This is following on a couple of blog posts about my travels on the blues trail so far, the first one is here.
The second post is here.
I left out two huge significant things from the second blog post, as it was written while I had food poisoning from BB King’ s club on Beale Street in Memphis. The dipping sauce for the catfish has shrimp in it, just so you know.
I went to Dockery Plantation near Cleveland, and the home to so many of the early blues artists. Charley Patton came here as a child and learnt how to play guitar from Henry Sloan, the blues man at Dockery. Tommy Johnson, Son House and Willie Brown were here at the same time. They influenced the next generation of blues men who came here in the late teens and twenties. Howlin’ Wolf came here as a teenager and had lessons from Charley. Robert Johnson, Pops Staples, and Honeyboy Edwards were here too, I mean the plantation musicians were just incredible and responsible for inspiring generations of blues men and women. The impact that they had just can’t be talked up enough, and they all came from one place. Two of them are said to have sold their souls to the devil so they could play the guitar real good – Tommy and Robert Johnson, no relation.
This plantation has been often considered as the place where blues was born, I don’t think it was created at Dockery but it was the place where Delta blues was honed and developed into something new and exciting. The blues men here practised hard to up their skills on the guitar. There are stories of Charley playing gigs with the guitar behind his head, or while crawling along the floor, and Robert Johnson apparently hated anyone watching him play in case they figured out some of his moves.
Dockery is a huge plantation. At the time of Patton etc there were 400 families on the estate, and it had its own small town to support the thousands of people who lived here. It even had its own railway – the Pea Vine – and station to bring supplies and people in. It had it’s own currency like the Stovall plantation to make it harder for the black families to leave. After emancipation, black and whites in the south were politically and economically equal for about 20 years until the whites brought in more and more laws to strip blacks of the rights, essentially turning them into indentured servants. Whites didn’t like having to use black workers but they needed them to work the land. But black people could move on from place to place, choosing who they wanted to work for as they had that freedom, so the plantation owners got creative with how to restrict movement, with things like creating their own currency, meaning it could only be used on their land.
Sharecroppers were tied into a contract for a year and were often intimidated into returning to a plantation if they decided to leave, and the currency would help track them down, see where they were contacted to work. Plantation owners banded together and would often refuse to take on their neighbours’ workers. Sharecropping was a hard life, with people only receiving a quarter of the money after all crops were sold, rent was paid, commissary was paid off, etc. It was often that once the money had come in that people were still in debt and had to stay to work it off. Tenant farmers were the lucky ones with a mule and they got to keep half of the money made from the crops. The rest went on rent and commissary payments as usual.
Black labour was incredibly important to plantation owners, and with so many black people leaving for the north, it often meant cotton crops were laid to waste, just rotting in their fields. Looking back, it’s sad to see the plantation owners using control of the people rather than building a community together but the hangover from slavery was just so big. You can still feel it in the small towns here. White and blacks don’t tend to mix socially, at least not from what I’ve seen. There are exceptions, of course, but they don’t seem to be the rule. There are other observations but I’ll keep it to the blues!
Dockery has made a token gesture to the blues at the front of the estate but there’s an opportunity to do so much more, or so I thought. But I’ve learnt that the blues is dying out in the Delta and that the population is shrinking as people move away, so it would only be tourists really coming to visit. It was still momentous visit and quite emotional to be in the place that helped shape modern culture.
Po Monkeys is a legendary place, a real juke joint built from a sharecropper’s cabin near Merigold on the edge of nowhere.
Raised beds stretch out in the mud for miles ahead of me as I stood at Po’s and looked at the horizon. Its totally flat here with trees edging the fields far off in the distance. Its also where I spotted the red cardinal for the first time, a bright red spark against the grey mud, thinking it was a lost pet. The earth looked like silt, a mix of clay and sand but I don’t know if it is.
Po’s is out of place, bright and fun in this grey place with silly signs and colour. We were there a year too late though. The owner, Mr Seaberry, died in 2017 and the legend went with him as the house reverted back to the owners. Its been left for the moment and there was plenty of flowers and monkey tributes left outside for him. We read about the Thursday night parties he used to run, the only night it was open, the number of fancy dress costumes he changed into during the evening, people from all over the world flocked to go there, and was the place to go in the nineties blues revival. It was sad to be there, thinking of what has been and how we’re losing our connections to the origins of blues culture. I was also extremely jealous of the people who’ve been and had the time of their lives at this totally unique place. And it really is unique.
Long live Po Monkey’s!