Monday, October 12, 2015

The Mississippi Cradle of American Music II

Led Zepplin’s Lemon Song and My Head's In Mississippi by ZZ Top are both referenced in the previous post of this musical history. Both tunes refer to the songs of Howlin’ Wolf. His story is somewhat typical of the Mississippi Delta’s legendary bluesmen, who constitute the foundation of American music.

Chester Arthur Burnett, aka 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 his 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 leatherwhipped 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 diddleybow 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 the 1950s, Chester Burnett played on Beale Street in Memphis while a teenage Elvis Presley hung in the shadows. The Wolf also preceded the King into Sun Studios, recording 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 his playing the devil’s music (blues) in places serving demonic drink (alcohol) was inexcusable. She insisted that she was Jesus’ child but that 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 ‘n’ roll as “devil music” was a thin disguise for its real crime of being “nigger music.” (WC 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 Howlin’ Wolf span the length of the Mississippi and his image dons a US postage stamp. Now everyone plays music from the Delta, but not just anyone can put the Delta into the music.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Mississippi Cradle of American Music

From Vicksburg to Memphis, 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's 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.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Mount Everest Just Isn't Worth It

Reading Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air and seeing the new movie Everest about the same fatal climbing expedition led me to the same cold analytical conclusion. Everest is a lousy travel destination. Are there other mountains that offer a breathtaking view uncluttered by trash, decomposing human popsicles, and those sacred Tibetan prayer flags easily confused with Mexican barrio party flags? Check. Do other mountains provide that breathtaking view without taking so much breath that your head aches, your inability to make simple decisions threatens your life, and your health is permanently compromised? Check. Can other mountains be climbed without spending enough money to circle the globe twice with someone you love? Check. Since mountaineers are experts at facing cold hard grim realities, try this one out: Everest sucks!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Hail Caesar and Heil Fuhrer Trump

I didn't intend to be a prophet in my recent post about Hillary Clinton. Yet, I accidently was. After doubting that Republicans could find any candidate as sordid, corrupt, and unfit for public trust as America's former first lady and permanent first hag, I added a comment that we still don't know what lies under Donald Trump's frightening hair. Now we do. Two months ago, Trump was a real ass but not a real presidential candidate. Now he's both.

In order to appreciate the Antichrist-like miracle of Donald's ascendancy in the polls, we should take a moment to remember the lice-ridden manger into which this savior was born and the supernatural power he used to multiply 5 loaves and 2 fish that he inherited into five loaves and 2 fish and multiple bankruptcies and a bunch of debt and an enormous ego. (Paris Hilton has done a much better job monetizing the family assets [her ass and a nice set], but Barron Hilton is reportedly not amused, since he's apparently the last person in America who possesses a rare antique known as shame.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Battle of the Sexes: Round III

Finca Don Gabriel is part coffee plantation and part enchanted tourist kingdom. No doubt the honeymoon ambience contributed some to my curvaceous partner's increasing apprehension that she'd be expected to put out. My drooling may not have helped either.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Battle of the Sexes: Round II

Our journey to the coffee-growing village of Pluma, Oaxaca should have been short and simple. Yet, the best laid plans of mice and men who want to get laid oft go astray. (And you thought Steinbeck corrupted Shakespeare to illustrate the plight of the common man.)

We took a taxi to the bustling crossroads of Santa Maria Huatulco. Our driver urged us to jump into a collectivo (shared taxi) just leaving. Halfway thru our winding ascent into the mountains, we realized our backpacks were still in the trunk of the previous taxi.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Battle of the Sexes: Round I

Your author once asked a barista, “Which is better: coffee or women?”

She responded without hesitation, “Both are delicious, but the coffee won't cause you much trouble.”

This sage wisdom more or less captures the essence of my recent trip to a Mexican coffee plantation with a Mexican hippie girl. Join me as we relive the sensual passion (and the sexual frustration).

Thursday, July 16, 2015

My First Love Connects After Many Years

My first love sent a Facebook invitation this week after many years incommunicado. Then, she sent me a letter. I had just left home at 17 when I encountered her in the lobby of my university. Her raven black hair, sparkling blue eyes, and gently swelling cardigan would distract almost any idiotic boy from noticing the enormous compassionate heart that lay underneath the sweater. Yet, boy did this boy ever notice.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Hillary Clinton Reveals America's Moral I.Q.

My parents voted for John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon but wouldn't have done so had they known jack or dick about Jack's and Dick's character. My parents weren't perfect, but they did have some scruples. People who read and can handle the truth now know that Nixon was a negative paranoid liar and Kennedy plied underage girls with booze, manhandled and screwed them without sentiment, then discarded them without remorse. Good people don't relish association with such types.