Perfect Sound Forever

Life is easy, living is hard
Readin' Ace Atkins' blues

by Scot Lockman (July 2001)

Nick Travers is: Alabama-born, a former Saint (of the New Orleans variety, fallen from grace on national television) with a doctorate from the University of Mississippi and an on-and-off teaching gig at Tulane. His skin is white and his blood runs thick with the blues; he courts trouble more frequently than women, and sometimes they're the same thing. And while he plays the blues, at a joint called JoJo's, he's much more successful in preserving them against an uncertain future. Travers is a blues historian by trade, part Peter Guralnick, part Philip Marlowe, and pretty much unique in a genre of fiction jam-packed with hard-luck hard-boiled hard cases -- he's the folk historian as private detective (professions linked by similar job requirements, fueled by cigarettes and booze), set loose in a world rife with mystery.

So far, those worlds have been confined to 1998's Crossroad Blues and 2000's Leavin' Trunk Blues, both written by one Ace Atkins -- the Alabama-born defensive end for the undefeated 1993 Auburn University football team and, up until a few weeks ago, a crime reporter for the Tampa Tribune. Atkins began writing about Travers in 1988, after a family trip to New Orleans put flame to his high-school mind. He was a blues fan at the time, a condition he attributes to Muddy Waters' Hard Again, which he heard at the age of 13, but he didn't know much about their history -- a situation he remedied with research as he developed the adventures of his New Orleans-based blues hero. (Who, by the way, isn't that autobiographical; the character is much closer to a football player-turned-college professor he met at school, Atkins says.)

Time passed for Atkins, and for Travers, as time passes for all. Atkins penned two Travers novels before the third -- Crossroad Blues -- found a publisher, which is where this story picks up. The novel follows Travers back and forth between New Orleans and Greenwood, Mississippi, where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson was murdered in 1938; some say by the hands of a jealous woman, some by the hands of a jealous man, no one can say with authority. Whatever. One of Travers' colleagues has disappeared into the hinterlands of Mississippi, and someone wants to know what happened to him; Travers (somewhat reluctantly) accepts and proceeds to (quite accidentally) pop the top on one of the great mysteries of the blues world.

At stake are several lives and, more importantly, nine previously unknown recordings by Johnson. (The seed for Crossroad was planted, Atkins says, when he read a throwaway line in a book on Johnson -- a smattering of words amounting to a rumor of a handful of Johnson recordings destroyed during a poolroom fight.) The book stinks of the deep South, of the lonely stretches of road and decaying settlements that refuse to move into the future; of cotton, corn whiskey and collard greens; and like Johnson's blues, the world of Crossroad is alive with ghosts, is always haunted by the possibility of violence or, worse, death. And in Crossroad, the odds are good that the hellhound's well on your trail; and if by chance he isn't, there's typically a white somebody eager to take his place. (White exploitation of black musical history, reduced to an effective supernatural metaphor; but maybe I'm reading too much into it.)

Atkins also offers up a rogue's gallery of supporting characters, all sprung from the fertile musical and social loins of the area: a 19-year-old thug named Jesse Garon obsessed with, yes, Elvis; a black albino named Cracker; Pascal Cruz, the devilish white owner of a New Orleans blues shack not unlike the House of Blues; in flashback, Robert Johnson, tormented, thirsty, aware of his doom; and, finally, the identity of Johnson's killer. If the Delta is their dance floor, then the music Atkins plays is equal parts research and improvisation -- wild flurries of Johnson arcana, followed by the refrain of Travers' fictional search, the blend a fast-paced progression prominently featuring loss, love and a wry sense of humor uncomplicated by big-city living.

Atkins and Travers moved north, to Chicago, for their next outing, Leavin' Trunk Blues. This time, the story is that of Ruby Walker -- the Sweet Black Angel of Chicago's South Side -- serving time for the murder of Billy Lyons, her lover and record producer. Travers has come north to interview her, to record her story before it passes beyond the pale, but Walker has one demand before she'll grant his request -- he has to look into Lyons' murder, see what he can dig up about it.

What he finds, among other things, is the rough history of the Chicago blues and the Great Migration of Southern blacks during the 1940's and 1950's played out on a criminal scale -- betrayals of early promise, shut-eye compromise made into riches, the rise and fall of music in the town where it became a major musical force. More specifically, he finds living (well, mostly) ghosts brought north during the migration, and the children of those ghosts. Not just Ruby Walker and Billy Lyons, but Lyons' traditional enemy -- Stagger Lee, pure hate bottled black and mean, scourge of the South Side, a dog-collared peddler of vice run to ruin. And his two agents, Butcher Knife Totin' Annie and Fast Fuckin' Fannie (dust jacket says Fast Lovin', but don't be fooled -- there's a world of difference between the two), streetwise children enamored of crack and violence.

You don't have to get all the references to get the book, but they add a mythic quality to the story that raises the novel's stakes. Annie and Fannie share common parentage in the song “Wang Dang Doodle,” and Stagger Lee (or Stacker Lee, or Stagolee, or Staggerlee) and his legend may be traced back through decades of black folklore, as can the legend of his rival, Billy Lyons (or Billy the Lion, or Billy the Liar). The details -- how Stagger Lee killed Billy, or over what -- are irrelevant in the legend; what's important is the act itself, final, irrevocable, and made real in Leavin' Trunk. (For the final word on Stagger Lee, hie thee to Greil Marcus's Mystery Train, if you haven't already.)

There's an underlying logic to the setting of the two novels. Following their development in the Delta, the blues followed the black migration from the South, to points northward. Chicago, chiefly. The blues came of age on Chicago's South Side, where electricity and Muddy Waters made the form a matter of public record; so if Crossroad is the story of the Delta blues, then Leavin' Trunk is the second step in the music's evolution.

Also: Crossroad is lighter, funnier, set during the fading weeks of a Southern summer. The landscape is more alive, the people native to it more easy-going, the atmosphere charged with hints of the supernatural. Leavin' Trunk, by contrast, takes place during the week leading up to Christmas Eve; Chicago is gray with cold, hunkered down for the latest in a long series of winters, a slice of grim reality set down in the Midwest. No room for superstition here, and the people Travers encounters are more prone to violence, are accustomed to a different stripe of poverty than their Southern forebears. All of the characters are very much of their settings; Fannie and Annie in Greenwood wouldn't fly, nor would Cracker in Chicago. But you get the feeling that Pascal Cruz, the exploiter of the blues, and Stagger Lee, blues demon made real, could make it anywhere.

So, in the course of two novels, you get a load of education (both directly stated and implied) about the birth of the blues and its first major move from home. Atkins' next novel (he's working on it now) is set, he says, in Memphis, which he sees as location for the next major progression in 20th century black music -- the birth and evolution of Southern soul music. What Travers is poised to find there is -- forgive the phrase -- a mystery to me. We'll see.

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