Prelude and Itinerary
Back in 2003 we had a lovely trip down Highway 61, from Memphis to New Orleans with a diversion to Houston through Natchez. Spent a little time near the crossroads where Robert Johnson made his deal with the devil. A bit more time deep in rural Mississippi in a fruitless search for his gravesite...and we liked it.
In 2010 we visited the west side of Mississippi, the White side, and spent some time in Tupelo chasin' Elvis and had a lovely stop in Meridian at the Jimmie Rodgers museum.
It's taken a decade to get back to the Delta and this time we're doing it right.
Life is a highway, I like to drive it...and usually I take a circuitous route to where I'm going, flat-footing it back home. This time around we're doing it the other way...one and a half days to get us to Mississippi., with a stop in Nashville. Two nights at Tunica Resorts, three nights at the Shack Up Inn, a night in Kosciousko MS, half-way point on the Natchez Trace, another Nashville or Knoxville, then a couple leisurely days to take the back roads home. Unless we change our minds somewhere along the way.
We leave Toronto the day before our 34th anniversary for a Long Play vacation in the heart of Blues Country.
A 56 year old French Canadian, his wife riding shotgun, making a
pilgrimage to the Mississippi Delta in search of dead black blues
singers is a vanity project at best. There's virtually nothing left but
road markers where shotgun shacks and juke joints once stood. The world
has changed 10 times over since Charley Patton, Son House, Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson, W C Handy
and a legion of other known and unknown artists created the music that
would underpin the rock n roll explosion of the early '60's.
has been written about those times and there are no universal truths.
There is no consensus on what the blues are, let alone who 'created'
them. Whether they were first heard by Charles Peabody while overseeing the black labourers working his archeological dig in 1901, or by W C Handy standing at the Tutwiler train station in 1903, or if they started with a Ma Rainey
recording in Georgia or was something that floated north from New
Orleans, or came from West Africa via the cotton fields, or was never
born as a popular music genre until it was electrified in St. Louis,
Chicago or Detroit...it matters not.
Those are all true
and none are the full story. The Delta isn't even a delta, it's an
alluvial plain. The music flowed upstream from Catfish Row in Vicksburg,
past Clarksdale, through Memphis and the lobby of the Peabody, 8 miles
on to Graceland. The spiritual delta covers a little more ground than
the physical delta.
One thing I did learn from reading
the different biographies...the performers were real, multi-dimensional
people, not the 2-dimensional artifacts of the past living only in
blurry photos. These artists were bohemians, as libertine as the ex-pats
on the Left Bank in the '20's, the Beats of the '50's or the
Folk/Hippie culture of the '60's. They aimed to sustain themselves
without having to work in the fields, those who died young were able to
do that. Ladies liked 'em. Men? They pinned their ladies to their sides
when the boys were around.
About these men, it's
hard to tell,(it's hard to tell), if all you're searchin' is in vain.
The whole era is foggy, much of what we know coming to use through the
myopic vision of the early folklorists and record companies who had an
agenda. Two aimed to create a romantic discography reflecting the burden
of the black itinerant worker, the other to sell records to the newly
emerging 'race' market. John and Alan Lomax, with John Hammond, did more to promote black music to white audiences than anyone before Sam Philips. They are also behind one of the most enduring 'myths' of the era...the circumstances surrounding Bessie Smith's
death. More later. The rest comes from the fading, questionable or
self-serving memory of people who may or may not have been close to the
principles. It's an historical mess, not aided by the poor census
keeping, birth/death registrations and general bookkeeping skills of
civil servants in the South at the turn of the century.
Robert Johnson, especially, is a riddle
wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma. The most pervasive myth
about Robert, selling his soul to the devil for his guitar playing
skills, has been attributed to many blues players. This was the devil's
music after all. There is evidence that the cross road story was more
closely associated with Tommy Johnson, (no relation to Robert)
through his brothers tales of the times. There's some thought that even
Robert's cross roads were not 61/49, now world famous for a wrongly
attributed myth, but another locale. Of course if it's a myth, the
locale can pretty well be anywhere, as it doesn't exist.
But we'll find it.
vanity project, to be sure, there may even be something a little
unseemly about roaming around the state peeking into peoples lives.
Mississippi has gone from lynching blacks to killing Freedom Riders to
abject rural poverty and, recently, back to killing blacks; this time a
gay politician, known as a 'two fer' in Tea Party circles. The standard
of African-American life in Mississippi has seldom, if ever, been good.
