Writin' Blues

Well the blues, give me your write hand.

Going Back to The Hilly Country…

…won’t be worried no more.

Time for the annual blog update…

Blues purists (alright, anoraks) will no doubt recognise the title as a line from High Water Everywhere Pt 1, by Charley Patton. A song which provides a tenuous link to my efforts in 2016 to market my novel, Fat Man Blues , and to record the kindness of strangers (and friends old and new that I have encountered both at home and abroad).

I live near the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. It may not have quite the blues heritage of North Mississippi (the place Mr Patton sang about), but blues parallels exist nonetheless.

When Charley Patton sang of “High Water Everywhere”, he was referring directly to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Here in Worcestershire, we’re no strangers to High Water, ask anyone who lives anywhere near the rivers Severn or Teme.

Upton upon Severn, for example, is a small village a few miles from Malvern, which floods with depressing regularity.

Upton also hosts an annual Blues Festival, which has grown from a small event in a couple of pubs into a festival that swamps the town with many thousands of music fans, two main stages, an acoustic stage, and ten pub venues creating over 100 performances in three days.

Last year, I was there hawking my wares and meeting great bunch of people, including local musician and self-described ‘One man kick ass band’, Tone Tanner . Check him out!

img_5109Upton Blues Festival 2016 – the guy behind me is Tone Tanner

Ever since Fat Man Blues came out in paperback, my agent, Kizzy Thomson and I have been collaborating to tout it relentlessly, and we have been surprised to receive help from some unexpected quarters.

Jennifer Sinquefield, who lives just outside the Mississippi Delta, contacted me to tell me how much she enjoyed reading Fat Man Blues. This in itself was a kind gesture, but Jennifer took it several steps further by photographing her copy of the book at blues sites and blues icons across the Delta:

Out On Highway 61

Out On Highway 61

Blues Museum at Tunica, MS.

Blues Museum at Tunica, MS.

On Hallowed Ground

On Hallowed Ground. Holly Ridge, MS

For a blues nut like me, these pictures are amazing and I’m eternally grateful to Jennifer for taking the time to create them. They also belong to Jennifer, so please be nice and ask permission if you want to use them.

IMG_0752Not only that, the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi, now have Fat Man Blues adorning the bookshelves of their gift shop.

I’m extraordinarily proud of this. Visiting the blues museum has long been on my bucket list. Clarksdale is where the idea for Fat Man was “born” and it means a lot to me that my novel  can be found in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, alongside books written by such eminent blues historians as Alan Lomax, Ted Gioia and Peter Guralnick. Huge thanks to Richard Crisman for making this happen.

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Fat Man has arrived.

If that wasn’t enough, I was approached by a lady from Las Vegas called Rita King, who told me that she loved my book. These kind words in themselves were great to hear, but imagine my excitement when I realised that Rita is the daughter of blues legend B.B. King!

Rita King, daughter of a legend

Rita King, daughter of a legend

I’ve also experienced similar acts of kindness closer to home in my own “hilly country”.

Malvern has a rich seam of writing talent and literary history. Malvern Writers’ Circle (of which I am proud to be a member) has been in existence since 1948, boasts a wealth of authors far more talented than I, and was once visited by J.B. Priestley. Also, one Peter Mark Roget (he of the thesaurus) is buried, entombed, interred, inhumed, covered and hidden in West Malvern.

In a tiny side street, just off Abbey Road, is Hunky Dorey , a cool little shop selling all manner of clothing, arty gifts and eclectic treasures. To celebrate their first anniversary of trading they held an open evening, and owners Sue Street and Anne Tompkins very kindly invited me to bring along a few copies and hold a book signing event.

The calm before the...

The calm before the…

This was great fun, and I met some very friendly and interesting people. Among the first to walk in were three ex-pat Brits based in Tenerife, one of whom said he used to play in several blues bands and knew Rory Gallagher – he bought three signed copies, so I believed him.

Hunky Dorey are now selling copies of Fat Man Blues, as are the Malvern Book Cooperative, a thriving little book shop in St. Anns Road, who are especially keen to promote the work of local authors like me.

If you ever visit Malvern, please search out these fine establishments, you won’t be disappointed.

I would like to thank once again, everyone who has helped me so far in the project that is Fat Man Blues. To meet so many people at home and abroad with such generosity of spirit, gives me hope and restores my faith in human nature.

Mississippi and Malvern. 4000 miles apart, and yet closer than you think.

That’s all for now, but stay tuned because it doesn’t end here…

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Ridin’ with the Fat Man

At long last, my debut novel has finally hit the streets (of Amazon) and is now available on a Kindle near you. A chance remark at the end of a beer-fuelled evening in Clarksdale in February 2012 has resulted in Fat Man Blues – the story of Hobo John, a white blues enthusiast from England, who meets the mysterious Fat Man in bar in present day Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Fat Man offers Hobo John the chance to travel the Mississippi delta at the time of the “real” blues of the 1930s – the time when Charley Patton, Robert Johnson et al were the One Direction of their time. For Hobo John, this is an offer he really can’t refuse and along the way he gets to listen to and play the music he loves in the land that he has always dreamed of visiting. However, he soon encounters to the harsh reality of life in the delta and the horrific consequences of the deal he has made.

