Review: Mississippi Trip 2011 incorporating the King Biscuit Festival Helena Arkansas
Posted on: Tuesday, Dec 27, 2011
Mississippi Trip 2011 incorporating the King Biscuit Festival Helena Arkansas
Four members of Worthenbury Blues Club set off on October 1st for the annual pilgrimage to the blues, sadly missing this time Shrill Needy the Yorkshire sage (aka your own Ken Peace) and Farmer Paul (Paul Farmer). However, joining tour stalwarts Granddad ( Pete Evans) and 3 Fingers ( Paul Taylor) were Scouser Degsy ( Derek Coates) and Paddy the TV (Alan Dowey) – nothing to do with BBC Ulster – he was this year’s Tour Virgin.
The tour started in its usual efficient way with Degsy and Paddy getting off at the wrong terminal at Manchester. Arriving at Memphis some 14 hours later, 3 Fingers discovered he had left his driving licence at home thus being not able to join the driving rota – heard that one before.
After a quick check in at the hotel, a trip down to Beale Street was planned but sadly Beale on a Saturday night is now so heavily policed and checked that it becomes somewhat intimidating. Indeed, Granddad was stopped and searched ( always bloody me!!!) because of something long and thin in his trousers pocket!!! No…… it wasn’t what you thought it was … a gun… but a glasses case!! Consequently we only stopped for a pint, listened to the extremely tight BB King All Stars House Band play 3 soul numbers and then left.
On the way back from Beale, we had to run the gauntlet of a number of hustlers who are a damn nuisance and very persistent. Granddad though has a guaranteed way of getting rid of them. When approached he smiled and in a loud and clear voice said “Dim diolch, nid rwyf I yn siarad Saisneg – dim arian heddi!!”… “Crazy foreign motherf—-r! – what kinda language do you call that” and he stomped off – works every time!
Sunday was extremely hot and the temperature seemed to rise by 2 degrees each day of the tour and so Degsy and Paddy went to visit the Gibson guitar factory and the Civil Rights Museum and Granddad and Three Fingers spent 3 hours looking for a guitar shop that didn’t exist!
That evening, after quite a few beers at the brilliant bar “The Flying Saucer” we ate at one of the nicer venues on Beale Street, The Blues City Café – great food – ribs, catfish and shrimp combo. It was here that we had one of those rare surreal moments. Granddad and Three fingers went to the john and on leaving were stopped by a long haired, pony tailed old hippy – nice old lad who told us he was originally from Texas but had lived in Memphis for 35 years. When having asked us ” Where y’all from?” and heard our reply he said ( imagine this in a deep Texas drawl)
” Uh , huh, – my English teacher in high school came from Cardiff – taught me the works of Chaucer – never forgot them or him”
He then spent 5 minutes relating some choice passages from Chaucer!
He then told us the joke of the tour… ” Young boy goes to visit his grandparents . “How you doing Grand Daddy” – “OK son – but me and your Grand Mammy ain’t getting it on like we used to – y’all know what I’m talking about. Can you git me some of that there Viagree”
” Sure Grand Daddy – I can git you some” – “Well that’s fine boy – if you can git things working agin – I’ll buy you a brand new Ford pick-up truck”
Boy returns a month later to see a brand new Chevy truck outside the gate “How you doing Grand Daddy?”-“Well just fine boy – me and your Grand Mammy are having a ball – that Viagree sure works well” – Grandson looks at the Chevy truck – “But Grand Daddy, I thought you was goin’ to fix me up with a new Ford Pick Up truck” – ” Sure son .. the Ford’s round the back – the Chevy’s from your Grand Mammy”
Well it was funny at the time…
Next day we set off on our road trip and headed of into Mississippi aiming for the little town of Como, home of Mississippi Fred McDowell, one of Paddy’s heroes.
