The Thrill is Gone. Goodbye, BB King. Goodbye, Lucille.
June 6, Indianola, MS, 2008.
This is Mississippi, summer buzzed through stadium speakers and our heads fall forward with it, the sky blazing glory, the bloated crowd nudging from behind. Onstage a tiny girl owns the drums, easy and precise, her mouth drawn to one side in a casual sneer. Her bushy hair bobs en masse and sometimes she swipes her nose with a forearm, never missing a beat. Mosquitoes swarm the painted light, the light swarms mocha skin. Her barely teenaged brother pivots liquid hips, taking what’s his, taking all of Sunflower County with him. A baby-faced superstar flinging virginity to a cotton field, he strolls the crowd, wielding his bass at middle-aged aunties. They swish fans advertising Indianola business, while white girls—teens with bony pelvises—creep close as they dare. The oldest brother is seventeen. He handles vocals and lead guitar. He’s Nashville-wholesome but tonight capably raw, and their daddy spittin’ stories on harmonica an extra hour long because Mom’s hawkin’ tees and BB’s late to his own party. Because BB’s Mississippi-slow, and slower now that age and excess have their way.
I came here once in another millennium. The crowd was smaller, there were no midway booths, no corn dogs and pizza. BB’s cousins slopped BBQ on plates, we sucked at rancid bottles, sinking deep in overgrown grass. He called his grandkids onstage so they danced for 10 dollars, and BB could stand then, and play his guitar. My friend Amelia waved her round ass, her hippie skirt and brown hair tangled in the music of her own Delta legacy—a girl with porcelain skin and a coming out ball, but she shares BB’s hometown hubris. And afterwards we’d parked downtown, tossed the kid a twenty to watch our car, paid another twenty at the door, plus a fiver-bribe for being underage. BB tore it up the way he used to know, the aunties moving truer than Amelia could, and I knew, I am of this but mostly, I am a footnote.
Now Club Ebony’s an easy hundred and BB’s blood chugs tired, a yellow dog called Type 2, so he’s a figurehead in a folding chair, tappin’ knees and nursin’ juice, guitar mostly resting in his lap while the band carries the show.The kids onstage dance crunk and there’s more, so this time they get singles and fives, and BB says I can’t see nuthin’ but that boy’s stomach, so the fat kid steps back, and they play The Thrill is Gone, open and close, because it’s a radio hit, and it’s pretty much true. The whole world can see how the boy born on the plantation has softened with success. (He still does it. That is the thrill).
On the drive to Leland, we listen Public Enemy on cassette, yell Fight the Power out open windows, and then we are in another field with more corndogs and two stages. The festival’s across the tracks, in a field that nestles downtown’s dismal drag. There are gorgeous heaps of unidentified rusted metal—an organic, unintentional art exhibit—amidst skeletons of boxcars and a small stage with bluegrass, the big one with blues. We set up camp chairs and eat fried foods, drink lukewarm Bud snuck in messenger bags, and then Honeyboy Edwards takes the stage.
At 93 he’s a decade older than BB and about a century sharper. Honeyboy spent fifty years on the Chicago club circuit and he can play his guitar. And sing. He can do both at the same time. His face is amazing, melted wrinkles deep as Delta soil, thick fingers picking, strumming, endlessly plucking at that shiny wood box. The crowd is nothing near what it should be—Honeyboy should have red carpets, the New York Times and MTV. This is bigger than Coachella or Bonnaroo, should warrant four page spreads and sultry blogger ecstasy. But it’s Leland, Mississippi, it’s too authentic and it’s okay. The blatant ignorance of Hipster, USA seems okay by Honeyboy Edwards. This small crowd of collegiate Mississippians and aging Europeans recognizes his legend, and Honeyboy is gracious. He smiles likes it’s his pleasure.
Song after song Donkey hollers and I stomp and hip-fling the beat, and Honeyboy above us–relaxed, honest and alive as a legend should be. My entire body bristles chillbumps. I am witnessing something fleeting and ancient, epic and precious. And the people clap and scream but I wanna cry, because Honeyboy is my sharecropping great grandfather and the legacy of his slave-owning grandfather. He’s everything too deep, complex, messy and obvious to untangle, and he doesn’t mind if a hundred should have been a million, he doesn’t mind that BB had fireworks and a bigger PA. We are the ones honored, and he’s up there thinking it’s him.
At the house they’re playing music and passing tequila, and then it’s still tonight tomorrow, and tomorrow is Sunday, and Sunday is the best day because it’s naturally my favorite day and also the block-party festival we’ve been waiting for, and because of breakfast, because for two days we’re had nothing but granola bars and alcohol. Donkey makes potato casserole and salsa. There’s Godiva coffee in the freezer. I brew the whole bag, and people wake up happy to get fed.
By afternoon we’ve rallied. For the final time, we load car and cooler, drive through fields and set up chairs again, this time in a grassy lot next to the defunct Holly Ridge Store. At the microscopic leftover of a festival, everyone plays for free. There’s no line-up, no tickets, no rules. No one even bothers to block the streets, since no cars ever come anyway. There are locals with lawn chairs and a makeshift stage on a flatbed trailer. Extension cords pump electricity from the empty store, where men sell boiled-shrimp and people lounge at the base of an old gas pump (one man’s out cold), while Afro-puff babes slurp icies and strays beg scraps.
Donkey and I sit under a tree and eat kool-aid pickles. He talks about his horse-thieving ancestors, how his grandfather picked cotton until one day he went to college and studied agriculture and became county agent, and his grandmother slipped in the dew and developed blood clots, and when his mom cried for her pain, she said, it’s nothing like the pain Jesus suffered. She was excited to die so she could see Claude. How she married Claude at fourteen and lived forever on a hill in Winston County.
We want to carve our names in the bark, but we got nothing, and anyhow, I just read about plants as sensual organisms, how electrical impulses fly through their fibers, and I’m worried that maybe it hurts.
Everyone’s dancing by the stage, and we dance too. An old fedora-geezer grins like we’re country friends, chastising Donkey because ‘she’s at 120 and you’re only doing 94, boy.’ But then a large lady in day-glo orange grabs Donkey, and he is dipping and whirling, gratuitously obliging her please to spank her ample rear, and no one can accuse him of less than 150.
The Norwegians are everywhere, fascinated by the big black lady and the curly freckled boy, snapping photos like paparazzi. Donkey moves on to me, lifting me speedy like a top, my legs around his waist and all over northern Europe—our picture making Monday papers in Oslo.
I haven’t showered in three days, and I’m out of clean underwear. I decide to go commando, tugging a cotton jumpsuit over pungent skin and stumbling to the kitchen, where Donkey tosses empty chip bags, separates bottles and cans, runs a sinkful of soapy water and makes coffee. The living room’s empty because we’re grown-ups again, we’ll sleep in our own beds tonight, and soon, in a minute, we’ll drink coffee and drive away from best blues weekend always, or at least for another year.