Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Blues Traveling' A Helpful Guide to Tri-State Delta Sites


(Originally posted: March 2, 2005)

Washington County sheriff's deputy Mack White was cruising in his patrol car toward a crossroad near Leland, Miss.

Driving past huge open fields, we headed south, looking for a church cemetery, while the deputy was going east a couple of hundreds yards from where we were. We pulled over to see if he could help us, and he turned right and stopped behind our vehicle.

We asked for directions to Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church, where James "Son" Thomas, the bluesman and sculptor, is buried. Deputy White told us to follow him down a dirt road, and he led us to the cemetery three or four miles from the crossroad where we'd met up with him.

We had seen directions to the cemetery in a book called "Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues," by blues authority and musician Steve Cheseborough of Greenwood, Miss.

The directions called for turning off Hwy. 82 outside Leland, but the road going to the cemetery was closed for construction work. The detour sign wasn't very helpful, which was how we got lost. But Deputy White saved the day, and we made our pilgrimage to Son Thomas' grave, which includes these lines from his "Beefsteak Blues:"

"Give me beefsteak/when I'm hungry,/whiskey when I'm dry, pretty women when/ I'm living/ heaven when I die."

Cheseborough is a helpful guide to the important blues sites in Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas. (Did you know that the great Albert King, who grew up in east Arkansas, is buried in a cemetery in Edmondson off I-40 at exit 271?)

The University Press of Missis-sippi has just published an updated second edition of "Blues Traveling" that's just as reliable and attractive as the first edition, which showed Son Thomas on the cover. The new edition has a living musician on the cover – the wonderful Leland bluesman Eddie Cusic, who taught Little Milton Campbell how to play the guitar when Little Milton was still little.

Cheseborough lists areas associated with the blues – birthplaces of important artists and places they played, as well as their burial sites, dates for festivals, places to eat and much more. The book opens with Memphis and such historic places as Beale Street and Sun Studios, but readers here could start at Helena, less than a couple of hours' drive, and walk where Arkansas natives Robert Nighthawk and Frank Frost played (they're both buried in Helena), as did Robert Johnson and Robert Lockwood, Jr. and Sonny Boy Williamson. More than 60 years ago, Williamson and Lockwood (who was born in Turkey Scratch) helped kick off "King Biscuit Time" on radio station KFFA, which still broadcasts the program at noon. You can also read about Cedell Davis, another Helena native, as he reminisces about the good old days when Helena was a wide open town.

Other than Helena and Albert King's grave in Paradise Grove Cemetery near Forrest City, Cheseborough's book doesn't list any other Arkansas blues sites, such as Brinkley, on the edge of the Arkansas Delta, where Louis Jordan was born; nor does he mention two other Monroe County blues stars, John Weston and Willie ("You Don't Love Me") Cobbs; or Turkey Scratch near Marvell, where someone should put up a sign that Lockwood and Levon Helm grew up there. But "Blues Traveling" is packed with plenty of useful information about the other side of the Mississippi, from Memphis to Walls, where Memphis Minnie is buried, to Robinsonville, right there among the casinos where Robert Johnson grew up at the Abbay and Leatherman Plantation, where the business office still stands.

You can keep traveling down to Lula (just across the Mississippi River from Helena), where the great Charley Patton lived for several years, and go down to Clarksdale and visit Stovall Plantation, where Muddy Waters grew up and started playing music, and on to the Blues Museum and Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, one of the finest blues record shops in the South. (The Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival will be held in Clarksdale Aug. 12-15.) Cheseborough will guide you to Dockery Farms near Cleveland, where some of the greatest bluesmen worked and played; to Tutweiler near Clarksdale, where W.C. Handy first heard the blues played at the railroad station; to Indianola, where B.B. King grew up; to several possible Robert Johnson gravesites, although Cheseborough and other blues scholars agree that Johnson is probably buried in a small cemetery next to Little Zion Church north of Greenwood. (There's no photograph, unfortunately, of a new gravestone there, while other, less likely burial sites, are shown.)

"Blues Traveling" is packed with information about the blues and the people who performed the music. Cheseborough shares his enthusiasm with his readers, who can use this book as an indispensable guide to the most fertile musical ground in the world.


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