Juke Joint Journey - A road trip with Arthur Williams
a blues lover, tracing the roots of the blues has always drawn
thousands south to the Delta. The town of Clarksdale,
Ms., the places such as Red's, and the Hopson
Plantation, all add up to create the 'true delta' flavor you
just can't read about, you have to experience at least once in
annual event that draws thousands to Clarksdale is the Juke
Joint Festival. This event celebrates the richness of the local
music talent, yet brings in artists from all over. It's not unusual
to see spontaneous musical magic happening around town, for example
Slim strolling into Red's - a legendary Clarksdale juke joint
- and just tearing the house down.
had the doubly good fortune of going down to Clarksdale, and being
the driver for Arthur
Williams, a St. Louis musical icon, and a master of the Chicago
harmonica sound. The journey instantly turned into a living blues
history lesson, with Arthur as my guide.
is one of the few remaining 'authentic' bluesmen, with a background
rich in the roots of the Delta, overlapping with his youth in Chicago.
Arthur was born in Tunica, Ms. on July 8th, 1937, on the Coke and
Stone plantation, where his dad drove a tractor on the plantation.
As so often was the case, lean times and the prospects up North
led to a family move to Argo, Il. in Nov. of 1939, when he was only
2 years of age, and then onto Chicago when he was 12. He continued
to spend his summers in Tunica.
As the trip unfolded, the need to chronicle this story became
obvious. Our road trip took us through Memphis, where coincidentally
the Memphis community radio WEVL
89.9 fm (a fantastic station) began playing a track from a
Frost album called 'Harpin on it', which featured on harp,
you guessed it, Mr. Arthur Williams!
Interspersed in this story are excerpts drawn from the handwritten
notes of Arthur's mother, rich in detail of Arthur's life.
There were numerous stops along the way, on both new and old Hwy.
61, as Arthur retraced his past - several old, long abandoned
juke joints, sitting desolate among the towns where Arthur played
50 years ago, a visit with Sam
Carr, endless anecdotes of his times with Honeyboy
Jack Johnson, and so many other stories.
"Arthur never liked the city, he loved hunting, fishing,
and living in the country. He was always good at putting things
together, such as machines. In school he was very smart, and had
all kinds of awards and achievements in spelling, art, and his focus
in high school was commercial art. When he was 17, he seemed to
lose interest in school, and decided he wanted to move back to Mississippi."
Arthur attended Dunbar High School in Chicago until his senior year,
when he went back to Tunica to live with his grandparents. It
was there that Arthur became lifelong friends with Frank Frost,
and they played around the Tunica / Clarksdale area during the 1950's.
began playing the harmonica ever since he was 5 or 6, and he got
to be real good at it. Arthur was a good boy; I never had any
problems with him. He was a very cute and handsome little boy.
He was crazy about his blue jean pants; he always had from 5 or
6 pairs. He was always real neat and clean, and all the girls
liked him. He was real fond of Norman, his stepfather, and Ollie,
his real daddy. Ollie was very good at blowin' the harp.
When Arthur was 19 years old, he began working at the
Palmer House in Chicago. He'd take his harp, and started blowing
it out in the hallway. He had all of the young people and some
of the older ones dancing and listening. Most of them had stopped
working to listen, and Arthur got fired for stopping the workers!
The next thing I knew was my son was inducted into the Army. He
went to Fort Hood in Texas, and he was stationed somewhere in
Michigan, where he finished his education, and became a cook.
He ended up playing with B.B.
King, and Muddy
Waters. He is now playing in a movie with Mr.
From the official website, here's a short synopsis on 'The
Honeydripper', with Arthur
appearing as the character 'Metalmouth Sims'......a harp player.
The Honeydripper is John Sayles 16th feature film. Arthur's best
memory of the experience was his jammin' with Keb Mo and Gary
Clark Jr. at a crawfish boil, and the cast party that honored
"It’s 1950 and it’s a make or break weekend
for Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover), the proprietor of the Honeydripper
Lounge. Deep in debt, Tyrone is desperate to bring back the crowds
that used to come to his place. He decides to lay off his long-time
blues singer Bertha Mae, and announces that he’s hired a
famous guitar player, Guitar Sam, for a one night only gig in
order to save the club. Into
town drifts Sonny Blake, a young man with nothing to his name
but big dreams and the guitar case in his hand. Rejected
by Tyrone when he applies to play at the Honeydripper, he is intercepted
by the corrupt local Sheriff, arrested for vagrancy and rented
out as an unpaid cotton picker to the highest bidder. But when
Tyrone’s ace-in-the-hole fails to materialize at the train
station, his desperation leads him back to Sonny and the strange,
wire-dangling object in his guitar case. The Honeydripper lounge
is all set to play its part in rock n’ roll history.
route led us to Sam Carr's home, off Old Highway 61. Arthur wanted
to grab a visit with his old friend. Sam now lives a simple country
life, and although his walls are lined by numerous music awards
and recognitions, he "feels like they forget about me anymore.
I used to roll all the time, sleep only 2 hours a night. I'm 87
now, and can't do that anymore".
Arthur and Sam reminisced about their times in the area, playing
the jukes and house parties, and their friendship with Frank Frost.
Visiting with Sam was a experience that is best described as a
'deep blues' moment. The former firefighter in me made me remove
the robe that was lying against his blazing space heater, and
worry about his future safety - at 87 years old, Sam is the caregiver
for his wife Doris, who is bedridden. After saying farewell to
Sam, we made our way into Clarksdale.
The Juke Joint Festival was in full swing! Music was in every
club, restaurant, and on the sidewalks, with Deak
Harp jammin all day in front of Bluessource.com,
on the main stage, Super
Chikan over at Ground
Zero, and Arthur sitting in with the Mississippi
Marvel. Then the journey continued on to the Hopson
Plantation to end the evening! Haven't been to Clarksdale?
It's blues history, and you'll never forget it!
Stops you must make - The
Riverside Hotel and 'Rat', the Delta
Blues Museum, Ground
Zero Blues Club, Red's
Juke Joint, The
Depot Blues Club, Sarah's Kitchen, Cat
Head, Abe's BBQ, the list goes on and on. The Crossroads sign
at the intersection of Hwys 49 and 61 is always a good kodak moment,
and no, it's not the true crossroads, but the turista's
sure love it!
Betsie Brown of Blind Raccoon
(music promotion, media relations & marketing communications)
was on the scene, working with Honeyboy Edwards, and of course
the gang from the Blues
Foundation drove down from Memphis for the day. As a Blues
Highway travel adventure, just point yourself south from Memphis
on Hwy. 61, past the casinos of Tunica, and you're there.
It's a world class Blues adventure. Make it your own journey,
or hook up with someone like Amanda
and the Delta Music Experience, and let her be your guide!
Either way, it's a spectacular way to experience the roots of
this art form we call the Blues.
Dave Beardsley, founder - STLBlues.net
Thanks to our host for lodging,
Arthur's cousin Lee 'Mad Dog' Earl Boyd, 1/2 of the wrestling
duo the 'Bruise Brothers' in Tunica, Ms.