ON THE ROAD IN THE DELTA — The music of Charlie Patton comes out of the tin walls of the vacant gin at Dockery Farms near Cleveland.
His ghostly voice and guitar emanate from the Blues Trail stop with the push of a button.
A bronze marker says that Patton and others who invented the blues worked the cotton plantation on the banks of the Sunflower River, including Tommy Johnson and Son House.
Next stop for us on Saturday is Indianola to pay last respects to B.B. King.
Balloons and bows — all in purple, the color of royalty for the “King of the Blues” — dance and flutter from mailboxes and even a gas pump on the street bearing his name, like a parade route.
We walk down B.B. King Street to Bell Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Indianola, past long lines of parked cars with tags ranging from Florida to New Jersey along the street, knowing in advance we won’t be let in.
Of course, there are no tags to reflect the international attendance.
Down from the intersection of King and Lucille streets, a man in a black top hat and formal attire strolls slowly down the narrow asphalt toward us in the hot Delta sun.
“Can I shoot your picture?” I say.
Well, here I am, he says by way of palms-up gesture.
It’s Tommy Johnson!
Or more accurately, it’s Chris Thomas King, a blues master in his own right who portrayed the legendary Johnson in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, the Cohen brothers’ masterpiece film set in Mississippi.
King (no relation), a Grammy winner, also had a featured role in “Ray,” the Ray Charles biopic, and other films.
Three white chain-gang escapees in “O Brother” stop their stolen car to give “that colored feller” a ride.
He proceeds to tell them that he had just met the Devil at the crossroads and learned how to play the guitar “real good” in exchange for his soul. “I wasn’t using it anyway,“ Johnson said with a deadpan riff on the Robert Johnson legend.
There is no irony in King’s voice when he tells in a soft voice of working to raise money and curate oral histories for the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, which opened in 2008 in town.
A mention of the Mississippi Grammy Museum, which will open in Cleveland in November, prompts him to say:
“In Louisiana, man, we don’t have a jazz museum, a blues museum. I’m trying to get Louisiana stirred up about it, trying to embarrass them about it.”
Touring the King museum with its impressive array of videos, artifacts, memorabilia, all fit into a seamless biographical timeline, gave us well-used time to wait out the four-hour funeral.
And time to visit with pilgrims, such as the 16-year-old girl from south Georgia, who rode 500 miles straight through with her father to pay homage.
Caitlin said she and her dad are in a family band. Maybe shooting for “The Voice”? I ask her.
“We’re not that good yet,” she demurs with downcast eyes.
A violent thunderstorm with pitchfork lightning stabbing the town has passed.
Rain was falling steadily as the procession made its way down Second Street to its destination, a green plot on the west side of the museum.
The hearse was followed by a black horse carrying two guitars, saddlebag style, each with the name of his legendary guitar, Lucille.
And there were two other equines to honor his wish that “there’s two white horses in a line gonna take me to my burying ground” — lyrics from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean.”
I initially mistook the smaller of the white horses for a mule, but was corrected by his handler before a policeman requested that I get out of the street.
Only the invited were allowed inside the chain-link fence surrounding the grave site.
So many wanted to be close to him one last time.
But the rain fell equally on the invited and uninvited.
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