Why you should care
The last in a line of great northern Mississippi bluesmen deserves a listen.
Mississippi in February looks dormant at first glance. The long, flat horizon is grayish, the cotton fields are brown, and the streets of Clarksdale — known to blues enthusiasts as “the crossroads of the blues” — are sleepier than ever. But when I was there around 2005, a good tip led me to the beating heart of that quiet evening: a live set by all-night bluesman Robert “Wolfman” Belfour.
Close to midnight, I settled onto a stool in the bar at Red’s, a tiny juke joint in a corner of town, my eyes adjusting to the reddish light, a cold beer in my hand. Belfour took the floor in a brownish three-piece suit, no more than a few feet away from me in the cramped space, guitar on his knee.
… it’s literally the deepest blues you can get.
— Roger Stolle, author of Hidden History of Mississippi Blues
Then the raw, hypnotic sound of this unsung bluesman drew me in. Belfour thumped the bass line and teased out the melody on his self-tuned guitar; the technique of someone who taught himself, whose sound is utterly irreplicable. This is not the blues as you’ve heard them before.
“His sound … it’s literally the deepest blues you can get,” said Roger Stolle, an author and longtime Clarksdale resident who is a kind of caretaker of the blues in his adopted town. He recalls the long, two- to three-hour sets that kept Belfour’s audience leaning forward, locked in. “By that I mean it just pulls you into a trance, a wave of sound that comes over you.”
It’s known as “hill country” blues, referring to northern Mississippi, where Belfour grew up — an area that has produced many other blues greats, such as Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. The style has influenced successful modern bands like the Black Keys, after Fat Possum records took their sound into the recording studio and on tours in the late ’90s. Belfour grew up playing alongside Kimbrough and Burnside, and though he outlived those two legends, his death last week at age 74 means the end of a line. “It’s strange how popular hill country suddenly got now that all these guys are gone,” said Stolle.
In this clip, Belfour offers up part of his own tale, as he often did, unprompted, in between songs. He grew up in a family of sharecroppers, in Red Banks, Mississippi. When Belfour’s father died, young Robert became head of the family. Belfour went into construction and moved to Memphis, where he played his music “on the side” in relative obscurity until later in his life.
Stolle first heard him at a blues festival where Belfour was a replacement act. After the set, a mesmerized Stolle thought to himself: “That’s the replacement? Should be the headliner!”
Here is the man to hear if you’ve only listened to Chicago blues, or blues with rock ‘n’ roll mixed in. And even if none of that is for you — here is a sound that will take you into a Mississippi night.