Do the blue still matter in the Mississippi Delta?
Author Eric Benson Photography Bryan Tarnowski
This past spring, on a Sunday evening, 15 miles south of Clarksdale, Mississippi—where Ike Turner and Sam Cooke were born and Bessie Smith died and Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil—a white stretch limousine barreled down a gravel road, kicking up plumes of dust into the golden-hour sky. The limousine passed a tall metal grain bin, bisected a centuries-old cotton field, then pushed over a rise onto a flat wooded landscape before violently turning to the right, thumping over a drainage ditch and clattering to a halt on a lawn. The driver’s-side door swung open, and a tall man stepped out. His feet were clad in alligator leather loafers, his wiry middleweight’s frame was draped in a black suit with scarlet pinstripes, and his head was topped with a curly black wig. Written in reflective letters on the side of the limousine were the words “Robert Bilbo Walker, Blues Legend.”
It was the weekend of Clarksdale’s 12th annual Juke Joint Festival—a citywide blues event named for the hazily legal clubs in which the music was once nourished—and the 78-year-old Walker was tired after playing two gigs in less than 24 hours. But there was no time for rest. Soon after finishing his final show, he had hopped behind the wheel of his limousine (“I don’t like riding in back—no way”) and drove down to his countryside property for a long-planned event: After years of talking and plotting and concrete pouring, he was finally going to open his own juke joint. He called it Wonderlight City.
On one side of Walker, there was a field in which he would soon plant soybeans. On the other lay a small artificial pond that he had filled with catfish and bream. And in front of him, a couple of hundred feet off the road, stood the property’s only permanent structure, a rusty old army barracks that Walker had purchased, moved to the site, painted royal blue on two sides, and festooned with Christmas lights.
“Lot of work until I get it like I want it,” Walker said. Soon, accompanied by his friend Otis “TCB” Taylor, a Clarksdale cop and moonlighting blues singer, Walker was hooking up a generator and painstakingly repairing the strings of lights that he had draped all over the property. The sun was dropping low on the horizon, the lights began to flicker on, and Walker decided that the hour had come. He ushered his half-dozen guests inside and sat down in a reclining chair, waiting for a larger audience to arrive. The place had the air of a modest but well-appointed garage. Some folding chairs and tables had been placed on the floor. A tattered leather couch sat against one wall. A small self-service bar stood at the far end of the room. Strings of Christmas lights hung from the arched ceiling, bathing the room in an eerie magenta glow. A few more guests arrived, and Walker got down to business. He took off his jacket, revealing scarlet suspenders to go with his scarlet shirt, and grabbed his guitar. Walker’s wife, Audrey, sat down next to him, cradling an electric bass, and Taylor took his spot behind the drums, wielding two bark-covered branches. (Walker had realized shortly after arriving that he had no drumsticks, and Audrey had scoured the woods for suitable substitutes.) With the band in position, Walker’s guitar crackled to life. And after strumming out a few chords, he began to sing: “You go out when you’re ready, and you come home when you please. You just want me when you want me baby, and you think it oughta be all right with me.”
Walker was now deep inside the song, B.B. King’s “Ask Me No Questions,” his voice rising and falling sharply, making words like ba-by sound like the refrain of an otherworldly chant. It was the wail of the blues, the raw human cry that distinguishes the genuine article from any smoothed-over knockoffs. You can hear that wail in the voice of Charley Patton when he sang “Pony Blues” in 1929, and in the voice of Robert Johnson when he sang “Hellhound on My Trail” in 1937, and in the voice of Muddy Waters when he sang “I Be’s Troubled” in 1941, in his cabin a few miles up the road, at Stovall Plantation. And sitting there, in Wonderlight City, you could still hear it in Walker’s voice. “Oh, but I done got wise to you baby,” he sang, “you’re not the only bird in the sky.”
The question was whether that wail would continue, especially here, in the Mississippi Delta, where it had first risen up. The blues has become a universal language, but it evolved out of a very specific way of life. And Walker is one of the very last musicians who experienced all of it. When he sings a line like “My father was a sharecropper, farmed 10 acres of land,” it’s a statement of personal history, not an artistic abstraction. Listening to Walker at Wonderlight City, it was hard not to wonder: Once he and his ilk are gone, will the blues be lost?
