Da Blooze: Springtime in Memphis

Surveying the 37th International Blues Challenge, and remembering those who came before


Cécile Perfetti paused for a moment to speak to her audience on Beale Street, in the deep R&B heart of Memphis. “I don’t belong to your country or your history,” said the French singer and guitarist, a tambourine jingling on her right foot. “But music has no homeland.”

If it is true that art sails past all boundaries of geography and culture, that notion was proved time and again at the recent International Blues Challenge, here by the banks of the Father of All Waters. Many of the acts, more than 60 in all, spoke of it long being a dream to visit the gateway to the Mississippi Delta, one of the cradles of American music.

“What’s up, home country of the blues—I fly 7,000 miles to play for you,” announced South Korean solo guitarist Heonjin Ha, 34, whose yodels, moans, murmurs, and whispers were pure Americana. “When I write blues in Korean and can’t translate, I put in an English word, but it doesn’t sound right.” As he explained to the audience, some of the phrases that flummox his attempts at cross-pollination are blues basics going back as far (and farther) as the day W.C. Handy published the song “Memphis Blues,” in 1912, phrases such as “Move it,” “Shake it,” Slide it on to the left.”

In the end, Ha said, to laughter and applause, “It tastes like kimchi hamburger.” And they ate it up, like they gobble wings at his mother’s fried chicken restaurant in Seoul. “She says that playing music should only be a hobby,” he continued. “Come with me and let’s fry chicken.”

While there’s a whole category of blues about food—catfish, frog legs, and ribs, plus a guitarist from Georgia, Robert Hicks, who performed as Barbecue Bob—Ha’s father’s backstory might be a stronger inspiration for songwriting. “He’s a thug, a Korean gangster,” Ha told the Voice, adding that his old man has never seen him perform. “He went to jail when I was 10.”

An annual production of the Blues Foundation, established in 1980 and aided by scores of volunteers, this year’s IBC was the 37th; the shows ran from May 6 to 9 and featured more than a hundred hopefuls from Belfast to the Baltics, Maine to Mississippi, California to Kentucky. France sent two acts—Perfetti’s duo, La Bedoune, with the Toulouse Blues Society, and the mandolin-, harmonica-, and accordion-driven Wacky Jugs, from Brittany, in northwestern France.

La Bedoune (Cécile and partner Greg Perfetti, on second guitar) and the Wacky Jugs made it to the final rounds at the ornate, 94-year-old Orpheum Theatre, at the corner of Main and Beale. Once home to vaudeville acts like Blossom (“Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”) Seeley, the venue seats 2,300 and was largely full on the last day of competition.

The Jugs emerged with a first-place finish in the Band Division. Outside the theatre after their winning performance, frontman Jacques “Jack” Titley told the Voice how the group came together. The son of a British father and a French mother, Titley asked harmonica player Gurvan Leray if he “might fancy doing some jug band things.” With Jonathan Caserta on stand-up bass, they toured for a decade as a trio. Two years ago, the Jugs added Rowen Berrou on drums (he is especially fond of the Mississippi guitarist-drummer Cedric Burnside) and Pascal Cuff on chromatic accordion.

“I’ve been playing this music since I was a teenager,” says the 42-year-old Titley, who spent 20 years roofing houses before committing to music full time. “My father was a guitar player who taught me some Big Bill Broonzy, bluegrass, and country-blues flat-picking.” He added that the Memphis Jug Band, an early 20th-century combo led by Will Shade (1898–1966), has had a strong influence on his group.

Other victors included Eric Ramsey, from the Phoenix Blues Society, in the Solo/Duo Division. Jhett Black, from the San Angelo Blues Society, out of Texas, took home the Lee Oskar Harmonica Award, and T.C. Carter, repping the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society, nabbed the Gibson Guitar Award.

Ramsey, a soulful, heartrending singer, dedicated a song to a friend who had died just a few hours before Ramsey took the stage. He had already connected with the crowd with “Hurricane Woman Blues,” in which he compares his wife’s moods to a brewing storm. “Been picking up steam since Monday,” he sang, going through all the stages of a monster gale, “and right about now she’s a category four.”

Win or lose, many artists said it was an honor just to walk the same streets as the ghosts of their heroes: B.B. King, Furry Lewis, Ike Turner, Howlin’ Wolf, and a constellation of others. Performing on Beale that same weekend was a troupe of Ghanian musicians in traditional dress, part of the “Memphis in May International Festival.” The West Africans’ brightly colored robes provided a vivid counterpoint to the denim and leather of the blues crowd. Tourists and musicians alike were happy just to walk the boozy, flea-market carnival that is Beale Street, where a small bag of peanut M&Ms goes for $2.25, the souvenir shops are awash in all things Elvis and Johnny Cash, and for eight bucks you can get a “Great Balls of Fire” shot of cinnamon whisky (and keep the glass) at the Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cafe & Honky Tonk.

Close by is the Stax Museum of American Soul Music (a new building—the original recording studio had gone bankrupt and was at one point occupied by a soup kitchen before it was razed, in 1989); the fabled Sun Studios; and the Lorraine Motel, where the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, on April 4, 1968. It is now the National Civil Rights Museum.

