DeSoto Exploring the South January 2012 : Page 14

EXPLORING art Passing the Blues Torch in “True Delta” Text by Erickson Blakney / Photography by Michael Scanlan It was the summer of 2009 and I was a stranger in Clarksdale, Miss., a guy from Ohio with nothing to do but listen to music. To listen to the blues. First, I absorbed the sounds from a high-octane band at Ground Zero Blues club then later wandered across the railroad tracks to Red’s Lounge, perched above the eastern banks of the Sunflower River at the corner of Sunflower and Martin Luther King. Was the place even open? It was so dark and decrepit, I doubted it. When I opened the door, however, I found myself among a crowd of four people, including owner Red Paden, masked behind a pair of black shades. On stage that night was a lean, tallish, young man soulfully uttering a few lyrics while masterfully ‘plunking a guitar’. All the while I kept imagining W. C. Handy waiting for a train at the Tutwiler depot. The experience was extraordinary. It was a warm Delta evening and there I was with my Bud and my moonshine, parked in a space plastered with dated posters, a peeling floor and collapsing ceiling. I was listening to a guitarist of exceptional talent, and essentially, I didn’t have to share him with anyone. Prior to that night, my Mississippi connections grew from spending youthful summers in central-east and southeast Mississippi visiting a host of aunts, uncles, cousins and strays because of my parents Mississippi roots. Yet, despite less time in later years, I managed to continue with the tradition of traveling south and wanted to learn more about my family in Mississippi. A byproduct of my continued visits was a reasonable familiarity with Highways 45, 59 and 84 and their lonely, winding, dusty red-orange and seemingly ‘nameless’ off-shoots. However, I did not know the rest of the state. It was that curiosity that paved the way for my odyssey into 14 DeSoto

Exploring Art

Erickson Blakney

It was the summer of 2009 and I was a stranger in Clarksdale, Miss., a guy from Ohio with nothing to do but listen to music.

To listen to the blues.

First, I absorbed the sounds from a high-octane band at Ground Zero Blues club then later wandered across the railroad tracks to Red’s Lounge, perched above the eastern banks of the Sunflower River at the corner of Sunflower and Martin Luther King.

Was the place even open? It was so dark and decrepit, I doubted it.

When I opened the door, however, I found myself among a crowd of four people, including owner Red Paden, masked behind a pair of black shades.

On stage that night was a lean, tallish, young man soulfully uttering a few lyrics while masterfully ‘plunking a guitar’. All the while I kept imagining W.C. Handy waiting for a train at the Tutwiler depot.

The experience was extraordinary. It was a warm Delta evening and there I was with my Bud and my Moonshine, parked in a space plastered with dated posters, a peeling floor and collapsing ceiling. I was listening to a guitarist of exceptional talent, and essentially, I didn’t have to share him with anyone.

Prior to that night, my Mississippi connections grew from spending youthful summers in central-east and southeast Mississippi visiting a host of aunts, uncles, cousins and strays because of my parents Mississippi roots. Yet, despite less time in later years, I managed to continue with the tradition of traveling south and wanted to learn more about my family in Mississippi.A byproduct of my continued visits was a reasonable familiarity with Highways 45, 59 and 84 and their lonely, winding, dusty red-orange and seemingly ‘nameless’ off-shoots.

However, I did not know the rest of the state. It was that curiosity that paved the way for my odyssey into The Delta, or as James Cobb would refer it, “the most southern place on earth.” Cruising along “The Trace” to Natchez and poking around the ghost town of Rodney became a sweet counterbalance to Manhattan living. Eventually, I became familiar with Greenwood, Greenville, Yazoo City, Indianola, Cleveland and Clarksdale.

For some reason, I kept returning to Clarksdale.

Once I got back to New York, I initially met up with Rich Maloof, a past editor of Guitar Magazine, and we knocked around several story ideas about the blues, among them, their significance as a true American art form created by African Americans, the legacy of the true blues and their role as a cornerstone of American music, and how and if the torch was being passed to the next generation of musicians.

The Film

In August 2010, several colleagues and myself began filming “True Delta,” a documentary about the Mississippi Delta Blues celebrating three generations of music makers, exploring how the blues live and breathe in the community today, and more importantly, how the blues tradition is being passed on to the next generation of musicians.

We completed a good bit of work prior to the trip, researching Delta history, artists and interviewing folks such as Panny Mayfield, John Ruskey of the Quawpaw Canoe Company, Delta Blues Museum director Shelley Ritter, and Roger Stolle, blues historian, filmmaker and owner of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art.

And they shared stories. Clarksdale businessman Kinchen “Bubba” O’Keefe tells how as a kid in the late ‘60’s, he would see McDowell on visits to Stuckey’s. “This older guy with a pipe and overalls would let me hang with him and help him pump gas and wipe windows.”

O’Keefe and Roger founded the Juke Joint Festival, which takes place in Clarksdale every April. O’Keefe also owns and operates the WROX Museum. WROX Radio was the ‘home’ of “The Soul Man,” Early Wright, the first African-American radio announcer in Mississippi.

We decided to launch the film project during the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival referred to as “the purest blues festival” because of its goal to feature Mississippi musicians. We rolled into town in time for the, not-to-be-missed, ‘Grits, Greens and BBQ’ party, held annually at the expansive clapboard home of writer, photographer and tireless festival organizer Panny Mayfield. What followed was a whirlwind of filming, interviewing, jawboning, cajoling, networking and darting to, what felt like, all points in and around the Delta.

We didn’t set out to create the seminal feature on the blues. Our aim was to find a story and tell it. During the filming, we were fortunate to be able to interview musicians and singers ages ten to 90, recording their accomplishments, commitments, struggles, and their deep passion for the blues.

Viewers will see the rich diversity of the music and the blunt reality of the music’s transformation as the tradition passes from one generation to another.That may seem unsettling as it suggests the impending loss of an art form as it moves further from its origins. Save for a few, many of the Delta’s music makers continue their struggle to make a good living at the blues. A person could readily argue that very little about the Delta and its music has changed.However, within this paradigm, tradition and transformation can be synonymous. The blues tradition is being carried on, not only at the festivals but also within families, in a handful of juke joints, through formal lessons at places like the Delta Blues Museum, and even in church. It’s being taking up by members of younger generations who are living the blues in their own way.

Sharde Thomas of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, learned from her grandfather Othar Turner. “I started playing behind him when I was 7 years old because I wanted to be just like my Granddad.”

The high-energy talent of the threemember Homemade Jamz Blues Band, “The Youngest Bluesband in America” consists of two brothers and a sister who mesmerize with their brilliant technique on drums, guitar and bass.

Since we started filming, the blues world has been hit with some heavy losses – the deaths of legends including: Joseph “Pinetop” Perkins, “Big” Jack Johnson, David “Honeyboy” Edwards and most recently Hubert Sumlin. As well, a younger, lesser-known, regional favorite Foster “Mr. Tater” Wiley died several weeks after we met him. This sad reality lent a significant sense of relevancy as well as urgency to this project.

“We’re at the threshold of the last of the generation of the guys who were there, that were there when the art form Was being created or learned from those guys,” says Roger Stolle.

Professor Luther Brown, Director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University acknowledges, “The torch will be passed but it will be a different torch. A blues man in his eighties grew up in a world that was dominated by cotton and mules and Jim Crow, bringing a very different set of experiences to their music than you will have in a young person today.”

Erickson S. Blakney, writes, edits and reports for CBS News Radio Network in New York City.

Read the full article at http://www.bluetoad.com/article/Exploring+Art/938501/95286/article.html.

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