Writing this has been a labour of love. Love for scratchy old blues music and the history of the blues singers who ultimately helped change the face of popular music, made a lot of (mostly white) people very rich but earned very little for their efforts, often living forgotten, impoverished lives and dying in squalor.

If you’re reading this and don’t know the first thing about Mississippi Delta Blues, then I recommend (nay, urge) you to research the music. Fat Man Blues contains references to a whole bunch of songs and artists, some of which are listed below.

Soundtrack

I’m a King Bee by Slim Harpo

This was playing in Red’s Lounge when Hobo John walks in and meets Fat Man for the first time. Anyone who listens to this and doesn’t move to it is probably dead.

Me and My Chauffeur Blues by The East River String Band

A classic by Memphis Minnie and played here by the excellent East River String Band from NYC.

Me and My Chauffeur Blues by Memphis Minnie

And this is the original…

Green River Blues by Charley Patton

Beautiful song by Mr Patton, who tells us he’s “going’ where the southern cross the dog”.

Bear Creek Hop trad – Performed by Steve James

This is a ragtime standard played by the guy who taught me to play slide guitar. I’m still light years from having his “chops” but it sounds great on my steel resonator.

Walking Blues by Robert Johnson

Originally recorded by Son House, there are a million different versions.

Canned Heat Blues by Tommy Johnson

Tommy Johnson was (in my opinion) a rather underrated singer, who lived in the shadow of his namesake but produced some rather splendid music. Canned Heat refers to Sterno, a fuel made from denatured and jellied alcohol and burned directly from its can. During prohibition, the alcohol would be squeezed through cloth and mixed with fruit juice or drunk neat.

Black Mattie by Robert Belfour

This tune is from the Mississippi Hill Country and has a different musical sound to traditional Delta blues. This is a tune I’ve been trying to master, and played right it has a hypnotic, almost trance-inducing sound.

My Black Mama Part 1 by Son House

My Black Mama Part 2 by Son House

Two songs that capture the “sound” of Son House. My Black Mama formed the basis of his later tune “Death Letter Blues” – played here by Son House in the 1960s.

Preachin’ Blues by Son House

“Gonna get me religion, gonna join the Baptist Church / If I was a Baptist preacher, I wouldn’t have to work…” – says it all, really.

Down The Dirt Road Blues by Charley Patton

“I’m going’ away, to a world unknown, you know I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long…” Listen carefully and you’ll hear Mr Patton slapping his guitar as he’s playing. I never get tired of hearing this.

Ridin’ with the Fat Man

Finally, a friend of mine, Mr Andy Peters has written and recorded a song in celebration of Fat Man Blues. Not only that, he’s also created this video. For once, I’m speechless. Thanks Andy.

Fat Man Blues is available on Amazon.co.uk and on Amazon.com

Please, tell your friends 🙂

Poetry – Day 4

Short and sweet today. A while ago I was challenged to write a filthy limerick containing a Latin phrase, this is what my brain produced (btw, Leominster is pronounced “Lemster”):

A callow young farmer from Leominster 
Paid a whore and attempted to enter
But on him was the joke
For the whore was a bloke
Who winked and said,

“Caveat Emptor”

Poetry – Day 3

Day 3 of NaPoWriMo and it’s back to the blues with these two poems: The first one (which I wrote today) is inspired by memories of Clarksdale and the monument to the legend of Robert Johnson making a deal at a crossroads. Whether you believe it or not, it’s a definitive blues story that I think is let down a little by what has been erected at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49.

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Only my opinion of course 🙂

Down at the Crossroads

(R. Wall)

I pilgrimmed to the Delta
To mark 50 summers passed
And wandered through the cotton land
Imagining the past

I searched for myth and folklore
Of pacts and midnight deals
I found the blues in Clarksdale
The truth, to me, revealed

I stopped on Highway 61
Where it crosses ’49
I saw the devil in the detail
As I stood beneath the sign

‘The CROSSROADS’
Screams the banner
Cartoon axes painted blue
Someone traded in their soul, it’s said
Looks like that might be true

Here’s one I made earlier:

In 2003, I began a poem that attracted the attention of a German blues singer, Werner Lindner, who turned it into a song and recorded a demo version:

I Never Knew

(R. Wall)

I never met a race horse
I didn’t want to back
I never had a job
Where I didn’t get the sack
I never played a card game
I knew I wouldn’t lose
I never knew a time
That I couldn’t play the blues

I’m living me a life
Where it seems I’m born to lose
Sometimes it feels
Just like I’m walking
In someone else’s shoes
It’s something deep inside me
I know I’ll never lose
I never knew a time
That I couldn’t play the blues

I never knew a time
Where I wouldn’t start a fight
I never found a bar
Where I wouldn’t drink all night
I never met a drink
That I knew I could refuse
I never knew a time
That I couldn’t play the blues

I never knew a time
That I didn’t have a worry
I never met a town
I didn’t leave in a hurry
I never found a wrong path
I knew I wouldn’t choose
I never knew a time
That I didn’t have the blues

Poetry – Day 2

Today’s poem was inspired by Andrew Peters, a fellow blues fan, occasional sparring partner on Twitter and general antidote to social media. Andy is the author of a series of novels featuring the “Blues Detective” – a Welsh private investigator living in Memphis – and other works including my personal favourite, “Joe Soap”.