I’d come to the Delta—that stretch of rich alluvial soil that runs along the Mississippi River from Memphis to Vicksburg—to see whether the blues still had not only a heartbeat but its swagger. It was easy to assume that those age-old songs of woe and mischief—what the critic Robert Palmer celebrated as “deep blues”—were nothing but relics. A month after I visited, the Delta-born-and-raised blues great B.B. King would die, and nearly all of the other iconic Mississippi bluesmen were already long gone. Most of the original juke joints have closed. The legendary crossroads where Johnson reputedly sold his soul to the Devil is now wedged between a Beer & Bud Mart and a Church’s Chicken. And the blues itself has been part of the DNA of so many other genres—from early rock to the latest hip-hop—that just approaching it can feel closer to scientific inquiry than entertainment.
But in Clarksdale and its environs, the blues, after a dormant period, is booming, often in places as unexpected as Wonderlight City. Previously unrecognized musicians from here, now in their 70s and 80s, are cutting albums and playing not only at Red’s Lounge, on Clarksdale’s Sunflower Avenue, but at the Rootsway Festival in Parma, Italy. Younger players like Christone “Kingfish” Ingram are getting national exposure. Tourists from around the world are flocking to town. New restaurants and shops—many blues-related—are occupying the abandoned downtown storefronts.
The Juke Joint Festival, which started in 2004, has been a key agent of the revival. Officially a one-day event, the festival in fact stretches over a long spring weekend, from Thursday to Sunday, and encompasses free daytime shows on Clarksdale’s downtown streets, evening performances in venues like Red’s Lounge, and affiliated events, from Q&As with elderly bluesmen at the Delta Blues Museum to pig races and mechanical bull rides.
“It’s half blues festival and half small-town fair, and all about the Delta,” festival co-founder Roger Stolle likes to say. Last year, it attracted roughly 7,000 attendees from 28 foreign countries, 46 U.S. states and 53 Mississippi counties. And while those aren’t quite Coachella numbers, they’re huge for a homegrown event deep in the Mississippi Delta where many of the biggest draws are sparsely recorded octogenarian bluesmen. As the festival got underway this year, Stolle was anticipating a similarly robust crowd.
Three days before Walker made his dramatic limousine entrance at Wonderlight City, he was relaxing on his countryside property, sitting in the shade and enjoying the afternoon breeze. It was the only time I would see Walker stripped of his wig, and with his bald head and camouflage cargo pants, he looked like a superhero without his cape. At that moment, he seemed less the peacocking “Bilbo” Walker and more an aging farmer named Robert.
“I was born right down the road here,” Walker said. “Right in that field. Me, my uncle, my aunties and my momma. My daddy grew up on that hill right up there. We all was born in this neighborhood.”
It wasn’t just Walker’s kin. The area in which we were sitting was where the blues itself grew up. The first historical record we have of what would one day be called the blues comes from a Harvard archaeologist named Charles Peabody, who arrived in Clarksdale in June 1901 to excavate Native American mounds. African-American men from the area were enlisted to do the digging, and as they worked, Peabody heard them sing an “autochthonous music” unlike any he’d ever heard. The more time he spent in the Clarksdale area, the more variations on these alien sounds he noted. In his seminal article, published in The Journal of American Folk-Lore in 1903, he described hearing one mother singing a lullaby that was “quite impossible to copy, weird in interval and strange in rhythm; peculiarly beautiful.”
At the same time that Peabody was documenting the nascent blues, a 5-foot-5-inch-tall teenage prodigy named Charley Patton was mastering its rudiments at Dockery Farms, a plantation that sits 30 miles south of Wonderlight City.
Patton would soon become the blues’ first star, popularizing the music throughout the South and personally teaching a younger generation of musicians, among them Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson and Chester Arthur Burnett, who would come to be known as Howlin’ Wolf. By the time Patton died in 1934—he was thought to be in his mid 40s—the blues was the dominant music of the rural African-American South.
Walker was born three years after Patton’s death, on February 19, 1937, but grew up in a world that would have been totally familiar to the original bluesmen. By the age of five, Walker was “pickin’ and choppin’ cotton,” and he first learned music not from any classes, or even older bluesmen, but by plucking a string and then moving a ball across it to form different pitches. “It was like putting a slide on a guitar—the same thing,” explained Walker. Soon, he had moved on to the piano—his father had bought one from the local plantation owner after a good year—and then, at the age of nine, Walker got his first guitar. He played when he could, but life was full of more immediate challenges than instrumental mastery. The fieldwork drained him of energy, and he always needed to be on the lookout. “There was nothing but violence back in those days,” he said. “That’s how some white folk got their kicks—being violent against black folk.”
