Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

Chasing the Blues Down South

Navtej Sarna

Navtej Sarna drives through Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana following the Jazz and blues trail

As we listened to jazz on a heavily scented Tehran evening and watched the sky darken beyond the rustling chinars, a friend once said to me: “When you reach Bourbon street, stop for a moment and think of me”. At that time, Bourbon Street or for that matter New Orleans was not in my plans and I forgot about it all. But now as I swept through the deserted winter landscapes of Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana, drawn ineluctably to that southern port, whose very mention brings to mind European charm, haunting music and the hedonistic Mardi grass, those distant words began to drum again in my mind.

Entering the city by an impressive causeway across the sea-sized Lake Pontchartrain iridescent under a setting sun, it’s difficult to imagine that less that three hundred years ago, this was just a steamy, slushy bog between the great Mississippi and the lake, infested with alligators, snakes and mosquitoes. Settled by the French, often convicts from French prisons, New Orleans went through a difficult initial history, plagued by floods, fires, epidemics and food shortages. It was ceded to the Spanish in 1762 and finally passed into the hands of the United States in 1803. With its unique combination of hardheaded American business acumen and gracious Creole living, quickly became a major American city.

It’s dusk by the time we park ourselves in a comfortable and reasonable hotel. Sifting through the tourist brochures, it’s obvious that there is much that can be done. One can take the swamp tours, exploring the bayous under the moss tangled cypress trees, admiring the alligators. Or one can do the plantation route, following the history of slavery and the success story of sugar among the elegance of antebellum houses. One can walk through the elegantly carved above ground tombs of the great cemeteries of New Orleans, where normal burial is ruled out by the flooding of the swamp. But I am on a mission- I am chasing the blues and in the thirty-six hours that I have, I must get to wherever the music is.

The hotel is only a short walk to the French quarter. Hurrying bands of youngsters and tourists are rushing towards that direction. Bourbon Street is half shut on Christmas night. It isn’t the crowded wild extravaganza that I thought it would be. But as I walk up and down I can see how fast food counters, souvenir shops and striptease joints are crowding the jazz bars and courtyard cafes in. Even in that desolate mood, music is drifting around. From the fast food places and the pubs, from the balconies above, there is the strumming of guitars, the thumping of drums.

Down the road there is a band belting out the blues as a small crowd rocks around the door. A brightly lit bar where Mark Twain is supposed to have hung out lies empty. But before one can return to the hotel to nurse the disappointment of that first visit, there is a sudden jamming of guitar strings that takes hold of the street and a loud heavy voices sets the tone - “The blues are all right…” - it’s Willey Lockett, a heavy showman in a crimson coat with his band singing in a well hidden courtyard café, mysteriously recessed from the street. I hang around the gate and watch him perform, alternating his songs with fervent sales pitches for his CD. He’s there well into the night and is going to be there again the next evening. All is not lost.

It’s Sunday morning and the French quarter have lost the sleazy touch of the evening before. It’s all clean and bright and joyous. The sunlit, white Basilica dominates Jackson Square where everybody is setting up shop. The tarot card readers are amongst the earliest, each one with a small table and a chair, the gypsy woman reading a magazine behind her table of cards, the black caped Count Dracula who dodges the camera lens. A clown with a painted face pensively takes in the scene; a mime in a hat is frozen forever in stretched mid-stride. Fresh smells of coffee and chicory and beignet crowd around the French market near the riverfront. The notes from a baritone sax become the center of the morning.

As lunchtime comes up, a jazz group takes over the square. In a burst of revelry, the stylish sax rivals the brassy trumpet and trombone as a crowd gathers in a spellbound circle. The music is free and adventurous, as the performers duel each other, one taking off where the other one leaves and coins tingle in the bag that is passed around.

This evening there are no half measures about bourbon street-every establishment is open and full and noisy. Willie Lockett is still there but he has a lot of competition.

From New Orleans to Memphis is only a few hours away along the Mississippi. It is flat endless country that reminds one of cotton plantations and Huckleberry Finn. And it’s the place where the blues were born, in the little towns of the Mississippi delta, from the pathos and pain of a people struggling to adjust to the end of slavery. In the delta, there are a number of small non-descript towns, birthplaces of Blues greats like Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Robert Johnson. And it is in the delta that W.C. Handy who wrote the first blues song – Mr. Crump- was inspired by a man strumming a guitar in 1903 at a train station in Tutwiler. Handy evidently was inspired by the phrase – where the Southern meets the Dog which referred to the crossing of two old railway routes- the Southern and the Yazoo and Delta (or yellow dog). This music from the fields ended up in the bars, jukeboxes and saloons of Chicago and on Beale Street in Memphis. There a young man called Elvis Presley turned it into rock n’ roll.

It’s on a chilly night that we reach Memphis and a fierce wind is cutting through the town. It’s not a night to be out but one cannot come to Memphis and not walk down Beale Street. B.B. King called this street, that is all of two hundred yards, a “city unto itself”, full as it is with music halls, theatres, pawnshops, restaurants. In the cold it is deserted, though a restaurant manager promises us that there will be music till two in the morning. The neon lights of the B.B. King café compete with those of Elvis Presley café as tiny flakes of snow begin to fall. I recall the street in summer, choked with tourists, holding tall glasses of beer and marguerites and daiquiris in their hands while the blues were sung in bars and in the park beyond, under the broad trees. It’s a pleasant thought as we rush away to hot food and a warm bed, the long promised pilgrimage over.