Reintergration they call it. Reset, decompress. After spending 4 Christmas’s in my Afghanistan sandbox with Team America, it was time to come home. Vanna, the WBS quintessential raffle queen, helped me spend my 5th Christmas in Manhattan taking a bite out of the Big Apple. Back in the good old USA. In the rear with the gear. Home of the Big PX.
Old habits die hard and old soldiers just fade away. My first action was to fade away into the PNW Blues scene swing of things. My old habits kicked in. I cruised the mean streets of Skid Road Seattle to the Highway 99 Club, Crocodile, Jazz Alley, Pioneer Square and the Ballard Salmon Bay Eagles. I slummed with "Mr. President" Eric Steiner and a large contingent of Washington fans as a Semi-finalist Judge at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis TN where the WABLUES entrant, "Wired", won first place honors over 150+ others from around the world.
Trying to get a handle on my "aggressive behavior", the occasional night terrors and the freedom of unrestricted movement, I focused on telling a small story of a longtime friend. It seemed the right thing to do.
WBS Calendar girl Maridel Fliss and Mark Whitman invited me to their crib for a welcome home dinner. Over a scrumptious meal of fresh Alaska Halibut we talked history.
Rocky Nelson: Good evening Mark. I understand you have been in the recording studio lately. You have a new recording to listen to?
Mark Whitman: yep we just finished it up. The release date is February 18th at Cee Cee’s in Burien.
RN: Tell the readers a little about yourself. How long have you been playing and who are some of the folks you have played with?
MW: I've been a guitar player for about 58 years. I started out being a road man for "Don and the Good Times". Ron Overman left the band and started a band called the "King Biscuit Entertainers" after the King Biscuit Flour Hour of Helena AR. That was 1968. We were based out of Longview Washington. Then we went to work for Pat O'Day.
RN: Pat O'Day, a well know DJ from the Pacific NW! Pray tell, how did you get together with him sir?
MW: Well in that day and age if you didn’t work for Pat O'Day you didn’t work. We made good money. Pat booked through Seattle Mercer and they booked gigs all over the Northwest. Blues Musicians and people used to come from all over to hear us play. Next came "Bitteroot" then "Springfield Rifle". Later I played with the "Sweet Talkin’Jones" band, we played all over Pioneer Square and the NW.
RN: this new CD, "Always be the Blues", how do you feel about it
MW: I like it a lot. It’s a real musical album. Not just a rehash of blues, it’s things I brought with me all of my life. I do a Springfield Rifle tune arrangement of "Wacka Wacka" and I give credit to them on the CD. I have two original songs, the title cut and 98.9. I arranged the entire CD except for "Wacka Wack". It’s produced by me and Jimmie Free. I do a Lonnie Mack tune called "Oreo Cookie Blues". The "BIG" band played on it which is my band with Dick Powell, Fat James, Keith Wohlford, Jonnie Lewis, Lonnie Williams and Dave Christenson.
RN: Blues Industrial Giants were infamous how?
MW: We were really big (as in size), 2000 pounds of Blues fun, we partied hard and we sounded really good!
RN: Some of your vocal arrangements were done with Kathi MacDonald another local favorite. How do you like working with her?
MW: I love working with Kathi, she's great! I've known her about 30 years. One of my tunes "High Heel Sneakers" actually took 8 years to develop.
RN: 8 years, did I hear you right?
MW: yeah, I had to take time out to have a stroke.
RN: I understand that you have had some health challenges lately. Care to tell us about it? How have you been?
MW: In 2007, life was goin’ good, I was on top of the world, I had a new guitar, I just got married. We were playing 28 gigs a month. We played the Sunbanks Blues festival, I got back home and had a stroke the next morning. All of a sudden I couldn't walk and I couldn't play.
With guitar in hand - by Phil Chesnut
I had a blues itch that only a trip to the Mississippi Delta could scratch. I was searching for what Morgan Freeman calls "America’s Classical Music" …THE BLUES! It just had to start at the beating heart of the Delta in Clarksdale, Mississippi, home to the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49, where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, so the story goes.
