ITTA BENNA, Mississippi. Here in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, you can’t throw a frisbee without hitting a legend of the blues such as A.C. “Red Dog” Johnson, who’s played bottleneck-style on the solid-body guitar he calls “Maybelle” for four decades.
“I don’t mind if they hit me with them frisbees, but I gets mad if they hits Maybelle,” he says with a look of mock-anger on his face.
Frisbees used to be an uncommon sight in this poverty-stricken area where people are so poor Christmas comes only once every four years, like the Olympics, but that changed this summer when BluesTime, a camp for aspiring blues musicians, opened up, creating jobs and bringing in free-spending teenagers who seek the authenticity that only a summer on the Delta can provide an aspiring blues musician.
“A lot of my friends spent their summers getting wasted every night and chasing girls,” says Evan Winstead of Oak Park, Illinois. “I really suffered, which is gonna help at the Battle of the Bands the first week of school,” where his group, Crawlin’ Kingsnake, hopes to take home first prize.
For Evan and kids like him, a typical day in camp begins at sunrise as they are trucked out to local farms and businesses such as slaughter houses to experience the sort of hard labor that has traditionally inspired blues musicians to write the twelve-bar laments that made the Delta famous around the world.
“I drop a couple kids off at my uncle’s farm and don’t come back ’til they’s picked cotton all day,” says Red Dog. “After twelve hours in the hot sun, you find out who’s serious about the blues.”
Other campers, such as Jeremy Fishbein of Needham, Massachusetts, are trucked to the Hi-Line Poultry Processing Plant along the railroad track to work with Red Dog’s 74 year-old father, Morgan “Icepick” Johnson, so-called because of his skill at breaking up the 300 pound blocks of ice that are used to cool the chickens slaughtered here.
“It’s hard, dirty, disgusting work,” says Icepick, who is himself an accomplished blues harmonica or “harp” player. “Makes you hate your life, go home beat your woman–it’s basic blues fertilizer, just like chicken [excrement].”
When the boys are done for the day, they are treated to a hearty meal of red beans and rice, collard greens and chicken necks or “scrapple,” a processed meat product made from hog snouts. “If you don’t have the blues when you quit work, you sho’ will after you finish dinner,” says Red Dog.
After the boys wash and put away the dishes, it is time for them to learn some of the facts of life, and Red Dog and his father load them into a pickup truck and take them to Newbill’s Sporting Club, an unlicensed after-hours joint whose jukebox is stocked with blues classics by the three Kings, B.B., Albert and Freddie, a floating craps game in the front parlor, and private rooms in the back where girls are available. “Kids go to scout camp and build fires and dumb stuff like that,” says Fishbein, whose other school activities include soccer and debate. “I got a merit badge in Female Anatomy” he says without the smirk one would expect from a boy his age.
Only after the boys have each had a mandatory shot of cheap whiskey and a beer chaser are they finally allowed to touch musical instruments, and the results are nothing short of astounding. “They say the blues is like the moan of a woman, or the lonesome whistle of the midnight train,” says Red Dog. “We tell the kids to get as close as they can to that feeling, and what they usually come up with is the sound of a suburban teenage girl crashing her Lexus.”
The two-week sessions end with a final exam on the meaning of such obscure blues terms as “mojo” and “High John the Conqueror,” a root to which magical powers are ascribed in African folklore. Boys who pass the test and successfully complete their field work and projects are assigned an official blues nickname, often derived from the pet they identified on orientation sheets filled out when they first arrived.
“Young fella, you’re a real bluesman now,” says Red Dog as he hands Winstead his diploma, which bears his new name spelled out in fancy Old English-style letters.
“Evan ‘Hamster’ Winstead,” the boy mutters softly as he reads his new monicker. “That is totally awesome!”