to whom it was appropriate to ask for a gift or boon. He often appeared as a lame old man, with a crutch. The nascent black Christian church condemned the old religion, along with blues music and guitar-playing, and it is easy to see how Legba, the gift-giver, became conflated with Satan, the stealer of souls.
Martin Luther King
After the Civil War, reconstruction in the South went badly, due in part to the tragic death of the Abraham Lincoln. The ravaged economy was slow to recover, and the cultural disintegration was codified into a vast web of discriminatory civil laws: the Jim Crow era. Blacks were a majority of those eligible to vote in many districts, but they were prevented from registering. When they tried to do so, they were given extraordinarily difficult tests, required to prove they had a high degree of literacy and a profound knowledge of state constitutional law…in a region where education was marginal at best. The same requirements were not applied to whites. As a result, all the levers of power were in white hands. The inequitable civil codes were enforced by brutal intimidation.
In a certain sense, all governmental authority, repressive or benign, is supported by the approbation or acquiescence of the people subject to that authority. After the War, when black and white servicemen alike fought and died to defend constitutional democracy and free people of many cultures from oppression, there arose a collective resolve among black people---especially in the Deep South---to gain the rights and benefits guaranteed to them under the U.S. Constitution and that powerful bundle of ideals and aspirations we call the American Dream. Because they were disenfranchised, this effort was necessarily based on non-violence and symbolic protest. The iconic image is that of Rosa parks, refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus… which leads to Martin Luther King, a Baptist pastor in Montgomery, who found his voice-and his place at the center of the maelstrom---in the bus strike which followed. He remained the key player until he-like Lincoln before him-was cut down by an assassin's bullet. His balcony was not in a theater, but outside his room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis: a "fearful symmetry" of fate.
Some years ago, I saw an old piano alongside Route 15 in Deer Isle, by the old Madeline's Take-Out. It sat there like a motherless baby seal on a beach, waiting for the elements to mete out its death. I had no sculptural ambitions for a piano, but it called out to me. The property owner was a difficult man, I knew. I could neither just take it (never mind the problem that it weighed 500 pounds) nor ask to have it for free. He would feel cheated. So I offered him $20 and he was delighted: he thought he was cheating me. I had to give the piano precious space in my studio-it was constructed with water-soluble glue and would disintegrate outside. For years it collected piles of old iron and bones like a crazy coffee table. But when I came back from Clarksdale I said to myself, "I will build a juke, and put the piano in it."
Why Red's Lounge
I am writing The Nervous Nellie Story as a way to record, and make sense of, my life and its intersection with American culture in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. I came of age in an era of cultural rejuvenation, prefigured by the great struggles of Southern blacks in the 50's and 60's. It was also a time of fabulous popular music, a synthesis of Europe and Africa: sacred or gospel music, southern blues and Appalachian ballads all merged into rock and roll. Performers who would become the stars in heaven played in dinky coffee houses and I listened to them. When I was ten years old, I went with my family on a vacation to the Rocky Mountain West; at the end of the trip, I was on my own for a short time, in a hotel in Santa Fe. I turned on the TV and watched coverage of the great civil rights march on Washington, and Martin Luther King spoke about his dream before an endless sea of people. I don't know how much of it I understood, but it has stayed with me all my life.
Twenty five years ago I moved to Deer Isle, a place not noted for abundance of riches, but rather for people of substance who work in a world of heart-stopping natural beauty, and live close to it. When I went to the Delta, I found all of these things-natural beauty, music, the striving for fulfillment of life-the same but different, rotated a few degrees. It was like coming home. I came back and built Red's Lounge. I hope you enjoy it.
Juke joints are beer bars/dance halls, and they have existed for time beyond memory in the rural South. In the early twentieth century some were large, with a stage, a dance floor, a bar and a restaurant, and side rooms for hanky panky. In the South of today, in my experience, they are small rundown buildings a visitor would fear to go into, but once inside would find a gracious welcome, and a high standard of dignity and gentleness.
Typically these venues serve beer in cans and bottles, and sometimes plastic cups with ice if you bring harder stuff… Monumental but mild men are in attendance in case of trouble, which never seems to occur. A juke is a shabby type of place, but the music will transport you beyond elegance, into heaven. The juke joint came first, before the juke box. In pre-electric days, a piano was best able to compete with the noise of a partying crowd. Then records came along, black plastic patters, and machines to play them for a nickel. They were placed in juke joints, and thus called juke boxes. Juke, or jook, is a derogatory term, arising from the condemnation by the early black church. It is a verb derived from the West African language meaning "to live wickedly."