Ghosts: Ian Tamblyn’s journey to the birthplace of the blues
Ian Tamblyn has written more than 1,500 songs over his lifetime and released more than 30 albums, earning a Juno nomination and a Canadian Folk Music Award in the process. So we were thrilled here at Roots Music Canada when he offered to share some of his wisdom with us. Ian has reflected on and written about many facets of artistic life over the years, and we’re publishing some of those writings here. But THIS is a brand new piece that Ian wrote just for us, inspired by his travels in the southern US this month. Thanks, Ian!
Long ago, I grew up in Thunder Bay, ON. I lived in Fort William, as it was then called, and occasionally I visited the rival city on the hill: Port Arthur. When I was 16, I discovered the Folklore Centre on Algoma Street in Port Arthur. It was owned by an older man by the name of Einar Nordstrom, a Finnish Swede, a man with left-leaning politics, a back bent by years of labour, and a love of folk music. Entering that shop was like entering a portal to another world – a world of exotic music and thought that aligned with the way I saw the world. Einar was my guide, and he was equally the guide for Ken Hamm, Chuck Tracey, and even Neil Young during his time in our northern town. Each week, as I came through the door, Einar had some new offering for me – Bob Dylan, Patrick Sky, Judy Collins, Richard and Mimi Farina, The Green Briar Boys, even Country Joe and the Fish singing songs against the Vietnam War. Every extra cent I had went to buying those records, and every week, I would devour more.
On the walls, there were posters for past concerts with Peter Seeger, Michael Cooney, or local acts like Tom Kelly or George and Myrna playing the Last Spike Coffeehouse or the Far Out House at the YMCA. Or maybe there would be a poster for Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee or Two Guys from Boston! at the Fourth Dimension. As I said, it was like entering another world, and it was wonderful and extraordinary that Einar and the Folklore Centre existed at all in that distant and remote place.
For me, the most exotic parts of Einar’s music collection were the records from the Mississippi Delta: country blues. I don’t know how Einar got those records from Arhoolie or Yazoo Records, but again, each week, there would be another record by Skip James, Charlie Patton, Mississippi Fred McDowell, or John Lee Hooker. As well, Einar stocked records by blues artists who had moved from the Delta region to Chicago – Muddy Waters and Elmore James, for example. It wasn’t just obscure labels; Columbia Records released the Robert Johnson collection, and Vanguard Records released Mississippi John Hurt and the Chicago Blues Today! Collection. It was a cornucopia of blues, filled with distillations of language and sometimes barely understandable phrases hearkening back to a world that seemed mysterious and exciting, with a very deep groove. What was a mojo? What was nation sack? Who were these men and women, declaring themselves in such a passionate way? It was electrifying and mesmerizing to listen to these records. You could hear in the songs the physical and social landscape that surrounded their music or the other way around. Needless to say, it caught me up, but it caught Ken Hamm even more. At one point, I think Ken had close to 2,000 records in his collection in the place where he lived across from the Folklore Centre, and he dedicated his musical life to the study and practice of this music.
What was very special about all this was its connection to other parts of the western (white) world. As I was listening to Sleepy John Estes, Ry Cooder was playing his music in Los Angeles, Eric Clapton was hooked on Robert Johnson, Keith and Mick were listening to the Chess team in Chicago. Still others were listening to the Harry Smith collection of blues and old time tunes that was so central to the Village scene in New York. When Eric Burdon and the Animals came out with “House of the Rising Sun” or the Youngbloods recorded “Ain’t that Lovin’ You Babe,” we knew where the source material was coming from. It was as if there was a special club of people talking to each other across the English speaking world.
“Hey! Have you heard this? Listen to this.”
It was as if the language of country blues had become the language of disaffected teens in England, Canada, the US, and beyond. Exciting times indeed. And this special music was the connective tissue. It is the vein of Highway 61 that begins on the outskirts of Fort William, now Thunder Bay, rolls by Bob Dylan’s front door in Minnesota continues right down to Clarksdale, Mississippi – ground zero for the Delta Blues – and on to New Orleans.
