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We had a loud to during in American Clarksdale, Mississippi. Just tell me why y'all need to come on down to Clarksdale, the dozens of music venues at Ground Zero.


Everybody likes to party live music every night.


You could go out every night and your liver would hit you and you'd go broke because there's so much, you know, a city centered around the blues at the Times, specifically tourism related to the polls to show you in a place where every year thousands of people come from all over the world to listen to live music and walk in the footsteps of Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson.


And then in March, oh, the pandemic hit and all of this stopped. The clubs closed. The tourists left.


This is in the dark coronavirus in the delta. I'm Madeleine Baron. I've spent the past two months, along with the rest of the In the Dark team, reporting on coronavirus in the Mississippi Delta, the poorest part of Mississippi and one of the poorest places in the entire country. In the series, we're bringing you stories of people trying to live in this really hard time, trying to make decisions, trying to get by in a situation that none of us have faced before.


In this episode story of just one man, a man who in the middle of the pandemic came to understand something not about the virus, but about himself. Episode four, Watermelon Slim. A few years ago, I spent a few hours in Clarksdale, Mississippi, with our producer, Natalie, we'd stopped by the blueberry cafe to get breakfast, and our waiter was this older white guy, kind of weathered, looking, messy hair, disheveled in an approachable kind of way.


As best I can recall, he was wearing a dirty white apron and corduroy pants.


He didn't sound like he was from the delta. When he cleared our plates, he scraped off the extra grits with his hand, he seemed like the kind of guy knows he's a total character, just goes with it. After breakfast, we went to this really tiny rock and blues museum run by a guy from the Netherlands, was crammed with all kinds of old records, Charlie Patton, Leadbelly, displayed in glass cases along the walls. Every inch of extra space was covered with layer upon layer of ephemera.


There's even a little curtain you could pull back to see a sketch that John Lennon had made of people having sex. And in all of this, a face on a poster jumped out the face of our waiter, and that's how I learned that our waiter was also a blues musician named Watermelon Slim.


There was something about this man that was hard to forget. I looked him up online and went down a rabbit hole.


I learned that Watermelon Slim was born William Homans, the third in 1949, that he'd grown up Massachusetts and North Carolina that had been married and had been a soldier in Vietnam and an anti-war activist, but once chained himself to a Navy ship and a farmer and a grad student and an environmental activist and a trucker and a leftist blogger and a self-styled expert on the Oklahoma City bombing. And on top of all that watermelon, Slim was also a guy who played because he released a bunch of albums are pretty popular, especially in Europe, albums with names like Travelin Man and Escape from the Chicken Coop.


And he toured all the time, sometimes more than 100 shows a year last year.


Rent a watermelon, Slim. Nice to meet you and welcome to Europe. Well, we always enjoy coming to Europe and you're nominated for a couple of blues awards. Oh, I'm nominated for four more at this point. So in the pandemic hit, I wondered how Watermelon Slim was doing.


Hello. Hi, this is Madeleine. I'm the reporter for you, Madeleine. OK, I've been waiting for your call. Yeah. So I actually met you with a friend. We went and got some food in Clarksdale, and I think you were our waiter. And then later we were at the museum there and we saw your photo on a poster. And we're like, oh, I think our waiter was watermelon slim.


Well, they could come into our little joint.


So, yeah. What's it like in Clarksdale today?


Well, it's a beautiful sunny day, not a cloud in the sky. It's a lovely spring day. I'm out here on my back porch. I'm looking at my garden grow. That's good.


Are those wind chimes I'm hearing or you always hear the chimes? Yeah, that's my windshield. And they're remarkably pleasant. And I'm coming no matter no matter what you're doing, you hear the triumph and it's like it focuses you.


Why don't I want some told me that the other night they'd had 70 mile an hour winds come through.


Yeah, well, we had a hell of a storm. I had a couple of pieces come off. But then and in front of my house, my my flagpole snapped clean and drew upon my American flag on the ground.


The next morning, he told me he'd been keeping to himself, mostly staying home, trying to protect himself from getting the virus.


I've known from the beginning that I'm a high risk candidate and I smoke. I'll be 71 years old. I have no illusions that if I go out and I catch it, the chances are better than 50 percent that I'm going to die, he told me. I've been doing some reading.


You know, I have so much to keep on top of news, trying to get better at playing the drums, taking time every day to at least limit myself up on the drums.


Watermelon Slim had a ton of time on his hands. Frankly, we both did. So we talked for a long time. I asked him how he got his name.


