Your humble correspondent has sort of gotten out of the habit of reading books. I spend so much time reading various items on the internet these days that I had let my regular reading slip. This summer, I've been doing my best to make up for lost time, I've picked up several books via Amazon and local bookstores (some of which I'll be discussing at a later time), but my favorite book of the year so far is Sliding Delta, by Ed Baldwin. The picture of Mississippi John Hurt (a future FBF post subject) on the cover of the book, not to mention the title itself, which is also the title of one of Hurt's songs, should be enough to entice blues fans to give this one a glance. Once you do, however, you will be hooked by the engaging story and characters.
Sliding Delta describes a summer spent in mid-60's Mississippi by a young Chicago college student named Doug Spencer, who travels south to meet one of his musical heroes, Mississippi John Hurt, during a crossroads in his collegiate career. Spencer travels from Memphis to Cleveland, MS and finally ends up in Hurt's hometown of Avalon. Being a bit naive, young Doug runs into several situations along the way before settling in Avalon for the summer, working in the local store and encountering many different characters from the area.
Baldwin captures the atmosphere and mood of the times in the Magnolia State.....all the sights, sounds, and attractions, all through the eyes of this relative newcomer to the area. There are also events that take place related to the political climate of the time, including examples of bigotry and an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. There are plenty of encounters with the blues and some other artists who were active during that time, both in the delta and Memphis. It's a very entertaining read, with well-developed characters who will probably remind most readers of people they know in their own life. You can almost feel the humidity, smell fish frying, hear the mosquitoes buzzing in your ear, and take in the sights and sounds of a Mississippi juke joint.
Baldwin is a retired Air Force flight surgeon. He's lived most of his life in the south, living in every southern state (except Mississippi) and is the author of the best-selling adventure series starring Major Boyd Chailland. I plan to check out more of Baldwin's books after reading Sliding Delta.
Friday Blues Fix decided to find out more about Baldwin and Sliding Delta, so we invited him to sit down for Ten Questions. We appreciate him taking the time to do so.
Ten Questions With......Ed Baldwin, Author of Sliding Delta
Friday Blues Fix: Was writing something that you always wanted to do when you were growing up, but put on the shelf until later, or was this a vocation you discovered later in life?
Ed Baldwin: I've always been a good writer. In college I kept my grade point average up by choosing courses that required term papers. I started Bookman, my first novel, in 1979. It was published in 1990, and republished a couple years ago. It is an amateurish newbie author's work, even after two agents and 11 years of writing. It's about that same time period and locations. I've been writing constantly since then; five published novels, a screenplay, short stories, and a textbook.
FBF: How did you come up with the storyline for SlidingDelta?
EB: My own coming of age adventure was selling books door to door in Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. That's what my first book, Bookman is about. For Sliding Delta, I had no plot other than a rich boy from up north decides to go South and learn the blues. I knew the story was going to be the rural south in its time of transition. Then I just wrote scenes to move the story along. The ending changed a dozen times.
FBF: What made you decide to use Mississippi John Hurt as the centerpiece for the story?
EB: At the end of an episode of the HBO series Deadwood, there was a scene where the doctor is dancing with the crippled girl in the saloon. The music was Mississippi John Hurt singing the old gospel song “Farther Along.” So simple, and so profound. The emotion in his voice and the guitar accompaniment captivated me. I found more of his music, read about him, and went on a journey of discovery about his music and his times. He was the transition from old folk music to what we know as Delta blues.
FBF: One thing I enjoyed about the book is the supporting characters in the town of Avalon. You made them vivid characters with very distinctive (and southern) personalities, especially the way they made Doug Spencer (the main character of Sliding Delta) feel not only welcome, but reluctant to leave. Is Doug based on you or someone you know? Are any of the other characters?
EB: When I do characters I start with a situation that needs a character; like the two colored boys Jasper and Jarvus. They first appear when Cooter has set the grease on fire at the fish fry. They are just riding by as background to show that those small towns had colored and white people living in proximity and getting along. Then I give the character a name and think about a back story, which may or may not make it into the book. In their case the back story was they just had one old bicycle, their father was gone up north working and they lived in a tenant house with their mother and grandmother; a completely normal situation for the time.
Once they have a name the character begins to live and they write themselves. The boys were so excited after their buying spree they ran out the screen door of Kinder's store. What if two colored boys run into a grumpy old white man on the steps? Enter Mr. Hoagland.
Doug is a neutral character who observes and tells the story. He has to be from someplace else so he can discern what about Delta life is unique. He's relating the story years later so he has a mature man's perspective. So, in that sense he is me.
