My sister Donna and I recently took a self-guided blues tour of the Mississippi Delta. It was an extraordinary experience. I grew up in the South, but never visited the Delta, the emotional heart of the blues, which runs from Vicksburg, Miss., to Memphis, Tenn. This is rich land that former slaves worked as tenant farmers. The area has a history of slavery, followed by Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. It was and still is characterized by illiteracy, poverty and steaming hot weather. It is also noted for some of the most authentic and moving music made anywhere in our country. Most people will recognize some of the names associated with the area, such as B.B. King, and Muddy Waters. If you know about the history of the blues, you will have heard of Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Son House -- early blues musicians, all from the Delta, and now long gone, but still influencing American music.
We started our tour in Ocean Springs, Miss., where my sister lives, and worked our way north. We had only five days, so we missed a lot, and never made it to Memphis, but what we saw and heard touched me and changed me. Greenville and the Walnut Street Blues Club was our first stop, where the legendary John Horton band was playing. The music was loud and the cigarette smoke was heavy. We settled tentatively into a back table, wondering if we could really handle this scene, but the sound soon drew us in. When the band took a break, Horton invited other musicians in the house to make music -- a guitarist and then a singer, both nondescript black men with amazing talent, took the stage. I wondered what other musical wonders might be lounging around in the club. We were hooked. Our tour had begun.
From Greenville we went north to Cleveland, Miss., and then onto Clarksdale, where we dropped in on Morgan Freeman's Ground Zero Blues Club, unfortunately, on an off night. We went on to Red's, which is a real juke joint, with absolutely no commercial flavor. We had trouble finding the place, which was across some railroad tracks, unlit on the outside and looked as if it were boarded up. Finally we saw the one word RED'S in red paint on the door, so we ventured in. Red himself was behind the bar, and silently waved me off when I offered plastic for a beer. Watermelon Slim was playing, and he is the real deal. He played with his guitar on his lap, and made it hunger and sing with a pick and a miniature whiskey bottle.
What struck me about our trip to the Delta was the amazing music that comes out of this poverty-stricken area. The blues has a distinctive sound, a kind of sweet yearning which comes from the flattened notes, plus the crushing and the sliding. Singers go to the heart of our pain: desire and betrayal and love gone wrong. Acceptance is there, and humor. The music is raw, and it is real. So much in our lives these days is the opposite - fabricated, stripped of true emotional content. This music of the Delta is from the heart, with nothing held back. It reached a place in me where few other art forms are able to go. I think that maybe its power comes from the universality of the feelings expressed. No matter what station in life we hold, all human beings long and all human beings lose. Maybe the hard lives of these people in this hardscrabble place enables them to express with more honesty and power what we all experience.
The other interesting thing is that these clubs and juke joints we visited are the most racially integrated places I have ever been. And we're talking here about Mississippi, a state in a part of the country so widely reviled for its racism. I experienced black and white musicians playing together, and black and white patrons gathered together listening to the music. Perhaps it is the music and its acknowledgment of the common human experience that has drawn the races together here in Mississippi. As a Southerner who grew up with terrible divisions of race, I felt some little piece of healing in this coming together of the races.
I know I have been changed in some subtle way by my trip to the Delta. The music touched some deep place in me that wants to be authentic, that is weary of the deep divisions of race and class in our country, that is tired of the superficiality of most of American culture. Of course, it is because of my class privilege that I had the resources of time and money to travel to Mississippi, to stay in nicely appointed motels, and to seek out the most nurturing food available during my journey. I have returned home now to my safe and warm home in progressive Portland, Ore., where I can if I wish play my blues CDs in comfort, and remember.
But I can, if I choose to do so, find a way to be in relationship with those on the margins. They are the truth tellers: the hopelessly addicted, the single mom who can't feed her children, the one who is dying without friends or family. I could visit the tent city that is Occupy Portland. There I would find committed young people who are drawing the nation's attention to the crack in our Liberty Bell -- and the tents also include mentally ill and homeless folks, who have nowhere else to go. These campers are making their own kind of music: it is dissonant to this radically unequal culture, and we need to hear it.
Why is it that we must go to the margins of society to find what is real? Perhaps it is only at the margins where people have so little to lose that they are free of pretense, unwilling to play the games which draw the rest of us in too much of the time. My trip to the Delta reminded me that when I hold myself away from those who struggle just to get through the day, I am the one who loses the most. If I am looking for redemption, this is where I am most likely to find it.