Monday, May 20, 2013

Mississippi Delta Blues Roadtrip
or This Ain't No Freakin' Frommers On the Road Again
Part 1

Day 1, Thursday May 9, 2013 Km 0 to 869 Toronto to Carrollton KY.

Leaving all the anticipatory anxiety behind, it's time to hit the road.

Eat,Drive,Drink, not starring Julia Roberts.

Today it's about making the miles, or kilometers go by.Our goal today was to cover 800kms, over half the distance to our target in MS.
We stop in Carrollton KY 869 kilometers from home.
Beautifully uneventful day.
No border issues, no traffic issues.
Good start.

Day 2, Friday May 10, 2013 Km 869 to 1800  Carrollton, KY to Clarksdale  MS.

"Some day I will return, with the marriage license in my hand
Some day I will return, hoohoo, with a marriage license in my hand
I'm gon' take you for a honeymoon, in some long, long distant land"

Robert Johnson, Honeymoon Blues

It's our 34th anniversary and look what I got Cece doing, going to some long, long distant land.
I just tell her: "The stuff I got'll bust your brains out, baby, it'll make you lose your mind."
We're on the back roads, headin' south.

I've been exposed to the results of the blues revival in the early '60's that lead to an explosion of rock n roll my entire life. For a good part of it I had no idea about the history behind the chords. Those 12 bars were all over the music we were hearing; The Stones, Yardbirds, Animals, Janis, Jimi. And the crossover greats; Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner...that list goes on. Bob Dylan built his whole career around stuff he stole from the artists of the 20's and 30's. He didn't hide from it, he put out an album called Highway 61 Revisited. In fact, in 1962 when Bob played the Finjan Club in Montreal he may have been the first major-label white artist to cover Robert Johnson when he performed Ramblin' on My Mind.

At some point, 30 years ago, I tried to find my way in via the first collection of Robert Johnson songs, the original 29. I didn't get it, except for the cover of the Jagger/Richards tune, Love In Vain.(sic) (Mick and Keith also put their name behind Stop Breaking Down on Exile on Main Street, shameless money-grubbers that they were. When the rights to these songs reverted to the Johnson heirs and their agent, with the blessing of John Hammond at Columbia Records, Eric Clapton gladly paid all royalties due...The Stones, they fought it. But I digress.) I didn't think too much about my attempt to open up to the blues. Circa 1990 with the release of the Complete Robert Johnson  I took another shot. Still didn't stick, though I did come to love the hypnotic Come On In My Kitchen and Hot Tamales (They're Red Hot) ,which didn't sound like RJ at all.

Flash-forward to 2001. Just on the periphery of the music scene I catch sight of a new musical phenomena breaking out of  Detroit City.

It's this photo that inspired me to invest some time listening to the original masters.  Dylan's 2001 homage to Charley Patton, Highwater, and the Bootleg Series release of the song Blind Willie McTell, were events that converged with the emergence of The White Stripes to make the time ripe for some investigation. McTell's not a Delta Bluesman and we won't be hearing much of him the rest of this trip but The White Stripes opened a door through him. (We'll do Ma Rainey, Blind Willie and the Georgia blues artists on another trip. It's not likely anything will convince us to visit East Texas though.)  Jack's Stop Breaking Down and  If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day, opened  new doors to Robert Johnson. We'll get to Son House later.

That's why we start our trek outside Jack White's Third Man Records store and studio in Nashville TN.

Jack has just released a series of vinyl records with the complete recordings of Charley Patton, The Mississippi Sheiks and Blind Willie McTell. I'm in a buying mood. Find myself the Vol 2 Patton disc and a few 45's, including Tom Jones. Unfortunately the Blind Willie McTell, Patton Vol 1 and Mississippi Sheiks were sold out. A t-shirt and a couple other items and I leave only $100 lighter.

After knocking off only one thing on our 'to do' list we are already off script as we spy a sign that will lead us into Loretta Lynn's Dude Ranch. So we go there. A mile down the road we see this sign. Sonny Boy Williamson I wasn't on our list either but we pass a Mississippi State Historical marker (NOT a Blues marker, his honour precedes that project) detailing where his grave is located. We've been down this road before, well, not THIS road, but we've gotten lost looking for things we didn't know the exact location of. In this state "5 miles southwest" is vague.

