Will Self Goes In Search Of The American Blues

Esquire's editor-at-large joins his son on a musical odyssey

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All You Need is Cash is a 1978 TV mockumentary written by and starring Eric Idle of the Pythons and his long-term comic collaborator Neil Innes. In the film, The Beatles are satirically reformed as The Rutles, but as well as taking an affectionate swipe at the Fab Four (re-dubbed The Prefab Four), Idle and Innes extended their comic vision to the British blues revival of the early Sixties.

In one sublime scene, the hapless reporter journeys to the Mississippi Delta to uncover the origins of The Rutles' distinctive sound; upon interviewing some blind, crippled, or otherwise disabled old bluesman on the broken-down porch of his cotton-pickin' shack, he is bamboozled by this strange inversion of musical history: "We learnt everything we know from The Rutles," the ancient man croaks, "there was no music here at all before we heard their records."

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As it happens, having a nascent teenage guitar hero in the house, I'd watched All You Need is Cash not long before I myself trained, planed and automobiled my family all the way to Clarksdale, Mississippi, the so-called "cradle of the blues" – even so, I was shocked when the man who was checking us into the Shack Up Inn outside of town looked up from the register, and in reply to the question I'd put to him said: "Well, y'know, hereabouts we learnt everything we know about the blues from… The Rutles."

OK, granted, he didn't actually say this, but he did utter words pretty much to the same effect.

It was a modest 90°C with 90 per cent humidity in Clarksdale; I hadn't so much walked as splodged my way into the corrugated iron lobby of the Shack Up Inn. With heat like this, my conversation with the man on the desk was of necessity to the point: "Have you got a guitar we can borrow?" was my first sally, to which his reply was a thumb jabbed at three nearby acoustics on stands, and a growled, "Them are all loaners."

My next question was equally direct: "Do you know where the crossroads are at which Robert Johnson bartered his soul with the devil so he could become the greatest blues guitarist of all time?"

Again, the Shack Up Inn man didn't hesitate for a second, and much in the manner of anyone in the hospitality industry directing a wayward tourist, he told me that while the officially recognised "crossroads" was where Highway 61 and Highway 49 intersect in what passes for downtown Clarksdale, he personally favoured a more secreted junction, where the old Simmons Road intersected with Ritchie Avenue. This was, my informant vouchsafed a far "shadier" part of town, full of the kinds of authentic juke joints where, to put it bluntly, white folks don't go.

I hee-hawed like the upper-middle-class English donkey I really am, and said: "I expect you get a lot of people like me coming in and asking about the crossroads. You must get fed up with it." The desk man scrutinised me, and I returned the compliment: he was around my own age, with the raddled face of someone who's fallen asleep too many times under a heavy dew of alcohol and tetrahydrocannabinol; he wore a pair of faded denim bib 'n' braces and a shock of greying hair was escaping from the low neck of his T-shirt.

"Well," he said, "that's not how we see it. Y'see, what integration between black and white folks has been achieved 'round here is all thanks to you English."

I goggled at him, and he obliged: "Yes, it was English musicians coming over here and asking about the blues that got black and white folks talking. The black folks realised that the whites were basically harmless, and moreover they had money in their pockets…" He went on… and on.

Basically, that's the problem with people: you set off on life's road, being open and enquiring, and before you know it you're being bored to feline distraction under a hot tin roof by a valetudinarian Led Zeppelin fan, because that's what my interlocutor unashamedly was. Apparently, Robert Plant was a regular visitor to the Shack Up Inn, and he was a man unafraid to walk the mean streets of Clarksdale and hang out even in the most hairy and savagely segregated of the juke joints, where the authentic Mississippi Delta blues was played… the Shack Up Inn man studied me carefully, clearly doubting I was made of the Plant stuff, and he was right there, I'm more of an inorganic-type-guy.


Although that wasn't always the case.

