'The blues still stands for authenticity': my Mississippi road trip
Inspired by fragments of lyrics and old recordings, novelist Hari Kunzru set off through America’s deep south
The Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images
We were driving from New York to west Texas, and late in the afternoon we left Nashville and crossed the Tennessee state line into Mississippi. My girlfriend (now my wife), a writer friend and I were following the Natchez Trace, an ancient route that had been turned into a national park, a strip of unbroken green stretching 400 miles south. As I drove, the modern world of gas stations and strip malls fell away, and it seemed to me that I was travelling back into a yellow-hued past. It was beautiful, but at the same time faintly threatening, like several moments on that trip: the Disney castle that loomed up over a dark forest and revealed itself as a chemical plant; the electrical storm on the horizon as we pulled into a motel.
In the rural south, the three of us stuck out like a sore thumb. We were the set-up for a bad joke: an Asian woman, a white woman and a non-specific brown man walk into a bar… More than once we brought a place of business to a halt. I remember a gas station with a diner counter where a row of men in hunting camo stopped spooning eggs into their mouths just to watch me pay for a soda. There was a diner in Clarksdale run by a Lebanese family (flag on the wall, tabouleh and hummus on the menu after the usual “American” items) where the waitress leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, “New York?”, as if making contact on behalf of the super-secret immigrant-welcoming committee.
Soon we left Mississippi behind, but the place was firmly lodged in my imagination: the signs of the Baptist churches raining hellfire on passing motorists, the empty bottles of Four Roses bourbon at the William Faulkner House, the Spanish moss hanging from the trees. Even before that journey I’d been caught up in the music. Modern Mississippi (the part that isn’t buying Faith Hill records) bumps along to trap and bass, nodding its head to Gucci Mane or the Jackson rapper Big KRIT, but I had got mixed up in a style that seems to have been consigned to heritage tourism: the country blues.
If I say it’s almost impossible to hear the blues now, that’s not because it’s unavailable, quite the opposite. In every city in America (and most others around the world) there is a half-empty bar where a middle-aged man with a ponytail is yodelling about how he woke up this morning and got down on his knees. Young baby boomers fell in love with the blues, and made their taste global. In England, skinny young rock musicians like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones studied the old songs, then sold them back to America with extra heaviness. John Bonham’s massive booming drums on When The Levee Breaks weren’t recorded anywhere near a levee, but in the hall of a Hampshire country house. Though the height of its popularity was 50 years ago, in the popular imagination the blues still stands for authenticity.
But since authenticity is catnip to capital, the blues has become a visual shorthand in advertising: a tastefully blown-out shot of a sharecropper sitting on a porch playing a harmonica, cut with a water droplet running down the flank of a beer bottle. It’s hard to think of another kind of music that has been so thoroughly hollowed out.
But it is extraordinary music, if you can really hear it. I’ve been making playlists of songs originally recorded on 78rpm shellac discs in the years before the second world war, songs that sounded like the work of ghosts. The voices of the old singers were distant in time, muffled by crackle and hiss, and yet somehow immediate. I started scribbling lists of names in my notebook, fingerpicking guitarists, men from the Mississippi hills who played fife and drums. Inevitably, I started writing a novel, if only as a pretext for my obsession. A couple of years after my first short trip, I went back, following a meandering path dictated by fragments of old lyrics and the life stories of musicians.
Hari Kunzru at Dockery Farm, a Mississippi blues mecca. Photograph: Hari Kunzru
One morning I drove through heavy rain towards the river, near a place called Rosedale. “Lord, I’m going to Rosedale, going to take my rider by my side,” sings Robert Johnson, who’s making his way through towns and women in Traveling Riverside Blues. The “rider” is from Friars Point, a little farther upriver, near the Stovall plantation where Muddy Waters was still an unknown tractor driver.
She has gold teeth and “a mortgage on my body, now, and a lien on my soul”.
Rosedale today is a scatter of one-storey houses and cabins. On Main Street there’s a bank, a courthouse and an old cafe selling hot tamales. Johnson must have stopped in places like that, because another of his girls (“she long and tall, she sleeps in the kitchen with her feets in the hall”) sells them “two for a nickel… four for a dime”. The tamale is a Mississippi delta curiosity. Shucks of corn, filled with ground meat and cornmeal, wrapped up with twine into skinny little parcels of steaming fragrant paste. I order them by the half-dozen, by the dozen; smother them in cheese and slather them in hot sauce. Most people argue that they were brought by Mexican migrants who worked the cotton fields in the early 20th century. A few say that tamales are far older, a trace of the maize-based agriculture of the mound-building Native Americans who once lived on the river.