"I got the Key to the Highway, I’m billed out and bound to go…" Big Bill Broonzy
This was my third trip to the Mississippi Delta, and I highly recommend this area as a vacation destination for blues lovers. Congressional Award recipient and Washington Blues Society "BB" Award-winning graphic artist Phil Chesnut, then at his own personal crossroads, wanted to move to Clarksdale to pursue his "dream job" as illustrator of the blues in the Delta. Trusting his talents and his word to return my investment, I bankrolled him to turn his dream into a reality; we set off on the blues trail from Seattle this past summer.
We settled on Clarksdale as the base camp for day trips to Mississippi Blues Trail Marker sites of interest on a week-long sojourn. Our first stop was to the Delta Blues Museum, number one Blues Alley, where I picked up Steve Cheseborough’s latest edition of "Blues Traveling-The Holy Sites of Delta Blues" and the Mississippi Department of Tourism Blues Trail Official Map. These resources proved indispensible. Other good sources of information include The Blues Festival Guide and Alan Lomax’ seminal book. "The Land Where the Blues Began."
The Delta is an ideal place for a blues pilgrimage. Start with some reading and research, plan your trip but be flexible as you will meet folks there that know things that are not in any book. Choose a soundtrack that includes Wolf or Muddy, rent a car out of the Memphis airport, get some BBQ on Beale Street, but don’t linger-you’ll be back! Head south down Highway 61 then turn 2 miles east of Clarksdale on Highway 49 to the Hopson Plantation. There’s a nice bar and small stage in the Commissary building, where James or Cathy Butler (one of the Hopson girls) will take care of you. Refresh yourselves and settle in. Next door is the Shack Up Inn, "Mississippi’s Oldest B&B". The plantation offers an odd collection of remodeled sharecropper shacks in case the Hopson’s Lofts are full, and don’t forget to check out Pinetop Perkins’ home there. He came to Hopson in the 40's as a tractor driver and even drove the first cotton pickers. You can also stay at Ground Zero or nearby at the Riverside Hotel, "way down on Sunflower", where Ike Turner, Robert Nighthawk and Sonny Boy Williamson II lived and where Bessie Smith died.
"See me coming, run get your rockin chair…well you know I aint no stranger, you know I used to live right there…" Muddy Waters
One of the holy sites of the blues is Stovall Plantation, due west toward Friars Point. Muddy worked at Stovall for 21 cents per hour driving a tractor, and lived there before Alan Lomax discovered him. True to blues superstitions, we gathered up some dirt from his shotgun shack foundation and spread it on our floor boards for good luck. The full moon rose over the Delta in the distance, and the waning light of day set the mood. We then went to Ground Zero Blues Club, 0 Blues Alley, for a night of live blues.
"We three owners," said co-owner and gubernatorial candidate Bill Luckett, " Morgan Freeman, Howard Stovall and I opened Ground Zero Blues Club to provide a venue for consistently available live blues music here at "ground zero" for the blues. We were seeing tourists visiting Clarksdale looking for live music and there was no venue with consistently scheduled music. Since we opened on May 11, 2001, we have expanded from two nights per week with live music into four and sometimes Sunday and other days as well. Our opening of Ground Zero Blues Club and our opening of Madidi Restaurant seemed to have started a trend on Delta Avenue. Clarksdale now offers five restaurants on Delta Ave. And on most Wednesday through Saturday nights the avenue is crowded with vehicles and patrons. Many travelers make Clarksdale their primary destination."
Delta Cotton Company Apartments offer overnight or longer stays and the seven units are located directly above the club. Some feature two bedrooms and all have full kitchens.
On any given day, you may find one or more of these gracious owners, good food, great drinks, friendly servers and world class music at Ground Zero. Their second club, located in Memphis just off Beale Street, is a must visit dining, drinking and dancing experience. Later that night, I visited Red’s Juke Joint to see T-Model Ford play on his 90th birthday. A packed house, good jams, cold beer, raucous patrons, free BBQ and birthday cake made my night complete. You never know who may show up in a juke joint. To my surprise and delight, Blue Music Award winners Cedric Burnside and Watermelon Slim walked in!
