Upon Meeting T-Model Ford
Mississippi paints a picture: haunted, apocryphal, unchanged. Sure, for many, it’s business as usual, but how long has it been that way? The landscape is dotted with casino billboards all the way to Tunica, and the stark silhouettes of pecan trees to Clarksdale, cotton gins and rusted barns beyond that. It is preserved in time, frozen in amber, and largely forgotten. Step into any town and be alarmed by the volume of poor black faces but more so by their politeness and courtesy, the small town Southern charm often promised but rarely delivered. But there is a magic there, in Mississippi. And it is no more evident than at its borders, greeting you as you sneak in or, as you escape, relinquishing its hold.
The lady behind the counter at Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art tells us there’s no blues in Clarksdale on a Tuesday which disappoints us to no end. In fact, she tells us the entire route — the fabled Highway 61 — will be devoid of live blues acts all the way to New Orleans. I shake my head. For Mississippi holds secrets and I want them cracked. Here lies land once rich with blues history and culture. Its backroads interspersed with holy sites of America’s greatest cultural export: Dockery Farms, Hopson Plantation, Where the Yellow Crosses the Dawg. The Crossroads. Mississippi tourism has done a great job commemorating and preserving these sites. More likely, Mississippi has done a great job of leaving these places alone. But despite the tourism and pilgrimages and of course, to no shortage of the depressed social and economic situations that produced such a rich culture, the blues seem to have suffered from a downturn. The Flowering Fountain has long shuttered. Po’ Monkeys only opens on Thursdays and eschews a DJ for live music. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of such community pillars as Roger Stolle, Stan Street, and Bill Luckett, Clarksdale has music six nights per week, but Street’s Hambone Gallery is worlds from the authentic jook experience. But in 2011, what isn’t?
So where did it go? What happened here, in the birthplace of the Delta blues? Of course Great Migrations from the Flood of 1927 and Katrina and social upheavals dispersed the people, and sure blues evolved into rock and folk and later hip-hop and Muddy moved to Chicago and became white boys wailing endlessly on guitars, but do any torchbearers still stand sentinel over the history and tradition? Are there still any links to that culture rich and deep and muddy like the Mighty River? Did we drive all this way to visit a museum that David Cohn described as running from the “lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ending on Catfish Row in Vicksburg?” Or is it to visit a graveyard?
So it’s a no-brainer when the lady at Cat Head tells us T-Model Ford will be playing at Red’s on Saturday night to blow off New Orleans and make our way back to Clarksdale for a show.
James “T-Model” Ford — aka The Taledragger — only recently learned to play the guitar. Recently at least in the context of his 91 years. But it is magic. He keeps his own time marches to his own drummer. Literally. While most blues acts are backed by a full band, T-Model brings only his 13 year old grandson Stud to back him on drums while he clangs away on his strings and howls his blues. Influenced by Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf, Ford channels the Delta through an amplifier and can set a room ablaze well into and past his Golden Years. If the blues are history “communicated by pressure on a guitar string,” as Robert Palmer, author of Deep Blues, has claimed, then this history is T-Model’s and it is his guitar string. He is not a veteran of Hopson or Dockery like his forbearers, but rather of Nelson Street and other rough areas of Greenville, Mississippi, the former blues mecca worlds away from pre-gentrified Clarksdale. He’s also a veteran of the chain gang, allegedly doing his time for murder. But within the past year, he crept into his nineties and has since suffered a stroke, so if T-Model is one of the last, that long sought-after link of what the blues once was, what it is, and what it will be, then we better get a move on.
Our entire trip is rescheduled. For months, we’d meticulously planned a road trip from Memphis to New Orleans, traveling the blues highways and backroads with historic sites dotting the map like constellations, continuing a long line of those passed by and passed on: Big Jack Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, Charley Patton, “Son” Thomas… the list with no discernable end, flowing like the silted banks of the Mississippi or the Yazoo, branching into tributaries, becoming something else almost unrecognizable. We take our photos, eat our tamales, add miles to our car. And in no time, it’s Saturday night in Clarksdale which means one thing: They juke up in Red’s.
Red’s is the last of its kind. It’s a throwback. It’s hard not to imagine Clarksdale of old, rife with jook joints and the airwaves rocked by WROX. Back when the possibility of bumping into Ike Turner or Sonny Boy Williamson or even Elvis on the street was likely. Red’s is non-descript, cluttered out front with BBQ smokers and rusted junk. It straddles history, just down the street from the Riverside Motel where Bessie Smith breathed her last and just a block away from Ground Zero Blues Club, where Luckett and actor Morgan Freeman lead a charge to keep the blues accessible. As it shuffles acts three nights a week — acts worth making a drive — Red’s sits squarely among the great pantheon of historic blues sites.
A sunglassed man at the door tells me five bucks apiece. I can see T-Model behind him, sitting on stage like a juju idol, both larger than life but smaller than expected. I hand the man a ten and he feels of it a bit with his large, rounded fingers before saying “you’re cool” and allowing passage. I briefly wonder if he is blind and speculate what gives away a sawbuck. But in a flash, he’s up and offering us beer, which he finds and produces with little effort. No, this is no blind door man; this is Red Paden and we’re in his place.