FBF: You also reflect on some of the events that were taking place in Mississippi during the mid-60’s. Those were definitely turbulent times then, but the state has improved since those days, and continues to do so. A lot of blues fans today are young and probably don’t know much about this particular era. Did you ever witness or experience anything like the events you describe in Sliding Delta?
EB: Oh yes. The "Hey boy!" episode in Greenwood where the two colored "boys" are called in to move the shelves happened exactly like that while I was visiting a friend in Marianna, Arkansas in 1963. The jail scene in Cleveland, MS is pretty much what happened to me. The point of it is that a colored and a white policeman negotiated with a colored man and a white man who knew each other, to stay in a cell together so that a white boy from up north could have a cell to himself and avoid any chance of conflict with outsiders. The locals worked together. Young people today have the idea that all the whites were Hoagland, and all the colored were John Hurt. Not so; there were the KKK, the Kinders, the sheriff, the pawnbroker, and the two black guys with the switchblade knife with the red plastic handle. All different people.
In the book I use the word "colored" instead of the current term of "black" because people didn't refer to negroes as black in those days. That came in the late 60's.
Some critics have complained that I soften the racial conflict. The Jim Crow south was a very complex social order in which blacks and whites had to be careful, even in the simplest situations. And, they were. There's a lot of nuance in my story. If Doug had been a black college boy from Chicago down to experience his roots it would have been a different tale indeed.
FBF: When you think about, so much American music has its roots in the state of Mississippi. What is it about Mississippi, and the delta area in particular, that made it such a hotbed of musical creativity?
EB: Cotton is a labor intensive crop, and it is hard on the land. Northwest Mississippi is deep Delta soil renewed by frequent flooding, and flat. Large plantations thrived there from before the 1840's, and after the Civil War freed the slaves the Jim Crow laws and culture kept that subjugated work force on the land, and isolated.
Delta blues music is the sound of the human soul breaking through that isolation and subjugation; a cry of pain; a promise of something better. There are famous musicians of color from elsewhere who have a completely different sound. Listen to Duke Ellington (Washington, DC), Chuck Berry (St. Louis), Little Richard (Macon, GA), they're good in a different way.
In the Delta you could escape the cotton field if you had musical talent. There was a market for music and, though the people were poor, they'd pay a few cents for some entertainment. All the old blues guys started on the street playing for tips.
FBF: When and how did you first get bitten by the blues bug?
EB: While I was living in Memphis and traveling around the south I went into the segregated nightclubs; especially the Club Handy. That was risky, which was why we did it. White guys didn't go to colored clubs then. Also, my brother was a guitar player and I watched his band make records in the old Sun Studio on Union. I listened to WDIA; "50,000 watts of soul power!"
FBF: Who were some of the earliest artists and some of the earliest blues albums you listened to?
EB: I saw Albert King at the Club Handy about 1965; big black guy playing that cut down little guitar. I liked B.B. King better, and Booker T and the MGs. Ace Cannon was a white sax player from Mississippi whose sound was pure Delta blues.
FBF: Are there any present –day artists that you enjoy listening to?
EB: I ducked out of my wife's high school reunion in Waterloo, Iowa and went to a blues festival and saw Reverend Raven and the Chain Smoking Alter Boys. They're from Chicago. It was good old time blues. I was in Buddy Guy's Club in Chicago and saw the house band. They started out singing “Sweet Home Chicago,” which is from the 1930's, and it was good. They got into some more current music when the crowd filled up with younger people. The leader came over to our table at the break. He was a young guy who had howled like the Wolf, and bent strings and slid frets like Albert King. I asked him where he learned and he said, "Right here; I grew up two blocks over."
There are four or five good blues clubs on Beale Street now, and there's music seven days a week. I heard Sheryl Crow sing with her father's band, The Usual Suspects, at B.B. KIng's Club last fall. Wow, Sheryl can sing the blues! The house band that followed was great too. The blues is performance art. See it live. Blues fanatics should go to that annual blues festival in Helena. It's in October.
FBF: What are some of your future writing projects? Do you plan to return to the blues in the future?
EB: I'm working on Secrets of the Sunken Land, which is a multi-generational saga about the aftermath of the New Madrid Earthquake, which happened in 1811-12. The land west of the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois to Helena, Arkansas sank into an impenetrable swamp and the drainage of that swamp and its reclamation into the best farmland in the world is an untapped mother lode of lost stories and adventure.