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Along the Mississippi River: The Sweet Lowdown

Eve Fowler

Photo: Eve Fowler

Every summer Vicksburg commemorates the Civil War with "living history exhibits" of key battles. "The war is still in people's frontal lobes," says Eric Banks, a 35-year-old Vicksburg native. As a teenager he played various Southern soldiers in the re-enactments, suffering in Confederate wool in the sweltering Mississippi summer. It was less propaganda than harmless theater, he says, and Vicksburg's African-American community certainly sees the absurdity in it all. "The re-enactments aren't alarming to us," says Gary Baldwin, the 36-year-old editor-in-chief of The New Times, whose readership is mostly black. "Whites have a heritage. But when I see them with their Confederate guns, and their horses and carriages, I think they just look nutty."

ON MY WAY BACK TO MEMPHIS, I put into the Mississippi about 15 miles north of Clarksdale. John Ruskey, bluesman and river guide, in the canoe's stern; me in the bow; mosquitoes everywhere else. The sun rises behind us. We eat breakfast on a sandbar as tugs shoving four football fields' worth of barge tip the canoe with their wake. Ruskey is the gatekeeper to Clarksdale's blues scene, former director of the Delta Blues Museum, a link between the real and the replicated. He sings and plays and paddles, lives in a cavelike basement beneath a bar on the Sunflower River, a Mississippi tributary, 50 feet from the hotel where Bessie Smith died. In his gentle drawl, he describes the river's eddies and boils and what is underneath. The truest source of the Delta's character, he says, is down there and nowhere else. The river's surface mirrors the shape of the universe, the watery nebulae and gurgling star bursts, and the long dark stretches of night.

At the intersection of Route 49 and Highway 61 in Clarksdale, blues legend Robert Johnson sold his soul to be able to play guitar like the devil—or so they say. Today there are four corners of fast food and shabby cotton fields. But the blues does still live where it was first played, in broken-down juke joints that are ramshackle sheds by day, flooded with sound and beer and unromantic jubilation at night. Clarksdale is where Robert Johnson, Eddie "Son" House, B. B. King, and Muddy Waters lived. Rightly, it thinks of itself as the home of the blues. It was, and in the most important ways, it still is. The juke joints here, and in nearby towns like Shelby, don't advertise. They don't necessarily know who is playing what or when. The buildings themselves—sheds, garages, old restaurants—can hardly stay erect. They have names like Do Drop Inn and Sarah's Kitchen.

The blues began not as a thing to perform but as a thing to do, a way to express what was important: love lost and gained and lost. With Ruskey, I head to Red's, on the Sunflower River, to hear Wesley Jefferson and his band.

Jefferson doesn't begin until 10 p.m. Red's leans way back, feels about ready to slide into the Sunflower River. High in a corner, a TV set is tuned to a baseball game. There's a pool table in back of the bar and an old pinball machine, and up above a flickering fluorescent light. The drinkers talk above the band and the band plays above the talk. Everyone is on a first-name basis, and aside from Ruskey, who's on keyboards, I'm the only white face around. There are curious looks and nothing but welcome.

The night I'm there an unknown guitarist named Michael James plays so fluidly you think of the mythical greats, and that this is how they began, unknown and brilliant and without a hope of discovery. But if this were Beale Street, Memphis's Disney version of the blues, you know James wouldn't be playing his own tunes; he'd be covering the songs the tourists know. Here he stretches out his own licks, without showing off. He's wondrous, and there are a dozen others in town just like him. At 2 a.m. the band is still going strong, Jefferson is calling out the refrains in his strained, smoky voice, the bar is littered with bottles, and a few dozen men and women are clapping and singing and gossiping. The ball game on the TV is long over, and the screen is playing nothing but snow.

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