This is part three in a series of blog posts about legendary blues man Son House, as Geva prepares for a four-day festival celebrating his life and legacy at the end of August.
This past September, director Skip Greer and I traveled to Mississippi to get a sense about where Son came from and visit some of the places he lived and played. We were very fortunate to have underwriting from the Farash Family Foundation for this invaluable research trip. Skip and I flew to Memphis, rented a car and drove to Mississippi. While we were travelling, I kept a journal, and the thoughts that I recorded form the basis of today’s post.
Even our first stop, The Hollywood Café in Robinsonville, MS, was an education. The building was the former commissary for one of the plantations that Son House worked and lived on – and Son played in the place when it was a juke joint in the 1970’s and maybe also when it was a commissary. Our waitress told us in a hushed voice that the cafe used to be the hip place to go for people from Memphis who were getting out of town for a “rendezvous.” Because the word wouldn’t spread all the way to Memphis (that’s like 20 minutes away, by car).
The house that was the plantation here is still standing – a two story home that wouldn’t be large by Rochester standards but was clearly much larger than anything in the area. And just next to that – really in the yard of that house – was a shack, which we imagined might have been the home of a sharecropper and his family. Buildings like this would have been what Son would have lived in, living and working on this plantation.
We stopped in Tunica, just down the road, to check out the Son House blues marker – someone left an empty bottle of alcohol for Son there – at least, I’m choosing to think it’s in tribute to Son, at any rate.
Then we drove to Lula, where Charley Patton first heard Son playing at a train station, and they started playing together. (It was because of Charley that Son was first recorded by Paramount.) The train tracks are still there, but there are stalled, abandoned railroad trains on the tracks, so they’re clearly not used any longer. The town is terribly depressed – boarded up, burnt out buildings next to small houses with men sitting in lawn chairs in the driveway. Everybody moving slowly because it’s like 100 degrees out there. Some of the buildings that would have been there in Son’s time are still standing, although they don’t serve the same purpose (an old Ford dealership is now either empty or used for town offices – it was hard to tell from the outside).
Standing there, while life went on around us, I felt like an intruder. Not because anyone was hostile in any way. But because we were there, in all of our white privilege, our fancy air conditioned rental car, and the buildings clearly communicated a life beaten down by racism, cooked in the incredibly hot sun. We were there with the best of intentions, with an interest in learning about the experience that made Son House the man he was, so that we can tell his story accurately. But how many people before us had been there without such good intentions? And why had time been allowed to stand still for this community? Of course it hasn’t really stood still – but it did feel like these people in the middle of Mississippi had been left behind.
We got back in the car to head to Clarksdale, and it was literally 100 degrees. It’s this kind of heat – and worse – that Son and the other tenant farmers would have been picking cotton on those plantations. Brutal.
When we arrived in Clarksdale, the largest town in this area, we were again struck by the number of boarded up buildings, next to buildings that looked like they should be boarded up, but seemed to be businesses in operation.
Clarksdale is home to the Ground Zero Blues Club, and there, we got a beer and listened to an old bluesman sing with a band of young white musicians. Razorblade finished a set, then started working the audience. Skip had stepped out so I was sitting at the table alone when he got to our table.
Razorblade sat down and said, “How’d I do? Not too bad for an old man?” I assured him that he was great, and when he discovered that I wasn’t from the area and was in Clarksdale for the first time, he was thrilled. This is more or less what he said:
“I been playing the blues my whole life, right here in Clarksdale. Been playing here since 2001. I’m a legendary bluesman, right here. These kids [meaning his band], they’ve never played for me before, but they know all of my songs. That girl, the guitar player, I’ve known her since she was 12 years old. She wanted to play in my band, but I said she was crazy – I’m an old black man, can’t have no 12 year old white girl in my band. I’ll get thrown in jail! But every time I play, she’s in the front row, with her guitar, so I started teaching her. Now she’s playing for me.”
Then he sold me his CD (yes, I bought it, but it seemed like a necessity at this point), and said he needed to be able to pay his band – all of them are people he’s known and been working with for years.
Then, a story.
“You know Robert Johnson’s story?” (yes, I reply) “Well I’ve got my own story, and it come to me right here in this bar. I told it to Morgan and he said I was mentally retarded. You’re going to think I’m crazy. Do you believe in God?” (A. Morgan Freeman owns this club, and is like a savior to this town. B. I started to worry here – but it turned out great.)
He got a pen and drew a dollar sign – the big S with two lines through it. “You’ve seen this symbol before, right? Well it’s the thing that people all seem in a hurry to get.” He draws a snake’s mouth on the front of the S, and says “this is the mouth, where the venom is.” And he draws a rattle on the back of the S, and says “Now I think that we live our lives in three scores. The first one, is our first twenty years.” Here he traces from the end of the snake to the first place where the lines intersect the S. “This is the first crossroads. Some people here try to go straight up the line, ’cause they’re after money. Some people go backwards to the tail, which is prison. And everybody else goes through the crossroads, and follows this curve, which are all of the trials and tribulations of life. Then, at 40, we come back around to the second crossroads. Nobody wants to go backwards and stay in all that trouble, so we either cross it or go straight up again. But we face a new kind of trouble, and then we come back around and we’re 60, and we’re at the crossroads again. Now, we can either go forwards to the mouth – that’s death because that’s where all the venom is – or we can go up, and do what we were put on this earth to do.”
He says that when he told the story to Morgan, Morgan asked him what was at the top. Razorblade said, “Why that’s heaven.” But Morgan said, no, it can’t be – you’re still alive. He took Razorblade’s pen and wrote “Content” at the top. That’s contentment, happiness, where we don’t have to struggle anymore.
And that’s where Razorblade says he is.
A great story from an old bluesman. And that was just day one.