Highway 61 begins at Lake Superior and parallels the Mississippi River, cutting right through the heart of the Delta on its way to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. My first connection to the fabled road was via "Highway 61 Revisited," a song and album by Minnesota native Bob Dylan, who grew up dreaming of the musical wellspring at the other end of that paved version of the Mississippi. The romance of the road was heightened by the mythology surrounding the Deal with the Devil that Robert Johnson is said to have made, exchanging his Soul for his talent, at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 near Clarksdale. Or maybe it was somewhere else, since facts and legends alike are claimed by many competing Delta locations (Robert Johnson alone is buried in at least three graves). In fact, the Delta itself is elusive: it is not the Mississippi's real "delta" at all (that is a couple hundred miles downstream at the river's mouth, where it should be), but rather an expanse of flat, fertile land stretching from Memphis to Vicksburg and bordered more or less by the River on the west and I55 on the east.
The scene of one of America's great, spontaneous explosions of talent, the Mississippi Delta remains a mesmerizing landscape of haunted towns, plantations, roads, rivers and railroad lines that were immortalized in songs more than a half century ago. It was and is cotton country, with its own pace and rhythm and its own social structure revolving around life in the plantation towns. (One of the constant delights of the trip, which we quite accidentally scheduled for harvest time, was seeing the landscape ablaze with white in every direction.) It's not hard to hear the echoes of the work songs and field hollers that helped shape the blues, or to feel the rather eerie presence that seems to hang in the air ("blues walkin' like a man"). The blues certainly sounds hauntingly alive in its homeland: the cassette deck and the timeless landscape seemed perfectly synched, and the most familiar songs suddenly seemed new, fresh and wonderfully moving.
In planning our trip, I was mainly concerned with the big guns like Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, B. B. King and other well-known Delta products, though the slightest bit of research shows this to be the proverbial tip of the iceberg. An astonishing number of great known and unknown rural blues players and electric Chicago bluesmen came from this single small area, not to mention all the gospel, country and rockabilly legends who grew up in or near the Delta and soaked up its influences. The Empress Herself, Bessie Smith, died in car wreck on Highway 61 near Clarksdale, site of Robert Johnson's fateful Deal and home to Muddy Waters (not to mention Sam Cooke and Ike Turner) and, many years earlier, a dance band led by W. C. Handy. In fact, as Robert Palmer recounted in "Deep Blues," the Father of the Blues discovered the blues (in much the same manner as Columbus "discovered" America) one 1903 night in Tutwiler, not far from Clarksdale:
"The train was nine hours late, and sometime during the night a black man in ragged clothes sat down beside him and began playing a guitar, pressing a knife against the strings to get a slurred, moaning, voicelike sound that closely followed his singing. Handy woke up to this music, and the first words he heard the man sing were 'Goin' where the Southern cross the Dog.' The line was repeated three times, answered in each case by the slide guitar. Politely, Handy asked what it meant, and the guitarist rolled his eyes mirthfully. In Moorehead, farther south near the Sunflower River in the heart of the Delta, the tracks of the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad, known to the locals as the Yellow Dog, crossed the tracks of the Southern at right angles. The man was on his way to Moorehead, and he was singing about it."
I got women in Vicksburg clean on in to Tennessee
I got women in Vicksburg clean on in to Tennessee
But my Friars Point rider, now, hops all over me.
Lord, I'm going to Rosedale, gonna take my rider by my side
Lord, I'm going to Rosedale, gonna take my rider by my side
We can still barrelhouse, baby, 'cause it's on the river side.
(Robert Johnson, from "Traveling Riverside Blues")
The Delta bluesmen, like the one in the Tutwiler train station, sang so eloquently of their world and their everyday lives that the whole area should seem strangely familiar to any blues fan. The Delta bluesmen, like the one in the Tutwiler train station, sang so eloquently of their world and their everyday lives that the whole area should seem strangely familiar to any blues fan. (The fact that the towns are, for the most part, rather ghostly shells of whatever they onfce were makes it even more romantic and open to the imagination.)
We made our first stop, and took an immediate step back in time, at Robinsonville and nearby Commerce, Mississippi, a small clump of buildings off Highway 61 about twenty miles south of Memphis. There are a couple of old stores and a restaurant and a few old houses, but it's still hard to imagine how anything much could have happened there, and harder still to grasp that Robert Johnson grew up there, with Son House and Willie Brown for neighbors and Charlie Patton regularly passing through(!) From there it was a short drive down 61 to Tunica for a great breakfast at the Blue & White gas station and a quick perusal of Robert Johnson's marriage license at the courthouse (ask for the records of February 16, 1929).
Note: since this was written, much of this area has been changed dramatically by the arrival of huge casinos, including the "Rhythm & Blues Casino" near Helena that played nothing but Billy Joel during a recent visit...
A few more miles connects you with Highway 49 West and the Mississippi bridge that leads to Helena, Arkansas, a great, dead river town that was once the focal point for the Delta blues and its transition to Memphis, Chicago and the electric era. Robert Johnson lived there when he made his recordings, and nearly every important blues artist of the era spent time there, playing for river crowds in the juke joints, for nickels at the corner of Cherry and Elm, or on King Biscuit Time, a radio show begun in 1941, sponsored by King Biscuit Flour, that beamed live blues throughout the upper Delta. Helena's King Biscuit Blues Festival, held on the second weekend in October, is one of the Delta's living blues highlights. The 1992 festival featured Albert King, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Anson Funderburgh, the Kentucky Headhunters, Pinetop Perkins, and Levon Helm, a Helena native who brought a bit of the Delta to rock & roll as drummer and singer for The Band (who came to town and played with King Biscuit Time founder Rice Miller, a.k.a. Sonny Boy Williamson II, shortly before receiving a call to backup Bob Dylan). The interesting Delta Culture Center, open year-round, offers a nice overview of Helena's glory days and the Delta's life and music. A handy tourist center (turn left after the bridge) can provide maps and other information.
