The man sitting next to me at Gip’s taps me on the arm. “Care for a shot of ’shine?” He pours a honey-colored liquid from a mason jar into a tiny Dixie cup and hands it to me. I take a sip. It tastes like sickly sweet ice tea laced with whiskey and cornstarch, but it packs such a wallop that when a musician comes on to the stage with a cigar-box guitar strapped to his torso, I wonder if I’m seeing things. I’m not — that’s exactly the instrument he’s playing.
The musician speaks into the mic: “If this is your first time here, welcome to Gip’s. We’re all one here, and if you come back, everyone will remember you because now you’re part of our family. There’s only two rules here: No cussing, and men, you leave with the woman you brought.”
“What if I came with two women?” someone yells.
“Then you gotta take them both home.”
The drummer counts out the beat on his faux leopard-skin kit and the band breaks into some gritty blues. Gip sits onstage in a rickety chair, playing guitar and singing in a deep gravelly voice. The music is mesmerizing and intoxicating. Soon I’m tapping, clapping and bopping up and down in my chair. The blues may be about loneliness and heartache, sad times and bad times, but they lift the spirit like a rollicking gospel church choir. Half the room is on the dance floor. A woman pulls me by the arm and says, “Come on, y’all, dance!” I take another shot of moonshine and follow her, feeling an instant camaraderie.
This is like one huge party, and I dance with everybody. A man in a cowboy hat spins me around; three giggling women dance in a circle around me, and then another man pulls me into his arms. I feel giddy and free, and along with everyone else, I scream my approval at the top of my lungs. I understand exactly what legendary bluesman Willie King meant when he said, “You gotta participate in the blues, shake them off you.”
A few days later, I’m shaking off the blues again, this time at Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale, Miss. From the outside, Red’s looks like a junkyard with propane gas tanks, an old refrigerator, trash bins, rusty paint cans and broken furniture stacked by the entrance of the red-brick building. Inside, there’s no stage, just the front corner where bands have to squeeze in between mics, cables and giant amplifiers. But that hasn’t stopped the great Delta blues players from playing here, including Big Jack Johnson, Frank Frost, Watermelon Slim, James “Super Chikan” Johnson, Robert “Wolfman” Belfour, Terry “Big T” Williams and Ford.
I look for a place to sit, but every mismatched wobbly chair and barstool is taken, and the tiny dance floor near the band is body to body with people, including a man in a glittery silver suit, bright red tie and black derby who moves as if he were possessed. Red Paden, the burly owner who’s been running the place for 36 years, stands behind the bar serving icy beers as fast as he can pull them from the cooler. His T-shirt reads: “Red’s: Backed by the River, Fronted by the Grave,” and I wonder if there’s a connection between cemeteries and juke joints — after all, Gip is a gravedigger and cemetery owner. But there’s no connection; Red’s just happens to be located between a graveyard and the Sunflower River.
Someone gets up off a threadbare couch and I sink into it, spellbound by a haunting harmonica solo played by a man in his 80s dressed in a suit and a straw bowler that’s tilted on his head. A vocalist wails into the mic, the guitar and bass kick it up a few notches, and I lose myself in the music. Once again, I tap, clap and sway from side to side, and soon I’m pulled onto the dance floor with the crowd, where we all hoot and holler, bop up and down, and shake off the blues.