Sunday, July 5, 2009

On the Blues Highway

New York City is a long way from the Mississippi Delta, but if you have any love for the blues, it’s your musical home. The influence of the blues musicians from this region is vast. I was lucky enough to catch one of them, Millage Gilbert, at Red’s Lounge on a June visit to Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Gilbert, pictured here, who hails from Clarksdale, was on a visit from Kansas City. Red’s rough and ready décor, and Gilbert’s deep voice and scorching guitar, made my visit to Clarksdale unforgettable. But Clarksdale is only one of many Delta towns that now caters to blues travelers.

The Mississippi blues may have emerged in a region of sharecropping and country towns, but that world has vanished. The mechanization of agriculture sent sharecroppers packing for cities like Memphis and Chicago; the farming that remains in the Delta is on a large scale that has more to do with agribusiness than small-time farmers.

The Delta towns that were once hubs for regional agricultural economies have lost their old functions. Most businesses have migrated out to highways and strip malls. The once-bustling streets in Indianola where B.B. King broke in as a musician are now quiet.

But the old towns need a function, the region needs an economy, and the blues are as great an inheritance as our country has to offer. The result: Mississippi has embraced the blues in big way.

Throughout the Delta historical makers lay out important sites in blues history. There are museums dedicated to the blues and an enduring network of juke joints. Together, they help give blues fans hear the music they love and learn something about its history.

My journey began in Memphis, where I attended a conference in honor of Pete Daniel discussed in another Greater New York post. Armed with three different but very good books—Alan Lomax’s The Land Where the Blues Began, Marybeth Hamilton’s In Search of the Blues and Ted Gioia’s Delta Blues, I drove south on Highway 61 to Clarksdale. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon when I got there, but a conversation over a beer in a small bar got me directions to Red’s and one of the greatest musical evenings of my life.

After a night of Millage Gilbert’s music, I slept in a motel on the highway. The next day drove south past the Parchman Farm, the prison where Lomax recorded so many work songs, to Indianola. My destination: the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center.

I was expecting Graceland in a blues key, but I was wrong. The B.B. King Museum certainly praises its subject, but never loses sight of the region that produced him and the musical influences that shaped him—from country to blues to big band jazz. I left Indianola with a better appreciation of the blues, the Delta and a man whose music I have loved ever since I heard “The Thrill Is Gone” when I was in high school.

From Indianola I drove to Greenwood, site of one of the graves said to be the resting place of Robert Johnson. In all likelihood the Greenwood grave is the real deal. I was moved by the headstone, where admirers have left behind guitar picks, plastic flowers, mardi gras beeds, and a bottle of the Turkish liquor called raki. (I like the possibility that Johnson’s army of admirers reaches all the way to Istanbul and beyond.)

In Greenwood I grabbed a lunch of fried green tomato blt with iced tea, then headed north past Avalon (where John Hurt worked and played ) to catch a flight from Memphis to New York.

I’m already itching to go back to the Delta. And when I do, I’ll be sure to stop in Red’s.

: Millage Gilbert after a session at Red’s Lounge, 395 Sunflower Ave., Clarksdale, Mississippi.

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