CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI — Clarksdale, Miss. -- e were sitting beneath a shade tree, Bear Taylor and I, sitting in the still of a lazy, hot Mississippi Delta afternoon, and old Bear, 88, was singing.
"Oooohhh, you know when I was in jail, come for you to get me out. Oooohhh, you said, I was too damn crazy, I ain't gon' never help you get out of jail no more."
It was part field holler and part prisoner's lament, music that predates the blues. I did not expect to hear such a sound. I'd come to the delta to see this sun-beaten land where black men with guitars fashioned music from their joys and sorrows. I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of that music.
I've had a blues jones going on 20 years now. It began with Jimi Hendrix, wrenching tears from a Fender Stratocaster guitar. Then came Muddy Waters, his "Rolling and Tumbling" sounding spooky and pure to my teen-age ears. Muddy led me to Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and Son House, the bluesmen at ground zero -- the Mississippi Delta.
A creative Big Bang occurred here a hundred years ago. Songs like old Bear's blended with spirituals and the music carried on the river. By the early 1900s, the Delta Blues, grandfather to rock and roll, had been born.
The delta is farm country. Traffic on the narrow, two-lane highways backs up behind slow-moving tractors. The air is alive with the drone of propellers, crop dusters dipping low over fields of cotton, then pulling up and banking in wide, graceful turns that bring them around again.
Cotton bales, some small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, are everywhere: museums, cultural centers, the lobby of the Comfort Inn. This was once King Cotton's empire. Now rice paddies and catfish farms are common. Even the McDonald's serves catfish.
The river lords over the delta. It is a huge, brooding presence, treacherous and indifferent. Its floods, like those this summer, have drowned towns, created lakes, bayous, swamps. Early settlers found the delta abominable, often impassable. Mosquitoes and malaria made it unlivable until the swamps were drained, the trees cleared, the restless river tamed.
You can see for miles. The monotony of land flat as a table top is broken only by stands of mulberry and magnolia, green with spring's flowering. Here and there are small towns with modern commercial strips built along the highways; clusters of houses surrounded by broad fields; abandoned tin-roofed shacks collapsing in ruin; gas stations out of business for years, their rusting pumps from an era of uniformed attendants and full service. And there is Big Muddy, dividing the continent as it spills into the Gulf of Mexico.
I drove through the delta 10 years ago, but didn't linger. Then, last January, I saw an advertisement in Blues Revue Quarterly:
"Think about it! Spend a whole week in the Delta hearing the kind of music you love; traveling from Greenwood to Clarksdale, to Helena . . ."
Here was a dream vacation, as much as visiting Vienna might be for a fan of Mozart, or the Louvre for an art historian. I talked about staying at the Riverside Hotel and sleeping in the room where Bessie Smith died, holding my own midnight seance at the intersections of U.S. highways 61 and 49 -- the crossroads -- where legend says Robert Johnson met the devil and struck a deal: his soul for mastery of the blues.
I wasn't afraid of Mississippi, even though the name still conjures images of bloody civil rights battles and fallen heroes. Michael Schwerner. James Chaney. Andrew Goodman. Medger Evers.
My wife, Jean, said her mother once told her Mississippi was the one place she should avoid. That was true 30 years ago, when a freedom worker wrote of being "stunned by the danger like a deer by the headlights of an oncoming car."
Nowadays blacks and whites mingle as freely here as elsewhere in America. They work side-by-side in restaurants, department stores and motels. Some folks are so intent on shaking the past they have taken to calling the delta the mid-South. Marvin Flemmons, who promotes the Pops Staples Blues Festival in Drew, said he and others see the festivals as a way of bringing in outsiders and changing "the way they perceive Mississippi."
I realized what he meant the day we poked our heads in a Greenwood barber shop, seeking directions to a blues festival. A roomful of older white men stared at us, surprised, confused about what to do with these black Yankees who'd casually entered their domain. Their silence seemed interminable. Then the barber spoke to one of his friends: "Well, go on and tell them where it is." We left wondering how the encounter would have played in 1963.