The mounds, and the memory of the people who built them almost 1,000 years ago, are one of the many ghostly traces on the Mississippi landscape. Downriver from Rosedale, at Winterville, I walked around the base of one of these mysterious constructions, part of a culture that had disappeared by 1500. “Big” Bill Broonzy used to tell a tall story about his birth, claiming it took place during the great Mississippi flood of 1893. His parents (and their 15 other children) had fled to the top of a “Choctaw mound”, possibly even this one. There his mother went into labour, after his father had gone off in a rowing boat to get help.
You can be very close to the Mississippi river and still not see it. The reason is the levee, a huge mound of earth raised to prevent flooding. Not until you walk up on top do you witness the great sluggish beast making its way down to the Gulf. Since European colonisation, engineers have been battling to stop the Mississippi spreading itself out across the delta in times of heavy rain. As I stood on the levee near the river port of Greenville, the rain was falling hard and the Mississippi was rushing on in a great brown muddy torrent. I retreated to my car and spent the night in a motel on a strip of fast-food restaurants on the highway, listening to the sound of eight inches of rain falling on the state. I woke to discover that rivers and creeks had overtopped their banks, washing away roads and killing at least one person, a little girl swept into a storm drain.
Robert Johnson singing Me And The Devil
The National Weather Service classified this as “minor to moderate” flooding. The great flood of 1927 was one of the most destructive in the history of the US: 27,000 square miles were inundated, leaving some parts of the delta 30ft underwater. You can hear its impact in the blues. Charley Patton found “high water everywhere”, which drove him from one place to another, frantically looking for shelter. “The water in Greenville and Leland, Lord, it done rose everywhere,/ I would go down to Rosedale but they tell me there’s water there.” Two hundred thousand people were displaced in Mississippi, most of them farm workers and their families. “It’s raining, it has been for nights and days./ Thousand people stands on the hill, looking down where they used to stay,” sings Barbecue Bob, who is “sitting here looking at all of this mud,/ And my gal got washed away in that Mississippi flood”.
The flood had a wider impact on the lives of the black people of the delta. The federal response was to institute a massive programme of levee reconstruction, some of it using forced labour. The Mississippi levee camps were some of the roughest places in the south. Gangs worked from sun-up to sundown (traditionally “from can see to can’t” or just “from can to can’t”), wheeling barrows of earth and driving mule teams. Some men were free, others convicts, working off fines. Conditions were primitive. Bosses were armed and drove the workers hard. Cholera was rife.
Bluesmen Robert Johnson (on left) and Johnny Shines, circa 1935. Photograph: Robert Johnson Estate/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Near the camps, women set up their own tents, washing clothes and selling sex. “Men on the levee hollering whoa and gee,/ Women in the levee camp hollering who wants me,” sang the Texan Gene Campbell. Stories abound of drunken fights in camp jukes and barrelhouses, where bluesmen would play to patrons so inured to violence, it was said they’d tread on your corpse to get to the bar.
Many blues lyrics are based on levee camp hollers, work chants that could contain everything from gossip (“That woman ain’t nothing but a downtown money waster”) to advice on when it’s safest to ask for wages from a psychopathic boss (“Oh, boys, if you want to go down to Mr Charlie and don’t get hurt,/ go down Monday morning when the boys are at work,/ you’ll be alright”) and the broken-down condition of the draft animals (“Lord, I walked around the whole corral,/ couldn’t find a mule with his shoulder well”), which at times made it impossible for them to pull a load.
Inland from Rosedale is the monotonous landscape of the delta, flat agricultural land that in the 20s and 30s was devoted to highly profitable large-scale cotton farming. I drove through it under a lowering sky. The fields were full of standing water. At first it was a place where the majority of landowners were black; but by 1890 black people had been disenfranchised and a systematic pattern of lynchings had driven out most of the former owners and put their land firmly in the hands of white people. In the interwar period, it was known as a racy, modern place, where people went to work on large farms like Dockery’s, the plantation where Charley Patton used to play to the pickers on payday.