Bona fide juke joints still exist in the Mississippi Delta if you dig deep. I highly recommend Red’s, Po’Monkey’s and the Blue Front Café in Bentonia on Highway 49 south of Yazoo City. Po’ Monkey’s, 30 minutes south of Clarksdale off Highway 61 near the town of Merigold, is only open Thursdays, but each of these jukes offers an authentic juke joint experience other nights of the week.
"Dogs began a barkin’, hounds began to howl…" Howlin Wolf
Gravesites of blues giants are everywhere. Robert Johnson has three. The Delta area proper extends from Memphis and Tunica in the north, to Vicksburg and Yazoo City in the south to Greenwood and Como in the East to Rolling Fork, Greenville, and Helena Arkansas in the West.
Just across the Big Muddy in Helena, I met legendary DJ Sonny Payne who invited me to be a guest DJ on the King Biscuit Flour Time radio program. The show first aired in 1941, and has broadcast daily on the same station from Noon to 12:30 PM. Sonny has hosted the show since 1953. I also enjoyed Bubba’s Blues Corner for posters, vintage vinyl, T-shirts and books. Formerly the "King Biscuit", the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival is on the second weekend of October, one of the world’s major music festivals and hosts numerous musical heavy hitters.
"Well I'm sittin' over here on Parchman Farm, And I ain't never done no man no harm…" Mose Allison
South of Clarksdale, there are a number of towns well worth a visit, including Leland (where Johnny and Edgar Winter were born), Rosedale, Mound Bayou, Cleveland and Indianola (home to BB King and Club Ebony). King bought Club Ebony two years ago and manager Betty Fowler is a wealth of information. Club Ebony, which seats 400, is near the BB King Museum. It’s where I saw BB after his "Homecoming" Festival downtown play to a packed house until four in the morning. Miss Annie, greeter from BB Kings Museum, Theo Dasbach and his wife Cindy were my guests for an intimate evening with BB. Theo owns the Rock N Roll and Blues Heritage Museum in Clarksdale and his interesting collection is definitely worth seeing. Some notable blues places in the Delta and beyond are not towns at all, but they hold special significance in the history of "America’s classical music." Places like Angola and Parchman, Hopson, Stovall and Dockery. Their historical significance in the birth of the blues cannot be overstated. These plantations and prisons tell a difficult, but important part of American history.
"I got a black cat bone, I got a mojo too,
I got a John the Conquer root, I'm gonna mess with you,
I'm gonna make you girls lead me by my hand,
Then the world will know the hoochie coochie man…" Willie Dixon
A trip to down the blues highway is not complete without a serious visit to Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis, the economic hub to the delta and especially Beale Street, are the backbone of the blues. It is well patrolled by Memphis’ finest, and you can usually see them mounted on horseback. To keep the magic flowing, I needed music, cocktails, BBQ and a Mojo Bag from Schwab’s on Beale with some John the Conquer root from Tater Red’s just down the street.
"You'll see pretty browns in beautiful gowns,
You'll see tailor-mades and hand-me-downs,
You'll meet honest men, and pick-pockets skilled,
You'll find that business never ceases 'til somebody gets killed!..." WC Handy
There is so much to see on Beale Street. Bring your camera. I enjoyed returning to places like the Blues City Café and the Pig on Beale, for some great BBQ. Ground Zero, BB King’s, and Rum Boogie, have fantastic cocktails and live music. For the perfect taste of soul food, go to Alcinea’s 317 N Main St., and don’t forget to visit Sun Studios and the Stax Recording Academy. Remember, you’re in Reverend Al Green’s territory. Then there’s Elvis. The King. His rendition of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup’s song "That’s All Right" put him on the charts beyond Tupelo and Memphis, past Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, RCA and into outer space. A day trip to Graceland with the ubiquitous gift shops can be tempered with a visit just a few blocks from the Elvis mansion to the Reverend Al Green’s Full Gospel church, and can end delightfully with an evening back on Beale. Jay Sieleman, the award-winning Executive Director of the Blues Foundation headquartered in Memphis encourages you to visit Memphis and the Mississippi Delta anytime, but especially during the foundation’s annual signature events: the International Blues Challenge and the Blues Music Awards!
"Boom boom boom boom…" John Lee Hooker