The Cle eland Travel Inn
Highway 61, the new, mostly four-lane version, carries Joe from New Orleans through Mississippi toward Clarksdale. He listens to Cynthia’s music as he rides, sees her smiling into his eyes, on her side and mindful of the tubes snaking down her arm. “Take that trip for me,” she said. “Please. Imagine my old soul looking down and seeing the thread of my life being carried on. It makes me happy. Really. I need to talk about my dreams, Joe. That’s what I have left. Your love, and my dreams.”
He turns east on Highway 8, following the Blues Trail toward Dockery Farms. A sign on the outskirts of the little town of Cleveland points down a dirt road to the “Cle eland Travel Inn.” Joe follows the arrow and finds the old, low building surrounded by farm fields. He turns in, crushed rock popping under his tires.
There’s a row of lawn chairs across the front, white-painted metal like Joe’s grandmother had when he was a kid. The kind you could rock a little when you finally hit sixty pounds. A man dozes in one of the chairs, a cat naps in another, and a black and tan dog of uncertain breed rests in the shade of a third. The dog raises his head to contemplate Joe’s arrival.
Joe picks what he thinks might be a parking place and gets out. The cat opens one eye and goes back to napping. The dog offers a peremptory ‘wuff’ in apparent recognition of Joe’s arrival, then rests his muzzle on his paws and lets his eyes follow Joe as he crosses the lot. The man wakes and stands, tall and lean, and walks into the building with the careful attention of an older person.
Joe follows him in and finds the man eyeing him suspiciously over the worn formica counter. “You down from Illinois?”
“Uhh, yes I am.” Joe is surprised until he sees a fly-specked mirror above the desk.
The man’s chin juts out. “Not responsible for personal items in the car.”
Joe nods, wondering at the connection between Illinois and future larceny. The man must see the question in his eyes.
“Stayin’ here with that outta state license, folks figure you’re followin’ the Blues Highway. State of Mississippi makes a big deal out of it, so folks come through here lookin’ for Dockery Farms, goin’ to Clarksdale and over to Greenwood. Outta state license with a white man drivin’, that means a car fulla good stuff. So I’m just mentionin’ that I’m not responsible for your personal items. Lock your car.”
Joe says, “Well there’s not much in the car …”
“You know that, but nobody else does. Lock your car.”
Joe nods again and accepts the worn room key.
“How long you stayin’?”
Joe says, “Well, like you said, I am interested in the Blues Highway … three or four days, maybe?”
“Not gonna take that long. Most of what’s left anymore is people’s memories. Lotta people disappointed when they find out there isn’t much to see. ‘Course the important part never was anything you could see, anyway.”
Over the next couple of days, Joe learns that the man is the proprietor of the Cleveland Travel Inn, that his name is Tommy Jarvis, but that everybody calls him Mase, “’Cause of the jar, you know, in Jarvis. Mason jar. Get it?”
Mase is in his 70’s, tall and lean, his skin the color of old, dark leather. Friendly under the rough leading edge. He inherited the small motel from his mother some years ago. He has the soft diction and slow cadence of his birthplace, and has honed both over the years to draw listeners like Joe into his stories. They sit in the white chairs most afternoons, the old tomcat and the dog keeping them company, as Mase unreels the history of Clarksdale and Cleveland and the Delta, distilling the stories his grandfather told him sitting on these same chairs sixty years ago.
“My grandfather was a boy in the time the music was strong around here. He said that on a Saturday night, Cleveland would be full to the brim with people lookin’ to have a good time. Back then, before the mechanical cotton pickers took over, there was five, maybe ten times the people livin’ out here in the country. Sharecroppers, they were. Too poor to buy their land, but they had a nickel or a dime, and that was what those musicians was after.”
“Come Saturday night, people would be lookin’ to have a little drink, listen to some music and dance. Back then, they didn’t mind walkin’ a few miles to a jook joint. They called it a barrel house, because they’d prop some planks over barrels in a little commissary and serve whatever kind of food they made … tamales, fried fish, like that … and they’d have beer and hooch and the music. Blues Highway people won’t tell you why Clarksdale was so important, but it was the white lightnin’ they made around here.”
Mase punctuates his story with a nod. “Umm hmm … white lightnin’. My grandfather’s was famous all the way up to Memphis.”
He turns to look out over the fields to the west, shoots of winter wheat made emerald in the afternoon sun, shakes his head.
“Mechanical harvesters came along in the 1930’s and ’40’s, when granddad had a small farm. He was sharin’ for Mist’ Jones over near Tutwiler. But the equipment was too costly for anyone but the big farms. Little farmers, sharecroppers, got run out of business, mostly.”
“Dockery Farms over here toward Ruleville and a few others got back all the land they owned before the War Between the States and started farming it with the big machines. There was no jobs here, lots of jobs up North. Most people just picked up and went. The musicians went with ’em.”
In the mornings, Joe follows Mase’s directions to places xxxx Robert Johnson’s third and final grave, over near Greenwood. Mississippi John Hurt’s family graveyard, east of Greenwood in a silent grotto where the hills begin to rise toward the Piedmont. In the evenings, he finds small clubs where a new generation of musicians is carrying on the tradition, mostly playing the Delta Funk that grew out of electric blues a generation ago.
After several such trips, Mase is apparently satisfied that Joe is serious about the music.
“Tonight, you take yourself into Clarksdale, go to Red’s Place … ask anybody where it is … and have a listen to Sonny Boy Vee. He’s one of the last of the real bluesmen. You gonna like what you hear. Don’t be put off by the place. It don’t look like much, but you’ll hear good music.”