No one else wanted to look at the old plantation in the rain, so I walked around the outbuildings on my own. At its height, the place had supported 2,000 black workers, who were paid in farm currency or scrip, tying them to the place. No wonder it was so glamorous to be a rambler, a rounder, able to move around freely. In Me And The Devil, Robert Johnson (often to be found around Dockery’s) cheerfully greets Satan, who’s come to take him to hell, and leaves instructions that “you may bury my body”, not in sanctified ground, but “by the highway side,/ So my old evil spirit can get a Greyhound bus and ride”.
Some, like Johnson, travelled all across the country playing music. Son House travelled, but he saw the upside of home: “Clarksdale’s in the South, and lays heavy on my mind,/ I can have a good time there, if I ain’t got but one lousy dime.” When cotton was king, Clarksdale was a thriving town, with streets of smart shopfronts in the newly fashionable deco style. Now it’s a fragile place, the downtown economy vampirised by Walmart and the other big box stores that lurk at the periphery of most southern towns. These days, Mississippi has the lowest average household income in the US, at just under $37,000 (£30,000) a year.
I walked around Clarksdale, thinking about Son House, who saw the town’s 20s and 30s boom time from the gutter. “Every day in the week,” he sings, “I goes to Midtown Drugs,/ and get me a bottle of snuff, and a bottle of Alcorub.” During prohibition, the poorest southern alcoholics, who couldn’t even afford the price of a jug of country liquor, would try to stave off the comedown by sniffing rubbing alcohol or drinking camping fuel, known as canned heat. “Crying, canned heat, mama,” sings Tommy Johnson, “sure, Lord killing me.”
I stumbled around in a muddy graveyard as rain hammered down, looking for one of the three reputed graves of Robert Johnson. I stood outside the ruins of Bryant’s grocery, where in 1955 14-year-old Emmett Till was accused of “reckless eyeballing” and whistling at the owner’s wife. I climbed in and out of ruined shops on Jackson’s Farish Street, once known as the “black Mecca”. I looked for railway junctions. At one time there were more than 100 lines serving the delta. Almost all have gone, except in the lyrics of the blues. The composer and bandleader WC Handy was asleep on a train in 1903, when in the depot at Tutwiler, just south of Clarksdale, he heard a ragged musician sing about “going where the Southern cross the Dog”. I found that spot, at Moorhead, the junction of the Southern Railroad and the Yazoo and Delta line, known because of its initials as the Yellow Dog. There are still rails, but no trains will ever run on them again.
Rounders such as Johnson would hop freights if they had no money for a regular ticket. “I got to keep moving,” he sings, “blues falling down like hail./ And the days keeps on worrying me, there’s a hellhound on my trail.” The most famous train in the blues is the Midnight Special, implored by hundreds of singers over the years to “shine her ever-loving light on me”. It’s a Texas train, the Southern Pacific Golden Gate Limited, which passed Sugar Land prison outside Houston, bringing dreams of freedom and redemption.
Lead Belly singing Midnight Special
But in the delta there was another known by the same name. Every fifth Saturday, at midnight, the Midnight Special left Jackson on the Yellow Dog line, arriving at dawn at Parchman Farm, the notorious state prison. “Judge give me life this morning, down on Parchman Farm./ I wouldn’t hate it so bad, but I left my wife and home,” sings “Bukka” White. The Parchman Midnight Special shone a light on the men incarcerated there, because it brought wives and lovers on conjugal visits, as well as prostitutes who would be smuggled in for guards or trustees. And it always held out the tantalising possibility of freedom, the arrival of the “woman with the umbrella and the pardon in her hand”, who appears in various versions of Midnight Special saying, “Warden, give me my man”.
There are recordings from inside the prison, made by John and Alan Lomax. In 1948, a group of prisoners led by a caller known as “22” sang one of the many prison works songs dedicated to “Rosie”: “Ain’t but one thing I done wrong,” they sang, “stay in Mississippi a day too long.” That line ran round my head as I sat in my rental car outside the main gate. Flat farmland stretched away in all directions. Cars came and went, entering what is now the Mississippi State Penitentiary. If I’d learned one thing about the blues by driving around Mississippi in the rain, it was that you have to listen to messages like that. I turned the key in the ignition and headed down the road, in the direction of Louisiana.
• Hari Kunzru’s new novel, White Tears, is published on 6 April by Hamish Hamilton at £14.99.