Ma Rene, my great-grandmother on Mama’s side, was a no-nonsense blueswoman. Wide-hipped, bowlegged, and solidly built, she stood barely five feet tall and had a wicked tongue. Her barbecue ribs—and the secret sauce she slow-simmered to go with them—made you want to hurt somebody.
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.
Because the house on Durwood Road did not have air-conditioning and because three seasons in Little Rock seem to be mostly summer, Bob Palmer was practicing with his bedroom window open. He sucked on the reed of his Army Band Selmer saxophone and wondered if he might someday sound like Stan Getz on the albums his dad played. No, he’d never sound like Getz, but he didn’t have to. He just had to sound like what he sounded like, and he was still figuring out what that was. He had time. He was only in junior high. His little sister, Dorothy, said he sometimes sounded “like an elephant with its trunk caught in the door. Scree! Scree!” He didn’t mind the comment. It didn’t necessarily sound good, but what did “good” mean? It was sound. And sound was interesting.
When CeDell Davis was a boy, his mother told him he would go to hell if he kept on playing the guitar and messing around with the devil’s music. Davis was born in the Delta town of Helena in 1926, and there was no shortage of devilment. A bustling cotton port on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River, Helena was like a Chicago or Memphis in miniature, home to scores of white saloons and black juke joints where bootleggers, gamblers, and hustlers gathered. It was violent and wild and music was everywhere, from the clubs downtown to the street corners by the docks. “Back then, Helena was wide open,” Davis told me. “If you had the money, you could get whatever you want.”
The first Japanese Americans began leaving for internment camps in the spring of 1942, effectively banished from their homes by the United States government. Norman Sagara, six years old at the time, can still recall how it played out for him: the FBI visiting his farmhouse in southern California; his older siblings translating for his parents, simple chicken ranchers; his family packing up their belongings and, then, late that summer, boarding a train. “We didn’t know where we were going,” recalls Sagara, now seventy-eight. “They wouldn’t tell us. And three days later we ended up in McGehee, Arkansas.”
Walking through the sliding glass doors of the Peabody Hotel, across plush carpets under high industrial chandeliers, the first person I saw was a guy in a t-shirt and kilt. Not a plaid kilt, but a leather kilt—more like a skirt that a Roman soldier might wear. The man had a name badge around his neck with ribbons hanging from it and it turned out he was one of the conference organizers. Welcome to SSAWG, the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group—weird farmers of the South.
An excerpt from a play by Charles Portis, with an introduction by Jay Jennings.
MR. PALFREY: Oh, I know what I want. I just don’t see it here. What I want is a fat yearling coon roasted with some sweet potatoes. What I want, young lady, is some salt-cured ham that’s been hanging in the smokehouse for about two years, along with five or six big cathead biscuits, and some country butter and ribbon cane surrup. But I can’t get that, can I?
KATE: You can’t get it here.