Check out his work, you won’t be disappointed.

Opinion

“All poetry is shite!”
The Welshman yelled from exile
“It’s just random words,
in random places
On the page…”
Who am I to argue,
The assertion of a Sage?

I wrote this poem several years ago and if, while reading it, you experience a subterranean revolving sensation; that will be Edward Lear spinning in his grave…

The Owl & The Pussy Cat
(with apologies to Edward Lear)

The owl and the pussy cat went to sea

In a beautiful, pea-green boat

They sailed past Dover

And were swiftly pulled over

By HM Customs afloat

 

T’was a miserable caper

For they had no papers

To prove the land they were from

And with a brisk rubber stamp

They were sent to a camp

With others who seek asylum

 

The owl looked up to the stars above

And sang to a small guitar

“Oh customs man, oh customs official

What a stupid official you are, you are

What a stupid official you are.”

 

Official said to the owl,

“You ill-tempered fowl

You sewer-mouthed so and so

We had no way of knowing

Which way you were going

I’m just doing my job, you know

 

And oh how we laughed

at your pea-green craft

you must take us for mugs

a bird and a feline?

Adrift in a sea-lane?

We stopped you to search for drugs, for drugs

We stopped you to search for drugs

 

And then he took them away

For half a year and a day

To a place that they called Heathrow

He said “Oh prisoners of mine,

This is your quarantine,

For the next six months,

This is your home.

Now don’t cry like babies,

For we don’t want rabies,

In the land where the oak trees grow,

As pets with no owners,

On you is the onus,

I don’t make the rules, you know, you know,

I don’t make the rules you know.”

 

Protesting their crime

The two did their time

And the six months slowly crawled by

And on the last day at 3

They were finally set free

By a pig who lived in a sty

 

On the day of release-a,

They dined on a pizza,

And ice-cream that they ate with a spoon.

And then wing in paw,

Along the M4,

They danced by the light of the moon the, moon

They danced by the light of the moon.

Poetry

Oh God, not bloody poetry... sighed the nation.

Today is the start of National Poetry Writing Month, or, as we trendies who is down wiv de kidz like to say: NaPoWriMo.

It’s a little-known fact that I am, in fact, a professional poet with poems seen in print in such august publications as Woman’s Weekly (who paid me £10) to The Daily Mail (who didn’t). I have written several poems and also performed a few times at Ledbury Poetry Festival.

As impressive as these credentials are, poetry for me has always taken second place to writing ‘proper’ stories and so I’ve never really taken them seriously – which is probably a good thing.

My interest in verse ranges from the WW1 poets to WH Auden to Spike Milligan, all of whom have influenced me in one way or another. Influenced being a very loose term.

Anyway, I only heard about NaPoWriMo the other day and the challenge of writing 30 poems in 30 days intrigued me, so I thought I’d give it a go.

In addition to (hopefully) creating new verse I will also post previous poetic offerings that I have dredged up from memory – I hope you like them.

All the poems that appear on this site belong to me, so please play nicely.

So, without further ado, my very first NaPoWriMo offering is in the form of that ubiquitous fallback option for every Secondary School English Teacher – The Haiku

Poetry Challenge

NaPoWriMo

Thirty Poems, Thirty Days

Will I Make The Grade?

This is a monologue that I wrote in 2004. It began as an idea for an attempt to write nonsense verse, but soon developed a darker side:

Thomas Green the Submarine
By Richard Wall

A troubled lad named Thomas Green,
Claimed to be a submarine.
His father said, “Son, don’t be daft,
to be an underwater craft,
You must be steel, not flesh and blood.
Submerged, you’ll not do very good,
How long d’you think you’ll hold your breath?
The water’s cold, you’ll catch your death.
Come on Thomas, eat your tea,
Let’s speak no more of the undersea.”

Tom listened to his father scoff,
Refused to let it put him off.
He eyed his dad with naked scorn,
And then declared, “We dive at dawn!”
The cheeky lad was sent to bed,
and when he’d gone his father said,
“A submarine? The thought’s absurd.
That boy’s not right, you mark my words.”
His mother sighed, “Oh leave him be.
It’s just a phase, you wait and see.”