To get away, Walker tried to enlist in the Army, but he was rejected because he’d never learned to read or write. He left the Delta anyway, moving to Waukegan, Illinois, at age 17, as part of the Great Migration that saw many Southern blacks move to northern cities to escape the oppression of the Jim Crow South. Up north, he got a job on the assembly line at American Motors. When he could, he ventured into nearby Chicago, gigging around Maxwell Street until he’d become an ace guitar player and found his niche. A natural ham with a powerful voice, he started drawing crowds by performing his own take on the flamboyant flair and whirligig style of Chuck Berry. He could duck-walk like Berry, he could play guitar like Berry, he even looked like Berry. For a time he even dubbed himself “Chuck Berry Jr.,” and he still plays his own version of “Johnny B. Goode.”
When the rock era dawned in the 1950s and crested in the 1960s, it wasn’t that the blues died, but that it was incorporated—some would say flat-out co-opted—by white musicians. Elvis Presley’s adaptations of African-American music are well documented, and some of his songs—like “Mystery Train”—were Delta blues covers. The Rolling Stones were not only indebted to the sound of bluesmen like Muddy Waters, they took their band name from the title of a Waters song. Led Zeppelin recorded “When the Levee Breaks,” a traditional blues about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and adapted Waters’ “You Need Love” into “Whole Lotta Love.” Eric Clapton had heard the Robert Johnson compilation King of the Delta Blues Singers as a teenager and later deemed it “so much more powerful than anything else I had heard or was listening to.” Clapton’s band Cream would cover Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” and the British guitar legend’s style continues to owe a deep debt to Johnson and other Delta bluesmen.
As the blues was fueling the British Invasion of the 1960s and subsequent musical waves in the ’70s and ’80s, Clarksdale, the “golden buckle of the Cotton Belt,” was beginning to hollow out. Walker was long gone, having moved from Illinois to Bakersfield, California, and many bluesmen of his generation had similarly decamped. The local musicians who remained found themselves underemployed and mostly forgotten, faced with a rapidly diminishing number of venues and a public that had moved on to other genres.
The revival began slowly. Clarksdale’s remaining downtown shop owners helped organize the first Sunflower River Blues Festival in 1988. The Delta Blues Museum opened as a stand-alone entity in 1999. A Memphis entertainment executive named Howard Stovall, a local lawyer named Bill Luckett (now Clarksdale’s mayor) and Mississippi-bred actor Morgan Freeman opened the Ground Zero Blues Club in 2001. Roger Stolle moved to town in 2002 and set up his blues store, Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art Inc, the same year. Then, partnering with a local developer named Bubba O’Keefe, Stolle founded the Juke Joint Festival, which focused both on bringing business to the town’s venues, restaurants and hotels and boosting the profile of the local bluesmen. The 48-year-old Stolle had that very mission in mind even before he arrived in town. As he writes in his 2011 book Hidden History of Mississippi Blues, “I moved to Clarksdale to circle the wagons, to mount a defense, to help the last generation of cotton-farming, mule-driving, juke-joint-playing bluesmen deeply inhale the final breath of this amazing tradition we call Delta blues.”
Such a sentiment would have been unimaginable not so long ago. O’Keefe, who’s now 58 years old, told me that growing up white in Clarksdale in the highly segregated 1960s, he had never so much as entered a juke joint and was more or less under the impression that “rock ’n’ roll started in Liverpool, England.” When he found out later in life that he had grown up in a music mecca, O’Keefe had an awakening. His hometown was ignoring not only the most important strain of its history but perhaps its greatest opportunity for an economic and cultural comeback. “I’m thinking,” he says, “what would Stratford-upon-Avon be if they didn’t really care about Shakespeare?”
Early on the Saturday morning of Juke Joint Festival weekend, Clarksdale started to hum. Along Delta and Yazoo Avenues, vintage-clothing sellers and gourmet-popcorn purveyors and local painters pitched white tents in the middle of the street. On the sidewalks, volunteers set up amplifiers and mic stands in front of shops. At Yazoo Pass, a café in the middle of downtown, tourists sipped cappuccinos and checked emails on their MacBook Airs while waiting for the music to start.
The first thing you notice about Clarksdale during Juke Joint Festival is that the music—all of it completely free during the daytime—is everywhere. Turn a corner and you see three bands set up along the same block, each playing to its own intently listening audience. The second thing you notice is the striking diversity of the performers. There are old black men and young white girls, Southerners and Northerners, Europeans and South Americans, all playing some variation on Delta blues.
At the stage in front of Stolle’s Cat Head shop, Robert Kimbrough Sr., the youngest son of Hill Country blues legend Junior Kimbrough, dug into his father’s greasy, seductive hit “All Night Long.” “Baby, I heaaarrd you, callin’ my name,” Kimbrough sang, as his brother Kinney thwacked out a propulsive beat on the drums. Outside the long-shuttered Paramount Theater, Southern Halo—a group of three blonde teenage sisters from Cleveland, Mississippi—drew an adoring crowd as they covered the blues-inspired rock songs “Put a Spell on You” and “Proud Mary.”
