High Sheriff Blues

High Sheriff Blues

High Sheriff Blues
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Nov. 18 2002 6:53 PM

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Today's audio update: Tim Cahill visits some of the holy places of blues, including the Kozy Korner juke joint.

The man sitting on the nail keg was the very personification of a blues song.

We had come barreling over the low rolling hills of the Mississippi high country between Jackson and Yazoo City. I was given to understand that this area is considered high because it doesn't flood when the Mississippi jumps its banks. When we passed north of Yazoo City, we were told, the land would flatten out, just as if the Lord above had taken a hot iron to it. That's when we'd be in the Delta proper, literally in high cotton. A fellow told me all this at a red-brick hill-country gas station, where the pumps didn't take credit cards and the convenience items consisted of RC Cola, Peanut Rolls, and such dry goods as an industrious fellow might need.

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Sitting on a nail keg inside the store was a lanky, affable black man in dusty clothes who told each customer the precise tale of his recent misfortunes. The fellow had gone to Chicago with his wife, but she left him "for a garbage man,"—his rival's occupation seemed particularly galling—so he came back home to Mississippi, but his car had broken down, and now he was walking.

"Walking Blues" is the Delta anthem, one of the first blues, and it is still sung by everyone. In the song, the singer wakes up this morning, looks around for his shoes, then realizes he has them mean old walking blues. I had wondered if the song wasn't simply the conjunction of a convenient rhyme: shoes, blues. But right here, right now, I had just met a man who had a "my wife left me for a garbage man, and my car broke down" situation that had catapulted him directly into a very real case of them "mean old walking blues." The encounter argued for a continuity of hard luck in the Delta.

Tim Cahill in the cotton field, filled with the ennui blues
Tim Cahill in the cotton field, filled with the ennui blues

Just past Yazoo City, the land flattened out, as promised, and I could see pretty much to the horizon in any direction. We were driving through endless fields of cotton. Big spindle-type machines were harvesting the crop, but as a Northern boy who'd never even seen a cotton field before, I wondered what the stuff was like to pick.

We pulled down a muddy dirt road and parked in a field drifted over in cotton plants. The bolls were heavy, and it wasn't much trouble pulling them off the stems. I had been given to believe that picking cotton cuts up your hands, but it didn't hurt mine much. I picked half a dozen bolls and thought, "This isn't so bad." I picked half a dozen more, then half a dozen after that. I'd been working pretty hard for almost 90 seconds, when it occurred to me that this work was really, really boring. From my bent-over position, I looked up and the field before me seemed to stretch on forever, like a blanket of snow over the land, and the idea of a 10- to 12-hour day picking all that cotton filled me with an ennui so intense that it approached dread. To paraphrase the great Muddy Waters, who spent his early years working area cotton fields, I was troubled.

Charlie Patton
Charlie Patton 
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Cotton-harvesting machines had been invented as early as 1850, but they did not come into widespread use until the 1940s. Before those years, there were a lot of men and women who picked cotton for short pay. Sometimes, people would sit on the front porches of their rough-cut cedar shacks and make music. A man named Henry Sloan was said to play a rough rhythmic guitar that was probably one of the first manifestations of the blues as we know them. Sloan was never recorded and almost nothing is known about him except that a young man named Charlie Patton followed him around like a puppy, picking up anything he could learn about the guitar.

Charlie Patton, who was born in 1891, recorded some of the very first blues. In "Pony Blues" and"Peavine Blues,"he manages to pile dense layers of rhythms one upon the other. Charlie moved from plantation to plantation, always playing on the street, at the train station on market days, in private homes, or in small bars called juke joints on a Saturday night. He was a performer who tossed his guitar into the air, spun it about, played it behind his head, or pounded it as he rode it like a mule.

Patton lived the star-crossed sort of life we associate with a blues man even today. He traveled constantly, had at least eight wives, drank, smoked, and ended up in jail with alarming frequency. Indeed, Christian and I stopped in the town of Belzoni to see one of the holy sites, the old jail Patton mentions in "High Sheriff Blues":

Get in trouble in Belzoni, ain't no use to screamin' and cryin'
Mr. Webb will take you back to the Belzoni jailhouse flyin' 

Inside the old Belzoni jail, today past the verge of ruin
Inside the old Belzoni jail, today past the verge of ruin

The old Belzoni jailhouse is condemned and falling apart. Christian and I stepped inside and walked up some heavy metal stairs to the second floor, where light fell through barred windows into cells as bleak as lingering death. I stood in one of the cells for a moment and considered a statement made by Robert Palmer in Deep Blues, the finest literary depiction of the blues I know. Palmer wrote that Charlie Patton "created an enduring body of American music, for he personally inspired just about every Delta blues man. … [H]e is among the most important musicians twentieth century America has produced."

Charlie Patton influenced such musicians as Son House, not to mention the two men who are said to have sold their souls to the devil in exchange for their musical talents: Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson. In those days, a man went to the crossroads to sell his soul. We wondered if Satan still hung out where road crossed road. We thought we'd find someplace lonely, out in all that sea of cotton. The devil, so the legend has it, appears at midnight. All I can say about this plan is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Photograph of Charlie Patton courtesy of Shanachie Entertainment.

Tim Cahill, a founding editor of Outside magazine, is the author of eight books, including Jaguars Ripped My Flesh and his latest, Hold the Enlightenment.