Back in Mississippi, the tiny river town of Friars Point boasts a small museum honoring its own musical contributions, though judging from its present appearance it is, again, hard to imagine what could have compelled Robert Johnson to search it out and sing of it, though it was, in its day, another musical hotspot. (Muddy Waters saw Robert Johnson for the first and only time in Friars Point; the town was also the birthplace of Conway Twitty.)
Clarksdale, Mississippi has done the best job of celebrating its rich blues history, with a wonderful little blues museum that serves as a Blues Heritage hub for the region. It also boasts the legendary Abe's Barbecue, near the junction of Highway 61 and 49 East, where we had a memorable lunch before heading for the remnants of Muddy Waters' home on the Stovall Plantation, where Alan Lomax recorded Muddy for posterity and the Library of Congress. The tiny cabin is easy to find (ask for directions at Abe's or anywhere) and is marked with a simple roadside sign and another sign erected by the Sunflower River Blues Association aimed at discouraging the fans who feel they must take home a memento from the sacred site: "Please do not deface this site! Preserve this cabin as you see it for other blues fans. Removal of any "souvenirs" is punishable by law. We will lay a BIG NASTY MOJO on you if you take anything." Don't take anything, but by all means stop, pay your respects and listen, if possible, to the Lomax recordings while pondering the long journey Muddy and the blues made from such humble beginnings. (Abe Lincoln had nothing on this.)
In Tutwiler, about 15 miles down Highway 49 from Clarksdale, another plaque marks the spot of the train station where W. C. Handy made his remarkable discovery. From there, Highway 3 takes you past the infamous Parchman Farms penitentiary and on to Highway 8, where a short western jog brings you to the remnants of the Dockery Farms plantation on the Sunflower River, where Charlie Patton grew up and learned to play and, for all intents and purposes, the Delta blues was born. Several buildings still stand, including the barn with the Dockery Farms sign that is featured in many photographs. Howlin' Wolf grew up there as well, and the plantation was a key crossroads for all the itinerant bluesmen, as Roebuck "Pop" Staples recalled:
"Charlie Patton stayed on what we called the lower Dockery place, and we stayed on the upper Dockery... on Saturday afternoons everybody would go into town and those fellows like Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, and Howlin' Wolf would be playin' on the streets, standin' by the railroad tracks, people pitchin' 'em nickels and dimes..."
We ran out of daylight on the way to Morgan City and our final destination: Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, where a dignified memorial marks the spot where Robert Johnson might be buried. We found several guitar picks, cigarette butts, a roach clip and a lyric sheet for "Purple Haze"(!) that had been left by earlier pilgrims. The church is located a few miles north of Morgan City, just to the east of Highway 7, an appropriate spot for a man who once sang "You may bury my body down by the highway side, so my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride" ("Me and the Devil Blues"). The darkness prevented a search for Payne Chapel in Quito and the Little Zion church near Greenwood where Johnson is also said to buried, but we decided that if he wasn't buried in Morgan City, he ought to be, and let it go at that. We also left Johnson's birthplace in Hazelhurst, the site of his poisoning near Greenwood and other landmarks for another trip, though two days in the Delta would have been plenty of time to explore these and the many other spots. (I should add, obvious as it may be, that I am not a blues expert by any means. Many of your readers will know of and want to search out other notable spots, song references, etc., but even the most casual fan will find the area fascinating, as will any Northerner who has never experienced this part of the country.)
We spent the next day in Memphis, kicked off at 11:00am by the bizarre parade of ducks into the fountain in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel, where they say the Delta begins. (The ducks emerge from an elevator at 11:00 each day, and exit the lobby at 5:00pm.) The Memphis Music & Blues Museum, located just across from the Peabody and open seven days a week, pays tribute to the city's blues heritage, along with the Sun rockabilly and Stax soul that kept the city on the musical map. The artfully arranged exhibits feature vintage instruments, posters and other memorabilia and, best of all, a number of video monitors showing vintage performance clips.
Then there is Beale Street is, of course, a living blues museum packed with clubs and shops, plenty of live music and hordes of people. It is great fun, the music is often wonderful and the celebration of the blues that it all represents is certainly laudable. Still, the theme park glitz makes it something of a blues Opryland and a rather empty celebration of the rich musical culture that once thrived there. Appropriately enough, Beale Street is framed by two statues at opposite ends of the three-block area: one of W. C. Handy, the man who first commercialized the blues, and the other of Elvis Presley, who commercialized it beyond Handy's wildest dreams. (One could also say that Beale Street's fate was mirrored by Elvis' own trajectory from vibrant Artist to gaudy museum piece.) The Elvis statue is an appropriate nod to the King as well as his (and rock & roll's) debt to the blues. There is a nice coherence to a combined trek through the Delta's blues and Memphis' rock & roll, which together sum up one of America's greatest and purest gifts to the world. It's a long way from Dockery Farms to Graceland, but then again, really not that far at all. In any event, it makes for a wonderful weekend.
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