Travels with Robert Palmer: photographs from the Delta.
What became clear as we began our journey together, searching for the roots of the blues, was that the music is part of the Delta landscape and the people we encountered were carrying on an important tradition that spanned many decades. My goal was to visually depict their lives and their love of the musical tradition in which they lived.
Daddy’s truck was one of those places—like a grandmother’s house, a real and actual soul food restaurant, or a barbershop owned by an older black man who guards the radio by silent threat of the revolver in his drawer next to the good clippers—where one could reliably expect to hear either (and only) 1070 WDIA or 1340 WLOK. It was the other side of sound, the other side of Southern blackness, a steady if muffled undercurrent that persisted and quietly buoyed new generations.
In spite of his genius and success, Ed Townsend hit a roadblock in the late sixties, when his studio in Englewood, New Jersey, went up in flames. He had just offered it as a refuge for the Isley Brothers to record “It’s Your Thing” in violation of their contract with Motown. Nearly forty years old, he was watching his life’s work burn when a man named Earl Lucas appeared.
The officers made their way down to the pair of moonshiners and went through the typical rigmarole of an arrest, everything they’d been taught. But before they started busting up the still with the axes they’d brought along, Rusty Hanna said something that caused all parties to freeze: “Now we’re gonna cook some whiskey.”
After a day in Itta Bena, Mississippi, we were no closer to finding Lewis Nordan. No one we’d met actually knew him or his work, or even cared much to hear about it. Using the books as maps led to contradictions and dead ends; names of recognizable sites shift across his stories and novels. Even in his memoir, Nordan changes names and flat out invents things.