Como is a typical sleepy Mississippi town set in the hilly northern part of the state with the obligatory rail track running through the middle. After a brief stop we set off to find his gravestone and with the aid of the excellent book by Steve Cheseborough “Blues Travelling – The Holy Sites of the Delta Blues” (readily available on Amazon and a must for anyone visiting the area) we soon located the graveyard. Slight consternation when a big bull necked Billy Bob stopped and asked us did we have kinfolk in the graveyard – didn’t seem at all impressed when we told him we were looking for Fred McDowell, the blues guitarist’s grave. Three Fingers and Granddad were amused by an old tin found beside the grave ” Grizzly – Long Cut Wintergreen Moist Snuff – This Product Can Cause Gum Disease and Tooth Loss”… a good product to sell in their respective surgeries!
We then cut across the Delta on one of the many dead straight roads towards Clarksdale just for a quick stop to confirm our hotel rooms for a couple of days later. Granddad and three fingers were in the Comfort Hotel but Degsy and Paddy, having booked late could only get a room in the legendary Riverside Hotel. This is the legendary old “Blacks Only” hospital where Bessie Smith died. Converted to a hotel in 1942, it is steeped in blues history and where Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner and all the blues legends stayed on their return to the area. The place doesn’t look too appealing from the outside but is fine within. The amiable owner Frank ” Rat” Ratliff is a wonderful man showed us round every room relating the history and is so proud of his hotel which does get great reviews.
We then cut back across the Delta towards highway 55 passing through Tutwiler where a photo stop was made at the old station where WC Handy first heard “The Blues”. Our aim was to get to Jackson that evening so it was a longish drive and we passed through many well known places en route knowing we’d have time on our return.
We had an amazing time that evening at Hal and Mal’s Bar which is the meeting place for the weekly gig of the Central Mississippi Blues Society. When the legendary Subway Lounge was demolished about 7 years ago, the blues greats of Jackson move to this new location.We were met by the lovely Peggy Brown of the Society who again made us incredibly welcome and there were hugs and back slaps from the regulars who remembered us from last year including a kiss from the legendary Dorothy Moore – such wonderfully welcoming people.
The jam that evening was superb led by guitarist King Edward and his band with appearances by some great singers including Dennis Fountain and J T Watkins. However, Degsy at this stage laid himself down in Jackson blues folklore.
A great one armed singer known as “The Rock” took to the stage and then proceeded to walk amongst the tables. Degsy was fiddling with his camera with his back to “The Rock” as he approached our table .”The Rock” however brushed against Degsy, who then in a sign of true Scouse friendship, went to shake his hand. Only problem was, there was no hand. The only available one was clutching the microphone.
Without exception everyone saw the moment and there was a sudden pause as the full realisation of what had happened dawned on everyone… then fits of stifled laughter so that Degsy wouldn’t be offended. Brilliant. We met up with some of the people there at the festival later in the week and it was all they could talk about – Degsy’s a legend!
The next day we moved up north on our way to Indianola and stopped en route at Bentonia with the hope that we might catch Jimmy Duck Holmes at his legendary juke joint, the Blue Front Café. The café is only open occasionally and on this day our luck was in. We drove up and in and in a true blues image, he was sat on the porch in his old chair. He greeted us warmly and offered to play for us – we couldn’t believe our luck. It was like a time warp. A hot midday in this sleepy old Delta town with an old blues man sat on his chair on the front porch, playing brilliant pre war blues in the style of Skip James. Better still, he allowed us to video him.
We had planned a night in Indianola, BB King’s home town and had booked two old converted shacks at the Blue Biscuit café. (Seen on the Rick Stein visit to Mississippi where he interviewed Terry “Harmonica” Bean). Unfortunately, we had been given the wrong information and it ended with Granddad and 3 Fingers sharing a King bed – suitcases and cushions make great barriers!
The café was across the road from the BB King Museum, next door to which is The Gin Mill Art Gallery and bar owned by an old friend Tom Bingham. We had a very stimulating alcoholic evening with Tom who told us some interesting stories about the 60s/70s and the race problems. His dad had been Chief of Police directly assigned to the racist governor of Mississippi at the time when James Meredith was the 1st African/American student to gain access to Ole Miss University in Oxford. Tom is a lovely man and has a very liberated view of things but hearing first hand accounts really had a profound effect on all of us.
