Listen Up: Souls, Slots and Other Strange Transactions in Tunica
Thirty-five miles or so north of where U.S. Highway 49 hits Highway 61—the crossroads where Delta bluesman Robert Johnson allegedly bartered his soul off to the devil—sits a cluster of casinos, just three among many splashed out on the eastern banks of the Mississippi River, where on Friday night I watched an innumerable amount of perhaps even stranger transactions taking place. It was a high price that Johnson paid back in 1930-whatever, to be sure, but at least he knew what he was getting. But what of the hundreds of folks that were packed alongside me in Tunica's glittering, smoky, low-ceilinged Horseshoe Casino, endlessly slapping buttons and tossing dice and shuffling cards pulling levers? It seems like any of us might have blearily passed on the ability to spin and creak out the deepest, darkest blues songs anyone had ever heard if it meant we could just get three sevens to line up on our three-credit bet.
I was there, gambling for the first time in my life, with my boyfriend and his parents, who'd suggested the trip out of the blue last month. It wasn't something I'd ever really considered doing but there I was, sufficiently steeling myself against the potentially-depressing sight of gleamy-eyed people doing things they clearly can't afford to do by becoming one of those people myself, throwing myself and my short supply of one-dollar bills at the quarter slots with gusto, elbow-to-elbow with silver-haired grandpas with fanny packs and oxygen tanks and chain-smoking women that could have just as easily been trophy wives as rural-route schoolbus drivers. My guilt was tempered by free beer and a buffet the size of Tunica's city center, and when my paltry bankroll was exhausted (goodbye, sweet Ulysses) it was actually a relief—more time to stare openly at the orderly madness going on all around me, more time to listen.
What a casino sounds like depends on where you stand. No matter which doors you walk through into the Horseshoe, you're greeted by a massive bank of slot machines—penny slots, nickel slots, twenty-five and fifty-cent ones mixed in with dollar machines, with the five-dollar and higher-stakes ones corralled to the side. There's a lot of slapping of square plastic buttons; all of the machines have levers you could pull, too, which I did, fully expecting it to hurl a cascade of gold coins at my feet, like in a cartoon. This never happened. All the money at the Horseshoe is silent money. Even the cheapest slots made you stick in at least a paper dollar to start out with, no coins accepted, so the two packed-full pill-bottles full of quarters I'd nabbed from my laundry-day stash stayed in the dark cotton protectorate of my purse all night long, heavy and quiet like secrets.
When you win—if you win—at the slots, you're congratulated with a gleeful, robotic chime for each credit you've scored, and this noise is constant and omnipresent all over the floor, regardless of how many players are playing and, I'm sure, how many are winning. It seems entirely possible that the sound is piped in like Muzak, and if it's not—if it's actually the sound of someone somewhere out on the floor scoring money in real time—then that person is likely just going to fritter it away in another five slaps of their hand.
The sound of the slots is both depressing (why do they—why I do I—keep going?) and encouraging (why not?). It was also eerily familiar to me. The closest I'd ever been to a casino before was on one of innumerable trips to Chuck E. Cheese as a child, and while the flashing lights were similar and the mania-masked faces of my fellow Horseshoe revelers didn't seem all that far removed from some I'd once seen making a bee-line to the ball pit, the noise of it somehow sounded just like something I'd heard many, many times before. I spent a while contemplating this—had I been a card shark in a former life? A former life lived sometime between the advent of electronic gambling machines and the start of my actual life?—before I realized what it was: The constant deluge of skittering, formless electronic beeps made it sound like the slots were soundtracked by an endless loop of seconds 5 through 36 of Animal Collective's “My Girls.”
If you stand where the table games are played, the casino sounds much different. The sound of those games are fast-talking dealers and jostling, nervous players, a low rumble of tension and silent prayers and an occasional outburst of triumph. They are all paying attention to dice and cards and faces across the table, not to anyone else—not to me standing there gawking like I'd clearly never seen such a thing, and not the two bands that took the casino stage in the four or five hours we spent wandering the floors.