Next day they went to wake their son,
But found that Thomas Green had gone.
Police were called, the search commenced,
To find the lad their vowed intent.
They searched for days to no avail.
His tear-stained folks, distraught and pale,
pleaded for his safe return,
but mum and dad would later learn,
that while they cried on live TV,
Thomas Green had put to sea.

The first event to get them thinking,
Was hearing of the ferry sinking.
“Mystery Blast!” the newsreader said.
“We don’t know yet how many’s dead.
And this just in! I’ll hand you over,
To our man, who’s down in Dover.”
The news reporter, a handsome hunk,
Cried out, “Another ship’s been sunk!
The navy’s on their way with divers,
To see if they can find survivors.”

It didn’t stop there and on live TV,
Tom carried out a wolf pack spree.
Two more ships sank ‘neath the waves,
Creating two more watery graves.
As they stared at the telly screen,
Shell-shocked, Mr and Mrs Green,
Put together two and two,
And said, “Looks like we’re in the poo.
They’ll think our standards must be slipping,
If our son’s sinking merchant shipping.”

The Royal Navy arrived on scene,
And began the hunt for Thomas Green,
But Thomas, without fear or barrier,
Sank their brand new aircraft carrier.
The captain yelled, “All hands on deck!”
Mr Green yelled, “Flippin’ ‘eck!
This has gone beyond a joke,
They’ll not like that, those navy folk.”
And he was right, they weren’t impressed,
To lose a ship, their Sunday best.

The navy said, “Enough’s enough.”
The gloves came off, they acted tough.
A frigate with a huge depth charge
Arrived on scene and gave it large,
Stirring up a huge maelstrom,
In the search for U-Boat Tom.
The explosion made the water boil,
Then came the tell-tale slick of oil.
Then all was quiet on the briny scene.
Was this the end of Thomas Green?

A few months on, the fuss died down.
The Greens moved to another town,
Of their son they heard not a thing,
Until one day the doorbell ring.
A parcel in the letter flap,
A puzzled Mr Green unwrapped,
And there, inside a plastic bag,
A Jolly Roger pirate flag.
Somewhere at sea on a secret mission,
Submarine Tom is no longer missing.

See you tomorrow 🙂

It Was 13 Years Ago Today…

Tuesday September 11 2001 – I was a Warrant Officer in the Royal Navy serving at HM Naval Base Clyde at Faslane in Scotland. At the time I had less than 6 months left of my naval career and was looking forward to beginning the next phase of my life as a civilian. At 3:30pm I was sitting in the office reading through some nuclear safety documentation when a colleague walked in and said “Someone’s flown a plane into the Twin Towers in New York.” At first I thought he was talking about a light aircraft; then I saw the TV footage…

I can still recall the feelings of shock and disbelief at the carnage being played out on the screen and then the lumbering collapse of both buildings.

The world had changed.

That night I was on duty as manager of the jetties. An American Los Angeles Class nuclear submarine had arrived a few days earlier and was due to stay for another week. Unsurprisingly, orders chafed and it sailed later that night and as Duty Manager I was responsible for organising the jetty staff as we helped the submarine load the stores (and later on cruise missiles) that arrived by the truckload in preparation for her immediate sailing.

I remember the mood on the jetty was sombre but there was a definite sense of purpose as everyone pitched in. I spoke to an American submariner and I remember the look on his face when he told me that a couple of his shipmates came from New York and hadn’t been able to get in touch with anyone at home.

This was real. Events in New York City had reached across the Atlantic (as they would reach across the world) and affected all of us there that night in Faslane.

I wished him luck as he walked onboard, then the gangway was lifted, ropes were slipped and tugs eased the submarine away from the jetty and escorted her down the Gare Loch. As I watched her disappear into the darkness my thoughts were with the crewmen and I wondered where the submarine would go, what part she would play and most of all, what would happen next.

I knew for certain that nothing would be the same again; 

In the days following, a media maelstrom blew up as the footage was played and analysed and replayed and analysed and replayed again. That weekend I was flying home and as I arrived at Glasgow Airport I saw the first signs of how air travel was to change forever.

I left the Royal Navy the following May, found a job and began my transition back into civilian life. The time has flown by and I’m a different person now; working for myself and trying to make my way in the world.

In that time there has been a second Gulf War, a prolonged, intense and bloody campaign in Afghanistan and an increase in terrorism across the globe, including the bombings in the heart of London in 2007 – all of which, in some way are linked back to that night in September 2001.

Every year at this time I pause to reflect on my own tiny connection with history; and as I relive the thoughts and emotions that I felt standing there in the darkness on that rain-lashed jetty on the west coast of Scotland, I wonder what became of the people on that submarine.

Thirteen years ago today the world changed; and I remember it like it happened yesterday.

Fat Man by the sea

I’ve just returned from a week in the sunshine that has changed the way I think about certain things to do with life, the universe and everything and I’ve been asked to write a paragraph or two to explain myself.

