By Andrea Serna, Arts and Culture Writer
Located firmly on the Mississippi Blues Trail is the town of Clarksdale.
Meandering through the Mississippi Delta, the trail is the home to B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and many more. The location is effectively the cradle of the blues.
To this rich environment, San Pedro bluesman Dave Widow, offers his expertise to guitar apprentices at a workshop called Down to the Crossroads. The workshop at the Shack Up Inn was founded in the heart of the Mississippi Delta to help blues guitarists attain a deeper connection with the form, characterized by specific chord progressions. In May, Widow served as one of three coaches mentoring students to expand their technical abilities and free their musical imaginations.
During the five-day workshop coaches and students spend time “woodshedding.” The term in blues means more than just practicing. It is the recognition of the need to sequester oneself and dig into the hard mechanics of the music before coming back and playing with a group in public. There’s something almost sacred about the term.
“There is a reason soldiers go to boot camp,” said Gary Wagner, host of the weekend radio show “Nothin’ But the Blues” on KKJZ 88.1, about the Crossroads workshop. “It is for this same reason musicians go to the ‘woodshed’ environment provided in Clarksdale. Not everyone is an Eric Clapton or a Robert Johnson. The majority of great musicians have many thousands of hours of practice under their belt. Even the greatest musicians still practice every day.”
Dave Widow has spent practically his entire life immersed in the music. Raised in Cincinnati, he came to California because this is where the business is. He immediately plugged into the local blues rock scene, initially meeting guys from the Pure Prairie League band. His musical style is influenced by long standing relationships with musicians such as Buddy Miles, Bill Champlin of Chicago and his mentor and collaborator, the late Roger “Jelly Roll” Troy from The Mike Bloomfield Band. Widow credits legendary guitar player Lonnie Mack with inspiring him to turn professional.
“I met Lonnie when I was going to college,” Widow said. “I sat in with the band and we sort of bonded and he gave me the courage to go forward.’
In his years of association with such renowned musicians Widow has developed his own style, not wanting to sound like anyone else.
“My style incorporates southern blues with Chicago Blues with little bits of Memphis and Motown,” Widow said. “I also have a funky rock flavor that I like to throw in.”
Widow is a perfect choice to serve as a coach and mentor to other guitar players, and Clarksdale, Miss. possesses the mystical inspiration desired to create the magic of the blues.
Before the arrival of European settlers, the Clarksdale, Miss. was inhabited by the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 drove the Native Americans out of the delta and opened the area to cotton farming. Several cotton plantations were soon established in the Clarksdale area. Fundamental to the delta’s cotton industry was the widespread exploitation of African-American laborers. U.S. Census data shows Coahoma County’s 1860 population at 1,521 whites and 5,085 slaves.
It was in this swamp of oppression that the blues was born.
Gospel, jazz, rock, rap and pop music have all evolved from this original seed of African rhythms. Now blues finds itself threatened by extinction, but a tight group of musicians and music lovers work to keep the blues alive. The Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tenn. even has an annual award titled, Keeping the Blues Alive, granted each year to those willing to pass the torch.
“When a musician understands music, especially blues, if they REALLY understand it, they know there is an obligation to pass that knowledge on to ensure the future of the genre” Wagner said. “There are many ways to do this. There are “blues-in-the-school” programs conducted by the Blues Foundation and their local affiliates. The goal would be to have a complete ‘stepping-stone’ process so that anyone with the commitment would always have a next step to their own personal growth.”
Musicians attend the Crossroads workshop, a mere three miles from the fabled intersection of Highways 61 and 49. This is where, according to legend, Robert Johnson made his deal with the devil, to tune his guitar and teach him how to play the blues. Attendees are housed in rustic sharecropper shacks on the old Hopson Plantation. The location provides an immersion experience in the Mississippi Delta and isolation from the contemporary world.
“You are really well aware that you are in a very unique place with a lot of history” Widow said. “It has its own vibe. When you are here you can feel the blues and the history of slavery. It is a powerful place”
Other local musicians have also made the pilgrimage. Popular San Pedro bluesman, Sean Lane also made his trip up The Blues Trail and back to the crossroads. His objective was to develop more as a Delta Blues musician, playing slide guitar. He returned newly invigorated by the spirit of Johnson, creator of the slide style of blues.
Lane will be opening for Dave Widow at an upcoming performance at Alvas Showroom on June 14. The show is billed as Dave Widow and Friends. Because of his deep connections to rock and blues musicians you never know who will show up at a Dave Widow performance. His back up band will be Christopher North and Joe Puerta from Ambrosia. A ‘mystery guest’ is planned and almost any of the musicians from his remarkable associations could sit in. In the past, special guests have included Bill Champlin and also musicians from Bonnie Raitt’s band.
Dave Widow and Sean Lane are guaranteed to bring the experience of Clarksdale, Miss. to Alvas and this blues fan is guaranteed to be there.
Details: (800) 403-3447
Venue: Alvas Showroom
Location: 1417 W. 8th St., San Pedro