A pilgrimage to the final resting place of a bluesman
by David KunianSlim Harpo was a Delta musician, but his Delta was modern. He came up in Port Allen, a single story town surrounded not by cotton fields but by heavy industry and the unrelenting bright lights of the refineries outside Baton Rouge. Born closer to the Gulf and its Caribbean influences, Louisiana blues moves with more syncopation than its cousins. But Mulatto Bend is too dusty and run down to make you think of the rum in the sun of Jamaica and Cuba. It’s poor and rural like it can only be in the proximity of the capitol, and it hasn’t changed much since the first time I searched out the final resting place of James Moore, AKA Slim Harpo, in the early days of the 21st century. Most likely the area wasn’t much different at the beginning of 1970 when the hearse carrying Slim’s coffin took a left on Highway 190, just a few miles after the Mississippi River Bridge, to deposit him under a cement, white-washed grave.
It’s a lifetime goal for me to find the graves of as many blues and jazz greats as I can. I’ve poured Seagram’s at the tomb of James Booker, contemplated the proximity between Robert Johnson’s final resting place and the general store where Emmett Till allegedly whistled at a white woman, and stood on railroad tracks in reach of Charlie Patton’s burial ground. Passing time in the places where these artists lived gives additional meaning and insight to their art and music, and somehow being close to their bones and dust adds to that understanding. The starkness of stones offers lessons in life and death and the mystery of both that we’ll never understand.
Along the dirt road that leads to the cemetery in Port Allen, there are still closed taverns, abandoned commercial shacks, and several surviving businesses in need of a coat of paint. It’s a blues hangover, as Slim wrote in the song of the same name, all around this place where they don’t have “change for a grasshopper, and that’s two crickets.” Inside the pitted stone gateposts, the grass was freshly mowed, and someone had piled the refuse from plowing on the edge of the field and lit it on fire. The smoke reminded me of charcoal yards my grandmother owned on the Connecticut border but I was far from that now, in the middle of nowhere conjuring those moody blues. I couldn’t quite remember where Slim’s grave was, so I walked past modest flat tombs amid the heat and humidity. Up ahead was a horizontal grey headstone with several harmonicas left in tribute. A decade after I had first found it, I was again looking at the headstone that read, “In memory of James (Slim Harpo) Moore Feb 11, 1924 – Jan 30, 1970 Missed dearly by wife and children” I bet they missed him like the devil, or so he sang in one of his hits.
Slim Harpo’s music mostly has a leisurely pace that combines with their low sounds and wavering, bent notes to conjure a weary 3:30 AM. These are songs of the night, when everyone is about to fall out on a last tune of the set in some chicken wire moonshine joint across from the levee , and outside those lights and pipes glow on the other side of the river. I never imagined the songs in the hot sun of August, and as I walked I didn’t notice I had started singing “I’m A King Bee” in a barely audible voice until I had almost finished it. Somehow the strange sounds and punch-drunk rhythms made as much sense in the daylight as the night.
Listen to Slim Harpo’s “I’m A King Bee”
The world was still in this late afternoon. Critters that live in proximity of the river were audible in the tall grass. I rubbed the itch along my spine. I took a deep breath that had a fine smell of smoke, and stared across the field to the rusting John Deere combines and farm equipment literally put out to pasture. There was nobody around. The sound of ciccadas rose and fell.
The blues were all around, physically, emotionally, mentally, and metaphysically one big blues cliché. But clichés, especially ones involving the blues, come from the truth. The question was not how could Slim Harpo sing the blues being from here; the question was how could he not?
I traced my finger along Harpo’s name and picked up a faded harmonica. Poor James Moore: He had had some luck and some hits and influence in his short career. I don’t know if he was happy or satisfied, but if he hadn’t died of a heart attack at the age of 45, if he had been around when the Rolling Stones sang his “Shake Your Hips” on Exile on Main Street, he might have gone farther than a small graveyard off a back highway in one of the poorest parts of Louisiana. Or maybe not. There is a cosmological theory that each action produces uncountable parallel universes spun off like a guitar note that reverberates and spreads in all directions and into other dimensions. In some of them, Slim Harpo is living like the King Bee he deserved to be. In others he didn’t even have the success he had in this one. No matter which reality he’s in, whether this isolated cemetery off Highway 190 in Mulatto Bend figures into it or not, he’s still singing those fine blues. Missing him at his grave, so am I.