In search of the blues

All You Need is Cash is a 1978 TV mockumentary written by and starring Eric Idle of the Pythons and his long-term comic collaborator Neil Innes. In the film, The Beatles are satirically reformed as The Rutles, but as well as taking an affectionate swipe at the Fab Four (re-dubbed The Prefab Four), Idle and Innes extended their comic vision to the British blues revival of the early Sixties.

In one sublime scene, the hapless reporter journeys to the Mississippi Delta to uncover the origins of The Rutles’ distinctive sound; upon interviewing some blind, crippled, or otherwise disabled old bluesman on the broken-down porch of his cotton-pickin’ shack, he is bamboozled by this strange inversion of musical history: “We learnt everything we know from The Rutles,” the ancient man croaks, “there was no music here at all before we heard their records.”

As it happens, having a nascent teenage guitar hero in the house, I’d watched All You Need is Cash not long before I myself trained, planed and automobiled my family all the way to Clarksdale, Mississippi, the so-called “cradle of the blues” – even so, I was shocked when the man who was checking us into the Shack Up Inn outside of town looked up from the register, and in reply to the question I’d put to him said: “Well, y’know, hereabouts we learnt everything we know about the blues from… The Rutles.”

OK, granted, he didn’t actually say this, but he did utter words pretty much to the same effect.

It was a modest 90°C with 90 per cent humidity in Clarksdale; I hadn’t so much walked as splodged my way into the corrugated iron lobby of the Shack Up Inn. With heat like this, my conversation with the man on the desk was of necessity to the point: “Have you got a guitar we can borrow?” was my first sally, to which his reply was a thumb jabbed at three nearby acoustics on stands, and a growled, “Them are all loaners.”

My next question was equally direct: “Do you know where the crossroads are at which Robert Johnson bartered his soul with the devil so he could become the greatest blues guitarist of all time?”

Again, the Shack Up Inn man didn’t hesitate for a second, and much in the manner of anyone in the hospitality industry directing a wayward tourist, he told me that while the officially recognised “crossroads” was where Highway 61 and Highway 49 intersect in what passes for downtown Clarksdale, he personally favoured a more secreted junction, where the old Simmons Road intersected with Ritchie Avenue. This was, my informant vouchsafed a far “shadier” part of town, full of the kinds of authentic juke joints where, to put it bluntly, white folks don’t go.

Read the rest of Will’s article at Esquire here.