ELZONI, MISSISSIPPI - The blues is, when polio freezes your fingers and
shrivels your legs, you play a baby- blue Epiphone guitar on your lap in a
wheelchair, chording the strings with a butter knife. CeDell Davis, crippled
by that disease when he was 10, almost 63 years ago, lives inside the blues.
The blues is, when you find the fine, big woman of your dreams, she dies in
your arms of a heart attack just before dawn. James (T-Model) Ford, who
swears he would have married her, is wed to the blues.
The blues is, when the searing light from your welder's torch slowly,
gradually burns much of the sight from your eyes, you sit on your porch in
the cool damp of the afternoon and sing to the rhythms in your own mind, then
go into town for a bottle of Wild Irish Rose. Paul Jones, who knows the
narrow roads in Belzoni so well he does not need to see that much to drive,
has surrendered to the blues.
"I believe in God, but the Devil, he's got power, too," said Mr.Jones, who,
with Mr. Davis, Mr. Ford and a scattering of others, is among the last of the
Delta bluesmen who still live in the cradle of the blues. "Most of what you
sing about is suffering."
Musicians who were not born here, who have not had their spirits or their
bodies broken, who have never looked at these endless cotton fields and hated
them, can never truly play the blues, said Mr. Ford, who now lives in
Greenville, Miss., and Mr. Davis, who lives across the Mississippi River in
Pine Bluff, Ark. Outsiders might play a tune from the Delta, Mr. Jones said,
but there is no feeling in it.
"It's just," he said, "something you hear."
But here in the Delta, where most of the legendary juke joints have slowly
shut their doors and most of the bluesmen have died off or moved away, the
blues is fading from the very place it was born, say the people who play it
and others who live here.
They know their music survives, in the music collections of yuppies, in
college seminars on folk culture, in festivals and franchised venues like the
House of Blues, B. B. King's clubs and others in the United States, Asia and
But there is little live music left, the bluesmen say, at the source. They
play at festivals and the few weekend clubs that have endured, but even on
the jukeboxes in the surviving bars and fish houses there is little Delta
country blues. Hip-hop thuds from cars. Gospel, country and soul music,
sister to the blues, dominate the radio.
"I made $2,000 in one night in Japan," Mr. Jones said, but here he may make
$300, if the phone rings at all. Like Mr. Davis and Mr. Ford, he has been
recorded by a label in Water Valley, Miss., called Fat Possum Records, which
also aids the men in booking shows here and around the world. No one is
getting rich, but, Mr. Jones wonders, if he had not been picked up by that
small label, would he have slowly disappeared too?
Matthew Johnson, who was one of the founders of Fat Possum 10 years ago, said
he never wanted to be a folklorist; he "just wanted to make records that
CeDell Davis says crack cocaine and the culture it bred turned the already
tough juke joints into slaughterhouses over the last 15 years, driving people
away and all but silencing the small live shows that are now mostly folklore.
But the people of the Delta will come back to the blues, he said.
"The blues is about peoples, and as long as there's peoples, there will be
blues," Mr. Davis said. "The blues tells a story. Hip-Hop don't tell no
story. It don't tell no story about women, men, trains, buses, cars, birds,
The Blues Is About Things
When you sing the blues, here in one of the poorest, most unchanging corners
of the country, you hand everybody who listens a piece of your pain, fear and
hopelessness, until there is such a tiny piece left, you can live with it.
Sometimes, as Mr. Jones showed when he sang on a side porch one afternoon, it
sounds a lot like church.
Take away my sins and give me grace
Take away my sins and give me grace
Oh angels, Oh my Lord
Wish I was in heaven sittin' down.
It is the very authenticity of the blues that endangers it. Mae Smith grew up
in Lula, Miss., where a man named Frank Frost pushed a broom at her school.
Later, she found his name in a history of the blues.
"I thought he was the town drunk," said Ms. Smith, who helps run the Delta
Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss., and holds the title of interpretation
specialist. Many blues players live hard and die in obscurity, and a piece of
Delta history vanishes.
The Delta, like the blues, belongs to black people, the people here say,
though many do not own enough of it to root a vine. It was their sweat that
cleared its vast forests and transformed a 19th-century jungle into the
richest farmland on earth.
It lies in the deltas of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, an indistinct
triangle of vast fields, islands of trees and small towns extending south
from Memphis for about 200 miles, covering an area about 70 miles wide on
both sides of the Mississippi.
No other place, bluesmen say, could have nurtured the blues. What other place
saw such toil, such pain?
What other place could produce a man like T-Model Ford, whose ankles are
scarred from two years on a Tennessee chain gang, who walks with a cane
because a jack slipped and a truck crushed one leg, who sings about pistol
fights, abandonment, murder and adultery, and smiles and smiles?
In Greenville, in a small house behind the funeral home, the amplifier
crackles like lightning in a box as he plugs in the guitar he calls Gold
Nanny, sister to Black Nanny.
I should have left you, baby
Gone on back to Mexico
I kept messin' with you, baby
Now you got me on the killin' floor.
Some days, a bus full of Japanese tourists will roll up. They take his
picture, as they would photograph any other endangered species.
He did not sell his soul, as legend says Robert Johnson did, to master the
blues. The Devil, people say, would run from Mr. Ford.
He killed a man in Tennessee when he was young, stabbing him in the neck with
a switchblade after the man buried a knife in his back. "They gave me 10
years," he said. "Mama got a lawyer and got me out in two."
Once, when asked if he had killed anyone else, he replied, "Do I count the
one I run over in my Pontiac?"
He was, in his wilder days - which have lasted pretty much all of his 79
years - a bar fighter and a moonshine drinker. "I have fathered 26 living
children," he said. "I have married five times, and I have divorced from all
Then, quick as he can change chords, his voice slipped from bragging to blues.
"There was a woman I would have married, if she had lived," he said. "She was
a big, fine-looking woman, but she died in my arms. Four years ago. Best
woman I ever had. I loved her."
She was married to another man, so Mr. Ford - what people here would call her
back-door man - was not welcome at her funeral. "I just stood on the road and
watched," he said.
He thought about that a bit, then told a young man, a drummer who was napping
on his couch, to "go out there behind the seat of that truck and get me that
bottle of Jack."
His big hands danced across the strings. "I get to drinking," he said, "and
I'm a bad man."
Sent to the doctor
Shot full of holes
"Save his soul."
I'm a back-door man
I'm a back-door man
What the mens don't know
The little girls understand.
If T-Model Ford is a character from one of his songs, CeDell Davis is the
sadness not even the blues can describe.
When he was a little boy, a man working in a pea patch near his house in
Helena, Ark., dropped a harmonica, and Mr. Davis found it in the weeds.
"I liked the sound," he said. He unwrapped wire from a broom handle and
stretched it on a stick to make a crude guitar. He learned to play a real
guitar, a big Gibson.
Then the polio twisted him. "They said I would die, and when I didn't, they
said I could never care for myself."
He figured a way to steady his guitar in his lap, above his useless legs,
wedged a butter knife between his thumb and fingers that were stiff and
clumsy, and, over time, learned to strum with one hand and pinch the strings
with the knife in a way that makes the instrument seem to cry, as if alive.
He traveled the world, in fame and pain. He played in New York to packed
houses, and in St. Louis, where he was trampled by a panicked crowd during a
police raid. The worse of his bad legs was shattered.
Like Mr. Jones and Mr. Ford, he made some money, squandered it, got cheated
out of some, and now lives in a small house that from the outside gives no
sign a legend is inside.
But some days he gets out his guitar, "Bessie, named for a pretty,
light-skinned woman I used to know," and music blows through the screen doors
and sweeps the sadness away.
If you like fat women
Come to Pine Bluff, Arkansas
You know they got more fat women
Than any place you ever saw.
Ducking at Sylvester's
To Paul Jones, the blues will always smell like tea cakes. It was what his
mother baked as she sang. His daddy was a guitar man. By the time he was 8,
he knew his destiny.
"The Belzoni police stopped me and my daddy one time, but they just said,
`Hey, get that boy out and let him play,' and they took me to the station and
I played, and they threw quarters in the hole in my guitar."
He played the harsh clubs of the Delta, like Sylvester's, where his sister
was shot by accident by a jealous woman, where a man fired a shotgun at him
as he played. The closest he came to dying was about 2 a.m., coming back from
Oxford, Miss., when his 1974 Chevrolet broke down. It was 17 degrees, and he
Though he played all his life, it was welding that paid the bills.
He would like to pass his music on, "but I got five kids, and nary a one of
Ms. Smith of the Blues Museum in Clarksdale said the music that was once such
a part of daily life here must now be kept alive by programs like the one in
her museum, which is teaching blues to about 40 students.
Venessia Young, a 17-year-old high school senior who plays wicked guitar, is
one of them. Her classmates refuse to listen to blues.
But when she hears it, she hears something Paul Jones and CeDell Davis and
T-Model Ford hear.
"I'm going to attend Mississippi State next year, and they want me to play in
a jazz group," she said.
"But that music, I just don't feel it."
| Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar Books | Harmonica Books | Music Lessons
Harmonica Main | Celtic
Main | Blues
Main | Fingerstyle Main |
Woodstock 69 | Reviews
Free Celtic Guitar Arrangements |
Free Celtic Harmonica Arrangements |
Online Celtic Tunebook
Writings | MySpace
Page | Discographies |
To Order Books | Contact
| Links | Translate