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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 8, Number 1, March 2014

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Brett Peruzzi
Framingham, Massachusetts, USA


Delta Bound

Highway 61 slices south through the cotton fields like a scar. It's just before harvest time, and the flat landscape is a sea of white in every direction, shimmering under waves of heat. We're headed from Memphis to the Delta town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, the land where the blues began.

Delta crossroads
an armadillo belly up
blinding sun

Downtown Clarksdale is a shell of a town, the remains of its business district set amidst decrepit buildings and empty storefronts, its economy apparently drained by the strip mall sprawl south of town. A handful of entrepreneurs try to eke out a living from the blues fans who visit from all over the world. The legend of famous local sons like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker draw the faithful, who troop dutifully between birthplaces and grave sites, snapping the obligatory photo at the crossroads where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil.

The area feels like a mournful mix of having been frozen in time as well as subjected to its ravages, somehow appropriate for the birthplace of the blues. In the pre-war years, when the nearby cotton plantations still employed thousands of sharecroppers, the black community of Clarksdale had its own separate, thriving downtown, optimistically dubbed the New World. Now, aside from an occasional snatch of gospel singing escaping from a storefront church, the neighborhood is decaying and mostly quiet.

Peeling paint
even the pawn shop
out of business

But in the Delta's remaining juke joints, the music lives on. Whether it's in a windowless cinder block tavern in town, or a tumble-down wooden shack in the countryside, time stands still, and the sounds of Howling Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson and countless other long-dead bluesmen continue to reverberate.

The juke joints beckon as the sun sets over the cotton fields—hand-painted signs riddled with spelling errors, ice-cold cans of beer served with paper plates of cheap barbeque, and the insistent, twelve-bar pulse of the blues pouring through open doorways. A time to forget the rigors of the work day, the problems that lie ahead, and just get lost in the moment.

At Red's Lounge, young and old, locals and visitors, drink, dance, yell, or just nod their heads to the beat. A harmonica and slide guitar trade licks over a slow blues, providing the moaning soundtrack to this stark and hypnotic place, a poor region full of both beauty and adversity.

Song about hard times
the bluesman's gold tooth
flashes with each grimace

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