We planned to bed down for the night in Holly Springs, MS. Hometown of R L Burnside, a solid link to the Delta in this gentleman. It's also the town where Ulysses S Grant wintered before the siege of Vicksburg...which we'll get to later. Also home to Mel & Tim, one-hit cross-over STAX recording artists who placed # 3 on the CHUM Charts (Top 30) in 1969 with Backfield in Motion

Thing is we were making such good time we flew right through the town. Stopped at Aikei Pro's Records Shop and chatted with Mr. Caldwell.   That's not me chatting in this clip, just a chance to hear the old man speak and take a look inside his cluttered magical kingdom. If you think you can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant it's only because you haven't been here. Mr. Caldwell renamed himself Aikei Pro in 1952 when he arrived here from Germany. Why is unknown. When I asked if he sold diddley bows he thought I was inquiring about Bo Diddley. Almost.
Strange shop for sure. A little tough to find, even though it's very close to the town square. Just look for 20 old black guys sitting outside chatting....oh, and a couple hundred bicycles.

We keep on moving. Now this is bad news for Cece because I just discovered that if I think about going to Mississippi by mid-day Thursday, I can be there by dinner time on Friday. It hasn't been 30 hours since we left home and we are already in full 'road trip' mode.  Taking Hwy 6 West through Marks and Batesville we drive straight into Clarksdale, past the misplaced crossroads sign onto Sunflower Ave where we stop at the Riverside Hotel, formerly the G T Thomas Afro-American Hospital.

It was here Bessie Smith died after a horrific accident 10 miles north on Hwy 61. Lots of misinformation around this, due mostly to John Hammond and Alan Lomax who felt they had to embellish the story for northern audiences by passing on an erroneous rumour that Bessie was turned away at the white hospital and that's WHY she died. Nowhere near the truth even though Lomax continued to make this claim as late at the 1990's. No ambulance attendant would have brought Bessie Smith to the white hospital. No way, not ever in 1930's Mississippi.. The doctor who tended to her said she could not have survived the crash in any case. Here arm was nearly severed and she had sustained massive internal injuries. It wasn't about the time it took to get her to a doctor that could (or would) treat her, it was a done deal at the moment of the crash, even though she was still alive when she reached the hospital.

Click on this link for more details of that crash. It's a wild story.

A little farther north on Sunflower you will come across Red's Blues Club, an active juke joint...some nights.

You best look for  LaVene Music Center though, it would be just too easy for it to be called Red's.

We get a room in Clarksdale for the night. We've slayed a lot of miles in a short period, time to rest up for the busy part.

News reports are giving us flash flood warnings. Hmmmm, high water anyone?

Day 3, Saturday May 11,2013 Km 1800 to 1986 Clarksdale to Robinsonville.

The day starts in Clarksdale. There's a street music fest going on, so it's busy. The goal this morning is to hit Cats Head, roam the streets a bit and find a few blues markers. At Cats Head, a Delta souvenir shop, we find a copy of Jack's production of The Mississippi Sheiks (Vol2) and Blind Willie McTell (Vol2). This is a 'must visit' place when you are here. They have a ton of interesting material. On the street we are treated to a set of music by Robert Belfour, one on the few remaining artists with a tie to the distant past.

Here's a link to an online concert from NPR.

We check into the Tunica Resorts because it's really inexpensive on the weekends, especially Sundays, if you're ever by this way. One down-side, no wifi in the room. They don't want you hanging around. We don't. A dinner cruise on the Mississippi sounds like a good idea, a night without driving an even better idea. We've had trouble getting good food so far but we've been mostly on the interstates. This was a treat.

Robinsonville (near Tunica and where the casinos are located) was the favoured stomping grounds of Son House. House's story is bittersweet. A unique talent who recorded with Patton in the 1930's and for Alan Lomax in 1941, he quit the game and moved to Rochester NY sometime in the '40's. In the mid-60's Dick Waterman (of Canned Heat fame) tracked him down and spent a few years doing his best to keep the now trembling drunk in shape to perform (at Newport '65) and record. House had a brief resurgence, for which we can be forever thankful if you've ever heard the Complete 1965 Sessions, but poor health and alcoholism cut that short in the early seventies.

The juke joint he played in Robinsonville has turned to dust. Went to look for it but it wasn't there. That's something we'll have to get used to on this trip. Here's a shot of the detail on the back of the Blues marker.

House and Willie Brown often found a young Robert Johnson at their feet when playing the area. Robert was living at the nearby Abbay and Leatherman Plantation during his teen years. To hear Son House tell the story Robert's talents were a little meager in the early years. RJ would take to the stage to play guitar between sets, when allowed, House and Brown would try to convince him to play his harp instead, so he would scare the clientele away.

I managed to retrieve a piece of brick from this building, it will be on a shelf in my re-decorated computer room, the Blues Room. Or perhaps a fret on the diddley bow I build.

It was in nearby Banks MS where RJ first reappeared after his 'crossroads' moment to dazzle House. There's not much left standing in Banks. It's just a single side road now, now sharecroppers shacks on the outskirts. Only 1 building on that road so I vote for this as the spot where RJ revealed his supernatural skills.

More on Son House later. Much more on Robert Johnson. Tomorrow we go a bit off script but we'll still sneak in some blues.

