Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, Coahoma County, Coahoma, Floyd Graham telling of the past days of sharecropping in a cotton field at sunset.
Note: In February 2008, Alison began NWNL’s first official documentation of the Mississippi River Basin. She spent a week in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, home of cotton farming, levees and the Blues, expanding her video technique at Chandler Griffin’s Barefoot Workshop while based at the Shack Up Inn. Focusing on “No Water No Cotton,” Alison interviewed the regional levee board, a local historian, local feed store merchants, Blues musicians and a Mississippi River conservationist/artist/poet/canoe-ist/activist.
Barefoot In The Delta
Story & Photography by Cheree Franco
(Reprinted from Jackson Free Press, April 2, 2008)
LIKE an omen, Floyd Graham stands in a Coahoma field, backlit against a fiery Delta horizon. Fifty-something, chain-smoker, charismatic and self-admittedly privileged, he recounts the story of this field—one of many his family owns, one of many where, for decades, 20th-century plantation owners exploited African American tenant farmers. Fifteen people, deceived by the earlier high temps and now clad only in light jackets, huddle in the February chill, spellbound by Graham’s booming voice.
“Everybody had 40 acres,” he says of the black tenant farmers. “That’s what they were responsible for. They weren’t really sharecroppers, because these people didn’t get a share of the crops.”
A large diamond glitters each time Graham raises a hand to light a cigarette. He prefaces anecdotes with apologies—how, as a teenager he threatened a black girl who catcalled when he biked past, or how every Saturday, he’d wake to several hundred field hands, lining up in his backyard, waiting to get paid.
“We weren’t unique,” Graham continues. “Pretty much every family did the same thing.”
He recalls the “pickin’ seasons” of childhood, coal smoke rising from shacks, raised voices ringing through autumn haze. “I don’t think they were singing because they were happy,” he chaffs. “What they had to do was pretty monotonous. … My father didn’t believe in mechanization. I asked him why we didn’t buy more tractors, and he said, ‘Why buy tractors when these people do it cheaper?’” Forty years later, as Graham acknowledges his sins and those of his fathers, the winter-shorn field pulses with its own muscle memory—and those muscles ache.
Act I: Fielding Stories
A collection of photojournalists and videographers have made their way to the Mississippi Delta from all over—San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Seattle and France—to learn the rudiments of documentary filmmaking. When they signed up for the two-week Barefoot Workshop, they probably weren’t expecting an apology-punctuated monologue in a field. But Chandler Griffin, the 32-year-old workshop creator and Jackson native, knows what he’s doing. For four years he’s delivered students to Graham’s dusk-heavy field for introductory lessons in the Southern tradition of oral story-telling and the Delta’s intensely conflicted sense of place.
“I want students to be aware of the impact they have on people and the impact people have on them. It’s not about the literal subjects Floyd’s talking about. I want them to recognize the universal themes,” Griffin says.
In 2007 Graham’s rhetoric so unnerved Australian-songwriter and Barefoot student Adrian Kosky that he wrote “Silver Dollars,” a song chastising a plantation owner who offered to pay tenant farmers in cash or check. The owner would write the check for the full amount owed—several hundred dollars. The cash deal was less straightforward. The farmer would dip both hands into a large bucket of silver dollars. What he could carry without dropping, he could keep. The plantation owner knew tenant farmers couldn’t cash checks without bank accounts. He also knew that two fistfuls of silver dollars amounted to, roughly, 60 bucks.
Silver Dollars fillin’ up my hands/ Ain’t enough for workin’ on this land/ A shotgun shack that I don’t own/ And 14 kids to help the cotton grow/ I see Mr. Floyd drivin’ in his yellow Corvette/ While I get deeper an’ deeper in debt.
Kosky played his song for Clarksdale icon and lounge owner George Messenger, another cordial local who annually logs time with Griffin’s students. An elderly man with coffee-colored skin and startling blue eyes, Messenger then touched Kosky’s arm and said solemnly, “That could have been my story. That was my story.” It was a transformative moment for Kosky, illustrating the essence of what Griffin hopes to instill in his students.
