It’s the early 1960s. A nineteen-year-old college student from Illinois steps off a Greyhound bus in dusty, end-of-the road Avalon, Mississippi. He has been robbed in Memphis, jailed as a vagrant in Cleveland, Mississippi, and enters Kinder’s Store with a five-dollar bill in his pocket — all that remains of the three hundred given to him by his grandmother a week earlier.
It’s a poor start to his quest to learn the Delta Blues from legendary musician Mississippi John Hurt.
In this powerful, superbly written coming-of-age story, accomplished author Ed Baldwin pays lyrical homage to both grassroots guitar picking and the richly layered characters and small towns of the Deep South.
The aspiring musical artist Douglas Spencer III has foregone a career in thoracic medicine — due mainly to failing grades in comparative anatomy — and now he has settled into his summer job at Kinder’s Store. There, he meets lovely, freckled, Addie, the proprietor’s daughter. Her father Buck is recovering from a hospital stay, but he takes a shine to the painfully earnest new young man.
Adventures ensue. John boat fishing with Cooter and Billy Ray. Enjoying a drive-in double feature in the crowded comfort of a pickup bed packed with friends. Nailing a gospel duet with Addie in front of 50 rapt congregants at the rural Presbyterian Church. And, the highlight of his summer, a front porch concert at the store by blues legend Mississippi John Hurt.
There are other less pleasant instances. A confrontation with the Klan in front of the store one dark night. A long, backbreaking day of picking cotton that nets Doug a little over $6. And, Buck Kinder passes painfully into the next life, instructing that the store be liquidated. Doug complies.
Addie moves to a nearby town to begin junior college. Cooter is due to ship out to the Marines within days, And Doug is winding down his stay in Mississippi with a visit to a nearby black nightclub.
With the inimitable style and fine literary craftsmanship that marks this novel, the author describes the atmosphere inside the club when a classic bluesman from Chicago intros a crowd favorite with his signature howl:
“You could have heard that call across the highway without a microphone. Oh, and it came from the cotton fields and the chain gangs, and I saw the old steam locomotive with fire shooting out of the smokestack, and the whistle screaming through a rural Mississippi night.”
Doug goes on to achieve moderate success fronting a blues band in the rough and tumble nightclubs of Memphis and other less distinctive locales within driving distance in his classic VW bus. His musical expertise grows, grounded by the twelve-bar blues shuffle, and he sums up his love affair with the genre:
“The Delta Blues taste like sweat and cheap whiskey; smell like jail; sound best in a concrete block club with no windows, set back against the river where there’s no law after dark…Blues are the scream of pain.”
This is a piece of fiction reminiscent of some of John Irving’s most memorable work. The characters are finely drawn, the descriptions of place and time — the racially charged Sixties in the Deep South — are spot on, and the vulnerable experiences of a young man still searching for his life’s direction will ensure that you read until the last word.
Five stars to Sliding Delta. You won’t need to be a budding blues musician to appreciate it. But if you are, you’ll walk away enriched by the deep musical texture and detail that underlie this book’s singular story.