Rebellion to the sound of the Delta Blues

United States 2005

I’ve got my headphones on and I’m listening to Hangman’s Blues by Blind Lemon Jefferson. While in the Deep South a couple of weekends ago I was introduced to an art form I really should have paid more attention to: the Blues. I’ve become absolutely obsessed with its most exciting variant, Delta Blues, the style that comes from the poverty-stricken west of Mississippi.

My favourite recordings are those from the 1920s and 30s where there’s usually just one man singing and playing guitar. On the old recordings you can hear the needle flicking across the record adding white-noise to the song, sometimes almost overwhelming the soulful voice and the ever-present guitar. Some players (notably Robert Johnson and Tommy Johnson — no relation) were so good they’re supposed to have sold their souls to the devil in order to get the skill. Along with the fellas I’ve mentioned I can’t get enough of Charley Patton and Skip James. Combine the music with stories of soul-selling, poisoned whisky, and prison-time, and you’ve got something to keep you entertained for days.

As well as reading as much as I can about old Delta Blues I’m also in the middle of a biography of George Washington (a fascinating and much misunderstood man), of reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (my copy was bought from next to Walden Pond), of learning Spanish (slowly), and of finding out as much as I can about Thomas Jefferson — when JFK held a dinner for forty Nobel prize winners at the White House he said he didn’t think there’d been such a collection of greatness there since Jefferson dined alone. As if that wasn’t enough I’ve recently picked up a bit of a thing for Japanese ukiyo-e. Probably most recognisable in Katsushika Hokusai’s series of thirty-six woodcut’ of Mount Fuji, I find Ando Hiroshige’s woodcuts to be the most interesting. When I look back on this in a few years’ time I hope I know more about it; if not, bad Matty, what have you been doing with yourself?

Last Saturday I had the honour of being the first customer of Joe and Brian’s driving tour of St Louis. This is a get-rich-slowly scheme of theirs three years in the making (and still not finished) that involves recording a CD that tourists to the city can buy and listen to in the car. The recording tells the driver where to go while pointing out all the things of interest along the way. As one would expect it’s intricately well researched (Joe’s from good stock: his father’s in the middle of a bazillion-volume definitive history of St Louis). They’re very fair to the city, not shy to show the bad side of the city if it’s on the way to the good side. We finished by having dinner at a St Louis institution, Crown Candy, famous for a) its Easter monkey and b) its milkshakes. If you can drink five in half-an-hour you get them free. ‘No problem’, I thought, until it took me about half-an-hour and three large glasses to drink just one. Ohhhh, my belly hurt after that. Only a handful of people have managed it since 1913. They also do a killer egg salad toastie.

In the evening Brian and I went to see the Steamers — St Louis’s professional indoor soccer team — play against Kansas City. It was great fun (and I think we were on local TV), and we saw the Steamers go from 2–0 down to win 9–6 — go Steamers!

When we got back to the apartment building (the New Jefferson Arms or Jeff Arms for short) we shared the lift we two old ladies. It seems some sort of pensioner rebellion is going on, with a battle between the oldies and the management. Recently all the comfy chairs were removed from the lobby, depriving the oldies of their most popular social spot. Some are talking about moving out in protest (maybe what the management want?). Brian and I are thinking about leading a glorious revolution, using the 100-year old Mrs Grebe as a propaganda tool: elderly of the world, unite!

Our apartment still has little in the way of furniture, which suits us just fine. In fact I’ve recently taken to sleeping on the floor. When I first get here I had a blow-up mattress; the one problem was that it had a leak, so it needed to be blown-up every night before I went to bed. This had the side-effect of me going to sleep with a head-rush and waking up feeling a little silly wrapped in a deflated mattress. After a month I gave that up so now I sleep in my sleeping bag on top of a thin duvet on the floor. It’s really bloody comfortable; I’ve always thought I’d suit a hard mattress. It’ll get me used to those Peruvian mountain-sides I’ll soon be sleeping on!

One last, unconnected, thing to mention: the film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. What a brilliant film. From the casting of Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, the sets, the animation, down to the music of Mark Mothersbaugh and Seu Jorge, this film has it all. It’s eccentric, moving, and it has pirates. It got mixed reviews when it came out in the US, but to my mind it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen. If it’s out in the UK you should go and see it; if it’s been out, buy it on DVD or download it or something. And then listen to as much Seu Jorge music as you can find.

Oh, er, one last one last thing. We’re coming up with Blues names for ourselves. The rules are to combine at least three of the following:

  1. a physical disability;
  2. a fruit;
  3. your first name; and
  4. an ex-US president’s last name.

I’m going for Blind Papaya Coleridge while Brian’s got dibs on Ham-fisted Banana Brian. Anyone else want to leave theirs as a comment?