Oh, meningiomas Brogdale. He told me that the story of his name began in a watermelon field in Oklahoma in 1980. It was the third week of July. He said he was a farmer then and he was there tending his field. It was hot. He was eating a slice of watermelon. At the same time, he reached into his pocket with his other hand and pulled out his harmonica. And that's when the idea hit him.


And I looked at the watermelon with the harmonica and suddenly I Paul on the Damascus Road thing. But I think, boom, I had a blues name.


It was, he said, a mighty revelation.


But I knew no matter how many friends there were in the blues and will be able to swear that the same magic from my body language, from the. There were many other watermelon slim, so I've been working on them for going on 40 years. Watermelon Slim told me that blues songs was the way he sees it come down to three themes work, relationships and death.


Work, relationships and death were like concerts in the.


What Melanson told me that the pandemic had wormed its way into a songwriting, given the basis for a monstrous new song that needs to be gotten out now.


While it is at its most relevant.


So you've written a song like in the last week I Knew Your Little Baby. Have any chance I can hear this song?


I could play it for you. I've got it right here. I don't know. I don't know how it will sound over the top. Try it.


One, two, three, roll. Are you sneaking off my back there? Lullaby. OK, you're messing with all my friends. There are those that are now good to lock you in in my whole neighborhood. What about you people that I don't know about that. OK, you got the idea. Yeah.


Thank you so much. Do you have a name for your song. Oh yeah.


Grown Funk Caronna Funk. Watermelon Slim told me that since the pandemic hit, it's been hard on him to not perform in front of an audience. It's not so much the loss of money living in Clarksdale is cheap. And he said he's been able to get by on his a thousand dollars a month or so Social Security check without much trouble. It's a feeling of a live performance that he misses the closeness of the crowd. All those people pressed up close together.


People are shaking hands all over the place. There are kisses exchanged. All this you can't just anybody anymore. And that's radical stop at the radical change of human behavior.


He done some online shows recently, streamed on Facebook and told you all I'm going to do to solve your problem. Joining us now to talk more about. But it wasn't the same. All the warmth and spirit of a live performance, the abandoned, the noise, the vibrations from the speakers, all those things that make a person's heartbeat just a little bit faster had now been reduced to just a video you can watch on your phone like so many parts of our lives now.


It felt small and pathetic and just boring. Oh, so you, like, performed to like an empty room?


I performed on an empty stage. It's the first time I've ever done it.


We kept talking in that way that we all talk now, each of us knowing that the other has nowhere to go, nothing else to do, knowing that all the normal ways the conversations used to end. Hey, sorry, but I have to go to work. Have to run a quick errand. Can I call you back later. Are gone. And so we just continued.


Do you think it's possible that you've performed your last performance before a live audience? No, not at all, because you are. It's possible. It wasn't just a question about performing well, we were talking about was this larger question, how do you know whether something has come to an end? How do you know that something is gone forever? That things aren't going back to the way they used to be? When do we realize that something is over, that that was before and that we're now in after?


As we talked, Watermelon Slim told me, you've been thinking not just about blues music and the shows he's missed, but about his life, his entire life, work, relationships and death.


I was widowed in June, 30 years. I knew her for. Forty eight years. She died last year in June, Watermelon Slim told me that he considers himself widowed even though he and his wife hadn't lived together in years.


My wife and I were separated in two four New Year's Day, 2002. There were trust issues. And my wife was a drug and alcohol abuser, and I just I never could completely pull her out of the self-destructive tendencies that. The that he had he found himself thinking more about his wife lately, about how much of his life he'd spent with this person who's now gone, and that made him think of other absences to the loss of his brother who killed himself a few years back, and how he didn't make it to his brother's memorial service because he had to be somewhere else.


And one more loss, the loss of his beloved dog, his sidekick, a lab mix named Peno.


So it was the greatest all I ever had. And he was. He was only average smart intellectually for a dog, you know, at eight years old, we were working on rolling over, but he was an emotional genius. I really felt like I was coming home when he was here.


It was so special lately, cooped up in this house alone, Watermelon Slim said that he sometimes has moments where you forget subpoena's gone out of the drinking and then doing nothing in particular, sitting in my in my computer and some part of the house will creak and I'll look around and see. Standing out on his porch, Watermelon Slim told me the story of how he died Watermelon Slim had been on tour in Europe about two years ago when it happened.


A friend who was checking in on Peno waited until Watermelon Slim got back from tour to tell him I came home and Bindi was gone and I could bear death if I've seen that I've been close to. But this was murder. Pino didn't just die watermelon Slim said he'd been shot. He died from three bullets in him. Somebody came over, my friend shot my dog and then went back over the fence.