“Telling others’ stories is more than lighting, sound and editing,” Griffin preaches, interrupting his own midnight Final Cut demo to impress what has suddenly occurred to him as more essential knowledge. His pupils sprawl attentively across shabby couches, haphazardly nestled in the Shack Up Inn’s loft living room. “It’s a responsibility and a vulnerability. And always, it’s self-revelatory,” he adds.
After graduating from Jackson Prep in 1992, Griffin earned a BFA in film and photography from Savannah College of Art and Design. A decade later his work took him to the northeastern United States, and to places as exotic as Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
“It’s funny, because I couldn’t wait to get out of Mississippi, and I had no desire to come back. I thought Mississippi was closed-minded and backward,” he admits. “Then I went out and had these experiences, and I realized it’s about bringing your skills and your knowledge back, sharing it with the people at home. And it’s about bringing people from the outside in.”
Consequently, Griffin started Barefoot Workshops in 2004. “I had been working with the Maine International Film and Television Workshops, but I wanted to try it my way,” he explains.
Griffin and his Jackson-based assistant Damien Blaylock were intrigued by Clarksdale’s Shack Up Inn. As part of their $1,850 workshop fee, students stay in refurbished sharecropper shacks, located at a former working plantation that retains its original cotton gin and outbuildings. Part history lesson, part junkyard and—controversially and perhaps unintentionally—part kitsch, the place seemed provocative and perfect. “When we first saw the Shack Up, we thought, ‘Fruitcakeville.’ So I said, ‘I guess that’s where we’re having the workshop,’ “ Griffin says with a grin.
Barefoot is a two-week crash course in documentary filmmaking. Students are provided professional equipment and fast instruction in everything from outlining a story to cutting together a finished product. They create their own seven-to-10 minute documentaries, which screen at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, the Crossroads Film Festival in Jackson and on the Barefoot Web site.
Griffin chose the Delta in order to boost recognition and help the tourism economy in his home state. But he also needed his workshop “to be this place where (students) are out of their element, kind of confused by everything. They don’t get distracted by dinner and opera plans.” He knew that his students would have preliminary impressions of Mississippi, but he wanted to replace assumptions with legitimate experience.
“People come from all over the world, and they leave in love with this place,” he says.
Since its inception, Barefoot students have come from India, Nepal, Italy, Indonesia, Australia and America. A 2008 participant, Karim Amara, says that Clarksdale works because “everyone is friendly, and everyone’s a character. It doesn’t matter where you point your camera in this town, you’ll get a story. “ A San Francisco resident, he adds: “I don’t know if you could pull this off in my city, where everyone’s media savvy and full of canned answers. Here, people are genuine, in a real, contextual sense.”
Appropriately, Amara finds his story close to “home.” In “Motherload of Trophies,” he and Kristen Daly follow Bill Talbot, co-owner of The Shack Up Inn, on scavenging trips for discarded “treasure” to transform into the ubiquitous fountains and sculptures that mark the property. At one point, Amara gets so involved with his subject that he abandons the camera on the floor and eagerly joins Talbot in looting a movie-poster jackpot, recently rescued from half a century under someone’s bed.
“All you see are feet and cables,” Griffin says of the resulting footage. “I think it’s a great example, because Karim is telling a story about something he understands. Initially, maybe he didn’t even realize that’s why he chose Bill. What it comes down to, making documentaries is about real people and relationships, and being honest with yourself as a storyteller.”
On the first day of the workshop, students camp in the living room, munching donuts and discussing potential stories. Some of them have researched well. Daly, a doctoral candidate from Columbia University’s journalism program, mentions Riverside Hotel, where Sonny Boy Williamson, Ike Turner and Robert Nighthawk lodged and, in its earliest life as a hospital, Bessie Smith spent her final hours. Other ideas include studying the effects of Tunica casinos on Clarksdale’s economy and interviewing HIV-positive women from a nearby clinic.
