Following his muse has worked well for California based singer/songwriter/guitarist Mike Eldred. Exhibit A is a recent album of Elvis covers titled "Elvis Unleaded." Eldred said his latest album “Baptist Town” was inspired by his readings of folklorist Alan Lomax, which themselves have inspired many trips by Eldred to Mississippi.
“The more I dug into the folklore and history, and the prisons, prison work songs and field hollers, I realized that this music has always done something to me, as has gospel.”
Those sounds swirled in this head on many journeys through the heart of blues's ground zero, and he eventually wove them into the music that formed the backbone for the album “Baptist Town.” “Somebody’s Been Running” is one of those songs. Its steady percussion and rhythmic chanting has the feel of a prison work song. Eldred said he heard it as a field holler.
“The slaves would go into the field to pick cotton or vegetables, and one guy would start. He would say ‘somebody been running for a long time,” then the rest of the people would answer back ‘somebody been running on.’ And I have hours of that stuff from Alan Lomax. I want to do more of this stuff to get people exposed to this stuff that they wouldn’t normally do.”
Eldred called his many trips to Mississippi “Soul cleanses.” On those trips he assimilated the stories told to him along the way and reconceived them as characters in the songs he wrote for “Baptist Town.” One of those characters was “Black Annie,” who Eldred concedes is fair to assume is a woman. Except its not.
“Black Annie is a whip at Mississippi State Penitentiary they used to beat the prisoners with when they got out of line. It was really a brutal thing. Because it wouldn’t just leave a welt, it would actually cut into their skin and open them up. Two weeks ago I was at ‘Red’s Lounge’ in Clarksdale. I started talking to this guy sitting next to me and found out he worked at Mississippi State Penitentiary. I lost it. And the guy he was sitting next to was a former warden at the Penitentiary. So I told them about ‘Black Annie’ the song, and they couldn’t believe this guy was telling them about this.”
Though the song “Hunder Dollar Bill” has an up-tempo Rockabilly backbeat, it’s another song on “Baptist Town” showing the dark side of human nature. It’s about a man on a drinking binge intending to ruin himself and ‘mess things up’ for everyone. Eldred said he wanted to show that even “good” people have a dark side.
“Everyone has a side that’s really sweet, and a side that’s really bad. I think for ‘Baptist Town’ my goal was to write about both.”
Baptist Town is one of the oldest African-American neighborhoods in Greenwood, Mississippi. According to David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards, it was the final residence of the legendary and mythical bluesman Robert Johnson, who died just outside Greenwood in 1938. Eldred was struck by the difference between the "have's" and "have not's" in Greenwood.
“There are mansions that’ll blow your mind. Then you go a mile over the railroad tracks, its slave shacks that are hundreds of years old, and some people still live there. It’s about four blocks with about 90% unemployment. They’re really poor, but they’re some of the sweetest people I’ve ever met in my life. But there are also problems with drugs.”
The contrast between those who live in opulence and those who live destitute just a mile apart in what many consider sacred blues ground has been gnawing at Eldred. It’s the contrast between rich and poor for sure, but he’s also indignant that a neighborhood where one of the most significant forces in American music lived and died has not been proper recognized and historicized.
“These are these old shotgun houses ... they’re falling apart. So what they do is tear them down and bring in FEMA trailers that have been converted to look like a shotgun house. The trailer is donated ... the land is donated. And then they charge these people $38,000 to live in them.”
Eldred’s idea is to allow blues historians and lovers like him to buy the dilapidated houses and recruit neighbors repair them.
“Then you could turn them into a place where tourists could come and stay. The city of Greenwood could easily put together a program where volunteers from people who have money could come over and mow the lawn, fix up the foundation, fix the water heater. I saw that when I lived in California. I was just six miles from Compton. I saw gangs pushed out, and families took pride in their community. ”
Considering the tone and theme of “Baptist Town,” including a cover of The Beatles “Can’t Buy Me Love” seems a left field choice. Eldred thinks its an inspired choice. He said though the music on the Beatles version sounds happy and cheery, the lyrics are somewhat dark.
“When I was writing the songs for ‘Baptist Town’ I said ‘I’m going to go back and look at this,’ and the song just kind of popped up. So we recorded it at Sun Studios in Memphis and it was just like ‘yeah, this is cool.’”
Eldred sounded just as pleased with the entire album.
“I just hope that more people listen to it and more people are exposed to the ideas on ‘Baptist Town.’”