True enough. Joe finds Red’s Place easily. Old brick front building by the railroad tracks, piled high in the front with ancient Bar-B-Que ovens, accouterments, building materials, buckets and who-knows-what. As he crosses the street, Joe hears the beat coming from the place, not yet the music. The much-repaired door sags in its frame. There’s a piece of cardboard plastered to it, announcing in uneven marker letters “Sonny Boy V and Trio. TONITE.” The sign on the wall next to the door lays out house policy succinctly: “NO guns, NO drugs, 21+over.” Joe opens the door to the last chord of a song, followed by applause from the crowd packing the small place. There’s smoke, the smell of beer and a rush of conversation as he pays the two-dollar cover. There are two kinds of bottled beer available. Joe says, “Lite” and the bartender hands over a cold bottle in exchange for another two dollars. Gonna need this tonight, he thinks, already sweating.
Sonny Boy V is surely well into his 80’s. He’s sitting in a straight-back chair, cradling his scarred Fender electric in hands wasted by arthritis. On a chair next to him is a glass bottleneck slide and a pint bottle of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Sipping Whiskey about half gone. The rest of the trio consists of a pudgy young man holding a Fender J-bass and chatting up two very fine looking young women and a drummer who couldn’t be more than fourteen. The drummer fidgets, impatient to start the next number, but Sonny Boy is taking his time, working the crowd. Joe finds a seat at the bar next to a pretty woman who turns out to be Sonny Boy’s niece. She looks him up and down. “Where you from?”
Joe says, “I’m down from Illinois.” The lady looks disappointed. “You know,” she says, “We get people from everywhere in the world comin’ to Red’s. Japan, all over Europe, Brazil, everywhere. That guy over there,” she tilts her head toward a bearded man with a raucous Hawaiian shirt, “He’s from Croatia. He gets into the music. White guys from Europe, they just love our music.”
Joe’s trying to figure a way to justify his boring normalcy when Sonny Boy takes a prefatory sip of the Jack, slips the slide on his ring finger, brushes the strings and slides up the neck to produce a shimmering introduction to the next song.
The bass player cuts off his sales pitch to the ladies and comes in a little late. The kid on drums grabs the beat on the next measure and makes it his own, establishing that he is, indeed, far more mature as a musician than his age would suggest. Sonny Boy’s playing is simple … Joe learns later that he ‘had a stroke coupla’ years ago’ … but the guitar speaks like a human voice, digging down below listening to a place much deeper. He delivers the words in a way that makes them a conversation with his audience, not a performance. Everyone there, white and black, Croat and Illinoisan, has his feelings, knows what he’s singing about.
Maybe it’s the beers, maybe it’s the music, but Joe feels like he’s floating in a bittersweet ocean, a place he’s never let himself go before. Cynthia’s surely been there, and Joe has the feeling that right now he can nearly touch her.
When he leaves at 11:30, Sonny Boy is still going strong, and the Jack Daniels is three-quarters gone.
The days pass quickly. Joe finds humor in the fact that Mase is feeling a little sorry for him for having lived such a whitebread life. His realization of Mase’s pity comes as a result of the long, finely-drawn tale about how the “V” fell off his sign fifteen years ago.
“Had a hell of a storm one night. Blew the ’lectric wires off their poles. Blew the V right outta ‘Cleveland’ on the sign. I was fixin’ to put the sign in good order, but I noticed more people were stoppin’. Nice white folks looking for an authentic place, you know.” Mase squints what might be the beginning of a smile. “I got the ‘V’ right in the office, all painted up nice. People stop comin’ round, and I expect I’ll put the ‘V’ up again.”
The good stories, all the side trips, the fine music and measured pace of life at the Cle_eland Tourist Inn stretch Joe’s visit into the next week. But his pain is always there. He can forget it for hours at a time, but then it jumps down on him, the more ferocious because he’s forgotten it for a little while. One night in Clarksdale, a young man is playing a beat up guitar and singing in a fine high tenor.
Hey, come back, baby;
Well, the way I love you, you’ll never know
Come back baby, think it over, just one more time.
Cynthia is suddenly next to him, in their living room, listening to Ray Charles singing that song about the time they knew for sure she would be going. Suddenly, Joe is crying, a hard knot rising in his chest. Too much Cynthia, too many memories. Sometimes good memories are the hardest to bear.
just one more time … mmmmm
just one more time
When he packs up his kit, and it comes time to say goodbye to Mase, the old man is formal, gruff. Standing with military bearing.
“I thank you for coming.”
Joe puts out his hand for the shake and says, “Mase, you have a wonderful gift of language. I wish my wife could have met you and heard your stories.”
Mase’s stiffness dissolves, and he takes Joe’s hand in both of his.
“You come back and see me. I’ll be right here.”
“It may be quite a while, Mase …” Both men realize ‘quite a while’ could be too long for Mase.
Mase looks long at Joe, says, “Don’t you worry none. I’ll always hold you here,” tapping his chest. “You keep me, too, same place, hear?”
The passage about the (fictional) Sonny Boy V is a recollection from life. Here’s the story from my blog, Blues Highway, which reported a trip I took in 2012.
Friday Night in Clarksdale
Friday night. THE night for music in the delta. Dinner at the famous Ground Zero Club. Fried catfish (aw, c’mon … I had a salad for lunch). Entree course was Reba Russell, a blues shouter from Memphis with a fine, whiskey-enabled, chainsaw voice and a spectacular lead guitarist. Then, for desert, over to Red’s Place, which was packed for T-Model Ford, probably about 90, and one of the last of the Delta generation. His playing has suffered from a stroke that affects his right hand, but it didn’t seem to matter. His 14-year-old great nephew played drums with a sensitivity and style many never master. T-model started at 9:00 and was going strong at 11:00, when I left. Old guys get tired, but I guess old bluesmen don’t. Maybe it was the Jack Daniels that T-Model was sipping between numbers.