For the past two weeks I have been travelling the back roads and highways of the Mississippi Delta. My wife, Amanda Shaughnessy, was participating in a retreat involving the Gee’s Bend quilters who hail from Boykin, Alabama. Their unique quilting style came about as a result of their social circumstances and isolation, but their work has become famous in the arts world for its parallels with the modern art movement. The Gee’s Bend quilts are quite remarkable and deserving of more time. I was lucky to be an observer of their phenomenal work. The two Gee’s Bend resource people were Mary Ann Pettway and China Pettway (not related), who were also gospel singers. And so the trip to Mississippi began on an uplifting spiritual note; their singing was remarkable. The retreat was held at the Gray Centre, just north of Canton MS, about 30 minutes from Jackson, the capital. I was Amanda’s driver on the trip, but I had my own agenda as well – to visit the haunted places of those blues songs I had heard so long ago.
Each day, as Amanda and the others took to their sewing machines, I took to the roads and byways. On my first day, I travelled north on Highway 51. Before I begin the journey, it would be a good idea to give you a sense of where the Mississippi Delta is. The Mississippi River runs north south along the Arkansas/Mississippi border to the west. I based my trips just north of Jackson and travelled north to Clarksdale, which is toward the northern border with Tennessee. The delta itself encompasses the eastern side of the Mississippi River over to Highway 55, which runs down the centre of the state. I brought along Steve Cheseborough’s excellent book, Blues Travelling, to indicate the holy sites and an old Rand McNally map of Mississippi – no GPS for this kind of quest!
Robert Johnson was playing on the deck. The wisteria were beginning to bloom, and the cotton and corn fields stretched for miles. The towns I passed through were small, sleepy and seemingly deserted. Many blocks of buildings were shuttered or closed up. I stopped in Duck Hill and West and took a few shots of abandoned buildings that reminded me of scenes from Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, but like the last scene from the movie, rust and time had taken all life from them. I was looking at ghosts of another time. I was prepared for this to be the case. I knew, of course, that the age of the Delta blues players was long gone, and yet I was ready for ghosts – the writings of Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams are all about hauntings and ghosts. And yet the rusted buildings and cotton fields summoned it up, the landscape was the same. The cotton fields were the same, and the obvious poverty was unchanged.
I left Robert Johnson singing “When You Got a Good Friend” and switched to Mississippi Fred McDowell, one of my favourite country blues artists and singer of gospel songs as well. As I passed through Grenada, I spotted a catfish joint, but it was closed. Everything seemed to be closed. I thought of the life McDowell might have lived, playing the juke joints ’til all hours Saturday night, then having to get up Sunday morning to repent and atone it all away. Some of the songs he recorded with his wife, Minnie, sounded like he was extremely torn by the two worlds. Up towards Yalobusha County, I thought I should head to Oxford, but time was pressing, so I got on 55, continued north, and turned west at Batesville on 6. I passed by a house with a Confederate flag draped over a couch on the front porch. I thought about “Oxford Town.” Bob Dylan’s song that had been revived by Tim O’Brien’s interpretation. Lots had changed in Mississippi, but how much had changed?
As I headed west, the landscape became even flatter, and I realized I was travelling above a lake of sorts. The Mississippi was flooding, and I was in the delta now. I could see sandbags around some houses, but others deeper in the fields, poorer houses and trailers, were drowning and had been left for the water to recede. How many times has this happened? How much a part of the life was this cycle of flooding? Was it now every year?
I switched discs again and played Aaron Neville’s version of the Randy Newman song “Louisiana 1927.” If I was in a world of ghosts, the soundtrack was still alive.
I pulled into Clarksdale and stopped at the corner of Highways 49 and 61 – the same highway that runs by my door! Not the intersection where Robert Johnson reputedly sold his soul to the devil! Locals told me that was bullshit. Anyway, I did not get down on my knee. I had already made agreements I was trying to renegotiate and didn’t need further conversation.