The next day was the return to Clarksdale and a detour was made to take in all three of Robert Johnson’s graves! His legs are in one, arms in another….! We also found Charley Patton’s grave right next to a Gin Mill where they were unloading the cotton and then we cut across from The Dockery Plantation to Po’ Monkey’s Juke Joint in Merigold. Finally, we drove past Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary before arriving in Clarksdale mid evening. It had been a very full day so a good meal, some beer and blues was needed.
For the first time in a while, we didn’t eat at Madidi’s Restaurant, owned by Morgan Freeman. Shame – as we would have probably been sat next to Robert Plant who now spends quite a lot of time in Clarksdale.
We then went down to Red’s Lounge one of the last Juke Joints in Clarksdale to hear that there was a band from Birmingham appearing. Thinking it was the Alabama variety we paid our $5 looking forward to a great night. Unfortunately it was the Dudley, Smethwick and Handsworth variety!! A couple of Brummies from a pub band were in town and finding that the act had pulled out, had persuaded Red to let them play joined by a local drummer. We had a good laugh with them after and found we had mutual friends in Chris Lomas and Micky Barker from Tommy Allen’s band!
Next morning we loaded up the car with deck chairs, ice boxes, beer and water at Walmart and then were introduced to half the workforce by a very excitable young till girl who was a fan of Princess Diana!
It was then four days of solid top drawer blues interspersed with great food, laughs and memories with possibly the funniest when Paddy driving for the 1st time on tour and entering Helena having just turned off the bridge across the Mississippi drove down Missouri Street on the wrong side of the road and said ” This driving is fine but you know, I really need to concentrate to make sure I don’t do anything really stupid now”
At the end of the festival, the final day is spent in Clarksdale with the early morning start at Cathead store and Roger Stolle’s mini festival. A great start from Bill Abel and Cadillac John before a dash off to Hopson’s Plantation and the poignant event which was always Pinetop Perkins Homecoming Festival. Sadly after his recent death at the age of 98 it had become his commemoration festival. This is always the high spot of the week when in a completely relaxed environment, the blues greats mingle with a couple of hundred fans and jam in the commissary building or the old chapel. There were a number of great moments with possibly Paddy as tour virgin, being made to smile whilst standing under the Irish tricolour and the Welsh Dragon flags in the commissary a stand out, and then brilliant North Mississippi star Kenny Brown digging deep into his cd bag and giving Granddad a pile of cds to raffle for Forty4 bass guitarist Steve Brown’s benefit gig. What a top man.( Mike Zito made a similar donation at the Biscuit – another top man). A King Biscuit Festival poster was also purchased and 36 signatures from many of the stars were obtained to auction at the benefit gig – they were all so kind and thoughtful – something that you always find from blues people.
We met up with many people that we got to know on previous trips from all parts of the USA and who always arrange to get together on this week and it really does become one big friendly party culminating on the final night with a big meal and sing song in the Clarksdale Mexican restaurant joined by people from St Louis, Michigan, Tulsa, Chicago and even from Scotland and Reading! Bob Margolin also made an appearance.
And so it was over again. We had gently broken in the tour virgin – he couldn’t get over the whole experience and said it had surpassed his wildest dreams. We had been unable to lose Scouser Degsy no matter how hard we tried though he’d made a good attempt himself when one night,slightly worse for wear, he’d managed to walk into the Mississippi Blues Trail marker sign outside the Riverside Hotel leaving a conspicuous scar on his bald head. Typical Scouser, he’s going to bring a hacksaw next year and cut the ba—-d sign down. As for Granddad and 3 Fingers, it was their 6th trip and as with the previous five, they kept doing or finding something different.
We are already making plans for next year when it is already reckoned that the numbers might swell to over a dozen – if anyone wants information on how to make the trip then please mail granddad on email@example.com.
You can see all of the pictures over on the bluesinthenorthwest.com photo archive.
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