My wife – a Yoga teacher and Thai Yoga Massage Therapist – booked us both on a Thai Yoga Massage retreat on the Greek island of Samos.

Not being a particularly spiritual person (and having experienced the wilder side of life that comes with 22 years service in the Royal Navy), I must confess that I did wonder whether or not I would “fit in” with a group of alternative therapists. For a start, I have long harboured a healthy scepticism towards those who espouse the notion that to heal the world all that is needed is a foot rub, a scented candle and a cup of Jasmine tea (which tastes foul – IMO). Such people do exist and the thought of being amongst them for a week made me wonder how long it might be before my BS alarm kicked off.

All that said, I went along with an open mind and we landed in Samos early one Thursday afternoon. After picking up our hire car we commenced a leisurely journey around the island towards the villas where the retreat was to be held.

After unpacking and settling in to our room we went down to dinner to meet the most eclectic and cosmopolitan group of people I have ever encountered. Wine flowed and we tucked in to some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted.

Any notions I may have had about being considered an outsider were dispelled immediately. Within minutes of meeting up with (for me) a bunch of complete strangers, I felt like I was at a reunion of lifelong friends. Conversation was easy and laughter was in great abundance.

This first night set the scene for the rest of the week and we came away with some new friends and some great memories.

During the Thai Yoga sessions, I found a quiet place in the shade and worked on my novel, Fat Man Blues, in the most productive bout of writing I have ever experienced. I have a playlist of Delta Blues music from the 1930s and interviews with old blues singers. I use this for my inspiration to get me ‘in the zone’ and also to try and keep the dialogue authentic. So it was that for 2x 3-hour sessions each day I immersed myself in the blues and as I wrote, scene after scene unfolded, appearing like a hologram just in front of my eyes. It was great.

All too soon the holiday ended and left me a changed man. You see, for the entire week the spirit among the group was one of complete acceptance and the feeling of positive energy that prevailed (and which I could actually feel) has made me question my previous thoughts towards the concept of spirituality.

This was condensed into a moment at the end of the final session. I wandered along to where it was taking place and was invited to join the group for a final chanting session as the sun went down. I didn’t chant myself (when I sing, deaf people refuse to lip-read) but closed my eyes and let the experience wash over me. The trance-like rhythms of the combined voices carried me along and I felt moved by an overwhelming feeling of goodness.

The chanting ended and we sat in silence, watching as the sun dipped inexorably below the horizon. I looked up to see one of the group – a successful and hard-nosed businessman in the real world – in tears at the emotion that the moment stirred up for him.

The week in Samos has challenged my perceptions and invigorated my writing – the stuff that I produced during this week is among the best I have ever written (IMO).

More importantly, meeting such wonderful people and making such great new friends is perhaps evidence enough that there is more to this alternative therapy / spiritual malarkey than meets the eye. I certainly intend to explore further and find out for myself.

Mind, I still think Jasmine tea tastes foul.

It was 80 years ago today…

 

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April 28th, 1934 marked the passing of a legend.

On that day in the tiny community of Holly Ridge, deep in the rural Mississippi delta, a thin, frail 43 year-old man breathed his last and, to paraphrase a line from one of his songs; “went away to a world unknown”.

That man was Charley Patton.

Born sometime in April 1891, Charley, having learned guitar at an early age from an unknown blues singer, quickly discovered a way out from the drudgery of life on a cotton plantation and went on to record over 50 songs for the Gennet, Paramount and Vocalion record labels.

Thanks to the likes of The Beatles, Clapton, the Rolling Stones and other artists, old bluesmen such as Son House, Willie Brown, Howlin’ Wolf and of course Robert Johnson are pretty much household names. What many people are not aware of is the influence that Charley Patton had on them. All of these singers either followed, were taught by or played alongside him and if you listen to songs by any of them you will hear snippets of words and music borrowed from his wide repertoire of original songs.

A scrawny, semi-literate figure with jug-ears who was a heavy smoker with a penchant for corn-whisky and other men’s wives, Charley Patton could have been the blueprint for any number of skinny, modern-day rockstars (except Justin Bieber).

He wore scars from knife wounds (see previous reference to other men’s wives) had a pronounced limp when he walked, and spoke with a less well-pronounced growl to his voice. However, Charley Patton more than made up for any physical limitations with the sheer force of his voice, his talent for composing and his unique skill on the guitar.

I got into the blues in the same way that most white people of my age and older did. From listening to bands like the Rolling Stones and working backwards. That got me into Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson and for years I thought that old blues meant playing the standard 12-bar “Woke Up This Morning” rinse and repeat melody.

Then I discovered Charley Patton.

I can’t remember exactly when I first heard one of his songs. I know that it was ‘High Sheriff Blues’ and what I do remember is thinking “WTF is this?” At the time it seemed so unintelligible that I almost gave up, but then something about the way he played guitar caught my attention. I’ve always been a sucker for the sound of a slide guitar and I remember a phrase in ‘High Sheriff Blues’ that sounded like the guitar was singing the last words of each line.

