I spend my first night back in the Delta within the close walls of Red’s juke joint just across the tracks—those ubiquitous railroad tracks–in black downtown Clarksdale dubbed “the New World District.” The club is situated, in the words of its proprietor, “with the river behind me and the graveyard in front of me,” and is guarded by the large marble tombstone angel featured in Tennessee Williams’ book…The angel looms, tinged darkly with fine Delta silt, at the corner of Clarksdale’s fenced-in old graveyard. This is where many of the town’s famous planter/founders are buried, their solemn white graves decorated with confederate flags every Fourth of July. “That’s my guardian angel,” says Red from his stool outside the club, a wry smile on his face. His eyes are hidden behind a pair of deep red shades despite the blackness of the night.
At Red’s, the beers are huge and cold and insulated with thick swaths of brown paper towels. The management prefers colored light bulbs, mostly red, that peek out from bends in the walls to give the room a surreal, warm glow. Glossy posters of sexy girls in hot pants are thumbtacked to the walls behind the oriental rug that delineates the stage. At the back of the room, just left of the cove that holds the old pool table, a two-foot-tall mirrored plaque decorates the wall. It reads, “BUDWEISER, King of Beers” and features a silkscreened photo of an African tribal King, complete with war paint and a spear, gazing down at the club’s patrons in a powerful antiphony to the crumbling white angel outside. This was one of a cynical series of advertisements the beer company made for black clubs during the Black Power movement of the 1970s, and they I have seen them frequently both in the juke joints of the Delta and in the little bars in my old neighborhoods in Oakland, California. Red doesn’t seem concerned about the politics of the object. “Don’t mess with me,” he often says, pointing toward the plaque, “Or my Uncle Shaka Zulu up there will get you.”
Just sitting and bullshitting with Red is an incredible experience. He has spent a lifetime developing his “talk,” a skill that he cultivates in others by challenging them regularly. This process involves Red jibing his trainee verbally, usually with a series of clever insults (clothing, intelligence, facial structure, or—in my case–race) meant to be answered with coolness and wit. Over the course of my two years of fieldwork in the Delta, I have enjoyed an increasingly difficult series of such challenges, and although Red often leaves me speechless, we are able to engage each other in this kind of conversation for a few minutes at a time. He has told me before that he likes me because, in his words, I “know how to talk,” but I have noticed that he will often let me get away with stumbling over a response—or staring at him blankly as my mind searches unsuccessfully for one. In this situation, he turns his head and laughs kindly, ending the session without making me too uncomfortable. Or he’ll turn his attention to a less vulnerable target: “You white people sure are actin’ funny these days,” he’ll say as a long-haired light-skinned drunk meanders his way back from the liquor store on a little girl’s pink bike. “Now, I can’t argue with that,” I respond.
Antonio Coburn, Red’s bartender, is a friendly young man with a smiling round face. It’s the end of the night and everyone has a full drink, so he sits down at the little table closest to the end of the bar to join me, another UNC student, a young woman from the neighborhood and Top Notch for a drink. Red and Antonio exchanging verbal jibes in their usual uproarious way. Eventually, I ask the pair if they know any of the old toasts. They exchange a glance but don’t respond. I tell them I know what the toasts are and take a laughable stab at the first stanza of “The Signifyin’ Monkey”: a rhyme I learned from a Rudy Ray Moore film years ago. They laugh knowingly. After a little begging and a promise that I won’t get offended, the bartender gives in and begins “The Signifyin’ Monkey.” The three patrons of the bar pull their barstools up to the little table in the corner of the room as he continues his explicit version of the old rhyme about a shit-talking monkey and his victim, the powerful old lion. His performance is exceptional, rolling rhythmically with the repeated refrain, “This made the lion mad.” Eventually the patrons begin to repeat these words with him, and he continues after each chorus to describe the lion’s unwitting reaction to the monkey’s antics.
There are no clocks, but the performance seems to last around twenty minutes. The audience is attentive and titillated. His response is to launch into a rendition of “Shine and the Titanic” with matching aplomb. We’re not filming yet; I’ve decided to spend some time in our potential documentary sites before pulling out the equipment.
Alan Lomax filmed young men performing toasts in a similar way in his documentary, “The Land Where Blues Began”: