Wednesday, December 2, 2009
It's raining, which in an of itself would not keep me from walking. But the temperature is around 45 degrees, with no likelihood that it will go any higher today. When I woke up I went through the motions of getting ready to walk, and even set out from the Clarksdale Walmart parking lot to begin the day's trek, but by the time I got to Tutwiler, about nine miles from Lurand, the rain was hard and steady. Drizzle and light rain are fine, and even hard rain isn't bad when it's warmer. I could have gone on, but it wouldn't have been fun at all. Not that I absolutely require fun, mind you. None of these walks, taken individually, is exactly fun. The five-day forecast for this area promises cool sunny weather for the next several days after today. So I decided to cash it in and go back for yet another day in Clarksdale. My only regret is that I wasted gas going as far as I did before making up my mind. Maybe Robert Johnson's ghost took exception to something I said yesterday and was playing with me, making me stay here until I get it right.
After today's R&R I'll need to put together at least four days of walking without a break if I'm going to keep to my schedule, which is to do fifteen or sixteen days of walking before going home for the holidays. (Another break? When is he going to get serious about this project?) Yeah yeah. You try it. I don't think I'll make it into New Orleans before then, but I'll be close. I'm going to go down on the west side of Lake Ponchartrain, parallel to I-55, since the New Orleans airport, from which I will fly on December 19th, is over that way. When I return on January 2nd I'll walk the Crescent City from west to east, then turn around and walk back through it again from east to west by a different route. After that it'll be pretty much west all the way.
The signs when you enter Tutwiler say it's "Where the Blues was Born." That's because an Alabama musician and folklorist named W.C. Handy said he first heard the blues being played at the railroad platform in Tutwiler in 1903. He called it "the weirdest music I had ever heard." I drove through the town and I can tell you that if the blues was born there, it probably couldn't wait to leave and go to Chicago. But then, that's how it went down, wasn't it? The serendipitous explosion of talent and innovation and style that took place here in the Delta during the first three or four decades of the 20th century would never have been more than a few archive discs in the Library of Congress and some vague local memories if its brightest lights hadn't gone up north. Even Robert Johnson spent most of his short career on the road--Memphis, New York, Chicago, and everywhere in between. His famous recordings were made in Texas.
The blues had to spread far and wide to germinate and grow, and everybody went north as soon and as often as they could. Most of them are living or buried in Chicago, or maybe Detroit. Almost nobody, except Robert Johnson and a couple of old timers like Mississippi John Hurt, died here, and Johnson almost certainly would have ended up in the north permanently if he'd lived. If everybody had stayed in the Delta there would have been no Chess Records, and probably no English guys would have picked up the records in the 1960s, and I wouldn't be writing this. When I was touring the blues museum yesterday I couldn't help noticing that the only other people there besides the kid at the desk were older white folks. I wonder what will happen to the blues after my generation dies? We grew up on Clapton and the Stones and Johnny Winter, and then got to see the original guys at places like the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, but practically nobody younger than us, black or white, really embraces the genre, except perhaps from a scholarly perspective. What passes for "blues" on the radio is for the most part urban R&B--a distinctly different offshoot. Nobody's been able to so much as give Delta blues away, much less sell it, to African American audiences since the 1950s. So what's left is white boomers and some Europeans. Who knows? Maybe the blues will live on in some place like Bulgaria. But in all likelihood in this country it will be as dead as old W.C. Handy is by the middle of the century.
Then again, as Muddy Waters said, "the blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll."