The Blues Is Dying In The Place It Was Born
 By Rick Bragg


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, 
alleys, stores.

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?

Back-Door Man

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 
of them."

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
Nurse cried,
"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.

Beyond Blues

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 
almost froze.

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 
them plays."

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."


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