he man I considered the last real living Bluesman was a regular at Red’s Bar and Lounge, my Clarksdale, Mississippi music spot. Robert “Wolfman” Belfour, who died last winter at 74, played the most transcendent, hypnotic music I’ve ever lost myself to. His guitar was pure rhythm. His voice waved over his guitar riffs in a mumble of lyrics and long-drawn out notes. He’d moan old Blues refrains like, “done got old baby / can’t do the things that I used to do / I got old woman / can’t do the things that I used to do” without a smirk or an ounce of showmanship. He could silence a room of a 100 people with a couple strums. He could also interrupt his own magic by dropping his guitar partway through a song and shuffling off toward the bathroom. It was sublime. Now I’m left wondering if Red’s, and therefore Mississippi, will ever be the same.
Red Paden, who owns the place, sells t-shirts from torn-up cardboard boxes. They read, “It is what it is!” in front and “Fronted by the River, Backed by the Grave” in back. The statements perfectly sum up Red’s, which is Mississippi’s last real Juke Joint. They’re also a nod to the dying ethos of the Blues and of Southern good times. The river of life flows, but Red’s — so long as you can pay the cover charge — isn’t going anywhere. Nor is the graveyard.
But Belfour’s music did more than just accompany this outlook on life: it embodied it. When he died, he took something with him. While Red’s Juke Joint is still up and running, its Jukin’ seems somehow wrong.
For the uninitiated, juke joints are essentially bars. They became a cultural staple in black southern communities during the Jim Crow era, when plantation workers were barred from entering white establishments. Jukes rose up at rural crossroads and hosted music, drinking, and gambling. They’re where Robert Johnson birthed the blues. For decades, these backcountry gatherings served as a cradle for American and British music. In his autobiography “Life,” Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, a frequent American traveler, writes about how, in 1975, “all you had to do was cross the tracks and you’d get an education. If we were playing with black musicians, they’d look after us … You got welcomed, you got fed, and you got laid. The white side of town was dead, but it was rockin’ across the tracks.” These were not fancy places, but the party was good and the music was honest.
The aesthetic expectations were and remain low. Red’s’ wooden doors are splintered, the Budweiser is oversized and lukewarm (served from coolers), and the TV in the back sheds a distracting light over the performers. Red himself looks disinterested: he never takes off his sunglasses. The ribs are great — if they decide to make them, that is, which mostly they don’t. If you’re lucky, a biker gang from Alabama will share some of their Apple Pie Moonshine and the party kicks off. “It is what it is.”
And yes, the shoddy brick building is located between a river and a graveyard. It’s a geographic metaphor for the larger Mississippi party: a free-flowing appreciation of life, undercut by jokes about our imminent demise. It’s also on the “other” side of the train-tracks. The rest of the businesses in Clarksdale — population 17,000 — are spread out on the side of the tracks where Tennessee Williams grew up and romped around Southern white mansions. Physically and ethically, Red’s — and Red — is the real thing.
So the nagging question remains: why does the death of Robert “Wolfman” Belfour feel so much like an ending? The brick and mortar of Red’s still stands and the crowds keep coming. Part of the answer may have to do with the people in the crowds. Wolfman’s last concerts were played mostly for whites, many eager to get close to what they saw as authentic. A white blues enthusiast, I was one of them.
But his Delta roots had nothing to do with that audience. And no one will ever again play the guitar like him. He performed with sloppy precision, which took confidence, courage and unwillingness to compromise. This wasn’t blues-rock, Chicago blues, or any other hybrid. This was Mississippi Jukes. You could feel it in the hypnotically loose solos. “There was no mistakin’ it when he would play,” a Red’s regular once told me. “That man was playin’ something African. He could’a picked up the guitar with Freddie McDowell, Robert Johnson, or any of those guys, and none ’em would have turned him down. That’s it for the blues, man. The rest of us are just playing white music.”
Now, when I head to Red’s for a night of music, I park my car and jog lightly across the tracks into the more desolate parts of town. I hope to find someone like Wolfman playing “Treat Me Right,” but I know I won’t. On this side of town the streetlights are fewer and farther between. Many are slowly fizzling out, leaving only darkness.