“Booze, Blues, & Bible-bangers”
by Lyn Fox
New Orleans is where the Bible belt comes unbuckled. I realize this on Bourbon Street when a black transsexual offers me his unconscious, whiskey-drenched sister for a ten-dollar blowjob or a twenty-dollar screw. Suddenly, an all-white jazz band appears. Clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, banjos, and drums pummel the tragic siblings with “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Race, rye, and religion are constant themes on the Mississippi. In the American Odyssey, Huck Finn and sidekick Jim float downriver to escape racism, alcoholism, and fundamentalism. One thing is as clear as the water is muddy: they went the wrong way. Now I, Huckleberry Lyn, am heading upriver in search of some answers and the ever-elusive freedom.
Exit the French Quarter to what was once Storyville. Here jazz was born and named for the jasmine aura of the local whorehouses. I step into a bistro for red beans and rice with turnip greens. My food tastes like history—an edible incarnation of bygone days and neighborhood spirits. In nearby dirt alleys, the hungry, seven-year-old son of a prostitute once dragged around a coal cart. Jailed by age eleven for firing a pistol in New Year’s Eve revelry, the boy was taken from the only family he’d ever known to reform school. Solace took the shape of a silver trumpet. Though as entitled to bitterness as anyone ever was, Louis Armstrong set out to give the world a hug instead.
Satchel-mouthed “Satchmo” single-handedly invented improvisation and swing time. His “West End Blues” has been called the most perfect three minutes of music ever made. When his sheet music fell off during recording, he introduced America to the scat. He crooned “La Vie En Rose” with enough romantic charm to make cats kiss dogs. His canonical rendition of “What a Wonderful World” has done more to combat global misery than World Vision. Plus, forty years after redefining music, the aging master still bumped the unsoulful Beatles down the charts to make “Hello Dolly” number one in the nation.
Despite his triumphs, when Louie returned to New Orleans for Mardi gras, community and religious leaders banned his racially integrated group from performing. Heartbroken, he scrapped plans to be buried here in his hometown. Though his favorite song was “Sleepytime Down South,” Armstrong chose to spend his eternal rest up North. Haunting lyrics still reflect his great soul and his suffering: “My only sin, is my skin. Why must I be so black and blue?”
Next day, I leave Creole N’AW-lins, driving thru Cajun country. Cajun is short for Acadian. Acadian is short for “a bayou-dwellin’ French-Canadian with an accordion.” These folks have had it rough. Driven from France to Nova Scotia by hardship, then South to Louisiana by British, they got their fishin’ nets, washin’ boards, and moonshinin’ stills set up just in time for Napoleon to sell their new home to the Americans for pocket change. The final insult came when McDonald’s announced the new Cajun McChicken sandwich. Now, I see with my own eyes how les meserables have been driven to the point of actually enjoying country music. Somebody oughta do somethin’.
Back on the Mississippi, cypress-crowded basins give way to oak-dotted plantations. Palatial estates recall one of the world’s last medieval societies. Within their walls, white knights and damsels lived by a code of honor and chivalry. Alas, this didn’t extend to the surrounding fields where fellow humans died under a code of barbarism and slavery. Gone with the wind? One can only hope.
Antebellum Natchez rises up ahead on the river bluff. Cock-on-the-Walk Restaurant serves me catfish, coleslaw, pickled onions, and hushpuppies, then a landmark bed & breakfast surrounds me with fine antiques and plush pillows. Slumber comes nice and easy. Rosy-fingered dawn goes unnoticed, but smoky-tentacled bacon taps me on the shoulder and pulls me down the hallway. I drive off greatly full and fully grateful.
The road forks at D’Evereaux Drive, where people were once yoked together like cattle and auctioned off. I park and stand a while. When the biblical villain Cain asserted he wasn’t his brother’s keeper, God responded, “Listen! Your murdered brother’s blood cries out from the ground.” The blood of slaves has long cried out from the dirt on which I stand. Such cries carried on Natchez blues radio WMIS directly cross-river where rockabilliest Jerry Lee Lewis was born.
While trying to become a preacher at Southwestern Bible Institute, Jerry was asked to play the song, “My God is Real” during worship. He pounded it out boogie-woogie style and was promptly expelled. They didn’t want God that real. Lewis then applied his “great balls of fire” to something less original in the Deep South: tickling both “the ivories” and “the ebonies” as pianist and patron at Nellie Jackson’s Natchez bawdy house, then marrying over half a dozen women, including his thirteen-year-old cousin.
Traditional religion had no place for black music. Yet, there was plenty of room in the fold for the white sheep of the family, Jerry’s other cousin: Jimmy Swaggart. (Before Jimmy and Jerry were scandalized by sex and rock-n-roll, federal agents arrested their fathers for distilling the local drug of choice, corn whisky.) Lewis did eventually get to preach his own prophetic message, “There’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.” As Plato wrote, “A society’s foundations shake when musical style changes.” Here on highway 61, where I’m cruising along toward Memphis, our world got “all shook up.”
The Mississippi Delta was once a vast swamp of gum trees, panthers, snakes, mosquitoes, and malaria. For eons, the great muddy river gently deposited dirt on the site. Now, it is a land of rich black soil and poor black people, of fat white cotton bolls and fat white cotton bosses. The population is around 80% black. The landscape is awash in shotgun shacks without plumbing or electricity.
Ironically, a century ago, as diminishing crops were being carefully weighed and sold, a priceless musical harvest sprung up unnoticed, then scattered its seeds to the wind and the Windy City. Chester Arthur Burnett’s story is somewhat typical of the region’s legendary bluesmen.