Day 4, Km 1986 to 2287 Memphis, TN

In Memphis we start the day with a hearty breakfast at Automatic Slim's across from the Peabody.

Everyday at 11 am and 5 pm the Peabody Hotel has a duck-walk. A tradition that goes back to a drunken hunting party (always a good idea) back in the '30's. Interesting fact...the restaurant here may be the only French restaurant on Earth that doesn't serve duck. We just chalk this one up to "things you don't see everyday"...unless of course you work at the Peabody Memphis. Quite the spectacle, a whole classroom of kids sitting by the red carpet waiting for the elevator to open. Out rush the 5 ducks, 4 female and 1 male. They sprint along the carpet and into the world famous marble fountain. At this point the kids all congregate around the fountain to watch the Drake mount one of his concubines. Never know when you're going to learn something.

We watched St Louis Blues before we embarked on our trip.  The movie stars Nat King Cole playing the part of  W C  Handy. (His 1912 publication of Memphis Blues is the earliest notated reference to blues music, maybe the beginning of the gestation.) I highly recommend the movie if you want to get a general sense of the time and a sense of the generational conflict.  (Also in the movie; Eartha Kitt, Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, Mahalia Jackson, Ruby Dee, Ella Fitzgerald and a 10-year old Billy Preston! I guess it DOES go around in circles.) The W C Handy House is on Beale St., near a 'performing park', so the spirit lives on.

Beale St, in the daytime, doesn't have much to offer. It's about a 1km stretch of bars and souvenir shops.
At night I'm sure it's something different. Mostly dangerous if you go by the Police Station and all the signs saying NO LOITERING AFTER 3 am!

A Schwab's was open though. Under new management it only recently began opening on Sundays. I was looking to buy a diddley bow but hadn't come across one for sale. In Clarksdale I was attracted to a hand-made cigar box guitar but the $250 price tag caused me to think on it some. At Schwab's the price was $300. I passed. Did pick up a bag full of t-shirts and other trinkets.

It was a few doors up at B B King's Company store where I bought my first guitar.

Last time I was in Memphis I failed to make my way over to the Lorraine Hotel where James Earl Ray sucked the life out of the Civil Rights movement with his cowardly shot at Martin Luther King Jr from a safe distance away.  It's moving, standing at that balcony. What we lost that April 4th can't be measured.

Spent some time talking to the lovely Jacqueline Smith who has been protesting the expansion of the Civil Rights Museum for over 25 years. This lady is no nut-bar, she's righteous. Her problem with this spectacle isn't white people coming down from Canada to look at the motel. She knows it's historic. Her issue comes with spending 27 million dollars at this location to promote tourism while the neighborhood is gentrified and the poor black population that lives here finds their property gobbled up so visitors can have pulled pork sandwiches when they leave the museum. She calls it a 27 million dollar monument to James Earl. She's asking us to boycott the museum. I gotta agree with her. If it wasn't for that one shot NO ONE would be here. Perhaps the money could be better spent helping the poor that MLK stood up for, or this neighborhood, or in the public schools.

Check out her website and her story.

Day 5, Km 2287 to 2750

We're taking Old Hwy 61 into Clarksdale as we have a half day to kill before our room is ready at The Shack Up Inn. It hugs the 4 lane Highway 61 bringing you through Tunica before it veers towards the river at Lula, MS.

First stop is in Walls MS to chase down the final resting place of  Memphis Minnie.  This lady is an interesting story. A virtuoso guitar player, she used to beat Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters at those smack-downs where artists compete against each other for the applause of the crowd.

Biographers make a big deal of pointing out that Memphis Minnie played mostly in Memphis and adopted that name even though she came from Mississippi. Google Maps, however, shows us that there was a borough in Walls called Village of Memphis. Don't believe everything you read, least of all anything I'm typing.

We stop in Lula to locate the train terminal where Charley Patton and Son House hooked up with Louise Johnson for their trip north to Grafton Wisc,.

Charlie always brought someone along with him when recording for Paramount. The trip with this crew had some drama as Louise, who was Charley's 'other best girl' (ie. not his wife, Bertha Lee) started the trip beside Patton and ended it sharing a room with House. Still they recorded. You do get a sense that there were some issues when you listen to Charlie and Son caterwalling during Louise's recording of All Night Long Blues.

Stopped by the well at the base of the Lula water tower that was immortalized in two of those Grafton session songs; Patton's Dry Well Blues and House's Dry Spell Blues.

This is Charlie Patton wailing about the times.

Here are the lyrics to Patton's rendition, you're going to need them.

