Friday, August 21, 2009

Canton, Mississippi Breakdown

Clarksdale is about three and a half hours from Jackson. I went up fast, on Interstate 55, a smooth rolling piece of divided, tan concrete that runs over north over rolling hills through Canton and Grenada.

The fifth or sixth blues record I ever bought was a used record by Elmore James that included the song “Canton, Mississippi Breakdown.” I doubt Elmore James gave it that name. My bet, based entirely on uninformed speculation (a specialty of mine), is that James recorded the song—an instrumental based on the lick from “Dust My Broom”—to warm up his band or just fill time. But I’ve always loved it. It’s a hard core, hard driving version of the tune, with none of the lilt or vibrato that James used on other versions I’ve heard.

Driving into Canton reminds me of driving into little Italian towns long ago before tourism totally restored those places. A lot of the storefronts leading into the central square are empty. (There’s undoubtedly a thriving WalMart somewhere nearby.) The buildings are old and attractive. The road dips and curves a bit towards the central square where things are brighter. You can tell that tourist dollars are helping a bit there.

I wanted to take a picture but my batteries died and my camera shut itself down after the first shot. I didn’t see any likely stores, so I asked a young woman on break from a sandwich shop. She brightened and walked me around the square to find batteries, then remembered the Family Dollar store a block away and sent me there. She asked me if I liked Canton. I told her about the song, and said I figured I had to stop and see the town. “Well congratulations!” she said, “You’re here!”

This business of walking me around kindly was not an isolated incident in Mississippi. At a small restaurant in Clarksdale one of the regular customers got up to fill his own coffee cup, then went from table to table filling other customers cups. At another restaurant in Indianola I asked directions to Yazoo City, answered questions about where I was from and how I liked Mississippi, and then received detailed instructions from several locals who were eating there about how to find the home of this or that old blues figure. One customer even phoned the restaurant after leaving to pass on driving directions to a “Blues Marker” in a town 20 miles or so down the road. A woman at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale warned me that a bright green t-shirt I purchased for my five year old boy might “ruin his life!” (I guess the color wasn’t manly enough. The alternative was pink; I was defending his masculinity as best I could manage.) The owners of my lodgings in Clarksdale chatted for half an hour about local restaurants and activities. The woman at Abe’s Bar-B-Que had one of the nicer smiles I’ve seen in a year—but so did the woman at Wendy’s.

I’m a quiet person born and raised in the north. I know I’m a long way from home in Mississippi.
But Mississippians have a way of making you feel at home despite yourself.

I can't find a video anywhere of Elmore James, but here's his son doing his signature tune:

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