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Charlie Patton painting © Copyright 2004 Loz Arkle
Painting © 2004 Loz Arkle

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Hero. Legend. Good Bloke.
John Peel OBE, 1939 - 2004

Red Lick Records



“RAILROADIN’ SOME” by 'Mississippi'Max Haymes
(The Tennessee, Mississippi & Arkansas Book Signing Tour)

This is the tale of 'Delta Bound Blues: 3 Brits Hit the South' - the jottings and photos of our recent book signing trip to the Southern States. Max Haymes is the storyteller (with interjections from 'Ramblin' Rex and 'Pic-poppin' Al) and Alan White is the photographer and website master. Hope y'all enjoy it!

DAY FOUR: Monday, 4th September 2006
Moving on from Memphis, down Highway 61, branching off to Helena, AK and then on to Cleveland, MS for the next 5 nights at the fabulous Molly's B&B.

© Copyright 2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.Fairly early (well around 10.00a.m.) Alan, Rex and I said our farewells to David and Marice Evans as we eased out of their drive to catch the main highway outta town heading for Cleveland, Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta.

First off, we had to refuel our ‘Bluesmobile’ and pulled into a filling station just outside of Memphis to get some more gas. Having filled up we were about to depart when ‘Pic-Poppin’ Al’ spotted a little building just across the road from the filling station - it was Sun Records Studio at 706, Union Avenue!! Honest -just like that! That’s how we stumbled on the home of this great icon in the blues, r n’ b, rock-a-billy and r n’ r. We bought the T-Shirt (natch!) and made for Highway 61.

© Copyright 2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.While on ‘the longest highway that I know’ we decided to check out Helena across the river in dear old Arkansas. Along with West Helena this was the hub of blues life and activity back in the 1920s, in the Arkansas Delta. Despite the fact not one pre­war blues session was ever recorded there! Nevertheless, artists such as Roosevelt Sykes, ‘Mooch’ Richardson, Robert Johnson and his side-kick Johnny Shines, (amongst many others) were often to be heard playing around the Helena train depot, on the short side streets, and especially along Helena’s main drag Cherry Street, which featured on at least one early blues recording: ‘Hambone Willie’s Dreamy ­Eyed Woman Blues’ (OKeh 8693) by Hambone Willie Newbern in 1929.

The main reason for Helena's popularity was because, as we were reliably informed, the city was (in the 1920s) a wide-open one at night; while the Delta towns on the other side of the Mississippi River had little to offer the blues audience and singers in the way of barrelhouses or jook joints - unless they lived on a large plantation such as Dockery's for example. Black citizens at this time were under curfew (certainly in Clarksdale) and were advised to 'leave town' by around 10.00 p.m.!

© Copyright 2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.But when we arrived after crossing the mighty river over the Mississippi Bridge we found Cherry Street - deserted! This was around 11.00 a.m. and after parking up we started walking down a dry and dusty main street which didn't even sport a stray hound dog! Eerie man. A little further down, (taking pics as we went) we had still only spotted a total of three people. All the buildings looked closed, if not abandoned. We had traversed the best part of south Cherry Street when we saw the Delta Cultural Center which also looked closed.

© Copyright 2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.Then we spied the railroad tracks over on our left with the old depot, now converted to a museum. On a short section of rail directly outside the building stood a red caboose - an essential part of all earlier freight trains and usually situated at the rear (it's in the book!). There were many songs recorded about this rail car by both black and white artists in the 1920s and 30s. The best­known to blues lovers being the Henry 'Ragtime Texas' Thomas rendition 'The Little Red Caboose' (Vocalion 1138) from 1927. Checking out this railroad icon in the brilliant Arkansas sunshine reminded me that this freight car was often home to the train crew for days or even weeks on end and included a cooking stove and sleeping bunks - at least, in the smarter ones!

While the red caboose was having its photo taken, we saw a family emerging from the entrance of the museum - it was open, after all! Without further ado we went inside and checked out some fascinating memorabilia from the 1860s onwards. Coming out into the eternal sunshine we realized there were more people about (it was pass noon by this time) and places were open like shops and the Delta Cultural Center. Helena had done woke up!

© Copyright 2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.So after climbing up to the crest of the levee and Pic-Poppin' Al snapping the railroad yard (several times) we headed into this Center. As can be imagined, artifacts abounded and on chatting to a very attractive young woman who was on reception, we discovered that the building was now also home to the fabled King Biscuit Show on Radio KFFA! Still going strong (Mon ­ Fri) since 1941 in half-hour shows, one of the original announcers/deejays was keepin' on keepin' on! This was the celebrated Sonny Payne, now only 81 years old. You made me (aged 66) feel kinda young an' foolish, Sonny. We got signed up for the whole show a couple of days further on (see Sept 6th). Have mercy, NOW!

© Copyright 2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.
© Copyright 2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.
© Copyright 2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.

© Copyright 2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.             © Copyright 2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.               © Copyright 2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.

