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ESSAY: Three Days in Mississippi

Creating and hosting The Dr. Demento Show is the second-craziest thing I've done in my life. For forty-one years now I've played "mad music and crazy comedy" on the radio and now on the Internet. I've played Spike Jones and Frank Zappa, "Fish Heads" and "Dead Puppies." I also sneak in some roots music now and then, including such Mississippians as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Charlie Patton, John Hurt, and, of course, Elvis. 

But the craziest thing I ever did also involved Mississippi. It was in 1962, eight years before the radio show started. I had just turned twenty-one and had just finished my junior year at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. I bought a well-used, dinged-up Vespa motor scooter for a hundred dollars from a fellow student. That same student invited me to visit him in New York City and, lacking in summer job opportunities, I headed east on the Vespa, intending to see as much of the country as I could. With a cruising speed of 40 mph, the Vespa wasn't freeway I usually stuck to the back roads that were indicated in blue on the road maps of the time (which could be had for free at most gas stations).

I stopped in my native Minneapolis to visit my family and spoke with Cornelia Covington, the African-American woman who cleaned house for my mother every week (for about thirty years). Before I got back on the road, she gave me the address and phone number of her elderly parents in Winona, Mississippi. 

I had never been anywhere near the Deep South, but I'd become a major blues fan by that time. Robert Johnson's King of the Delta Blues Singers had just been released a few months earlier on LP, and, like so many other people of my generation, I was thunderstruck by it.

Fast forward to mid-August. After nearly four thousand miles and lots of adventures, I'm putt-putting through Columbus, Mississippi, when I see a sign saying JUKEBOX RECORDS—25¢. I've been a record hound since childhood, of course. With my limited funds and the Vespa's minuscule carrying capacity I'd put that hobby on the back burner for the summer, but this I couldn't resist.

It wasn't a regular record store but the headquarters of a company that maintained jukeboxes around the area. I could tell that I wasn't the first collector to hit that place, but I wasn't too far behind. No Elvis Suns left, but lots of other Suns, plus Chess, Vee-Jay, and Excello labels scattered through the tall stacks of country, rock, and pop 45s. I had haunted other jukebox places in the past but none with quite this many nice blues records for a quarter each. I'm sure I left behind some that would fetch a hundred dollars or more today.

As I was paying for my finds, I asked the man if he had any 78s. "What kind?" he asked. 

"Oh, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, stuff like that." 

"Oh, you like nigger music! Come out to my barn tomorrow, I'll sell you all you want, six for a dollar."

Swallowing my urge to correct his phrasing, I took down the directions and agreed to meet him there at ten o'clock. That would leave me time to make the eighty-odd miles to Winona by suppertime, so I called Cornelia's parents from a pay phone and got directions to their place.

After visiting a local burger joint, I headed out to the edge of town, and, as I had many times before on this trip, found a secluded spot in the woods just off the road, spread out my air mattress and went to sleep.

The next morning, I met the man at the barn and was shown to a rickety cabinet with around two thousand 78s. He had evidently gone into the jukebox business around 1951, as there was nothing from before then, but there were lots of early 1950s treasures including all five Elvis Sun 78s, lots of Trumpets (from Jackson, Mississippi), and great sounds from New Orleans. Bugs had eaten many of the sleeves and a few of the labels, but most of the records were intact, though with varying degrees of wear from the jukeboxes. 

After a while, I felt a warm breath over my shoulder...which turned out to be a Holstein cow, benignly watching as I compared two copies of an Elmore James, so as to pick the one with less wear, and agonized over how much cash I could spend versus what I'd need for the rest of the trip (Well, I decided, I don't really have time to check out Louisiana anyway) and how many 78s that suitcase strapped to the Vespa could possibly hold. 

I paid the man, biting my tongue once again as he used the n-word to refer to a farmhand, and headed off to Winona. I soon found Cornelia's parents in the third of five tiny houses built shoulder to shoulder along a road near the edge of town. Over a fabulous chicken dinner, we talked mostly about Cornelia's big family in Minnesota. Her mom and dad weren't much into blues, but as I was taking my leave they called to a neighbor who they thought might have some records. "Oh, I used to have a lot of them blues and church pieces, my my, but I gave 'em to the kids and they busted 'em all up."

I headed west from Winona on Highway 82, and found a likely spot to sleep for the night. I had neglected to fill my Boy Scout canteen, though, and that Southern cooking had made me thirsty. I'd passed a roadside beer joint just before stopping and thought I'd hike back there in search of something cool and wet.

I had just begun walking along the roadside when one of Mississippi's finest stopped his cruiser and wanted to talk with me: Who was I, what was I doing, where was I going? Somehow, I felt the need to assure him that I was not a Freedom Rider. (I still have very mixed feelings about having done that.) I mentioned the people that I'd visited in Winona and I think he was somehow touched by the fact that I'd come all that way to visit my mother's cleaning lady's parents. He let me be after checking the registration on my Vespa, taking a leak in the woods, and warning me not to go near that beer joint. I took his advice.

Next morning, I made a collect call to Minneapolis and learned that I had to be there in three days or I'd be late getting back to Reed. I continued west on Highway 82 and took Highway 49 north out of Greenwood. I knew I had to at least see Clarksdale, even if I didn't have time to do anything except ride on through without lingering along the back roads as I'd done in Pennsylvania. Highway 49 was scary, two narrow bumpy concrete lanes with no shoulders, with cars and trucks racing past the cotton fields far faster than my Vespa could go. 

I saw a house by the roadside with a few black people sitting around in front. I decided I'd stop and ask them about Robert Johnson. They didn't want to talk about him or anything else. Finally an older man said, measuring every word, "I guess it's okay for us to talk to you...I guess it won't do no harm." But they still didn't have anything to say about Robert Johnson. I didn't truly comprehend until much later how they must have been utterly perplexed, if not alarmed, at the sight of a disheveled youth with a Northern accent riding into their front yard on what was probably the first Vespa they'd ever seen. Perhaps their first thought was that a white man coming up to them usually meant trouble...I can't say.

I rode through Clarksdale—at least I could tell people I'd been there—and headed up Highway 61 for Memphis. (61 actually goes all the way to Minnesota, of course, where Bob Dylan sang about it.)

I did make one more stop in Mississippi—when I saw the sign for Robinsonville. I had read that Robert Johnson once lived there. Robinsonville now has casinos, of course, but on that day all I could find was the town dump. I actually spent a few minutes poking through the trash under the hot sun, looking for shards of Vocalions, I guess, before I came to my senses. On the way to the highway I asked a couple of black folks about Robert and got more blank stares. It was time to go. Two long days through Missouri and Iowa, and I was back in Minneapolis and soon on my way back to Reed.

In 1963 I moved to Los Angeles, where I became involved in the folk scene, working at the Ash Grove club, hearing and meeting John Hurt, John Lee Hooker, Bukka White, and countless others, and living next door to John Fahey while he was writing his thesis on Charlie Patton. Son House stayed at my house for a couple of nights during the 1965 UCLA Folk Festival. And so, even though I didn't stay in Mississippi long enough to get comfortable, Mississippi kept coming to me. And the music of Mississippi still rings loud and clear in my iPod and in my head, long after my life took a long left turn into the land of Demento. 

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