They were cover bands, both of them, and the stage was tucked back up in an alcove off the main floor, right behind a bar. A collection of oversized promotional liquor bottles stood like sentinels at the foot of the stage. If you squinted from afar, the bottles kind of looked like pointy-headed, broad-shouldered fans clustered at the feet of their idols—but even the bottles seemed bored, if not fully unaware that there was a band performing at all. Out on the floor, some gamblers occasionally raised their heads up and looked askance at the stage as if they'd suddenly realized the source of the vague clattering drone in their right ear. I'm not sure the bartender ten feet away from the stage even aware of them.
Both were standard rock outfits, all guys in untucked button-downs. They played mostly-faithful cover songs, the only personal spins put on the old familiar songs being whatever gaffes or flubbed words they introduced in the course of muddling through. The energy was low, like a rehearsal that'd probably get called off after the third song. I remember two different Creedence Clearwater Revival tracks, a not particularly convincing take on “Feelin' Alright” and, somehow, only one run-through of “Sweet Home Alabama” (we were in Mississippi, sure, but as a lifelong Southerner, I know the sentiments tend to transcend certain state lines).
It was when the first of the two bands broke into strained cover of the Black Eyed Peas' “I Gotta Feeling” that there must be some kind of pre-approved-by-Harrah's-management list of songs that these bands are supposed to play each night, kind of Jock Jams but more easily tackled by listless whiteguy cover bands. I imagine these bands might not even have the freedom of a dive-bar band, whose audience might be driven to order another round by a well-timed, downbeat lament of lost love or bad luck; like the strategic lack of windows and the intense, repeating-patterned carpet and the bustier-clad cocktail waitresses with their endless plying, the casino acts may very well have been the ultimate product of some kind of corporate-enforced mediocrity, meant more as a psychological crutch for the casino guests than any kind of actual entertainment. Because oh, how strange did the room feel when the second of the two bands—lead by a spindly middle-aged guy with John Muir's beard and Joni Mitchell's 1976 hair—would chat, as he tended to do, with his bandmates a bit too long between songs, the lack of music like a screaming vacuum. Then all you could hear was the talking, the cheering, the groaning, the distant slots and the strained, far-away sound of the 80s and 90s pop hits piped in through the rest of the building.
What the casino sounded like, and also did not sound like, was the blues. Thirty-five miles from the site of one of the great mythologies of American music, smack in the slow-rocking cradle of one of the most shamelessly commodified modern artforms, and Horseshoe's one nod to it all was the name of their adjacent entertainment venue; in the coming weeks, the smoky, dimly-lit Bluesville was set to host such hardscrabble, downtrodden performers as Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Charlie Murphy and Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas. Maybe it had been deemed not in the best interest of the casino's gamblers to be reminded—even in the most artless, kitschy way possible—of the dark-souled music that had been wrung from the very soil they stood on. But it would have been perfect, actually. The dynamics of the gambling floor—the delicate balance of bombast and hope, glittering lights and grim faces, luxury and poverty, everyone turning their own sad eyes away from the other sad eyes, humming the refrains of the sugary hits to try and lift themselves into a better hand, a better mood, a better life—is the stuff of pure human drama, the core the bare, nastiness of the blues. Elbowing aside the pop soundtrack, Robert Johnson or any of his fellow bluesman, Delta or otherwise, could've easily cracked and sucked out every bit of hard-luck sadness and poverty and heartbreak in that room and thrived on it alone for a hundred years.
And yet even in that indolent, endless playlist piped into the casino, the blues were there; you can draw some sort of scraggly, snaking line from almost any entry on the casino's endless playlist all the way back and around to blues, of course, which even the lamest bits of modern pop and rock owe something to. Would we have had CCR for a cover band to play at this casino had it not been for the blues? Would there be a Black Eyed Peas without it? These songs are probably rolled out every night at every casino in the continental U.S., but when they're played in Tunica, they're making a kind of pilgrimage—arriving at some unseen place and shuddering a little, like a five-generations-removed bastard grandchild might shudder upon unwittingly returning to the village that was once his great-great-great-grandfather's home. What the blues has wrought might not recognize its maker, not even if they met face to face at midnight at the Delta's most famous crossroads, but it understands the fundamentals of its purpose, its reason to exist: to commiserate or assuage sorrow, to distract or relate, to charm and uplift, to play for ears ignorant and rapturous, to create something real that leaves a void when it's gone—a void that always begs to be filled up again.
Rachael Maddux is Paste’s associate editor. Her column appears at PasteMagazine.com every Monday.