It's difficult now, perhaps, for me to convey quite how much the blues has meant to me over the years – difficult, and also laughable. I picture myself: a 15-year-old hunched over a portable record player in the back bedroom of a semi in a dull North London suburb, suffering shaving and spots punctuating my face, as I hearken to Blind Lemon Jefferson: "Black wa-ater risin…" he yodels from out of a blizzard of hiss and scratch, "…cummin in ma windows an' door…" ("Rising High Water Blues", 1927).

At the time, I dimly understood that this was Mississippi water and that in a deltaic region with incredibly rich soil deposits, if the levees were to break the inundation would indeed be murky. But this was O-Level geography speaking through me, rather than the bitter experience of the downtrodden African-American… and yet… and yet, I was pretty fucking miserable and alienated most of the time, while self-obsessed as I also undoubtedly was, I already understood one key thing about the popular culture that surrounded me and with which my psyche was saturated: its wellspring lay far to the west and the south – and it was the 12-bar, 4/4 time black water arising from it that all us fish-belly-white teenagers were flopping about in.

It's still the case to this day. By far the majority of the rap and hip-hop fans on this dirtball of ours are white teenagers sitting in suburban bedrooms and what they crave now is what I craved then: authenticity.

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Doubtless, in decades to come they'll set off on pilgrimages to Compton or the South Bronx, only to find themselves, on arrival, in an artful simulacrum of a crack den (complete with merch in the form of plastic Glocks and crack vials), being told by a fellow middle-aged white man that they were crucially responsible for the national advancement of Snoop Dogg and Jay Z. They won't buy it then, and I didn't buy it now.

Clarksdale, being in, like, a delta, is a low, flat place, the only relief being supplied by the flyover carrying Highway 61, a road I revisited many times during our stay as I drove back and forth from the Shack Up Inn to the putative crossroads.

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At the Delta Blues Museum in the dusty, sepia-tinged downtown the whole crossroads myth was pretty much debunked by a series of info-panels on the wall: Sure, Johnson sang about selling his soul to the devil, but that's no more plausible than Mick Jagger being the devil because he once sang in a satanic persona (actually, I find the idea that Sir Mick is the incarnation of pure evil rather more credible). The only witnesses to Johnson's claim are both partial and long dead. Some authorities dispute that it was Clarksdale and propose the towns of Rosedale or Beulah instead; others assert it was a graveyard not a crossroads, and still others contend it wasn't even Robert Johnson who did the Faustian deal but a different guitar-pickin' Johnson altogether.

None of this dissuaded either me, or Ivan, my 16-year-old Faust: we'd come to flog his soul, and by golly we were going to do it.

Regular Esquire readers may have visited last year's Reading Festival with me and Ivan, at a time when he was still very much of the heavy and metallic persuasion. In the intervening weeks and months, both his music-making and his musical appreciation had come on by stage dives. In the winter he approached me, looking doleful, and said: "You were right, dad, Robert Johnson is the greatest blues musician of all time." Of course, this is hardly a contentious statement, none other than Eric Clapton has said something similar ("the most important blues singer that ever lived"), but then anything dear old Eric says has to be taken with an entire box of Maldon sea salt when you realise that Slowhand's given name is an anagram of "narcoleptic".

Anyway, throughout the long, stygian evenings, in the hot tin confines of the Shack Up Inn, mauled by mosquitoes and dripping with sweat, Ivan worked on a blues using the tritone, or diminished fifth. This is a musical interval composed of three adjacent whole tones that has an eerie and dissonant feel; the tritone was popularised in Western classical music by the sinisterly brilliant composer and pianist, Liszt, but was known long before that as diabolus in musica ("the devil in music").

According to Ivan – who'd done his research – this was a sure-fire Satan-summoning sound, one calculated to bring the Prince of Darkness running to any crossroads, whether it be in Clarksdale or Chester-le-Street for that matter. And during the long, flash-bulb-intense days, we explored the locale: being as white as Don McLean we drove our Chevy to the levee – surprise, surprise, it was dry.

