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Delta, land of sweet misery

In the Mississippi birthplace of the blues, the music pours from the clubs and juke joints. You won't find it more authentic than this.

October 01, 2006|Joshua Clark | Special to The Times

Clarksdale, Miss. — "SOME call it boogie-woogie, some call it blues; I got my rhythm from a fox-trotting mule!" croons James "Super Chikan" Johnson as his golden retriever twirls between his stomping feet, howling right along.

Super Chikan winces with the ecstasy of every note as he puts the hurt on his new slide guitar. This isn't just any guitar; it's an electric "Chikantar" he built himself, using a cigar box for the body, a muffler bracket for a tailpiece, a screen door handle for a bridge, an ax handle for the neck, a piece of cyclone fence for reinforcement and a cabinet door latch for a nut. And, of course, his trademark rooster head is carved into the end.

The instruments double as folk art on which Johnson paints scenes of his native Mississippi Delta, and they have made some scenes themselves, including the Delta's largest blues festival. "Man, I tore that audience up at the Sunflower Festival last summer," he said. "Dude who was headlining after me got up in a rage, said I didn't leave nothing left for him."

Johnson is sitting in his Clarksdale studio just down the road from the crossroads of two highways -- U.S. 49 and U.S. 61 -- the solar plexus of blues traveling, where legend has it that another bluesman, Robert Johnson, sold his soul to the devil so he could play this music.

From Robert Johnson and others, a tradition spread that has made this landscape world famous. Super Chikan's unique sound is yet another thing that Chicago and Memphis, Tenn., will never have. Nor will New Orleans, on whose streets the other true American art form, jazz, was born.

In fact, my friend Ellen and I drove five hours from the Big Easy, searching for the roots to the blues. We found them within an hour of Clarksdale, this northernmost focal point of the Delta. Our blues tour was a weekend getaway, one full of warm smiles, good food and Southern hospitality.

Like Chikantars, which are mostly made from scrap, the blues -- came from what few things people had.

"I started out with nothing and still got a whole lot of it left," Super Chikan says. "Heck, got a master's degree in being poor and broke.

"I'm left-handed, left-footed, left-brained and left out," he says. A couple of bulbs dangle from his low studio ceiling, where late afternoon sheds blue light through the three small windows. Innumerable paint tubes, brushes, power tools and wrenches are strewn about.

He runs his hand over his latest Chikantar, a portrait of Robert Johnson freshly dried on its front. Like Johnson, Chikan is on the verge of becoming one of the rare Delta musicians to get the credit they deserve. "Fixin' to take this one to Japan," he says, beaming.

"The governor and I are goin' to represent Mississippi."

I ask how long he's been playing.

"Oh, not too long," he says with a sigh. "About 100 years."

One hundred years ago and 15 miles south, composer W.C. Handy was sitting at a train depot and heard a man playing a guitar: "His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of ages.... [It was] the weirdest music I had ever heard." No one knows who the guitarist was, but Handy put a color to the sound, and the "blues" was born.

A rich land

THE Delta, which historian James Cobb dubbed "the most Southern place on Earth," is a 7,600-square-mile region of northwestern Mississippi. It begins 400 miles north of the actual Mississippi River delta. Before the levee was built, the river flooded here, forming an alluvial plain of black earth, one of the world's most fertile regions. And it's so flat that the only hills here are Indian burial mounds.

Fertile ground for both crop and creativity, it has arguably produced more music and literature than any other landscape in our country. Besides giving birth to the blues, it has produced myriad writers, including Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy and Donna Tartt. King cotton made a few rich and enslaved the poor. But letters and musical notes came free to all.

And it looks like they'll be coming for a while longer.

From Super Chikan's, we head over to actor Morgan Freeman's club, Ground Zero, also in Clarksdale. A Wednesday-night smattering of locals and tourists pounds pool balls, the dance floor, catfish and cocktails in the warehouse-size venue decorated with Christmas lights and graffiti.

Sitting alone at his own table -- a domain Freeman set aside for him -- is a fellow called Puttin'. As far as anyone knows, that's the only name he has. There he sits with his deck of cards, waiting to gain the confidence of his next victim using a scheme called the three-card monte.

After Ellen and I graciously lose a few bucks, we hit the dance floor.

It's open-mike night, hosted by Homemade Jamz, a band that boasts of once opening for Super Chikan. The oldest member is 13, but "Can they jam!" says a man old enough to be their grandfather.

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