I listened to more and more of his stuff but had difficulty deciphering some of the words (and nearly all of the wonderful spoken asides that he would throw in) because of the poor sound quality of many of his recordings.

What did stand out for me was the way he played the guitar.

Such was his virtuosity that he could seduce the guitar to echo the lilting gentle water flow of “Green River Blues” and then beat the beejezus out of it to emulate the awesome majesty of the Mississippi in full flood as he bellowed the powerful, “High Water Everywhere.”

And then came the internet.

All of a sudden, blues research opened up and anything and everything you wanted to know about anything and everything was at your fingertips. Previously incoherent song lyrics were decoded, the clouds parted and beams of sunlight shone through in a blues epiphany.

No, I don’t get out much.

From an early age, I have long held a fascination with the American South in general and the state of Mississippi in particular (I have no idea why, although someone once said that I must have lived there in a previous life) and when I finally got to understand the words, I realised that Charley Patton was documenting aspects of his life and his surroundings and turning them into songs.

Great songs.

Charley Patton in full flow is a force of nature.

Songs such as “High Water Everywhere”, “Moon Going Down” and “Revenue Man Blues” are delivered at full throttle; he would tune the guitar above concert pitch to make it louder, hit the body at the same time as he hit the strings and wear metal cleats on his shoes to amplify the stamping of his feet.

And then there was his voice.

By all accounts, his growl was loud enough to carry 500 yards without amplification; perfect for making himself heard in a packed, noisy and raucous juke joint, or drumming up business at a railroad station.

I could wax lyrical all night on the subject of Charley Patton; for me his songs provide fascinating vignettes into an equally fascinating life-story.

But don’t take my word for it, check him out for yourself. YouTube or Spotify are the obvious places to start for his music and you can find any number of biographies on the internet or on Amazon.

It was 80 years ago today. How many other musicians will be remembered on the 80th anniversary of their death?

Rest in Peace Charley Patton.

And thank you.

Red’s, Whites and Blues

As the year draws inexorably to a close, thoughts turn naturally to all that has happened during the preceding eleven-and-a-bit months (well, mine do).

For me, 2012 was an auspicious year; a particular date in February marked the 50th anniversary of the day I arrived kicking and screaming onto the planet.

I also published my short story “Evel Knievel and The Fat Elvis Diner” on Kindle and began work on my novel-in-progress, “Fat Man Blues.”

Fat Man Blues came about during a remarkable week in February whilst celebrating my birthday. It all happened like this (cue spooky music and shimmering screen)…

To celebrate my birthday my wife, Barbara, organised a trip of a lifetime in which we flew to Memphis and hooked up with our dear friends, Kyle and Sara from Oklahoma City. The planned itinerary was:

  • Spend two nights at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis
  • Take a day and a night driving south through Mississippi
  • Spend a night in New Orleans
  • Take two days driving north and return for a final night at the Peabody

I should add that this holiday was a complete surprise to me; I had thought we were flying to Oklahoma City but when we checked in at Birmingham Airport, Barbara handed me a copy of Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues by Steve Cheseborough.

I am, you see, a dyed-in-the-wool, anorak-wearing Mississippi Delta Blues obsessive. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t listen to Charley Patton, Son House, Willie Brown or Robert Johnson (and many others). I am also a voracious reader of the history of the blues and life in Mississippi during the 1920s and 1930s, a cultural era that has captured my imagination.

Thus began a magical history tour that became one of the best weeks of my life.

Memphis, Clarksdale, Jackson and New Orleans

We arrived in Memphis at about 8:30pm; met Kyle and Sara at the Peabody and then drank too much and laughed a lot as friends do.

Next day, we did the obligatory tour of Graceland, paid our respects at the grave of Furry Lewis (who recorded some songs at the Peabody in the 1920s) and wandered in and out of bars along Beale St. Later that evening (and another surprise to me) Kyle had organised a tour around Memphis in a beautiful 1955 Cadillac, during which our driver, Tad Pierson, pointed areas of cultural and musical interest; including a couple of rough-looking juke joints – right off any beaten track – that were staffed by the friendliest, most welcoming folks I’ve ever met. Our first glimpse of Southern Hospitality.

Leaving Memphis on the morning of my birthday, we headed south towards the delta blues in the middle of the pouring rain. Crossing over from Tennessee into Mississippi on Highway 61, I felt an immediate sense of belonging, a calmness that I never felt anywhere else in the world. Driving through the delta had a profound effect on me; each time we stopped and wandered around, the romantic side of me wondered whether we were walking the same ground and perhaps seeing the same landscapes as my aforementioned blues heroes eighty-odd years before. Certainly, we passed through parts of Mississippi that seem unchanged from the depression-era photographs of Dorothea Lange.