Clarksdale is another town of the past – faded and boarded buildings, little traffic except for the few blocks around the Delta Blues Museum, the |Ground Zero Bar, and Hooker’s (John Lee’s) Grocery and Eatery. The Delta Blues Museum is quite wonderful. So many people I found in the record bin at the Folklore Centre came from Clarksdale and surrounding towns. A partial list would include Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, BB King and John Lee Hooker. The building is housed in the old Illinois Central Railway Depot Station and is full of blues memorabilia. (Incidentally the railroad company that now runs through Clarksdale seemed to be owned by Canadian National). There are any number of John Lee Hookers’ guitars there, dioramas with outrageous suits and other articles, old tape decks, and a small broadcasting booth. It is quite comprehensive, but I would say there seemed to be more emphasis placed on the electric blues period that followed the Charley Patton or Mississippi John Hurt era. The museum seems dominated by the electric music of John Lee Hooker, Elmore James or Muddy Waters after they left the delta and moved to Chicago. To be honest, I was more interested in that earlier period. But as I listened to an old recording of Charley Patton and wandered the museum, the landscape I was travelling through, these old dusty suitcases, guitars and faded photographs did summon him up. I could feel his commanding presence talking about things from a desperate place.
After buying a few stickers, a t-shirt, and a blues compilation album, I drifted over to Ground Zero, a decidedly marked-up bar that I hear was, or is, owned by actor Morgan Freeman. It was a pretty neat place, but I had the feeling that it was a replica of the real thing. The scuff marks had a uniformity about them, a feeling that would be repeated and confirmed later on this trip. There was a line-up of blues bands coming through, but to be honest, I have heard a lot of the blues bands coming through – particularly West Texas style – and I was hoping for something a little closer to those discs I had heard so many years before. Of course, I knew that it was impossible to expect something 75 years after the heyday of those times, but still. I decided it was time for a late lunch. The Ground Zero bar was, of course, closed for lunch, but Hooker’s Grocery and Eatery was open, and guess what. They had fried green tomatoes and shrimp on the menu. Yes, please.
As I headed south down Highway 49, I passed Stovall, MS, where Muddy Waters had reportedly written a radio commercial for the Stovall Farm Equipment Company, and it was this commercial that bought his ticket north to Chicago where he got his mojo workin’. Elmore James, from Canton, went the same way. I passed by Parchman Farm Penitentiary, and all those songs came flooding back about Parchman or Angola:
“Down the road down the road come a Junco Partner
He was loaded as can be
He was knocked down, knock down loaded
He was wobblin’ all over the street.”
There are other interpretations I have read, but I always thought Junco referred to the road gang prison uniforms, their black and white strips resembling the Junco bird. Similarly, he was wobblin’ because of the shackles around his ankles. I wonder what the Clash thought it was about?
I was on the Emmett Till highway to Yazoo Springs, and once again, I was thinking about other times – the Jim Crow era when black people got lynched for the colour of their skin, and the people responsible got off for their crimes. “Strange Fruit,” as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone once sang. Emmett Till was shot, mutilated and tossed in the Tallahatchie River after it was said he flirted with a woman in a convenience store. It turns out all the testimony was false, but the two perpetrators got off. And now there are 26 sites in Mississippi named after Emmett Till. But I also have read the news in recent years, and I heard Mavis Staples cry out from the stage only three years ago, “We have worked so hard, and the suffering goes on – how long Lord, how long? How much has really changed?”
With these ghosts in my head, the next day I headed to Jackson to visit the recently opened Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. The power of this museum, this record of how one human can treat another, set me on my heels. It is an astounding portrait of human degradation, of suffering, of violence and ignorance. It was so powerful I was almost ill by the time I got through the every well-documented alcove of historical pain and abuse. I could not stand up, and I was in tears. A security guard came up to me and said, “You aren’t the first, nor will you be the last, to feel this way.”
I never walked across a bridge in Selma. I was not there on the buses or in the restaurants. I only heard the songs. I listened to the speeches. I saw Reverend King get shot. Malcom X. Now it would seem Sam Cooke may have been among the fallen. And still, as I headed out on the Medgar Evers Highway, the same thought returned to me: the people of Mississippi have built this museum recording the suffering. They have highways dedicated to the fallen. It is as if it was now in the past, but the attitudes and ways are so slow to change, the murderous killings in the churches are still happening. The Sam Cooke song “A Change is Gonna Come” played in my head. To some in the south, the Civil War is not over.
