The Mississippi Delta Region, a 200-mile long stretch of land between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, is well known for its surplus of cotton, delicious fried catfish and good old southern hospitality. Its real claim to fame, however, is the region’s countless contributions to American music, and more specifically, the blues. That’s right, you can thank the Mississippi Delta for the moody, toe-tapping, storytelling genre made famous by Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Jon Lee Hooker (all from the Delta) and the like. Recently, New Orleans-based photographer Bryan Tarnowski shot a story for Hemispheres Magazine on a legendary musician who truly lives the Delta Blues lifestyle: Robert “Bilbo” Walker.
Originally, Bryan was contacted by Hemispheres to shoot an essay in Clarksdale, Mississippi on the Juke Joint Festival, an annual blues music fest. After Bryan and the writer, Eric Benson, met Walker, the story ending up evolving into more of a character study on the peculiar bluesman.
Although I was excited to be shooting a very visually eclectic blues festival, as the story evolved to more of a character study on one individual, I started getting really excited. Simply documenting a music festival can only have so much depth, so when the story focused in on this one cantankerous, caricature of a man, I knew we were on the path to a really special story. This sort of longer form story on an individual is my ideal type of assignment, so I was feeling right in my comfort zone as the weekend progressed.
When Bryan describes Walker as “cantankerous,” he really means it. He said their biggest challenge was simply pinning Walker down.
Depending on what hour or time of day you talked to him, he would either tell you it was no problem to meet tomorrow morning for a portrait, or that he was too busy and to buzz off. The writer and I were told on three different nights that that particular night was going to be the opening of his own juke joint ‘Wonderlight City.’ He had been telling the locals in Clarksdale and Alligator, Mississippi for five to six years that he was going to one day open his own juke joint, and here we were supposedly in town on this mythical occasion. The excuses for not opening each night ranged from, ‘…it rained today, and I don’t want to track mud all into my new place.’ to, ‘…I’ve got to go to the police station and deal with a situation—not gonna open today.’ Alas, finally, the night arrived when Walker came barreling down the dirt road to Wonderlight City showing up a few hours later than expected, as the writer and I sat twiddling our thumbs convinced the juke joint was only myth and would never open. We ended having an evening I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.
Curious about what the evening that Bryan mentioned entailed? Here’s a summary: on the night that Walker’s juke joint was set to open, Bryan and Eric were told that it would be delayed since Walker had to go to the police station to “take care of a situation.” Since this was their last night in town, and the third time the opening was canceled, they decided to trek out to the location on their own to check it out and at least leave with some exterior shots. After hanging around for a couple of hours, they gave Walker another call, just to double-check that he really wasn’t going to open up Wonderlight City that night. Surprisingly, Walker let them know that he was at Walmart and he’d be out there in 45 minutes. As you would expect, that 45 minutes turned into about an hour and a half, but Walker eventually showed up and they spent the evening sharing stories and beers.
At one point, Bryan asked that they turn on some music. Since Walker didn’t have a speaker system, he offered to supply the tunes himself. That’s when things really got interesting. Walker had fired his drummer after the previous night’s performance, and he jokingly asked if Bryan played any instruments. Turns out, Bryan actually played the drums and had been in bands when he was younger, so he filled in for the absentee drummer. Walker had all the equipment he needed, with the exception of a pair of drumsticks. But, rather than letting a small hiccup ruin the night, Walker’s wife came to the rescue and proceeded to go into the woods for two tree branches that became Bryan’s drumsticks for the evening.
The whole night was an experience you couldn’t script in a movie, and one that I will never forget. About 30 minutes before we starting playing the blues I had told the writer that we should hit the road because I had to drive back to New Orleans that night and felt I got what I needed. He convinced me to stick around just a little longer, and the next thing you know I was jamming with a blues legend for the rest of the night.
In addition to a story he’ll never forget, Bryan got some great shots from the weekend, and his editor at Hemispheres, Jessie Adler, really loved the images.
To see more of Bryan’s work, visit his website, bryantarnowski.com.