White people poking around to immerse themselves in some version of a
long-lost culture, one made popular by a small subset of music buffs in
the early 60's, may not be something that warms the cockles of the
locals who don't pine for the 'old days' at all...not in any way, never
did. James Meredith's bravery in Oxford town caused a
conflagration in 1962 and might have marked the beginning of the end of
Democratic Party hegemony in the South when Bobby (Kennedy that is, not
Dylan) sent in the US Marshalls. A year later Meredith's advisor and
Civil Rights activitst, Medgar Evers, after escaping a
fire-bombing of his house in May, nearly being hit by a car in early
June, was assassinated in this driveway in Jackson MS on June 12,1963.
Still we go, 'cause this ain't Russia.
MS is the epicenter of the Delta Region. When the music was being born
it was a new settlement, taken from the Choctaw Indians (1830) and
recently settled by white landowners and sharecroppers. The city was
incorporated in 1882, a few years before our heroes began appearing in
As evidence of the fluidity of society at
this time most of the major players in the development of the delta
blues were not born in the geographic limits of the delta. At the risk
of becoming known as
a Blues Birther I'll point out that Charley Patton was born in Edwards,
MS, just outside the defined boundaries. Tommy Johnson was birthed 20 miles south in Crystal Springs and Robert Johnson further on down the road in Hazelhurst. RJ's travelling
partner, Johnny Shines, was born a mile out of Memphis. Big Joe Williams was born only a few miles from the Alabama border. Son House and Willie
Brown were born in the delta proper, near Clarksdale. Don't start me talkin' about Blind Lemon Jefferson who hailed from Texas and his 1926 recordings that opened the door to Charley and Tommy.
lawlessness was the order of the day. It was a vibrant and dangerous
region when the weekends came and the task at hand was shaking the dust
off of your feet. What it wasn't was a stagnant pool. That came later
when the great migration made ghost towns out of once lively
municipalities. We're going to ramble around those towns for a few days.
From the confluence of the Yazoo River and the mighty Mississippi at Vicksburg, north to Memphis. On the west, the Big Muddy, on the east, Highway 55. This is the Delta, where the blues were born...that is, if they weren't born in New Orleans or Georgia or Texas. We'll leave that fight to the musicologists.
On our way we have a brief stop-over in Nashville, to visit Jack White's Third Man Records and pick up some vinyl.
We expect to land in Clarksdale MS, at the crossroads, where we'll look east and west, somewhere near noon on Saturday for the Clarksdale Caravan Music Fest.
Following an afternoon of blues and booze we'll check into our first sleeping quarters,Tunica Resorts before we hitch a ride on a riverboat queen for a sunset dinner cruise aboard the Tunica Queen Riverboat.
Sunday morning will start with a trip to the Tunica River Park and museum for some scenic shots of the river and an orientation to the Delta Region.
In the afternoon we try to get what we can out of Memphis. Will definitely get to the National Civil Rights Museum, better known as the Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King Jr's hellhound on his trail caught up with him. SUN Records and Graceland we did last time through, this trip it will be the W C Handy House and the STAX Museum. If time and energy permit; Beale St or Germantown.
Monday begins the intensive part of the Delta exploration. We check into our abode at the Shack Up Inn, former sharecropper cabins on the Hopson Plantation.
City by city we'll track down the haunts of old blues singers, paying special attention to the elusive Robert Johnson. Greenville, Rolling Fork, Cleveland, Leland, Indianola, and Greenwood head the list. Somewhere between those last two towns the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog. There's the Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman Farm, where Alan Lomax found material for his Anthology of American Music and Son House and Bukka White resided. Also Dockery Farms, arguably the birthplace of the Delta blues, where Charley Patton, Son House and Willie Brown met Robert Johnson. We'll look at the wall murals in Tutwiller where WC Handy stole all their thunder. One of those murals will direct us to Alek Miller's grave. (Sonny Boy Williamson II).
That, and a binderful of other options should carry us through to Thursday.
That morning will start with a driving tour through the Vicksburg National Military Park just because we did Gettysburg and it only seems fair. In the afternoon we will take the long way around, a 2 -day trek along the Natchez Trace from Jackson to Nashville. The Trace is a beautiful scenic route that will take us by the birthplace of Oprah Winfrey and Charlie Musselwhite. (I know, on the surface Oprah doesn't seem to belong here but she makes me blue.) Further on up the road is the memorial and final resting place of the greatest Anglo road-warrior in American history, Jefferson's map-maker, Meriwether Lewis.
Saturday or Sunday we visit friends in Lexington, Ohio and New York state. Sunday or Monday we get home.
Pictures and stories to follow.