Like Amara’s movie posters, the suggested topics demonstrate each student’s unique interests and expertise. Rebecca Parrish, a recent college grad, works with teenagers at the infamous Chicago housing project, Cabrini-Green. Her activism surfaces in a desire to probe Wal-Mart’s presence in a small town—the conundrum of job potential vs. local industry displacement. Jenifer Hyde, of Normandy, France, mentions her faith-fueled interest in contrasting the gospel as “God’s music” to the blues as “the devil’s music.” Rachel Hamilton and Karen Kohlhaas, New York-based actresses, hope to do something with live performance, perhaps capitalizing on Clarksdale as Tennessee Williams’ boyhood home.
Another New Yorker, Alison Jones, focuses on an issue that quickly becomes personal to the workshop students. As a photographer for an international conservation program called “No Water No Life,” Jones documents pollution and irrigation problems. And since pesticide-steeped wells service the Shack Up, the tap water is unusable. Thirsty students drain jugs faster than Griffin can supply. For Griffin, this results in panicky pre-dawn forays to the grocery, before cranky, caffeine-craving students awaken. “No water, no coffee—no coffee, no life” became a running joke, albeit the deep-rooted, disturbing implications.
Act II: Action!
As the first week progresses, the community embraces the documentarians, offering contacts and hospitality, while “work” fizzles into playtime. In “Babies Got the Blues,” Hamilton and Kohlhaas decide to focus on the Blues Museum’s education program, which offers everyone the opportunity to learn to play the blues, regardless of their ability to afford instruments or lessons.
Tracking a Blues School alum, 19-year-old “Little” Anthony Sherrod, led to a Thursday night shoot-turned-dance-party at juke joint Sarah’s Kitchen and later in the week, a pajama-clad expedition to blues club Ground Zero, to get footage of Sherrod onstage. “We didn’t have advance notice,” Kohlhaas defends. “We had to get down there with the camera, now!”
By week’s end, sleep is scant, emotions taunt, drizzle steady and Mississippi mud abundant. Apparently only Daly read Griffin’s pre-workshop supply list, which suggested galoshes. One student, Memphis native Emerson Ables spends an entire night in James “Super Chikan” Johnson’s work shed, drilling the bluesman about his familial history, his political views and the high-celebrity-demand guitars that he makes out of found objects. The interview for “Black and Blues” ends at 4 a.m.—about the time Amy Benson and Chris Thompson, a Seattle-based videographer and grantwriter, are setting up to film sunrise over Sunshine Baptist Church, only to discover upon playback that the camera had been switched to a low-light, grainy setting. (“Only use this setting if you’re in a cave with Osama bin Laden,” Griffin regularly admonishes.)
The next morning at 4 a.m., they set up all over again.
As week two opens, Parrish and her partner Brooke Bassin still don’t have a coherent story line. They had hoped to explore the town’s attitudes surrounding the (then) upcoming presidential primaries, but at this point, they have a collection of fascinating interview clips and no clue how to conclusively link the clips together.
“I’m not voting for Monica Lewinsky’s boyfriend’s wife,” Parrish mimics one of their subjects, while scourging the communal fridge for something she can eat. A vegetarian with food allergies in the deep-fried, barbequed South, Parrish’s frustrations are not limited to mere filmmaking.
“Right now I’m sort of wallowing in the pain of ‘we don’t have a project.’ So then I think, ‘well, you have to find one.’ But pressuring myself like this feels artificial and not that meaningful.” She steadies a pan of rice and beans, releasing the weary sigh of a classic over-achiever. “My main goal is to leave here not feeling depressed and defeated.”
Meanwhile, Benson and Thompson return elated from a shoot, and Griffin connects the camera to the TV so everyone can view their footage. Choir practice had just finished at Sunshine Baptist, and as they were packing to leave, Mattie Shoemaker approached, wanting to talk about her dead relatives. Not expecting much, Benson grabbed the camera and followed Shoemaker’s methodical, cane-assisted procession through the adjoining cemetery. As Shoemaker reminisced, she began to weep.