The first large town that we stopped at was Clarksdale (a place I’ve long yearned to visit), we ate lunch at Abe’s BBQ (located next to the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61) where I had my first ever Tamale. It being a Sunday, not much else was open so we wandered around taking photographs and then continued south.

Other places we stopped at were the old railway station at Tutwiler, Tallahatchie Flats and Robert Johnson’s memorial at Greenwood. One place we didn’t stop at was Parchman Farm (aka Mississippi State Penitentiary).

That night we stopped at the King Edward hotel in Jackson, then continued south, stopping at Hazelhurst (birthplace of Robert Johnson) and then on to New Orleans where something called a Mardi Gras was taking place.

Mere words cannot describe the experience of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. If you’ve never been then add it to your list. If you have, then you know whereof I speak.

Vicksburg, Holly Ridge, Charley Patton and the fat man

Next day we returned north by a different route that took us to Vicksburg where we wandered along the banks of the Mississippi River and spent the night at the Cedar Grove Inn, a mansion dating back to the Civil War (and which still has a cannonball lodged in a wall). There we met Ray, the wonderful barman who talked to us about Pinetop Perkins and very kindly gave me a home-made CD of early recordings by Muddy Waters.

Back in the delta, the feelings I had experienced earlier in the week returned, for me it truly is a magical place. Apart from a brief detour into Helena, Arkanasa we carried on through towns whose names I recognised from various songs before reaching the place that I have longed yearned to visit.

In the town of Holly Ridge, in a shabby cemetery in the middle of a windswept expanse of cotton fields lies the grave of Charley Patton.

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Standing at the graveside with my good friend Kyle, both of us silent and lost in our own thoughts, was a special moment for me. It’s Charley Patton, what else is there to say?

Next stop was Clarksdale where we booked a room at the Ground Zero Blues Club, had something to eat and then Kyle and I hit the town looking for beer and music. First stop was Red’s Lounge, where we met the inspiration for Fat Man. Red’s was empty, except for Red and a fat man who was drinking what looked like Tanquerary and Root beer, and had been doing so for quite a while. Conversation with him ended when I asked him his name and his permission to take his photograph, neither of which he was willing to give (which is fair enough). This encounter is described almost verbatim in the excerpt from Fat Man Blues (see below).

One thing he did say was, and which echoed what other locals had said to us, was that “Blues is for white folks, these days. Black kids don’t like the blues, they prefer hip-hop.”

This got me thinking; as a blues-freak, I have attended many gigs and blues festivals in the UK and even taken part in blues-guitar workshops and it occurred to me, that night in Clarksdale, that the audiences at these events were predominantly white, middle-aged men.

This fascinated me and I have since contacted musicians and others connected with the blues to canvass their opinions on the reason why music with its origins in the black culture of cotton plantations holds such an appeal for white males of a certain age. The responses I have received so far make fascinating reading and will be shown here very soon.

Where was I? Ah yes, the origins of Fat Man.

Several beers later that night, Kyle said “You know, that whole scene with the fat man in Red’s Lounge, that would make a great opening to a story.”

The lightbulb came on and what follows is a sample of “Fat Man’s Blues”.

If you like it, please tell me and everyone else that you know.

If you don’t like it, please just tell me 🙂 Also, this is all my own work so please respect that and play nicely.

Hope you enjoy it.

Fat Man Blues

Copyright R. Wall 2012

Reds was a juke-joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi, just across the tracks from the Ground Zero Blues Club. On the third night that I went in, the place was empty except for Red, who was engrossed in a newspaper, and a fat man I’d never seen before who was scribbling in a notebook at a table next to the stage, drinking Tanqueray and root beer and in a world that only he could see.

I walked up to the bar; Red looked up, nodded at me, produced a bottle of Sam Adams and then carried on reading.

“I’m a King Bee” by Slim Harpo was playing on the juke-box; I placed a five-dollar bill on the bar and sipped my beer to the hypnotic swamp-blues vibe.

Slim Harpo stopped singing and the juke-box fell silent, the fat man lifted his massive head and blinked at me slowly.

Yo’ dig the blues, white boy?” he said.

I said that I did.

The fat man grunted. “I ‘member one time, Muddy Waters stopped by here, stood ‘sac’ly where you standin’ now. Man that cat could play.” He gave three hefty chuckles, took another drink, belched and said; “What are yo’  doin’ here?

I told him I was following the blues trail and was stopping in Clarksdale for a few nights.

“Jus’ another white boy want’s t’ play the blues, huh?”

I shrugged.

Where’s yo’accent from?

I told him it was from England.

Well,” he said. “This heyah’s what the blues is now. Blues is fo’ white folks, but it ain’t the real blues. I knows where the real blues is, ain’t that right, Red?

Red didn’t look up but moved his head; it could have been a nod, but then again…

Come over heyah, son,” said the fat man.

I walked over. Up close he reeked of booze; beads of sweat covered his bald head, he wore black sweat pants and a black t-shirt that stretched across his huge bulk; both were covered in stains I didn’t want to think about. He cleared his throat and blinked slowly as he fought to salvage discarded words from his gin-soaked vocabulary.

