August 24, 2013 11:12:10 PM
Birney Imes - [email protected]
ROSEDALE (Saturday, Aug. 17) -- The early morning sunlight has turned the glass of the streets broken beer bottles into sparkling gemstones. The alchemists responsible for these riches have abdicated, at least for now, leaving the dogs and cats to rule a two-block stretch of bombed-out juke joints and defunct storefronts otherwise known as Bruce Street.
They will do as they please for the next few hours, taking little note of the stray human who happens by. A stranger emerges from a car to take a closer look at two gallon jars filled with the brine used for pickling pigs' feet. The sun's rays cause the pink jars to glow as though they are lit from within and the visitor takes out his camera, noting the "$1.75" written in an uneven hand on the jars' white plastic tops.
A few blocks away, in another part of town, an old man behind a row of buildings is doling out bluegill too small to eat to a flock of stray cats. One cat, which has not gotten word of the buffet, sits bathing herself under a mimosa tree mulched with the glass of broken beer bottles. Behind the cat the concrete block wall of an unfinished building proclaims "Poor Fast Eddie's Place," a rare instance of truth-in-advertising in a row that boasts a Paradise Inn and Club Ambrosia.
Robert Johnson called out this Delta town in his "Traveling Riverside Blues" ("Lord, I'm goin' to Rosedale, gon' take my rider by my side."); so did Eric Clapton and Cream 30 years later in "Crossroads Blues." ("And I'm going down to Rosedale, take my rider by my side."). Johnson and the generation of bluesmen who followed were the mother lode for the wave of British bands in the 60s and 70s looking to imbue their music with something authentic and mystical.
They found it in Johnson's lyrics and the story of his deal with the devil: a soul traded for the ability to make haunting music with a guitar. Legend has it Johnson and the devil made their Faustian compact at a crossroads somewhere in the Delta, and Rosedale is one of several claimants. (Dockery Plantation east of Clarksdale is the most commonly acknowledged site.)
Rosedale is about 20 miles west of Cleveland at the intersection of state highways 1 and 8. A levee borders the west side of downtown and a mile of so beyond it is The River. The town, as are others like it in the Delta, is an island of humanity and commerce floating in an ocean of corn, cotton, and soybeans and recently planted oak trees. In August in the fullness of summer the region assumes a timeless beauty. One thinks it must have looked like this 50 years ago and that it will look this way 50 years from now.
The visitor, continuing his early morning exploration, chances upon an alley demarcated by a clump of orange cannas (the unofficial flower of the Mississippi Delta), two discarded tires, the rind of a watermelon and a one-eyed cat. Behind the cannas in a vacant lot, he sees blankets draped over bushes and T-shirts hanging from tree branches, part of what appears to be a permanent yard sale extending to the shell of a house beyond.
The proprietor, Eddie Dean Barnes Jr., invites the visitor into the house and offers him coffee. As he does most mornings, Barnes begins the day on the front porch of his across-the-street neighbor, Fredrick Robinson.
The two men are different in every observable way. Barnes (who, as it happens, is Poor Fast Eddie) is animated and gregarious; Robinson is taciturn and understated. Barnes drinks drip coffee (brewed in Robinson's house; his has no electricity); Robinson prefers instant.
Robinson, recently widowed, retired from a 33-year career working as a porter in casino hotels in Las Vegas and moved back to his native Rosedale six months earlier. His marriage was long and fruitful. Barnes, on the other hand, was married for 11 months and 29 days and said, "It was like doing time."
And then Poor Fast Eddie, in a narrative worthy of Tennessee Williams, went on to recount the sad story of his marriage.
Every Delta town, it seems, has its own mythology: crimes of passion and insanity, fortunes gained and lost, the venality of corrupt politicians. Rosedale is no different. These men repeating these stories on front porches are not so far removed from those who set similar stories to music. In doing so they created a musical genre so original and primal people come from all over the world to this place hoping to better understand its origin and meaning.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.