Way down in Lula, hard livin' has done hit
Way down in Lula, hard livin' has done hit
Lord, your drought come an' caught us, an' parched up all the tree

Aw, she stays over in Lula, bid that ol' town goodbye
Stays in Lula, bidding you the town goodbye
'Fore I would come to know the day, oh, the Lula well was gone dry

Lord, there're citizens around Lula, aw, was doin' very well
Citizens around Lula, aw, was doin' very well
Now they're in hard luck together, 'cause rain don't pour nowhere

I ain't got no money and I sure ain't got no hope
I ain't got no money and I sure ain't got no hope
??...come in, furnished all the cotton and crops

Boy, they tell me the country, Lord, it'll make you cry
Lord, country, Lord, it'll make you cry
Most anybody, Lord, hasn't any water in the bay

Lord, the Lula womens, Lord, puttin' Lula young mens down
Lula men, oh, puttin' Lula men down
Lord, you outta been there, Lord, the womens all leavin' town

Son House wrote a couple of songs on the subject. If it ain't water, it's the lack of water that causes troubled times down here. Here's Part 2 of Dry Spell Blues.

It's near Lula we find 49 splitting north off from 61 to form a crossroads...not the 'official' one in Clarksdale where the two highways don't intersect, but it is a cross road where roads actually cross.

A quick jog into Friar's Point to take a picture of what is left of Hirsberg's Drugstore. It was out front of this shop that Muddy Waters first saw Robert Johnson play.

They used to sell t-shirts commemorating that event but the store has recently closed.

"Lord, I'm goin' to Rosedale, gon' take my rider by my side
Lord, I'm goin' to Rosedale, gon' take my rider by my side
We can still barrelhouse, baby, 'cause it's on the river side"  
Robert Johnson Travelin' Riverside Blues

A great ride down Highway 1, a two lane road that hugs the Mississippi River. The intersections of Hwy #1 and #8 is considered a candidate for the alternate crossroads for Robert Johnson. I vote's a T intersection anyway.

A little farther south, through the town of Beulah, with a little perseverance, you can locate the desolate crossroads used in the movie starring that Karate Kid kid. This is the place that gets my vote for the mythical location. I went to the cross road, I fell down on my knees.

 That hurt.

Dockery Farms is my favourite place in the Delta. Home to Charley Patton (on and off) it is, in my mind, the place where blues were born. It's still a working farm but you are allowed to go past the main building to a few out buildings. One of them has a button to push. Push it, you will hear Patton serenading you.

Tutwiler MS is the center of the Delta. All roads lead here. Well, 49 and 3 and 49E and 49W anyway.

This platform is where the rail station once stood. Sitting on a bench here WC Handy heard his first blues singer, a raggedy old man repeating the refrain "where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog". The wall murals depict that moment.

Sonny Boy Williamson II is buried near here.

Using the directions on the wall mural we head out to find the gravesite. JUST KIDDING. You best have better information than the slight details provided on that wall. We did. So we found it.

Driving though Drew we have Howlin`Wolf on the car stereo. Not everything is planned but sometimes things fall in place. The Wolf spent 10 years in this town, honing his skills. I`m still a touch pissed him for his mistreatment of Son House in the 60`s, when I get over that I`ll dig into his life a little bit more.

Here's an 8 minute youtube video with Howlin' defining the blues...and ripping into House.

We drive by Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary where black men were put to the services of the state, working the land. It was easy to get labour. Any black man who failed to walk right, or staggered, ended up with a stint.

Bukka White (Fixin`to Die Blues) and Son House spent some time here. House says it was because he killed a man in Lyon but it's more likely a bootlegging conviction as he spent only two years in jail. Lomax came by to record anyone who held a guitar. You can`t stop near here because it`s still a working prison. (Next to churches, Mississippi has the most prisons per capita of any State.) America`s problem with incarcerating blacks at a high rate has not changed much in 70 years.

Off the Drew-Merigold Road you can find Po' Monkeys Juke Joint...maybe. This is also not as easy as it should be, it requires a little more than you can find on Google. My saving was a blog where someone drew a picture. Even that wasn't perfect as the side road off Hwy 61 is not named, you really have to be on Old 61 to get to the dirt road that leads to this building.

Making our way back to the Shack Up Inn, up Highway 49E, we happen upon Glendora MS, birthplace of Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) and home to the Emmett Till's not open. It was at the Glendora Gin Mill that Emmett was tortured and killed , the city is trying to do it's best by his memory. Another unexpected find, with all the planning you do it serves you well to keep your eyes open as you meander these small roads. We're not done with Emmett yet.

If you ever visit this area book ahead at The Shack Up Inn. It's no 5 star but it's exactly what you need to wrap your head around the purpose of your trip. We spent a few lovely evenings listening to the live blues wafting over from the commissary. A perfect companion to a day of driving the backroads.

We had a piano in our room!

It's on the grounds of the world famous Hopson Plantation. It was the success of International Harvesters cotton pickin' machine on this spot, in 1944, that made the need for a large seasonal labour force a thing of the past. So began the great migration north.

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