But time was passing all too fast, and we got to keep movin'-yeah! Crossing back over the Mississippi River, we headed south-destination Cleveland. As we left the 'Father of Waters' on Highway 49 this brought us to Lula, Mississippi just off the main highway; a few miles down the road. Celebrated by Gus Cannon on his autobiographical 'Jonestown Blues' which he recorded twice. First, in 1927 as 'Banjo Joe' with Blind Blake on guitar (Paramount 12588) and again in 1928 with Cannon's Jug Stompers (Victor 38629). Lula vibes hit us between the eyes! © Copyright 2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.The whole town seemed to be on welfare, except a filling station with a single antique pump outside a shabby wooden repair shop. We gazed at the many semi-derelict buildings, with peeling paint, on the main street, and the red-rusty railroad tracks of the old Illinois Central. Together with a whole manifest (i.e. a chain of cars) of equally battered box cars which hadn't moved for decades; this whole take of Lula was surely identical (except for rust) to how it looked in the 1930s when Charley Patton and Bertha Lee were living there. Bertha Lee sang of this little Southern Delta town on her excellent 'Mind Reader Blues' (Vocalion 02650) in 1934 (see Railroadin' Some - Ch.3). While Charley Patton, King of the Delta Blues, injected some of the harshness of the drought which hit Lula in 1930, in his searing vocals and the heavy rhythms of his own and Willie Brown's guitars. © Copyright 2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.Recorded the same year 'Dry Well Blues' (Paramount 13070) included these lines:

When I live at Lula, I livin', an' at ease; When I livin' at Lula, I livin', an' at ease. Lord, the drought come an' caught us, an' parched up all our trees.

Aw! I ain't got no money an' I sure ain't got no home; Lord, I ain't got no money an' I sure ain't got no home. Them hot weather done come in, parched all the cotton an' corn.

Just looking at the scene in front of our eyes, I could just feel the presence of Charley Patton there in Lula and the drought could have just passed through! An awesome experience with Lula, Mississippi imprinted on our minds.

We pulled back on to Highway 49 and eased on down the road, don't you know. Pretty soon we hit Highway 61 again and headed on down - always traveling south. With the sun in a shimmering blue Delta sky, we rolled along with the endless flat terrain of more fields of cotton, soya beans and a comparative newcomer (in the Mississippi Delta) in the form of rice. This is the heart of Blues country, good people and I want you to stop and listen to hear every word I say - mmm, mmm.

As we went by Clarkdsdale in Coahoma County, we saw the sign for Lyon, birthplace of the great Delta bluesman Son House; the main influence on Robert Johnson. Our Bluesmobile took us across the county line as we passed on down through Bolivar County and saw a turning for Alligator, Miss. What cool address that would be. Moving on down old 61' we hit Shelby and then Mound Bayou, the first successful all-black town in the Delta (see Sept 7th). More Charley Patton territory as we cruised through Merigold and then Renova, an old sawmill town which was also all-black; and finally arriving outside Molly's B&B at 214, South Bolivar Avenue in Cleveland, Mississippi. Time was around 4.00p.m.

© Copyright 2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.On meeting Molly Shaman, our fantastic landlady, I was struck by her bearing and can best be described as a genteel Deep South version of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. Plus Molly is so cool! She made us right at home in her glorious abode (built c.1900) which is a traditional white-painted wood building of two storeys with a real Southern balcony. Filled with cultural artifacts (her husband was a famous sculptor and Molly an artist) and with various themes in her four guest rooms, the atmosphere was just outa-sight!

Having unloaded our luggage and chosen a room each (I got the 'Oasis Room' and featured some lovely young ladies on the wall who were definitely not dressed for winter!) we sat on the wicker seats outside on the balcony sipping some cool liquid refreshments and digging the green environment under a deep blue Cleveland sky. Very shortly, the screen door opened and out stepped one foxy lady.

© Copyright 2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.

This was Liza Schnabel who was responsible for Alan, Rex, and myself being in Mississippi in the first place. A leading Southern historian with a Delta lineage going back to the Civil War, we all hit it off right away and then we met her charming mother, Eleanor. Talent definitely runs in the family and I had a dozen different in-depth conversations I wanted to conduct with this highly intelligent and dry-humoured lady.

But first, Liza said we were all going on a picnic they had planned down by the Mississippi River and everything was packed and ready to go! We took two cars with Ramblin' Rex and Pop-Pickin' Al in Eleanor's and I traveled with Liza. On the way down we turned on to a dirt road heading for the levee - only Liza realized after a mile or so we were on the wrong dirt road. This road, I have to tell you, was a gravel one about four feet in width ( with a serious drop on either side) and only a fraction wider than the car! I could see my shining white knuckles gripping my seat as Liza engaged in a 3-point turn!! (I'm kiddin', gal). But we got down to the riverside without any more ado and Liza and Eleanor laid out this beautiful picnic. This included chicken, corn bread, barbecue sauce, some delicious home-made jam, bottles of red wine, and I don't know what else. Good Gordon gin!

© Copyright 2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.

© Copyright 2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.

While we ate and drank, the dusk deepened as the evening drew on and there out on the Mississippi, heading south, a string of barges were easing through the muddy waters (which were really low after the extra dry summer) with a towboat (OK it was diesel-powered!). It was an almost surreal picture from the past ( in the heyday of the busy steamboat trades on the lower Mississippi in the 1910s and 20s) as the barges slid by with a garish green light on the front and accompanied by the only noise we could hear - a low-down moan of the towboat's whistle. That's the Blues! It was just in time as darkness suddenly fell and we all made our way back to town. After a couple (!) more drinks out on Molly's cool balcony taking in the Cleveland night air decorated with the 'song of the cicada', the three of us turned in - what a great introduction to this part of the journey of a lifetime - in the Mississippi Delta. And on the morrow we were going to meet famous blues collector Steve LaVere down there in Greenwood - man, this is too much!

Day Six: Tuesday, 5th September (Coming Soon!)

To order the 'Railroadin' Some' book click here

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Text (this page) © Copyright 2006 Max Haymes, Rex Haymes & Alan White. All Rights Reserved.
Photos (this page) © Copyright Alan White. All Rights Reserved.
Website © Copyright 2000-2006 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.
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