Writin' Blues

Well the blues, give me your write hand.

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.

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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…

Apaches, Blues and Cadillacs – the ABC of growing up with American as a second language

In recent times, the USA has a bad press when it comes to world opinion. As ever, the actions of the “few” – those in charge of foreign policy – has created a backlash of bad feeling towards the “many” – ordinary Americans just trying to get on with their lives.

America, it seems, is like Marmite. But whether you love the place with a passion or hate it and all it stands for, there is no denying the huge cultural impact the United States has made on life in Great Britain since the end of WW2. Opinion varies as to whether this is a good thing or not, but what follows is my personal viewpoint. As a writer, people often ask me why, as an Englishman, my stories contain so many references to American culture. Well, you could say I had no choice in the matter! Despite growing up in the backwater of a small market town in rural Herefordshire, I’ve been around Americans all my life.

I was born in 1962 and my g-g-generation was (I think) probably the first to be subjected daily to the American way of life without ever having to leave British shores. In the early 1960’s, television technology advanced and TV sets became accessible to more and more UK households; the numbers of channels and programmes increased and TV influences from across the pond came thick and fast. As a result of this, I, like everyone else in my age-group, grew up with American as a second language, absorbing an influence that reflects strongly in my writing.

My earliest memories are of watching John Wayne movies on our old black and white TV and then playing cowboys and indians (I always wanted to be Geronimo, leader of the Apaches). I watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon and news reports of the Vietnam war. There were countless US TV shows: Bonanza, Kojak, Starsky and Hutch, The Rockford Files, M*A*S*H, Taxi and many more.

When I began to take an interest in music I learned that blues men from the 1930’s inspired the Beatles, the Rolling Stones (also in their 50th year), Led Zeppelin and other British bands who took this music back to America to a white audience who were largely unaware of their own musical heritage.

American movies introduced me to classic American cars: Steve McQueen’s 1969 Ford Mustang (Bullitt), Gene Hackman’s 1971 Pontiac Le Mans (The French Connection), Jim Rockford’s Pontiac Firebird and Barry Newman’s Dodge Challenger (Vanishing Point).

Someone once said; “if you can’t see the beauty in an old American car, then you’ve got no soul.”

Well, if that’s true then my soul is alive and well and my love affair reignited with a recent tour around Memphis in a 1955 Cadillac (more of that to come).

So, American influence – good thing or bad thing? Well, my personal view is that I’m British and proud to be so, but I can also speak American, because I grew up with it. At the end of the day we are all just people.

Ordinary Americans just want a quiet life, like we all do, and are among the friendliest people on the planet. In the town of Kingfisher, Oklahoma, I was honoured to meet a WW2 veteran who, it transpired, fought in North Africa around the same time as my late father. He shook my hand with an iron grip and said: “In North Africa we had everything and the Brits had nothing. I got nothing but respect for them; you push ’em back and push ’em back and push ’em back until they’re up against the wall and then they come back at you like tomcats…”

These words from an American made me proud to be British.

Oh, and I love Marmite.

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Evel Knievel and The Fat Elvis Diner is available on a Kindle near you!

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