There sits T-Model. He’s frail and old and dressed better than I probably ever will be, and he smiles when as we take our seats. That smile rattles me. It’s more of a challenge, one that says “come on in… your world’s going to get rocked, and do you really think you’ll make it out of here with that woman you brought?” He immediately begins the show as if he were waiting for us. As if this were all for our benefit. Oh, we’re not the only people there, but at ten on a Saturday at Red’s, the hour is far from nigh. This is only the beginning.
His fingers pick out a melody best described as harsh and clanging. T-Model has an abrupt style. His voice is tired and raspy and best described as a howl, a wail. Nothing on him moves, just those fingers and his eyes and that toe tipping a fine shoe that taps out a beat. He can whip a frenzy from a seated position just fine, thank you. The beat from his guitar hypnotizes, natural and other-worldly all at the same time. Stud pounds out a voodoo rhythm that takes me with it. I am now face-to-face with what Jesus freaks and bible-thumpers fear most about this music. The cadence and T-Model’s hawkish stare threaten immobilize me. This is what I can’t get listening to CDs and mp3s. This is what white British boys across the Atlantic have been talking about all along. This is what started all those revolutions. I have been transported and all of a sudden, I get it.
“It’s Jack Daniels time!” T-Model shouts at the end of his first song. People go nuts. His crooked fingers slowly unscrew the cap from a small pint bottle of Tennessee whiskey and he sips from it. He follows with “That’s what I’m talking about!” and people go nuts again. Then he and Stud fire into another number, one strikingly close to Muddy Waters’ anthem, “I’m A Man,” but with the dynamism and verve from Mississippi, not from Upriver and with T-Model’s signature frenetic pace and we get going all over again. It’s not “I’m A Man,” but something like it and with some of the same lyrics, and I am reminded that this is the blues, one man riffing on another man’s work until it somehow becomes his own and you can never imagine it belonging to anyone else. Muddy’s long gone, T-Model’s still here and who could ever argue this tune belongs to the Taledragger?
In no time, other musicians make themselves known. Lightnin’ Malcolm, described by T-Model’s wife Stella as his “best friend,” helps out on the bass strings. Watermelon Slim, a ragged older white gentlemen in painter’s gear, offers harmonica melodies here and there, when not distracted by some of the white boys buying beers at the bar. T-Model replays the first song we heard, or something eerily similar and people clap as if it’s the first time. After the song, he shouts, “Let it all hang in!” People laugh like they’d laugh at their grandfather at Thanksgiving.
He looks to me and grins, his eyebrows darker than the arch in his hair and his smile stretches his face taut. He asks if I want to get up and play with him. I laugh and say no. Is this part of the act? He asks again. It’s either an invitation or a challenge and I can’t decipher which. It is no matter and I curse my lack of commitment to learning guitar earlier in the year. A few hours of practice per week and I could be up there playing with T-Model Ford, a legend. He nods to the guitar. “You want it, don’t you boy?” he asks. Oh boy, do I.
Listening to his grandfather and Watermelon Slim talk about how many teeth they have lost since they last saw each other gets Stud to laughing. It’s a little boy’s laugh which snaps the audience back to earth. The best drummer I’ve seen from Memphis to New Orleans is only thirteen years old and hanging out with his grandparents. I’m reminded of my time with my grandfather on his cattle and cotton farm and wonder if Stud yet understands the gravity of his youth and upbringing.
“He’s the only one who can keep up with T-Model,” says Allen Jackson of the Shack Up Inn, the popular hotel out where Hopson Plantation once stood. “I’ve seen seasoned pros try and fail to keep up with his style of playing.” It’s a different style all right. Like the weathered ramblings of a veteran of hard times, he has his own time and tempo. He follows rules learned and forgotten long ago but they too have a pattern that runs until his songs sort of bleed together, eventually mimicking licks and progressions from any one of the other five or six songs of his set.
“He’s not that talented of a musician,” explains Watermelon Slim. “Sometimes Stella or me have to remind him to play something other than one of those four songs.” Slim’s had a few sips of Lightnin’ Malcolm’s jar of shine and some white boys at the bar have bought him another beer. But as he tries to steal T-Model’s thunder, it becomes obvious it is Slim who interrupts the flow, who disturbs the rhythm. For Lightnin’ Malcolm and Stud are keeping time with the old man, not for him, and their talent is all the more noted for it. Slim blows his harp with the exaggerated exaltations of a furious and spirited preacherman, but there is no question that the only inspiration he’s received from any spirit has come from Lightnin’ Malcolm’s Mason jar. He runs through the litany of the “more talented musicians” he’s backed at the distance of a quarter-inch from my ear, but as when he was on stage, I wish he’d shut the hell up so we all can listen to T-Model play.
Between songs, Stella rushes on stage to remind the audience of what they behold. “Y’all need to get up and buy these CDs. This man is a legend and he’s 91 years old and ain’t going to be around forever.” The same rationale and technique used my own grandparents to urge my attendance at a family gathering is now being applied to sell albums. The Taledragger once marketed himself as “The Ladies Man,” but now is carefully curated by his 66 year-old sixth wife (“You know that’s right!” shouts T-Model). She manages him – handles him – with a watchful eye from the merch table, occasionally adjusting his microphone, informing the ladies that his cattin’ days are long gone, reminding us all of the specter of his death to hawk his wares.
So is this a sad picture, one that is difficult to watch? Has this poor blues icon been wheeled up the stage like a carnival exhibit, a circus sideshow? I wonder how much could be left in the tank as he begins “I’m A Man” again, this time misspelling MAN not once but twice. Is this beneath his dignity, or would that be not allowing him to play at all? To listen to him in his prime proves he’s never been a songwriting genius by any stretch but he is definitely an eternal entertainer and those rarely shuffle off too quietly. Those synapses are still firing, no matter if he can’t remember if it’s the seventh hour, or seventh day, or seventh week… they’re still firing and folks are still dropping twenties into the tip jar.
And the other acts around town feel it as well. Are they moving in like vultures? Watermelon Slim, all too happy to take over the microphone quickly disappears at the sight of Robert “Bilbo” Walker begrudgingly taking the stage, and probably for good reason. He’s stern-faced and without his trademark gheri-curl wig and protests at Stella and T-Model’s urgings to come play, but no sooner does he call out the vocals to “Take Your Hands Off of Me” than his fingers get to plucking and he’s in full glory. He blasts Lightnin’ Malcolm for not keeping up with him, then offers to play bass while Malcolm leads. They scratch the surface of his repertoire of Chuck Berry and Little Richard classics while T-Model sits idle, wondering what to do with his hands. Walker’s daughter eats it up, dancing for her father, her boyfriend, more than likely the rest of the room but he immediately quits playing the second a white boy tries to dance with her. He promises and delivers with “Lucille” and “Johnny B Goode,” but there will be no Duck Walk tonight for this is only a sneak preview: Walker is playing Red’s on his own tomorrow night.
However, another possibility strikes me still and shakes my understanding of the entire event. Through another glass, could things not be perceived completely different? After all, hadn’t the man marketed more rough-and-tumble been delivered as more sweet and good-natured, grandfatherly? What if the “predatory vultures” moving in on T-Model’s limelight served another purpose all together? For if the old man could only perform a handful of songs, weren’t Walker and Slim keeping butts in the seats, adding flavor to the set? It seemed rather they supported the jook rather than took from it. And his family too came off as less rapacious in this light. For what else could an aged blues singer bequeath than a legacy, some autographed merchandise and a few nights worth of tip jars? The last days of the great Jimmie Rodgers were spent recording in a hotel, him resting on a cot between takes, his body rocked with TB. Not because of pernicious producers, but rather to leave behind for his family, to earn that one last dollar on that one last song so that his family might not do without later. So as Stella hawks those last CDs, while her grandson wails away at the skins and those other bluesmen wait to pay their tribute, instead I see a picture of family, and a bigger picture than imagined. This picture is of Pat Thomas, whose thoughts rarely stray from “Dad Always,” or the descendants of sharecroppers, passing down the blues like a sacred heirloom. This is a family as old as the country and no flood, no hurricane and no social upheaval could wipe it out before, let’s see it try now.
So T-Model tells us again what time it is (”Jack Daniels!”) and everyone cheers. It’s nearly two, but I’m not leaving a jook before a nonagenarian. He calls again, “Let it all hang in!” Stella and a few others smile politely and correct him, that the proper term is to let it all hang out. He smiles wide as a sage and says, “No, you let it all hang in because once you let it out, you ain’t never going to get it back in.” And suddenly, I see the light on in there again. He’s home. He isn’t fading. Not just yet.
As the set wears on, he begins to lose focus. He watches a woman or two walk by to the bathroom. He laughs at my dancing. They all pay attention to a black boy in a long white shirt and Bluetooth who’s been eyeballing the tip jar and tried to swipe their CDs. Everyone knows it’s time for T-Model to be put to bed but who’s going to be the one to tell him? So we clap and move our heads and remark how talented his grandson must be to keep time with him, sleepy or distracted but still full of life and vitality and whatever it is that wants to play one more song. But his wife collects him and insists he must be put away. T-Model graciously signs the album covers and poses for photos. His people remind me (again) the autographed album will one day be worth a lot of money and I don’t see why not. I tell the kid, “So will you if you keep playing like that. You’re really good.”
“I don’t want to play drums,” says Stud, collecting his gear to be put away. It’s 1:30 am, long after my grandparents allowed me to stay up. How long has he been doing this? He’s only 13 and he’s so incredibly talented. That bridge to the past, that which draws people down Highway 61 and Clarksdale and Greenwood, Nelson Street and Dockery and Ground Zero and all the tamale joints and where the Yellow Crosses the Dawg and the future of cultural tourism and that which will exist to tell others what it was like to know “Son” Thomas or play with Robert “Bilbo” walker and “keep up” has just spoken up and declined.
“What do you mean you don’t want to play drums?” I ask him.
He closes the lid to his grandfather’s case and says, “I want to play football.”
(Come see me at: http://reverenderyk.blogspot.com/)