On the stage at the top of Yazoo Avenue, “Kingfish” Ingram, a 16-year-old guitarist from the Clarksdale area and one of the festival’s biggest draws, took the stage. Over the past year, Ingram had played at the White House and appeared as a guest on the talk shows of Rachael Ray and Steve Harvey, and when he started to play he exuded an easy stardom. He won over the crowd almost instantly, shredding through “Hey Joe” and Prince’s “Purple Rain,” then got down to the more traditional number “Got to Be Some Changes Made.” “You won’t cook my breakfast, and you won’t wash my dirty clothes,” Ingram bellowed, “and every time I come home from work, darlin’, you want to show me how it goes.” He stepped down from the stage in the middle of his solo and continued to play as he stomped through the crowd, iPhones all around him capturing the future blues great’s boy-wonder phase. As Ingram strutted back toward the bandstand, the audience erupted in applause.
As evening came, the action shifted indoors to the city’s theaters and juke joints. Crowds lined up outside of the New Roxy to hear the throwback country blues band of the Indiana singer and guitarist Reverend Peyton. A few miles outside of town, at the old Hopson Plantation, Big George Brock, an 82-year-old harmonica player who claims to have once knocked out Sonny Liston in an amateur bout, took the stage to play classics like Waters’ “Mannish Boy.” At midnight, in a dive bar called D.J. Hype’s R&B Lounge, drummer Cedric Burnside, grandson of blues great R.L. Burnside, played to a crowd of about a dozen. It was a small audience, but the room was lively—locals and out-of-towners, white faces and black faces, united over bottles of Budweiser and Burnside’s charismatic playing. Stolle had told me that while he sometimes worried about the future of the blues (“I went to three funerals, three weekends in a row, a month before Juke Joint Festival”), he felt that some younger players, musicians like Ingram and Burnside, still had a deep cultural connection to the roots of the music. They showed that there was more than a reason for hope in Clarksdale; there was plenty of actual life left buzzing around the city and its music.
While Ingram was soaking up the crowd’s adoration and Burnside was performing deep into the night, Walker was having a more checkered festival run. Headlining the New Roxy on Saturday night, he’d been the victim of a bad sound mix—his powerful voice dying in the concrete room—and he’d gotten so fed up with his drummer that he’d fired him mid-set. The next afternoon, playing a free show in front of Cat Head, Walker needled his backup guitar player so much that the man packed up his instrument and walked off the stage halfway through a song. At that point, the only person left in Walker’s band was his wife, Audrey, who had been playing bass for less than a year.
But at Wonderlight City, Walker was at home, and his music reached a far deeper resonance. After finishing “Ask Me No Questions,” Walker started in on John Lee Hooker’s “Story of a Married Woman,” turning the song into a devastating lament. A young white couple from New Orleans got up from their seats and started to dance in front of the stage. The rest of the audience members leaned back in their chairs, watching Walker in silence. “I cried last night, and I cried the night before,” he sang.
It was growing late, and it was Walker’s third show in two days, but he had one more song, a serenade for Audrey—Elmore James’ “Early One Morning.” Walker was now covered in a light sweat, and he started to sing about that “magic woman” who “broke my teacher’s rule,” finding both the music’s humor and its hurt. When he finished, he sat in his chair, spent. The cantankerous man who had driven off half of his band the previous two days was exhausted. He’d poured everything into the music. He could barely manage a smile.
When I’d first met Walker, I’d asked him what the blues would be like in 20 years, after the last of his generation of musicians had passed. After all, it would be the end of what Stolle had called the “cotton-farming, mule-driving, juke-joint-playing bluesmen.” Without them, would the blues still matter?
Walker paused. “Hard to say,” he said, looking over the eight-acre plot of land, which he was sure his heirs would sell “the minute I’m dead.” Then a new thought took hold. “This is a completely different world from what it was back then,” he said. “All the young white people now—they come to hear me play, we all associate together, we all eat at the same table together, they fall down getting to me to get a picture. A lot of their parents would have turned over in their graves if they’d seen that.” But some things would always remain, he said: “I tell you one thing: The blues will be here. The rest of that stuff go and come, but the blues? It’s always been here and it always will.”
Eric Benson is an Austin-based writer who has written for Texas Monthly, The New York Times Magazine and Grantland. Since leaving the Mississippi Delta, he’s listened to every version of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” available on Spotify.