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.
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?”
“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:
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…