High Water (for Charley Patton) (2001) part 16: Greetings from Clarksdale



High Water (for Charley Patton) (2001) part 16

by Jochen Markhorst

XVI      Greetings from Clarksdale

I’m gettin’ up in the morning—I believe I’ll dust my broom
Keeping away from the women
I’m givin’ ’em lots of room
Thunder rolling over Clarksdale, everything is looking blue
I just can’t be happy, love
Unless you’re happy too
It’s bad out there
High water everywhere

Right on the homepage www.cityofclarksdale.org, we are already greeted with a proud the birthplace of the blues and rock ‘n’ roll!, the same greeting that is also written on signs and water towers as you approach Clarksdale by car. Vicksburg, Memphis, New Orleans… all hallowed places along the Blues Trail, of course – but the Jerusalem of the blues is Clarksdale. Apart from – not quite truthfully – calling itself the birthplace of the blues, Clarksdale also has no fewer than 11 markers of the Blues Trail within its city limits. Howlin’ Wolf, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, Arthur Crudup, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Son House: these are just a few of the blues pioneers and giants who were born or lived there. Enough in any case to justify Dylan’s pun everything is looking blue in this last verse of “High Water”. And definitively confirmed is the title of honour by the greatest name of all, the Father of the Blues, W.C. Handy.

William Christopher Handy lived in Clarksdale for six years and has two markers on the Trail. Neither in Clarksdale, however. One is at his birthplace in Florence, Alabama. But the second one in particular will irk Clarksdale city historians: it stands in Tutwiler, some 15 miles from Clarksdale. And the very first words on the marker, paid for and unveiled by Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant in 2009, are:

Tutwiler has been celebrated as “the birthplace of the blues” in honor of W. C. Handy’s encounter here with a solitary guitarist who was performing one of the earliest documented blues songs.

The encounter is, unfortunately for Clarksdale, well and reliably documented. Handy himself describes the event in detail, with academic precision and poetic beauty, in his wonderful 1947 autobiography, Father Of The Blues:

“Then one night at Tutwiler, as I nodded in the railroad station while waiting for a train that had been delayed nine hours, life suddenly took me by the shoulder and wakened me with a start.

“A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly.

Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.

The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard. The tune stayed in my mind.”

This plays out around 1903. But, as Clarksdale’s city historian will not entirely wrongly counter, this is the conception, Tutwiler is at most the Nazareth of the blues. Handy won’t actually write the “Yellow Dog Blues” until “a number of years later”, as he himself documents, in Clarksdale – so the physical birth of the blues does indeed take place in Clarksdale, apart from the Jerusalem thus also the Bethlehem of the blues. And well alright, W.C. Handy does insinuate as much, in the beginning of the fascinating Chapter 6, Mississippi Mud, which again has such a catchy, poetic opening:

“Summer returns. A blistering sun beats down upon a gang of black section hands during the late nineties. They are working down in Mississippi, laying the railroad tracks for the Yazoo Delta line between Clarksdale and Yazoo City. Their hammers rise and fall rhythmically as they drive the heavy spikes and sing Dis ole hammer killed John Henry, won’t kill me. Dis ole hammer killed John Henry, won’t kill me.”

Handy tells he has two offers to become a conductor. One for a municipal band in Michigan, a well-paid job with excellent prospects for an orchestra made up of white people. He is about to accept that offer, when he gets a second offer, a “colored Knights of Pythias band in Clarksdale, Mississippi”. Actually a less attractive job in every respect (money, career prospects, prestige), but: “Yet, for no good reason that I could express, I turned my face southward and down the road that led inevitably to the blues.”

History agrees with him wholeheartedly. Indeed, Handy’s decision to go to Clarksdale soon after leads to the birth of the blues, to the mythical shine on the town on the Mississippi River, and lays the foundation for its fertility. The Clarksdale Musicians & Artists page of the municipal site lists all the artists with a connection to Clarksdale: 49 names, including 35 from the Pantheon of blues gods. Charlie Musselwhite, who to this day sings of Clarksdale in his own work, as in “Blues Gave Me A Ride” (2022):

I was raised up in Memphis
Left down on 61
But you'll find me in Clarksdale
Where I have my fun

… Bessie Smith, who died here, Willie Brown, who was born here, Robert Johnson lived here, and so on. And the name that stands out above all is, of course: Charley Patton, “the Father of the Delta Blues”.

Patton lived mostly near Clarksdale, not in Clarksdale itself. In his youth at Dockery Farms, some 40 miles to the south, his final years in Lula, about 15 miles north of Clarksdale. Honoured there nonetheless – not only because he performed there often enough, but also because of his mentorship to local greats Son House and Willie Brown, just as the slightly older Patton also acted as a signpost and teacher to the youngsters, to men like Tommy Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson. And Patton himself, for his part, had in turn learned his early delta blues style on the plantation, at Dockery Farms, from Henry Sloan – the man who, to complete the circle, is the most likely candidate for the identity of that anonymous, lean, loose-jointed Negro, sitting there on the platform in Tutwiler in 1903, playing his guitar weirdly as W.C. Handy is waiting for the train to Memphis.

And what Patton did not learn from Sloan, he teaches himself in the noisy juke joints and dance barns: the sheer volume of sound at which he sang. As the preserved recordings suggest, and confirmed by all witness accounts, Patton’s singing could wake the dead; “exaggeratedly loud voice”, “a very loud voice capable of projecting above the din of a juke house”, “such a booming voice that it could be heard over 500 yards away”… a voice, in short, that rolled like thunder over Clarksdale.


 To be continued. Next up High Water (For Charley Patton) part 17: I’m drinking Bob Dylan Whiskey tonight


Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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