“It was intensely personal and very moving,” Thompson recalls—not to mention expertly captured from a dramatic low-angle perspective, in extra-warm color balance. Benson modestly attributes the angle to her short stature more than skillful camera maneuvering, but evidentially, the pair has stellar listening skills—”Shoot at an angle for greater dimension; white-balance on a blue rather than a white, for a ‘warm’ picture,” Griffin had instructed, a few days earlier.
By the middle of the second week, no one is sleeping. Around-the-clock convenience store runs are rampant, and jumbo bags of M&Ms disappear by the hour. Romantic soliloquies in twilit fields are but a distant memory. Except for the taped index cards snaking across the shacks’ walls (an editing trick-of-the-trade) and Griffin knocking on doors at 3 a.m. (in response to editing-crisis texts), the scene is uncannily reminiscent of university finals week. The films have to be delivered to the Blues Museum by 4 p.m. Friday to be in place for the 7 p.m. screening. At 6 p.m. Friday, some students are still editing.
Act III: Post … Production
At 6:15 p.m. Hamilton and Kohalaas settle on the porch of the Pinetop Perkins Shack, sipping beer and taking deep breaths. They’re the lucky ones. They’re the first group to have a finished project.
“I feel like this is the first moment in two weeks that I’ve really sat down and felt like I don’t have to be frantically studying my notes or gathering equipment or trying to get as much sleep as possible. I’m crawling out of a creative black hole,” Hamilton exhales.
Kohalaas adds, “Well, I feel like things are going to crawl out of this couch.”
Hamilton shrugs off her partner’s concern. “This morning when I took a shower, I couldn’t find my towel, it had been so long since it was employed,” she responds glibly.
Born-and-bred city girls, they try to process their first taste of Mississippi. “It’s the weather and the people,” Hamilton muses. “They’re both crazy.”
“People take the time to be eccentric here,” Kohalaas agrees. “The unfolding of their day is the unfolding of their day. In New York, everything is abrupt. I found myself having to slow down my New York rhythm, because every time you say goodbye to someone, that starts a whole other conversation, and you’ll be on the phone setting up an interview, and you’ll say, ‘OK, bye, thanks,’ and you can just tell people feel that’s jarring.”
Hamilton spent a full day trying not to be the one to end a conversation. “It was hilarious,” she says. “It took a lot of muscle, emotional and otherwise, to stand my ground.”
Parrish views the slower pace as valuable. “People here seem rooted, connected to themselves,” she notes. Like many of the students, Parrish expressly bonded with one of her subjects, Sarah Moore, septuagenarian and owner of the café and juke, Sarah’s Kitchen. A local fixture, Moore was a Parchman Penitentiary cook for many years. Now, in addition to her café, she works in casino kitchens.
“Miss Sarah has so much wisdom,” Parrish says, nodding. “She’s like Buddha or something.” Feisty and opinionated, Moore eventually agrees to an on-camera interview but refuses Parrish and Brooke’s proposal that she be the sole subject of their documentary. On the day she leaves Clarksdale, Parrish presents Moore with a houseplant as a farewell gift.
The Barefoot experience is powerful, even for those with insider insight. Thompson may pay rent on the West Coast, but he grew up on the Gulf Coast, received a journalism degree from Ole Miss, and started his career at The Clarion-Ledger.
Even so, his time in Clarksdale broadened his home-state perspective. “I think I’ve learned a lot about who people are here, how they live, and what’s important to at least this particular group of people [that we’ve been working with]. Being someone who’s not very religious, it’s been interesting to pay attention to people who are, and try to objectively look at what matters to them and why.”
It’s laundry day at the Shack Up, and as he pauses to set the washing machine dial, he considers his next thought. “You hear how the blues are dead, that Clarksdale is dying, the old way of life is sort of passing by. There’s this sense that it’ll all be gone tomorrow,” he says, hesitantly.
