A year or so ago, I flew into Jackson, Mississippi, to meet friends to travel and experience the history of the Mississippi Delta Blues. We traveled up Route 61, stopping in Indianola to visit BB King’s stomping grounds before heading up to Clarksdale to spend a few days soaking in as much of a Blues experience as could be fit into a 48 hour period. There were many highlights, including the Ground Zero bar, the Shack Up Inn, and checking out a blues documentary that was being shown as part of the Clarksdale Film Festival.
But all of that paled in comparison to a late-night spent at Red’s Lounge, one of the last remaining authentic Mississippi Delta Blues juke joints.
Nestled next to a slightly overgrown graveyard, Red’s doesn’t look like much of anything from the outside and there’s nothing fancy about it inside. It’s small. The kind of small where upon entry every head in the joint turns to greet you.
This being my first trip into a Mississippi juke joint, I had nothing to compare it to. But it certainly felt authentic. Peeling paint on the walls, a worn carpet, a tiny stage, and a low ceiling paneled with what looked like heavy-duty green plastic garbage bags. Exposed light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, coupled with several neon lights shaped like musical notes cast a hazy, red-tinged hue throughout the cramped quarters. The bar menu was simple – bottled beer, water, and soda. Cash only.
Red, the proprietor, was serving. He took a peek at us over the bridge of his dark shades and welcomed us.
It was all that you could imagine in a Mississippi juke joint. I had reached The Promised Land!
Well…almost. I was within a few feet of it.
I fancy myself as a decent musician. Can’t read a lick of music and my guitar playing is pretty basic. Simple blues stuff. And I’m not afraid to admit that the only thing better than a two-chord song is a one-chord song. Less to remember but more room to feel. I’ve also dabbled with the piano, saxophone, harmonica, and a lot of percussions.
Over the years, I’ve managed to talk myself onto stages from Memphis to Kansas City to New York City to sit in with various musicians for a few songs. I begin planting the seed with a band member during their breaks. By the end of the night when the crowd thins, most relent and let me sit in for a tune or two.
From the moment I walked in the door, I knew the path I was going to travel. An authentic Mississippi juke joint? This was a bucket list moment for Willie Marble. And the evening’s act was perfectly set up for it. A young Blues player who seemed to be cool with having people sit in with him. In fact, it didn’t seem like he had a band behind him. It was more reminiscent of pick-up basketball on the playground. Players were shuffling on and off the bandstand. It was a pretty loose scene.
I surveyed the situation. It was unlikely that he’d let me play his guitar and I wasn’t packing a saxophone, Mississippi or otherwise. There was, however a small, simple trap set. Bass drum, high-hat, floor tom, one cymbal. That was my ticket. I set my sights on it.
I can sit in with just about anyone as a percussionist with hand instruments such as congas and various shakers. Those sorts of percussion instruments are easy to add a bit of sound and vibe but at the same time not get in the way too much. But I really can’t play a trap set. I’ve never been able to coordinate my hands with my feet. Compounding that problem is that my enthusiasm usually gets the best of me and I simply can’t resist stomping on the bass drum or high-hat foot pedals. The results are not always optimal. But that wasn’t going to stop me.
Compared to the level of selling, convincing, and outright bribing with a beer or two that I’ve had to do in other bars and clubs, this was fairly easy.
“You can play the drums?” he asked.
“Okay. You can sit in when we begin our next set.”
I can’t tell you what song we played. A straight Blues number, no doubt. I fell into the groove. I was having the time of my life, enjoying every second of this bucket list moment. I even deluded myself into thinking that I was holding my own pretty well.
My Delta Blues juke joint bubble, however, was about to be burst.
No sooner did the last note of the first song fade away, when he turned around, looked me straight in the eye, and hissed, “Damn! You can’t play! Go sit down. Let’s get somebody up here who can play the drums.”
For many, that walk of shame from behind the trap set back to a seat at the bar after being summarily and quite publicly kicked off the bandstand would have been humiliating. But not for Willie Marble. He’d just checked off a bucket list item. Playing on the stage of one of the last authentic Blues juke joints in the Mississippi Delta? It would have taken a blow torch to erase the mile-wide smile on my face.
I ordered a beer. Red handed me the bottle and I took a deep gulp.
“Doesn’t get much better than that, does it?”
From behind his shades, Red simply nodded.