Shot and killed in watermelon Slim's yard, maybe by someone who's trying to break into the house. They never did figure it out.


While we were talking watermelon, Slim left his porch and walked across his backyard, looking at his grave right now and sitting cross-legged in a box of petunias on the grave. But the gravestone is beautiful. I got this gravestone and for two hundred and four dollars I got an absolute month for a piece of art.


He told me he'd seen a photo of Peno to a place that turns photos into gravestone etchings.


That's the way they do it by later. They cut Greeno and 2010 through 2013 is his day and and his picture was with my legend, my darling dog, unconditional love forever in my heart.


But I will always, always, always take care of, take care of people scrape this grave for watermelon.


Slim didn't seem to be just for peno, not exactly this grave. And watermelon. Slim's backyard seems to stand in for all the others. The grave of his brother, his wife, his parents.


I got nobody else's grave to take care of. My mother never had one. My father is in a huge cemetery in Cambridge called Mount Auburn Cemetery and my brother who committed suicide in 2015. I have no idea where he's buried. But there was something else the watermelon slim had been thinking about, something else that he wanted to tell me one last thing and it didn't have anything to do, dead people or dead dogs or graves of any kind. That's after the break.


Hi, this is Madeleine, and I'm recording this not from a studio, but from the bedroom of my apartment in Minneapolis, I'm sitting on the floor on my rug and I've got the microphone propped up on a coffee table as we're covered in a blanket.


It's like this whole arrangement. And this is also where I recorded my call with Watermelon Slim, who you've been hearing from in this episode. We're reporting and producing the special report from In the Dark, completely from home. It's challenging and it's led to extra expense, but telling the story is worth it. You're getting a perspective on the pandemic. You won't get anywhere else as a public media program. Our show is free for everyone to access. But if you're in a position to donate right now, we're counting on you.


Please help fund this important journalism. Donate today at In the Dark podcast, dawg. Or you can text dark to four seven four seven four seven.


Thank you. There's a time for being a man of action, and I've been thinking there must at some point in time, come time for reflection in his solitude over these past few months, living in quarantine with no audience to impress and nowhere to go.


Watermelon Slim hadn't just been mourning his dad loved ones. He'd also been finding himself returning to a thought that he'd long had.


I had a girlfriend, I had two marriages, just what everybody did, a thought for how his life could be something he's known that he's wanted for many years.


And toward the end of our conversation, he finally said it.


At this point, I don't mind anybody knowing I anybody you know, or the right person might end up hearing. I was but got married to get a husband.


I want to take the chance to make a cry at being appropriately married gay man Watermelon.


Sam told me that he had had a relationship with the man.


There's such a long time ago, my only male lover that I ever really had here, and neither of us considered ourselves gay. We were primarily comrades, he said.


They were more like friends, fellow activists than partners.


It was a sort of relationship that was more common back then together, but not really.


If I had been growing up in this day and age instead of in the 1950s and 60s in the south. If I go out today, I am gay and be done with it, but if I have to do it again, well, I'd like to meet a man that I really get. Along with and I'll have a partner not die alone, and now now that watermelon Slim actually had time not just to think, but also to plan.


He finally had clarity. He finally knew what he wanted his life to look like.


It may have taken him seven decades and a global pandemic to fully come to this realization. But Watermelon Slim doesn't see that as the worst thing.


He sees it. There's still time.


I'm almost 71 years old, but I've got I've got plenty of drag and I like to have a husband, but he'll buy me. And we talked for so long that Watermelon Slim's phone was about to die.


So we said our goodbyes. God bless you. Thank you. Nice to talk to you.


But until that day when Watermelon Slim can finally live the life he wants, he'll be sitting on his porch in Clarksdale, practicing the drums, tending the grave, humming a tune and waiting. In the dark coronavirus in the Delta is reported and produced by me, Madeline Baron, managing producer, Samarrah Freema producer Natalie Yablonski, associate producer Raymond Hendrika and reporter Pahlka. Yesterday, the series was edited by Catherine Winter. The editor in chief of APM Reports is Chris Worthington.


This episode was mixed by Corey Schappell original music for the series by Gary Maistre. To see photos that accompany our series, you can go to our website in the Dark podcast Dog Photography for the series by Bhatinda. And one more thing. If you live in the Mississippi Delta and you want to share your experiences of living through this pandemic, you can leave us a voicemail message at six six two two five four four zero three seven. You may use your recording in a future episode.