On my return, I found myself in a discussion about a statue in Nashville that was the subject of a debate over whether it should be torn down. General Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate general and hero, and he has had a rather controversial statue standing in his name since 1998. There has been a long discussion on the worth of these statues and whether taking down these symbols of the confederate south just inflames passions. In this case, my mind is pretty clear. After the war, General Bedford joined the Ku Klux Klan and became the organization’s first Imperial Wizard. He and others terrorized freed slaves in a period known as the lynchings and the burnings. Sorry folks. End of debate. Take the statue down.
Each day, the quilting designs flourished in the chapel. While scraps of material piled up on the floor, Mary Ann and China Pettway gave advice and sang gospel songs with each meal – and occasionally in the chapel. I headed out after breakfast for more adventures. On the last night, Amanda and I went to Hal and Mal’s in Jackson to enjoy an evening of catfish, collard greens and corn bread. I had checked out this place and Martin’s Bar across the street earlier in the day and opted for an early show at Hal and Mal’s.
The Wolftrap Trio were playing Mississippi Sheiks-style music, and they were great. The band consisted of excellent fiddlers, a guitarist and a bassist, and all were vocalists. Again, it summoned up a different time – not so much the Delta blues, but I recalled an article stating that though the recordings appear to be all blues, people like Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, etc. were totally capable of playing outside the blues genre – songs like Johnson’s “Hot Tamales,” for example. It was thought that recordists of the time wanted the players to be thought of as exclusively blues artists, and so they marketed them that way. I was hoping for some Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers, but “they’re from over in Georgia, ain’t they?”
Heading home that night, enjoying the warmth and aromas of a southern spring, I pulled off 55 and went through Canton. On the northern outskirts of town, the fragrances of barbecue rose through the air. I said to Amanda, “I’m going to find this joint tomorrow.”
I wandered around Canton taking some shots for memories. In the centre square of the town, there was the regal county court house surrounded by a square of shops, banks, legal and loan offices. There was a restaurant with all the chairs in place, but the cafe was vacant. Everything was freshly painted. After about ten shots, I realized I was not in a real place; I was on a movie set. Nothing was real. All the facades of the buildings had been repainted, but there was nobody in any of them. It was all an illusion of a time gone by. I walked by an office that advertised memorabilia from a motion picture shot in Canton called My Dog Skip, set in the 1940’s. It was closed.
I found MS/Barbecue on the edge of Canton. It was a nondescript, cinder block building, but the door was open and people were coming in and out. I stepped in and asked what their speciality was. Before the server could say a word, the person behind me said, “You goin’ have the pulled pork sandwich. That’s all there is!” Others confirmed this choice, and the server agreed that it was very popular. I said to the woman at the cash, “Was that you cooking last night?”
“Sure was! Misses cooks up something every Friday night. Say, where y’all come from with that accent of yours?”
“I come from Canada.”
“Mercy. I can see why you is down here! You ever get over winter?”
“About August,” I said.
Others joined the debate about Canada’s winter, Niagara Falls and our handsome Prime Minister.
At one point, I thought, “What the hell. I’m going to make my own time here, so I asked the cashier if I could play a few tunes on the guitar.”
“Of course you can. You know anything by Ricky Shelton?”
I got my guitar and played a few tunes. People sat down and listened as I played “Richland Woman Blues,” “Payday,” “When You Got a Good Friend,” “Axe Sweet Mama,” and Jesse Winchester’s “Mississippi You’re on my Mind.” Jesse’s tune was the crowd favourite.
“Where’d you get that song, son? That hits the nail right on the head.”
Before I could answer, another man came up to me, patted me on the shoulder, and said to the room.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we is now in the future: a bunch of black people enjoying our lunch while a white man comes in and plays the blues for us!”
He bought me lunch.