My Great American Songbook: ‘Cross Road Blues’ Memphis to Clarksdale and on to Jackson, Mississippi

8 May

I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above “Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please”
Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938)

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Confession time. When I loosely planned this road trip I said we’d be on the trail of American music. I begged suggestions from fellow travellers, briefly researched music markers around the southern US states, and stuck a few pins in the map.

Nashville and Memphis were bleedingly obvious but between Memphis and New Orleans stretched the large state of Mississippi of which I knew little. By the time we left Memphis I’d read about the Mississipi Blues Trail http://www.msbluestrail.org/ and was keen to look at the birthplace of the characters who peopled it. I also realised we were doing it arse about as the intersection of musical influences that gave birth to rock and roll in Memphis came from Country moving west and Blues carried north by out of work black sharecroppers. Ah well, no journey is perfect.

Route 61 due south of Memphis is a boring two lane highway with nothing much going for it scenically. As you’d expect the Mississippi Delta is dead flat, fertile farmland. Our destination was Clarksdale where the 61 intersects with route 49.

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Clarksdale would be a ghost town were it not for its two surviving industries, largescale crop farming by well to do white families and US corporations, and the Delta Blues legacy.

The town itself is an odd mix of ramshackle wood buildings, some in use as shops, bars and music venues and a lot of derelict buildings. But drive on two blocks and you come across a slick mall, a couple of cafes, two BBQ restaurants and a Domino’s Pizza (that made the best pizza we ate in the US). Folks seem to be white and well off or poor and black with few in between. Felt uncomfortable.

I’d booked in for two nights in the Fullilove two person shack at Shack Up Inn on the old Hopson’s Cotton Plantation a few kilometres from town so we could relax and take our time.

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The hat came with the shack and proved very useful

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The Inn is an enterprising concept. They’ve used existing old wooden shacks on the plantation for accommodation and supplemented them with newly built shacks suitably distressed. All shacks are named after musicians or songs. The property stretches along the railroad track parallel with route 49 where a patch of cotton has been planted to echo the pre-industrial time when cotton was King.

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Bottle trees are believed to capture evil spirits within the bottles as they are attracted to the bright coloured glass

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Downtown Clarksdale

We strolled the quiet country road behind the Inn with wheat shooting up on one side, woods and a few untidy houses on the other. Two hungry, slobbering hounds adopted us and tried to follow us into the shack. The smaller kept falling over his outsized feet as he walked.

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The commissary kept the plantation workers stocked with basic food items and clothes and doubled as a juke joint for workers. It’s now a bar and music venue as is the adjacent deconsecrated chapel. Oddly the commissary and chapel aren’t owned by the same people and appear not to communicate as they don’t pass on information about musicians appearing at each.

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I loved the vibe in our shack. The old black and white TV had one channel, the Delta Blues radio station, rusty number plates covered holes in the floorboards, a large rocking chair claimed most of the porch and an upright piano stood by the table. Had we been able to play we could have borrowed a guitar. Where were you when we needed you Cam, Dave, John, Allan, Gail and Ken? I can imagine some wicked jams around that piano.

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Groceries cost nine dollars on the poor side of town

Our Blues history lesson began at the Delta Blues Museum in downtown Clarksdale next morning. It’s well worth a visit even if you’re just passing through.

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We learnt about legends of the Delta Blues like Charlie Patton, Big Jack Johnson, Muddy Waters, Lou Rawls, Dorothy Moore and Denise Lasalle. I also discovered one of my all time favourite voices, Soul/Gospel great, Sam Cooke, was born in Clarksdale. Here he is singing ‘Bring it on home to me’.

If like me you’ve never heard the key early recordings of Delta Blues I recommend this illustrated video of Robert Johnson singing his own composition‘Me and the Devil’.

As far as live music goes my lack of forethought meant we missed the Juke Joint Festival held in Clarksdale the previous week. This annual festival attracts big names. Seemed like the locals were over it as we struggled to find decent music (Morgan Freeman’s excellent bar-restaurant, Ground Zero, closes at 2pm Mondays and Tuesday, the days we were there….).

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Graffiti is actively encouraged, they lend marker pens. But not on the new felt of the pool tables!

