Friday, August 21, 2009

Down in Mississippi (with Pinetop Perkins)

Early this week I had business in Mississippi, a state I’d never visited. So after studying a map and the internet, I added 24 hours to my itinerary and booked a room in Clarksdale. (Actually three rooms, in a “shack,” for $75.) (More about that later.)

Clarksdale is in the north central part of the Mississippi Delta-- a place of legend, where Son House and Skip James kicked about, and where Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil at the corner of Highways 49 and 61. (I sold my own soul and my battle against high triglycerides to three hot tamales and a b-b-q pork sandwich, but again, more about that later.)

The Mississippi Delta was, in the 1920s and 1930s, one of those intense hot spots of world culture—a relatively small place where the arts suddenly go crazy and flourish beyond calculation. As a college student I spent a year and a half in Florence, Italy, which underwent a similar flowering 500 years ago, with Dante, Cimabue, Arnolfo di Cambio, Giotto, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botecelli, Bruneleschi, and countless others outdoing each other to create great art, literature and buildings. When you walk in downtown Columbus, or Seattle, or Boise, hundreds of years later, you still see their influence.

The Florentine artists were assisted in their vision by economic circumstances and politics. The reigning Medici bankers/dictators were generous patrons of the arts and financed much of the artistic explosion that happened there, along with the popes in Rome, and royal families across Italy and Europe. The artists competed for money and fame.

In the Mississippi Delta it was just the opposite. The wealthy farming families and corporations did everything possible to beat down the working people, forcing them onto plantations where they subsisted as share croppers, or onto work gangs building the levees that made drier land and plantations possible. The harsh lifestyle of the black workingman created opportunities for the traveling entertainer—men who carried their guitars from town to town, playing at “juke joints,” dances and camps, and occasionally making records to satisfy the growing market for “race records.”

It was a short burst of activity, mostly in the 20s and 30s. By the early 1940s the last of the local legends were packing up ad moving north to Chicago. A bunch of them—Pinetop Perkins, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Elmore James—ended up at Chess Records, where many of them influenced our man, Chuck. B. B. King's from the delta, too.

Right now the Delta is enjoying a quiet revival based on tourism and the blues. There are festivals and blues clubs everywhere. Old towns are sprucing up. You can visit museums and historic sights. There are places to stay drenched in the history of the music, and young performers carrying on the tradition. There’s great food. There are friendly people.

Go. (After you've been to St. Louis!)

Here's Pinetop, age-- well, ageless.

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