Besides the Delta Blues Museum, and a few antique-cum-junk shops, downtown Clarksdale was also home to White Rose Cleaners, where Felicia – who initially seemed perfectly angelic to me – did something altogether devilish to my Levi's: "lightly" starching them and pressing in a heavy crease.

So it was that I limped, stiff-legged and ashamed, around the food market out on Highway 61, which wasn't Walmart – that was another half-mile down the road – but still embodied the retail consequences of American poverty: great piles of rock-bottom-cheap, corn-syrup-soused merchandise, large signs reading "We Accept Food Stamps"; and a clientele many of whom were either unhealthily obese, or painfully emaciated.

The musicologists' thesis about the Mississippi Delta is that the vast size of the cotton plantations, and the low ratio of white masters to black slaves, meant that the African-American population were left, culturally at least, to get on with their own thing: the blues was a function of this far from benign neglect. I don't know anything about that, but what I do know is that authenticity means something different in America to Europe, or at least so I tried to convince Ivan as we drove from one to another of America's music cities.

Starting out in New York, we'd boogied up to Harlem to take a look at the famous Apollo Theater. We couldn't go on the tour but there was plenty of merch on sale and "the Hardest Working Man in Show Business" was imploring us, "Please..! Please..! Please..!" to buy something through the lobby PA.

In Atlanta, we visited a guitar shop so Ivan's itchy fingers could connect with some strings. I say "shop" but the Guitar Center out on the Northeast Expressway is part of a massive chain shackling rock to rollers right across America. Ivan thought the giant placards on the outside of the music barn were just a little bit… too much; picturing as they did the likes of Slash (formerly of Guns N' Roses but reassuringly born in Hampstead, North London), engaged in the diabolic act of commercial endorsement.

A fan of the eponymous TV show, Ivan had been looking forward to Nashville; his assumption being – I think – that given what he saw as the show's cheesiness, there must be an authentic music scene lying behind it. But as we strolled through the hallowed halls of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, peering into glass cabinet after cabinet, each one holding the rhinestone-encrusted shirt or guitar of another picker we'd never heard of, his irritation increased.

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"They make no acknowledgement of the blues!" he expostulated. I tried to soothe him: observing that while the two musical traditions were indeed deeply entwined musically, because of the long history of racial segregation their commercial forms, of necessity, had become detached, but he wasn't to be mollified.

Nor was he soothed by the Grand Ole Opry, along Music Valley Drive from The Fiddler's Inn and onto Opryland Drive, which didn't look either grand or ole. After Ivan had attended a gig there, his view was it should be renamed the Cheesy New Opry, because what he'd seen there was a succession of rhinestone cowboys still pleading with Ruby not to take her love to town.

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It wasn't much better in town, where Nashville's Broadway is a street of bars, tattoo parlours and tat shops, all of which play host to pissed-up tourists, who stagger from the bottle to the needle accompanied by the sorrowful whine of pedal-guitars and the periodic whooping coming from the Sprocket Rocket, a multi-rider bicycle equipped with a wet bar that came revolving around the block propelled by its boozy crew.

"Don't worry," I told Ivan as he grimaced at the ground-to-ground Rocket, "I bet things will be much more authentic – in your terms – once we get to Memphis."


And they were.

At twilight, in Handy Park (named after WC Handy, the composer of "St Louis Blues") just off Beale Street, a generously proportioned woman took to the makeshift stage and began rousing the sparse crowd: "Are there any big girls in the house, y'all? I say: Are there any big girls in the house, y'all? I say, if you wanna get rich you gotta spread your legs, you gotta bounce your bootie like a basketball! Ladies, let me hear you scream…" And scream the crowd did, in a ragged sort of a way. Then her backing musicians got going and she began to serenade us in the smoothest, silkiest, most soulful voice I'd heard in a long time. The crowd didn't seem to be tourists, didn't seem to be locals either, they were just people, grooving in the dusk.