“I think in the back of our minds, we were expecting to find that at this church. And that’s not the case. The members that we’ve met, they’re very determined to keep it alive.”
Somehow, everyone manages to organize their footage and finish editing, although a few filmmakers arrive at the Friday evening screening with wet hair and minutes to spare. The Blues Museum swarms with curious locals, wanting to see for themselves what this “Barefoot thing” is all about.
The ladies of Sunshine Baptist form an anxious cluster, grinning for photos with Benson and Thompson, chatting among themselves, and informing passersby that they are in a documentary. Bill Talbot rocks on his heels, hands in pockets, and responds to someone’s “looking forward to seeing your movie?” with an uneasy, “guess so.” In the back of the museum, Super Chikan peruses David Turnley’s photography, which includes photos the Pulitzer Prize winner snapped of Super Chikan himself. The screening is so well attended that even standing room is scarce.
Afterward at the Delta Amusement Café, “Yankees” test their coordination against pungent boiled crawfish, while a Blues School instructor and a key figure in “Babies Got the Blues,” 27-year-old Richard Crisman—aka “Daddy Rich”—regales the celebrants with Delta tunes, until the ample supply of liquid nostalgia breeds requests for ‘90s rock.
Daddy Rich appeases with dexterous renditions of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and early Radiohead, accompanied by the multi-accented vocals of a table full of triumphant filmmakers.
The final stop is Reds, a beloved dive known for cool blues, hot women and authentic grime. Little Anthony plays bass behind Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry, one of his former Blues School instructors. It’s the exact inverse of last week’s performance at Sarah’s Kitchen, where Little Anthony played lead and Howl-N-Madd supported on bass. It seems a harmonic metaphor—the passing of the torch, the youth honoring his teacher.
Reds has become a regular haunt for the Barefoot students, and as everyone’s favorite local dancing girl shimmies in her zebra mini, Benson leans over to Thompson, awe-struck, and whispers, “You know, there’s no other place like this anywhere in the world.”
She’s right. For all its economic despair and crumbling façade, the Mississippi Delta manages to offer both gorgeous mystique and visceral rambunctiousness in an astoundingly self-contained package. It’s an evasive beauty, something many people intuit but few accurately interpret or portray.
Kosky has traveled from Australia to Clarksdale three times since his initial Barefoot experience and is considering a permanent relocation. To him, the power of the Delta is in “the sounds, the accents, the history and, musically speaking, its sense of place … also, the changes that have occurred, the atrocities that have happened and the fact that it still survives, still manages to be proud.”
Kosky’s own voice, with his soft Australian accent, comes across as measured and musical. “The Delta’s not outwardly beautiful,” he says, “but it’s inwardly stunning. It’s handsome in a way that is rugged and credible. Finding beauty here is like finding beauty in the desert. And for me, all of this is really exciting to write and think about and expand on.”
A few short hours later, the Shack Up exudes chaotic energy, as sponsor-lent equipment is sorted, bags packed and airport carpools organized. The general consensus is that everyone will miss the Shack Up, Bill Talbot and his tunefully head-bobbing parakeet. They’ll miss Rest Haven pies, the wacky weather and the people of Clarksdale, who quickly graduated from “subjects” to friends. And, of course, they’ll miss each other.
“The best part of coming here was meeting you,” Bassin tells Parrish, as she bequeaths a goodbye hug on her partner in tension and laughs.
For the most part, 2008’s Barefoot participants aren’t quite as eager as Kosky to start their lives anew in the Mississippi Delta, but few would deny that the Workshop was an intense, affecting experience. “Most of all,” Thompson says, “I think of our church members. I walked away being able to respect their views, and I appreciate their willingness to share them with us.”
So it’s time for the fresh graduates of Barefoot Workshop to take their new skills into the world. There are places to go and stories to tell.
Several Barefoot Workshop films will screen at the Crossroads Film Festival at 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 5. For more information, visit www.barefootworkshops.org.