While filming in various southern states for the documentary The American South as We Know It, the tug from the Magnolia State kept tickling my fancy to return. Now being an adult and more obedient to my gut feeling, I did just that. Yes, I’m talking about Mississippi, a state rich in African-African American/American history. Previously I interviewed Mr. Hermon Johnson of Mound Bayou, MS for an oral history project and had no doubt he would be interested in the documentary. After I called to inform him of my return to the delta and welcomed his expertise, he was more than happy to assist as I expected. During my last visit, I did not have the opportunity to visit any juke joints due to the lack of time. This trip was different because Andrew Smith of J.S. Productions accompanied me on the journey and time is all we had. Andrew is from the DMV area and hasn’t traveled much in the south, making most of our travels new experiences for him. The dialects, foods, mannerisms, traditions, race relations, and symbols are distinctly different to what is now deemed the “east coast” of the DMV. The travel from NC to MS consisted canvasing the rolling hills of Alabama where we stopped to rest for one night and gas up. I keep my camera attached to the hip because of impromptu questions for people tasked with verbalizing why history is important.
Off the beaten path in a town on the outskirts of Jasper, Alabama were three elderly white males sitting in chairs in front of a gas station. In many ways they would fit your typical “redneck” description of someone living in the rural south in a town with no street lights. They each had on dirty jeans, were missing teeth, and hair was not manicured. Seeing this was not out of the ordinary for me, being that I’ve spent multiple days of my life in rural Tennessee. Even the whispering that took place when they saw a black man who they knew wasn’t from the area approaching was not alarming.
I was raised with manners so I politely greeted them while walking pass. As expected, I did not receive a warm response just smirks. While inside, I struck a conversation with a black woman named Jean who was mopping the floor. I inquired about the area and could tell she was happy to have a conversation with an “outsider”. I purchased some chips and water from the polite white lady behind the counter who sent me off by saying “safe travels sweetie” as I walked out the door. I recognized this as Southern hospitality at its finest. Outside of the building was Jean and the three fellas talking and laughing away. I interrupted and introduced myself. My southern twang confirmed my understanding of the region and any attempted disrespectful undertones. I briefly explained to them details about the documentary and inquired if they would like to participate. Jean was smiling from ear to ear as if she was standing on the main stage of a performance hall preparing to start the show, her counterparts however stared at each other and the ring leader said firmly “No we are good”. Jean’s smiling immediately stopped.
I thanked them for their time and focused on Jean. When I asked her if she would like to say on camera “Why history of the South is important” the ring leader of the white men then said “We are all good”.
I left that gas station feeling sorry for Jean. She was voiceless in a town that was predominantly white and accepting of only a certain type of black person. The kind who was most likely submissive to the whims of the “good ole boy.” I imagine she would have possibly discussed her family history, big momma, church, and a staple of the south…food. Maybe one day she will be empowered to speak for herself in a place where she has most likely lived her whole life.
Arriving safely to the blues utopia of the world was a big relief, especially with the backlash going on in the Country centered on police officers killing black men. Two black men traveling through all red states can be unnerving at times.
While conducting the interview with Mr. Johnson, he shared more in-depth life experiences with the camera in front of him versus only a handheld microphone. Cameras always bring out the hidden Hollywood actors/actress persona we may desire. After cruising around Mound Bayou filming, the focus switched to plans of hearing some down-home blues at one of many juke joints in Clarksdale, MS. Clarksdale, MS at some point of time housed the individuals listed below and countless others.
|Junior Parker||Sam Cooke||Nate Dogg|
|Earl Hooker||John Lee Hooker||Rick Ross (Rapper)|
|Ike Turner||Morgan Freeman||W.C. Handy|
|Robert Johnson||Howlin’ Wolf||Muddy Waters|
|Tennessee Williams||Eddie “Bongo” Brown||Eddie Calhoun|
With the focus of the evening on the blues, after getting much needed rest, myself, Andrew, Mr. Johnson and his lady friend made the 29.5 mile trip from Mound Bayou to Clarksdale. Upon arriving you can tell the towns juke joints are positioned as the life line of the economy. License plates from across the country filled parking lots with people waiting to hear what all the fuss is about down in the Delta. Red’s juke joint is the mothership of the Delta especially since the Po’ Monkey juke joint is no longer in business. Upon walking in the door we see the owner Red Paden. The vibe of the place instantly takes you back in time. The walls were full of red neon lights, posters of old advertisements, pictures of visitors, musicians, and a lot of beer companies. Needless to say the blues and drinking go hand and hand.
When sitting down at Red’s and viewing the décor, you recognize all the greats who have once blessed the venue with their God given talents of speaking to the pains and sorrows of life via the blues. After talking drink orders for my crew, it was time to bask in the moment and allow the band to take the wheel of life’s concerns one strum of the guitar, beat of the snare, and high octave pitch from the singer at a time. That night, the blues and its power provided unity amongst a diverse crowd in the most segregated state in country. Thank God for the blues and pray for Jean!!!