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What we did find was Blues sung by a white man. No disrespect to Sean Rogers, aka ‘Bad Apple’, from Pennsylvania who has clearly paid his dues in Clarksdale and was heading over to play at a blues festival in Norway the following week, but I was hoping to see some local talent.

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Bluesberry Cafe- Bad Apple awesome on slide guitar, Iceman on drums and Tom on bongos

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Marshall Drew played covers in the Commissary. Sweet voice and ok guitar but I have never seen anybody with less presence perform. Marshall, I hope you google yourself and read this. If you don’t want to play for people please don’t.

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Snake Drive playing in the Chapel. I call this stoner blues. We stayed for three songs then went to bed and had to listen to it for another hour.

I continued my education by reading Robert Gordon’s 2002 biography ‘Can’t be satisfied’ of McKinley Morganfield, the late great Muddy Waters. This exhaustively researched book conjures up the man and his time powerfully. Coupled with the recorded material available on the web I’m getting a better understanding of this musical phenomenon. Muddy Waters fans have their favourite recordings but to me the most arresting is the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival video of Muddy singing his classic ‘Got my mojo workin” (written by Preston Foster and first recorded by a woman) with one of his regular bands, including James Cotton on harmonica.

You see young black men in sharp suits dancing happily on their own, Muddy building up to a fever pitch and the seated mostly white, middle class jazz cats overheating in the summer sun start to dig what this tall, black man is doing up on stage. He brings them to their feet applauding and you think he’s finished when he comes back and kicks it off again. They’re clapping and singing along. Muddy dances with his guitarist and the audience starts screaming and whistling. It’s testosterone fuelled seduction and showmanship pure and simple.

This youtube video can’t be viewed on mobiles or tablets so you need a regular computer to view but it’s worth the trouble.
‘Got my mojo workin”

Time to drive down on to Jackson, Mississippi, (not Jackson, Mississippi, where Valerie June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash have ‘been talkin’ bout Jackson, ever since the fire went out’). Why do North Americans have so many multiples of town names? Just to mess with tourists?

Jackson has a deep music tradition and proud history and I stumbled onto part of it when I reserved our room at the downtown Hilton Garden Inn. The hotel, originally called the Edward House hotel when it opened in 1867, became the King Edward Hotel, a landmark society hotel for 40 years. It was the location for significant, commercially successful blues recordings by Okeh Recording Company in December 1930. Bo Carter, Robert Wilkins, Joe McCoy, Isaiah Nettles, the Mississippi Sheiks, and others were recorded in that period and many renowned blues artists played there regularly over the years. ARC Records also recorded African American artists in the hotel in 1935.

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On our street a block down

Most people seem to drive in the downtown area but we felt safe enough to walk and strolled down to the welcome centre to pick up information about live music on that night.

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Mayflower Cafe still in business

The advice to try Underground 119 for dinner and music was sound. The ambience is chilled and the food and wine outstanding. No cover charge just the usual tip jar. The scheduled act, Zach Lovett, failed to show so a rushed replacement was called in and the manager shouted us ‘champagne’ while we waited. Turned out to be cava, but hey, if it bubbles I’ll drink it.

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Look for the staircase going down off pavement

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Caroline Crawford is an accomplished piano woman. She opened with a moody version of The Church’s ‘Under the milky way’ and went on to sing a lot more broken-hearted ballads. Her mum came with her and kept Caroline supplied with large glasses of red wine that she/Caroline sipped delicately between songs. Hmmm I think there’s a song in that somewhere….

Next stop Louisiana.

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Fattest Hyabusa with the loudest pipes you can imagine. You see some strange things on the road.

2 Responses to “My Great American Songbook: ‘Cross Road Blues’ Memphis to Clarksdale and on to Jackson, Mississippi”

  1. Heather Watt May 9, 2013 at 10:21 am #

    Great to see that you are still enjoying yourselves and enjoying your music experience. Looks as though you are both well. Where to now?

    • Sharon Tickle May 9, 2013 at 11:15 am #

      We are disgustingly well, thanks Heather. Finishing up a lovely week in Devon and head to France with Charles and Anne on Saturday for a week.

      Love to you and George,

      Sxx

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