See,” he said finally. “They’s a place where the blues is still like it was.” He leaned closer. “I can show yo’ that place,if yo’ of a mind?

I said maybe and asked him his name.

The fat man blinked at me, his eyes glazing as he processed this, then said; “I’ll get back to yo’ on that.” He stood up, wavered unsteadily and then left the bar through a door at the back of the room.

I returned to the bar and asked Red who that was. He didn’t look up from his newspaper but said, “Thas’ Fat Man.” I asked if he had a name.

He jus’ called Fat Man.” Said Red. “An’ tha’s all I’m sayin’.

I finished my beer, said goodnight and walked out. Fat Man appeared from an alley at the side of the building.

“So, yo’ wan’ see this place where the blues is at?”

I wondered what sort of scam was about to be played, my second thought was that he was a hustler for another club or juke joint.

Ain’t no scam,” he said. “An’ I ain’t no hustler. This place I knows, it ain’t no juke joint or club, but is jus’ the sort o’ place yo’ need to see. Blues is wid yo’.”

I asked him what he meant.

I saw yo’ diggin’ Slim Harpo,” he said. “Yo’ heyah cos’ yo’ woman, gone an’ yo’ feelin’ low down. Yo’ got the sickness. Yo’ got the blues sho’ nuff.

I asked him how the hell he knew all that.

Yo’ wearin’ a weddin’ band but yo’ been heyah three nights on yo’ own, hittin’ the booze an’ diggin’ blues. Yo’ got a dark aura, kinda sickly. Somethin’ bad be hangin’ wid yo’.

I said I had to go. Fat Man grabbed my arm and said. “Hear me, white boy. I knows a place yo’ would ‘preciate. I’m talkin’ Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Willie Brown.”

Now I was certain he was drunk. I reminded him that they were all dead.

He winked, “Maybe they is, maybe they ain’t.  Maybe yo’ not far behind ‘em. An’ I ain’t drunk, I jus’ been drinkin’. We gon’ talk again soon.”

I said goodbye and walked back into town.

Several drinks later I was sitting on the bed in the apartment I’d rented above the Ground Zero Blues Club, staring at my phone as it swam in and out of focus. I dialed her number and for a long time my thumb hovered over the green icon, then the realisation kicked in and I pressed cancel. Rose was gone, what the hell was I thinking about?

I replayed the conversation with Fat Man. I was intrigued about what he meant by the real blues, but it was clear that he was off his head on God only knew what. Would I take him up on his offer? The jury was still out.

I woke up twice with raging night sweats that I put down to the amount I’d drunk; you can fool all of the people some of the time. I was on a countdown and the next morning I was fifty years and five days old.

I took my hangover to breakfast, it was the least I could do but it took several refills of coffee to persuade it to leave.

**********

For a long time, Clarksdale was in decline but these days, new businesses were springing up that would soon outnumber the derelict buildings and this optimism seemed to be reflected in the bright morning sunshine.

I loitered around the Cat Head store and then wandered around town. After a while I found myself standing next to my car in the parking lot of Ground Zero. A cloud passed over the sun and I shivered at the sudden drop in temperature. I got into the car and drove out of town.

Highway 61 was quiet as I headed south, the sun glinting off pools of water that littered the rich, fertile, dark grey soil, serving as a reminder that the delta is nothing more than a playground for the sleeping giant that is the Mississippi River.

As the flat landscape of endless cotton fields flowed beneath the sapphire Mississippi sky, I felt enveloped in a calmness that had been missing for a long time.

Twenty-five miles south of Clarksdale (give or take) is a town called Leland. Here I headed east for five miles on Highway 82 and then turned north.

Holly Ridge is a quarter of a mile stretch of about a dozen houses, a cotton gin, a derelict wooden church and an acre of dilapidated graveyard. It was deserted when I stopped and got out of the car.

This was my second visit and I knew where to go.

I walked fifty feet from the road to a plot at the edge of the graveyard and stood for a long time reading and re-reading the inscription on the grey headstone:

Charley Patton

April 1891 – April 28 1934

The voice of the Delta

The foremost performer of early

Mississippi blues whose songs became

cornerstones of American music

Scattered around the grave were coins of many nations, guitar picks and plastic flowers. Mementoes left by visitors in deference to a mixed race singer who stood five foot five inches tall, weighed a hundred and fifty-five pounds and yet whose voice could be heard five-hundred yards away. By all accounts, Mr Patton liked to party hard and next to the head stone someone had left a large glass bottle, half-filled with a dark brown liquid that the sun-bleached label proclaimed to be Bulleit Bourbon.

It didn’t seem out of place.

“Oh, he liked to party hard, sho’ nuff.”

I was lost in reverie and physically startled at Fat Man’s voice. He walked from behind me to stand next to the head stone.

I looked around, mine was the only car I could see…

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