Friday, August 21, 2009

Hot Tamales And They're Red Hot, Oh, We Got 'Em For Sale

The owner of the Shack Up told me about a couple of bar-b-cue places and recommended Hicks—but I wound up at the better known Abe’s Bar-B-Q, by the crossroads, instead.

I first heard about Abe’s in an e-mail from my brother Paul after he made a trip to the very same tables a few months before me. It's worth sharing:

“…and on into Clarksdale, Mississippi, "Ground Zero," the birthplace of the blues and so many bluesmen and women. I won't go on and on, but I could. Morgan Freeman is from Clarksdale. He says that he spent his youth thinking, "I've got to get out of Mississippi, and I'm never coming back." But now he lives in Clarksdale, and, incongruously, he's opened a truly fine French restaurant in this scruffy little town. We dropped in for a Martini, but I had to eat at Abe's Bar-B-Q at "The Crossroads" - Hwy 61 and Hwy 49 - a tiny BBQ place known round the world as maybe the best. The menu says proudly "Swine dining." Pulled pork and coleslaw on a Wonder Bread roll with beans on the side. Can't be described. Not much on the menu for vegetarians, as Liz discovered. Also in Clarksdale, the slightly eccentric Cat Head record and book store, where the proprietor knows everything about the blues and where everyone is playing. Some of us could spend some long happy time in or around Clarksdale, Mississippi.”

Being one of those people, I added three hot tamales to my sandwich order, largely because of a Robert Johnson song about hot tamales.

Hot tamales and they're red hot,
Oh, we got 'em for sale
Hot tamales and they're red hot,
Oh, we got 'em for sale
We got one for a nickel
Two for a dime
Would sell you more
But they ain't none of mine
Hot tamales and they're red hot
Oh, we got 'em for sale.

If they were good enough for Robert, they are better than good enough for me-- spicy red, rolled in a corn husk, with delicious savory meat inside. I could order half a dozen more right now. I recommend the sandwich, too. And I recommend the ribs and rib tips, even though I didn’t eat them, and Morgan Freeman’s restaurant, Madidi, even though it was closed and I didn't get to go. (You, on the other hand, can do your research and make your reservation on line.

After dinner and a short tour of the closed up, tumbling down city of Downtown Clarksdale I went back to my front porch and read until I started hearing blues in the Gin Mill. The show was free—evidently provided by other guests of the Shack Up who were there for a business related retreat. (The businesses I was involved in usually went to snobby hotels and resorts for our so-called retreats. I recommend the Shack Up.) The Gin Mill's Blues Chapel is a beautiful space, (before I saw the name I was toying with describing it as a “cathedral” but thinking the word was a little strong. Even "church" might be too strong, except on a really good night.) It’s built of rusted tin and iron, and decorated with old signs for Coca Cola and Schlitz beer. Christmas lights adorn the stage. Two giant fans keep it comfortable for the audience. When the band complained about the heat (no electric fans up there) three women from the audience got on stage and cooled them with cardboard fans.

The group performing calls itself “All Night Long.” I made the bad assumption that I would learn more about them on line after the show. (Hell, even I have a website!) It wasn’t to be. But they were worth seeing and hearing. When I first sat down I had an obstructed view of the stage. I assumed there was a bass player. No—the guitarist was keeping a pulsing bass going while he finger picked the lead and rhythm. He switched guitars to play slide numbers. I didn’t catch names, so I have to refer to the other singer and harmonica player as “Big Sexy,” which is the tag he got from the guitarist. He made the harmonica wail and bark. The drumming was rudimentary and perfect—a steady, wet beat with very little flourish. I don't have my scribbled notes, so I can only tell you they played Fishing Blues, and songs by Bukka White and R. L. Burnside.I left during their second set, but later heard what sounded like a different group of musicians take the stage for a while. I thought of going back, but I was satisfied to listen in bed through the worn planks of my cabin, Electric Blue.

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