Back in Red’s, only this time it’s for an actual blues party. Big Jack “Oilman” Johnson, the revered bluesman from Clarksdale whose secondary legacy was driving the town’s biggest fuel truck, has agreed to play a short, early set. The crowd swells to fifteen at around 8 p.m. when Big Jack begins to tune his guitar. This juke-joint gig offers him a chance to play for his hometown friends in between the closely-scheduled blues festival gigs that are his bread and butter. It also allows him to experiment and improvise in a way that the big stage does not allow.
Red’s “stage” is actually a worn oriental area rug, about twelve by ten feet, that takes up the bulk of the space in the room. The musician’s area is further delineated by a huge tin tip tub before the performers, a stack of old guitar amps and a p.a. on either side of the group, and a moat of dancers and revelers. The edges of the room are filled with little round tables and chairs, in which early-arriving locals sit in large groups, and the bar, at which an assortment of Red’s friends and nervous white tourists crowd in.
Terry “Big T” Williams, another accomplished Clarksdale bluesman, is playing bass with the group tonight. He’s told me that he’s excited to play with Johnson, whom he considers an elder and a mentor. The influence of Big Jack’s legendary guitar technique on Big T’s style is apparent, and although Big T tends to shine in the spotlight, he’s happy to back up the Oilman tonight. Lee, a 19-year-old graduate of the Delta Blues Education program, sits in on drums, which he plays with the combination of swing and precision that has always characterized the Delta blues. An anonymous white blues tourist in an iridescent blue shirt holds his own on rhythm guitar behind the group.
Top Notch, the Clarksdale hip-hop artist with whom we are working on our documentary, walks in halfway through Johnson’s set. After an extended round of hellos to what seems like the entirety of Red’s patronage, he grabs a seat at the bar and sips a bottled water, watching. He’s a little nervous: Big T has offered him a chance to perform tonight. Together we watch Big Jack improvise masterfully on his guitar.
As Johnson finished his set with a revved-up bluesymedley of traditional songs (“Will the Circle be Unbroken? Amazing Grace”), Big T takes the reins and begins to play a deepblues riff. After a song or two, he turns toward his band for a moment and then calls Top Notch up to the microphone. Top looks a little nervous as the band plays a swelling, funky blues dirge, but it doesn’t last long. He introduces himself to the crowd, and then begins to improvise a rap–a freestyle–about who he is and how he got to be where he is right now. He raps about how much he admires Big Jack and how hungry he is and how he’s loving his Tall Boy Budweiser. The paralells between his verbal riffing and Big Jack and Big T’s guitar improvisation are made explicit when he finally ends his 3-minute rhyme with the phrase, “It’s not blues or rap, it’s just music.” The band plays an outro and then the music stops. The mixed crowd at the little juke joint seems to pause for a second and then cheers wildly.
Although I wish I had a video of this performance, I am glad that we’re not filming yet; as an ethnographer, I’ve found that I value the experience first and the document second. I have no doubt that a moment like this will happen again during our time in the Delta and that next time, I’ll have a camera in my hand. It’s the same feeling I have when I think about taking video in church; I feel like I should understand what I am trying to record before I take out the camera. I also want to make sure that everyone involved in the filming knows what we’re doing and is comfortable with our presence.