Visitors to the historically Black motel often wonder how the room where King stayed on the last day of his life—No. 306—was made to look exactly as it did the moment the tragedy occurred on the balcony just outside the door. The exhibit is precise down to an unmade bed and food on the coffee table. The FBI (perhaps disingenuous in their investigation) took so many photos that it wasn’t a difficult task. The room is frozen in time, which the blues—for better or worse—is not.

“When I hear the tear-jerking from many of the Caucasian players who say they can’t make a living playing blues, my take is, ‘Why should you?,’” says Dr. Odie Payne III in a phone interview with the Voice after the competition. He is a retired obstetrician-gynecologist, one of the competition judges, an accomplished clarinetist, and the son of famed Chess Records drummer Odie Payne Jr; the elder Payne can be heard on Chuck Berry’s 1964 single “Nadine.” “Seems like everyone but my people are making money off of the blues—my heritage,” continues Doc Payne. “The Japanese and Koreans have really studied the music. If you heard them but didn’t see them, you’d swear it was a Black band playing.”

The acts competing this year were overwhelmingly white, the musical grandchildren of popular 1960s acts in England and the United States who bent and shaped the blues from folk to rock to psychedelia for more than a decade. Once upon a pre-digital time, these old-timers—Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, John Mayall, and Eric Burdon, among those still alive—were youngsters who learned at the knees of “rediscovered” legends such as Fred McDowell, Skip James, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Son House.

One of the newest, 31-year-old guitarist Dom Martin, of Belfast, Ireland, representing all of the United Kingdom, said it’s not about money at all but survival of a different sort. “This was never a job for me, it saved my life,” Martin said from the stage at both of the preliminary gigs he played. He encouraged anyone in the crowd having troubles to pick up an instrument—any instrument—and set about learning to play. “I realized about eight years ago that I could be a drug addict and die young like my dad, or I could be a musician. Music is my prescription.” 

Savage is Dom’s family name, but his manager says he found it difficult to book gigs with that moniker, so Dom began using his middle name, Martin. Martin’s work is darkly charismatic, and everything that came out of his guitar and his mouth in Memphis—whether straight blues or not—sounded authentic and sincere. Those who witnessed his performances—in which he strummed madly, like a gitano playing flamenco on the streets of Seville—were baffled that he didn’t make it to the finals. His new album is titled A Savage Life.

The Wacky Jugs landed in Memphis about a week and a half before the competition began, on May 6, hopped a train, and rolled south through the Delta to New Orleans to take in the scene on Frenchmen Street at the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival. The nine-hour ride was a reverse of the Great Migration of African-Americans; one of those routes ran from Mississippi to Chicago, where the blues went electric after World War II, and, in the words of Muddy Waters, had a baby named rock and roll.

On the way back to Beale Street to compete, the Jugs stopped in Clarksdale, Mississippi, home of the Delta Blues Museum, which holds the remains of the cabin Muddy is said to have lived in, on the nearby Stovall Plantation, before leaving for Chicago, in 1943. “It’s hard to imagine what this meant to us,” Titley says of the pilgrimage. “In Clarksdale, we managed to jam with Watermelon Slim,” a Vietnam veteran and guitar and harmonica player born Walter P. “Bill” Homans III. “These adventures are going to change our lives in ways we can’t possibly measure.”

One performer whose life most likely won’t be changed at all is native New Yorker Robert Ross, his long career in blues featured in the March issue of the Voice. Ross, one of the weekend’s elders, at age 72, did not make it past the semi-finals, his second time of two IBC tries. A guitarist, harmonica player, and songwriter—now living in Boynton Beach, Florida—Ross will continue gigging where gigs can be had, chipping away at a 50-year struggle to make his name ring out wherever blues is spoken.

Ross played his heart out in Memphis on originals like “Coal Mine,” a booming plea for green energy, and “Another Man Done Gone,” recorded by Vera Hall in a 1940 field recording for the Library of Congress. And he took his loss in the same do-what-you-gotta-do stride that once had him sell a pint of blood in France to get a bite to eat after a disappointing day playing for change on the Paris Metro. “Most of the final acts were good, and there were acts that were not chosen that were tremendous, along with acts that did not deserve to be there at all,” Ross tells the Voice. “And yet they all seemed to go over great with the crowds.”

He was preceded onstage in the semi-finals at King Jerry Lawler’s Hall of Fame Bar & Grille by a guy from Louisville, Kentucky, named Zeno Jones, a big man in suspenders with a guitar, a slide on his pinky, and a suitcase of powerful, mule-kicking energy he calls “garage blues.” Though Ross was disappointed (“It sounds like sour grapes, but it’s impossible for people to be objective in art, religion, or politics….”), he should take heart at what he passed on to younger players like Jones. “I didn’t know who [Ross] was before he played, but in the first few bars I could tell he was a pro by the incredible efficiency of how he moved his hands,” says Jones, who works for a company that makes industrial sensors. A descendant of farmers from Owensboro, home of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, he adds that the name Zeno has been in his family for generations.

“Seeing Mr. Ross play was educational on a level that made the [400-mile] drive to Memphis worthwhile,” Jones continues. “His playing was complex, but he laid it down subtly. I watched closely to see what I could steal.”   ❖

Rafael Alvarez began covering the blues in 1980 as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and in 1983 reported on the funeral of Muddy Waters from the South Side of Chicago. A former staff writer for the HBO drama The Wire, Alvarez is co-editor of a new anthology of Baltimore writing, A Lovely Place, A Fighting Place, A Charmer, released by Belt Publishing.

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