Sure, Beale Street has its share of tat shops, and, like a mirror image of Nashville, is lined with bars in which pick-up bands pump out the blues as they were played some half-century ago, but for all that, the atmosphere is entirely different. It could be quite simply because Memphis is a black town and Nashville a white one, or it may be because the blues flowed out of the Mississippi Delta to become the great sinuous watercourse of contemporary pop music (whereas country music has, in my view, dwindled into a dried-up riverbed scattered with rhinestones), but for whatever reason Memphis felt right. Hell, Ivan was even able to borrow a Gibson electric guitar from our hotel (there was a glass case in the lobby), while across the road stood the guitar maker's showroom.

True, Katy Perry was due to play the massive FedExForum, but she wasn't due for a few weeks, by which time Ivan's soul would be in Satan's pocket.

It was hot when we got to Graceland, on the outskirts of Memphis, and Ivan was in another of his authentic rages against inauthenticity.

Everyone always remarks on how small the late King's palace is, but it reminded me of the generously proportioned villas of nouveau riche school friends I used to goggle at in the early Seventies: all pile shagged to the max and kitchens fitted together in an exquisite Formica joinery. The other surprising thing about the Graceland tour was how no-nonsense it was: granted, there was a certain amount of hagiography in the audio-commentary as we shuffled from one Naugahyde conversation pit to the next, but this was only to be expected.

What was more surprising was the frank admission of the departed monarch's fatal dependence on prescription drugs; that and the swimming pool, which was indeed guitar-shaped, but only about the size of a ukulele.

Cliff Richard was the guest DJ spinning the discs on Sirius XM's "Seventies on 7" as we tooled the Chevy south to Clarksdale and our rendezvous with fate. "I'd like to teach the world to sing in per-fect har-mon-y!" The New Seekers warbled, while Ivan groaned.

Our first night's vigil was at the famous crossroads on Highway 61, which is marked with a large sign, one still bigger than the placard on the wall of the nearby Abe's barbecue restaurant that proclaims it the home of "Swine Dining". Ivan took up position on the traffic island and struck a few experimental chords: my watch ticked away the seconds until midnight. A few pick-ups and beaten-up sedans came swishing past, no one slowed down or gawped: the sight of English teenagers engaged in occult practices is commoner thereabouts than… well, than Robert Plant leading seminars on interracial tolerance.

Ivan strummed his eerie blues, the hour struck, and I felt a peculiar shiver run the length of my spine, one that might have been the tip of the devil's pitchfork ratchetting down my vertebrae, or alternatively it might just have been a peculiar shiver.

The next night we aimed for the shadier and more "authentic" crossroads.

Ivan was dressed all in black; the Chevy nosed along Simmons Road in the darkness, isolated streetlamps pitched tepees of orange light, the air whirled and whizzed with bugs. At the junction, we piled out and Ivan took up his theatrical stance and began plinkety-plunking.

Down the road a ways (you start thinking like this if you spend too long in the Deep South, y'all) there was indeed a hairy-looking juke joint: light and loud music streamed from the door, men with writing on their trousers were conducting some kind of business in the car park. One thing was obvious, though, whatever was being grooved to in the juke joint it wasn't the music of these men's forefathers, it was devilishly modern hippety-hop stuff.

"Sounds to me like these chaps could do with another visit from Robert Plant," I remarked to Ivan – but he didn't seem to hear me, his eyes were rolled back in their sockets so that only the whites were showing, and there was an expression of dangerous ecstasy on his face.

Did it work? I hear you ask. Did your 16-year-old son succeed in trading his soul with the devil for musical prowess?

Well, the short answer is, I don't know. I'm keeping an open mind. I figure the results of the swap – if it did occur – may take some time to emerge. Obviously, I'm in a hurry for results, but I'm a realist: I  understand that if the transformation comes it will be in the devil's time, not my own, and His Satanic Majesty has an eternity with which to prey upon Ivan's soul, while he himself plinks, plunks, and sings the blues with greater and greater authenticity.


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