The Daily Struggle to Keep the Blues Alive in the Mississippi Delta
In the heart of the blues highway, the music is hanging on … by a thread.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Red’s is the place to be, while it’s still around.
OZY’s Nick Fouriezos, on the last leg of his Herculean efforts for the States of the Nation series, took the last train to Clarksdale and wandered into a jukejoint nonpareil to bring us a True Story of a decidedly different stripe. Enjoy.
It’s Wednesday at Red’s, the most famous of the jukes in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the city that made jukes famous. It’s a half-hour past 8 p.m. and the music didn’t show, but nobody seems to really mind. It’s casual here: no credit cards, just cash and cold beers, and three people drinking them under the neon red lights.
Soon it’s just Red Paden and his bartender, after the guests realize the blues musician isn’t coming, that he’s stuck with his guitar in Argentina. The night is still early. If they care to, they can head down the street to Messengers, which usually plays the blues but sometimes has hip-hop nights, or Ground Zero, the nightclub owned by Morgan Freeman. “They don’t know the blues,” Red says, unimpressed with his peers. But then again, nobody is here, and Red has turned off the blues track that was playing from the speakers behind the empty drum set, and is now watching the NBA game on his box set.
Red talks about the time [Morgan] Freeman “melted like a stick of butter” when he met Robert Plant here in this room …
During the commercials, Red talks about the time Freeman “melted like a stick of butter” when he met Robert Plant here in this room of Model T posters and faded pictures of blues royalty. He points to the wall, next to the Corona clock, at the photo of Plant — curly hair licking down his pale face — next to Red, younger, wearing a bright white hat and black sunglasses although he’s indoors. “That must have been in ’97,” Red says. His voice is raspy and deep, and the 67-year-old coughs. Plant comes here once or twice a year, and half the time people don’t even recognize the Led Zeppelin front man, Red says, shaking his head.
A half-dozen folks walk in, wondering whether there will be blues. “My bandman didn’t make it tonight,” Red says. “Ah, man, everybody told us to come here,” a woman shouts, before asking if she can smoke a cigarette inside (she can’t). An older man with a biker jacket, ponytail and a gut comes over. “I’m from Canada. I’m a player. Do you have outside guys come in?” Sometimes, Red says. “I’m looking to play a few spots.” Man, you can come here and play. “When would be a good night?”
Tonight, Red says.
“I just arrived two hours ago.”
What about tomorrow night?
“I already said I would play at the Delta Blues Museum. But maybe another night?”
You can come through and check, Red says, but he seems less than pleased. “I don’t have anything booked Monday, but I’m gonna be closed rest of the week — gotta go get operated on.”
Red continues. “I got plaque in my veins. They gotta put a Roto-Rooter in and pull it out. It’s just like plumbing, you know. Last time I had it done was in June. They went and took some dye and shot it in my legs. I got two stents in my left leg, one in my right. They have a new procedure now, don’t need to use no dye — that dye is dangerous as shit. It knocked out my kidneys. So I’m trying this other thing now.”
The Canadian asks his name. “I’m Red — you know who I am. Everybody in Canada knows who I am. Shit, I’ve been doing this for 45 years.”
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Rain, cold, and my unfortunate decision to wear shorts despite the rain and cold, couldn't stop the Team from exploring Clarksdale, MS all day yesterday and laaate into the night, dancing to the blues at every stop along the way!! And then, second to last stop of the night… I found my new favorite bar ☺️ #jukejointfestival #amtriangle
Eventually, the Canadian leaves, and Red turns back to the game. “I got Billy Earheart used to come here; he played 22 years with Hank Williams Jr. He started out with the Amazing Rhythm Aces,” Red says, and Robert Bilbo Walker, who was in the 2015 documentary I Am the Blues. “Clarksdale was where all the big-name stars came from,” Red says, dating back to the ’70s, when he got his first start at his uncle’s juke joint, running moonshine and beer to the people working out in the fields. “I remember when they didn’t have no clubs; they used to play at their homes, make homemade wine, homemade beer, homemade guitars and drums and shit.”
He doesn’t buy that blues is dead. “That’s just a bunch of muthafuckas who don’t know shit,” he says. While it’s quiet tonight, he does have shows booked this weekend. The museum has weekly blues classes, with 6-, 7-, 8-year-olds playing two hours straight. “It maybe ain’t quite as many places as it used to be. But right here, we’ve got one kid projected to be the next B.B. King. They call him Kingfish, but his name is Christone Ingram.”
Back in the day, Red always had people asking him to write an autobiography, but he always said no, because people were always wanting you to tell on folks. “That’s like snitching,” he says. After a moment, though, Red adds: “I still might.” One day.
Up above his TV set is a poster touting the “rocking, stomping Delta Blues” of Big Jack Johnson, who taught him how to play years ago, back when he used to sing a little too. Johnson died in 2011. “He was one of the few men who were real worldwide known, who made it back to Clarksdale,” Red says. “A lot of the others won’t acknowledge Clarksdale. It’s a small town. They want to be from a big town.”
He thinks about the old legends. “A lot of them still live. But a lot of them died out,” Red says. And with that, he gets up out of his chair, coughing. When he returns, he is clutching an open bottle of water like a crutch. He starts watching the NBA game again. “You gotta catch me on a day I feel like talking,” he says.