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At the Crossroads

May 12, 2008 - Phyllis Sigal
Legend has it that Robert Johnson met the devil at the Crossroads of Highway 61 and Route 49 in Clarksdale, Miss., where he sold his soul in exchange for fame in the blues world. Johnson has become known as the "King of the Delta Blues" and the "Father of Modern Rock and Roll."

I stood at the crossroads last week, where I learned so many facts about the legends of the blues. And I didn't even have to sell my soul to learn those facts.

The Mississippi Delta, not far from Memphis, Tenn., is the birthplace of the blues; and being in that birthplace in the past few days certainly has stirred emotion deep within me.

I was in Tunica, Miss., for the Blues Music Awards, where the tops in the blues world are nominated for awards in many categories. It’s like the Grammys, but just for the blues.

The audience is privileged to hear performances from dozens of the nominees. Being in the presence of the great blues musicians was more magical than I had imagined.

Prior to the awards event, the governor of Mississippi spoke at a dedication ceremony celebrating a new Mississippi Blues Trail Marker, this one on Highway 61 – the road that ran from downtown New Orleans to the Canadian border, a major route for southerners migrating to northern cities. On this day, Route 61 was named “The Blues Highway,” thanks to a bill signed by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who said, “Today is a great day to remind Mississippians of the ... wonderful genre of music that began on this highway.”

That night, Thursday, in Tunica, more than 100 artists were nominated in 25 categories. Close to 60 artists performed that night.

But even better than listening to the performers at the awards show was seeing some of them at breakfast the morning after, on Friday.

For some reason, the Blue and White Restaurant on Highway 61, established in 1924, was the place to be. There, an endless cup of coffee is just $1. Usually, it’s a locals place, open for breakfast at 5 a.m. and until 10 p.m. each night.

But this day, the blues took over. Our young waitress asked us who all these people were. “Only the best in the blues,” we told her.

I was moved to tears more than once.

We walked into the blue and white place and already there were such blues greats as Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Bob Stoger, David “Honeyboy” Edwards … and then in walked blues pianist Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins … to a round of applause of everyone in the place. Honeyboy and Pinetop were both 2007 Grammy winners in the traditional blues category for “Last of the Great Mississippi Bluesmen: Live in Dallas.”

I couldn’t believe I was in the presence of such greatness --- eating ham and eggs and biscuits just a table away. Apparently, Jimmy Vaughn (Stevie Ray Vaughn’s brother) came in shortly after we left. Oh, and those biscuits? Probably the best I've ever eaten ... light and fluffy on the inside, crispy and brown on the outside. Mmmmmmm ... my mouth's watering just thinking about them right now.

Honeyboy, born in 1915, remembers when the Blue and White was built. I bet he's had many a bottomless cup of coffee there.

Pinetop Perkins, born 1913 in Mississippi, is still going strong. He’s been at Wheeling’s own Heritage Music BluesFest one time, and I sure hope he can come back. And I'm lobbying for a spot on the lineup for Honeyboy, too.

We left the Blue and White Restaurant, heading down Route 61 to Hopson Plantation in Clarksdale, Miss. Another Blues Trail Marker was being dedicated there, this one in honor of Pinetop.

Pinetop was a tractor driver at the plantation during the 1940s; Muddy Waters and B.B. King also were tractor drivers at other plantations in the same area. While living in Clarksdale, Pinetop taught Ike Turner to play the piano. Pinetop later played with Muddy Waters before he had a successful solo career.

Pinetop will be 95 on July 7. A proclamation read at the dedication called him a “living exemplar of blues music.” Truer words never spoken; he sat on the porch of the plantation where he once worked, more than half a century ago, playing the keyboards. A legend. Amazing.

From Hopson, we went into the town of Clarksdale to stay at the Riverside Hotel, that had been the G.T. Thomas Hospital. It was here that blues singer Bessie Smith died in 1937, where she was taken for injuries she suffered in a car accident on the way to perform in Clarksdale. She died in what is now room 2 at the hotel. That room had been reserved for us, but we ended up in the John Lee Hooker room, instead. I was a bit relieved. I didn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night to Bessie Smith singing in my ear.

John F. Kennedy Jr. has stayed at the Riverside, according to owner Frank “Rat” Ratcliffe, whose mother opened the hotel in 1944. If you want to know anything about Clarksdale, Rat’s the guy to ask. He knows everything and everybody.

Others who have stayed at the hotel are Robert Nighthawk, Ike Turner and John Lee Hooker, just to name a few. Photos and letters line the walls from people who enjoyed a stay there. Once you’ve been there, you’re family to Rat, and I couldn’t help myself but hug him two times before we were on our way.

Having been involved with the Heritage Music BluesFest in Wheeling since 2001, at its inception, I've learned about the blues over the years. I've become acquainted with the music, its fans and some of the musicians.

But these past few days while traveling on the "Blues Highway" and watching the marker dedications and listening to the performances and especially seeing the legends up close and personal, the blues is in me for sure, now more than ever. The blues is real, honest-to-goodness American music. The stories it tells, the lives it has touched — it's our heritage.

Take a listen. Let me know what you think. Let me know how the music makes you feel.


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