Chester, a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf, was born in 1910 on the Illinois Central train line near the Mississippi/Alabama border. His eighteen-year-old, Black, sharecropper dad married his fifteen-year-old, Choctaw, pregnant mom unceremoniously.
During the toddler years, his father moved away, his native grandfather nicknamed him “Wolf” for his mischievousness, and his mother threw him out to fend for himself. He found shelter with his brutal, violent uncle—a church deacon. His new guardian leather-whipped him into working cotton from sunup to bedtime while providing him with bread, milk, and eventually a pair of shoes.
Chester whistled or sang while plowing. During breaks, he beat on a bucket or made a one-string diddley-bow out of board and bailing wire. After saving for and donning his first pair of trousers, he was knocked into mud and slop by the family’s prize hog. He beat the pig to death, then ran for the train, just ahead of uncle’s whip—barefoot, raggedy, thirteen, and Delta-bound.
On the Young & Morrow Plantation, he slaved behind a team of flea-bitten, farting mules. The blues, a series of twelve-bar phrases based on three chords, an A-A-B rhyme pattern, and simple, passionate truth, came as naturally as sweating. The music was a road out of hell. It provided escape during work, relaxation after work, and with mastery a way to quit work.
Chester played Delta juke joints with mentor Charlie Patton and pal Robert Johnson. These hangouts were dangerous outfits, where bluesmen brought in the women, women brought in the men, and men, drinking whisky from bottles or tin cups while packing guns or knives, gambled with deadly intensity.
Under the scorching sun, Chester grew into a six foot, five inch tall, almost three hundred hulking pound adult with huge head, hands, and feet. His skin was smooth and dark. His blue-gray eyes, growly voice, and paranoid/sexually predatory nature truly seemed wolfish.
Onstage, Chester beat his guitar like a drum and rode it like a pony. He bent strings with his fingers or made them sob with a slide. He played one harmonica with his mouth and another simultaneously with his nose. He padded around like a caged animal or crawled across the floor. He licked his lips, humped the air, stared balefully, mumbled to himself, and always carried a pistol.
In Clarksdale, I visit the Delta Blues Museum to research more on Howlin’ Wolf. At Boss Hawg’s Bar-B-Q, I perform last rites on swine that stains my clothes like Chester’s nemesis. (Of all the things that damage the heart, I regret pulled pork and torrid love the least.) I reach Beale Street and Sun Studios in Memphis with mind and body still digesting.
In the 1950’s, Chester Burnett played on Beale Street while a teenage Elvis Presley hung in the shadows. The Wolf also preceded the King into Sun Studios, recording his masterpieces, “Moanin’ at Midnight” and “Smokestack Lightnin’.” On the latter, hypnotic rhythm gradually picks up steam like a locomotive. Full-moon falsetto-howls punctuate work-song field-holler vocals. Dark, cryptic lyrics convey a Gothic spirituality and summon up ghost trains from his disturbed nightmarish childhood near the tracks. All throughout, Wolf’s primal soul wails for his mother like a lupine cub lost in the wilderness.
This theme of “a woman done him wrong” permeates Chester’s musicology. In real life, his mother refused to speak to him. Neither his serial adulteries nor her child abandonment troubled her much, but playing the devil’s music (blues) in places serving demonic drink (alcohol) was inexcusable. She insisted that she was Jesus’ child but he had sold his soul.
Near the end of his life, he tracked her down in Clarksdale and hugged her, slipping a five-hundred-dollar bill into her pocket. She found it, spat on it, stomped on it, and yelled, “I don’t want your dirty money!” He cried all the way to Memphis.
In his tormented classic, “Goin’ Down Slow,” Chester begs for pardon: “Please, write my mama. Tell her the shape I’m in. Tell her to pray for me: forgive me for my sin.” Wolf always remained skeptical of organized religion; he figured if his mom and uncle were on that side, he belonged on the other. Yet, he knelt by his bed in prayer every night. British bandleader Chris Barber hosted blues and gospel musicians for decades and recalled, “The only one who ever said grace before meals was Wolf, the only one!”
When his kidneys failed, he phoned mom from his Chicago deathbed. She refused to take the call.
Religion’s designation of blues and later rock-and-roll as “devil music” was a thin disguise for its real crime of being “nigger music.” (W.C. Handy, first great composer of the blues, was a pious bible-believer who wrote uplifting songs.) The contagious groove and earthy lyrics were commonly attributed to the “primitiveness” of the black race. However, primitive nature was not the muse, primitive treatment was. Reduce people to survival level and they confront life’s elemental themes and rawest emotions. In parlor talk, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” In the Delta, it’s just a mean motherfucker.
Chester once told an interviewer, “The people that come up the hard way—that come up sufferin’—they can play that music. You think the blues is gone down for the count? Blues is gonna be played in people’s homes. Even to this day, I wouldn’t be allowed in their houses—but my music is gonna be.” Today, statues of him span the length of the Mississippi and his image dons a U.S. postage stamp. Now, everyone plays music from the Delta, but not just anyone can put the Delta into the music.
I stop at a redneck pub. The leathery face of a much-tattooed barmaid is crisscrossed with dark crevices mirroring the deep cleavage that plunges into her unbuttoned denim shirt. The jukebox is playing ZZ Top blues…
“Jesus just left Chicago and he’s bound for New Orleans.”
Mark Twain once quipped, “If Christ were here now, there’s one thing he would not be: a Christian.”
“Took a jump thru Mississippi, muddy water turned to wine.”
Whether Jesus will return to perform this miracle, I don’t know. If he does, one thing is certain: the fundamentalists will crucify him again.