Mar 22, 2011

Was Pinetop Perkins the last of the original Delta bluesmen?

Pinetop Perkins died Monday, March 21, at the ripe age of 97.   Aside from having a really cool name, you might ask why this should matter so much to music lovers like myself.  Well, everyone who knows anything about blues music knows B.B. King, and he said, “He was one of the last great Mississippi Bluesmen.  He had such a distinctive voice, and he sure could play the piano. He will be missed not only by me, but by lovers of music all over the world."

I have to confess I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything by Pinetop Perkins (I sure would like to!), but his passing may represent the last direct lineage to the original Mississippi Delta blues performers who influenced everything that followed.  Seriously, ask Led Zeppelin where they would have wound up without inspiration from Robert Johnson’s music. 
According to Wikipedia, Perkins knew Johnson personally.  He learned to play the piano after injuring his left arm in a bar fight.  He played with Muddy Waters.  He recorded his first solo album in 1988 – when he was 75 years old.  Now that’s a bluesman.  And he was rewarded with a Grammy for best traditional blues album last year. 
As an aside, if you’ve never traveled through the Mississippi Delta, it’s a road trip worth taking.  After a half hour on U.S. Highway 49 W north out of Yazoo City, you’ll feel like you’re driving back through time.  The dusty cotton fields look much the same as you’d imagine they did in Pinetop’s prime.  You’ll also drive through Pinetop’s hometown of Belzoni, Miss., billed as the catfish capital of the world.  I’ve eaten enough outstanding catfish in Mississippi to believe it. 
Stay on 49 W, skipping past B.B. King’s hometown of Indianola, you’ll eventually meet back up with 49 E, which you abandoned at Yazoo City, in Tutwiler.  Legend has it that some guy from St. Louis named W.C. Handy once “discovered” the blues.  While waiting for a train, he was entranced listening to a black man play a crude slide guitar with the help of a knife. (BTW, read Bill Wyman’s “Blues Odyssey” for a great history of the blues!)   
Take 49 further into Clarksdale, go past the ugly bypass that cuts through the cotton fields, and you’ll find a marker that looks like a signpost with guitars jutting out in all directions where old U.S. 49 met U.S. 61.  This is the famous “Crossroads” where Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil to be able to play guitar better than any other man alive (probably to this day). 
And if they’re open, stop in at Abe’s Bar-B-Q for the best barbecue you’ll ever eat.   Another must-stop is the Mississippi Delta Blues Museum in downtown Clarksdale in the renovated train depot.  It’s all an unforgettable trip.  In fact, I’m ready to go back.  Plenty of juke joints still around to discover.  Who’s with me?
Anyone who knows me knows I love the blues.  And my love for the blues starts with the original masters.  I guess having lived in rural Louisiana, amid the pine trees and clay earth, and having taken the roads less traveled nowadays through the Mississippi Delta many times on my way between Memphis and New Orleans, I can feel their spirit.  I can relate, even if it’s in some very small way, to the music.  So, even for those who never heard your music – but will be discovering it – we’ll miss you, Pinetop.

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