07-09-09, Nashville, TN: The Mississippi Delta is one of my favorite places on the planet. I didn't do anything all that notable there over the last two nights and one full day. I just drove around and looked at stuff, ate plenty of truly great food that was bad for me, listened to some great music - you might enjoy WABG, the sound of the Delta - and took plenty of pictures:
I arrived in Greenville at suppertime, so, as planned I ate one of the world's greatest steaks at Doe's Eat Place.
Then I drove around town a little, in a stupor, taking pictures of buildings in the evening light.
After that, I needed to keep moving, either that or curl up somewhere and fall into a deep, dark food coma. I took a walk along the Mississippi River levees at Greenville. (The Mississippi River levees are the largest, longest engineering project in history.)
The next day, Wednesday, I took my time driving around on my way to Clarksdale. I went to Leland. (Which I had also driven around the night before.)
I met Pat Thomas there. He's the son of James "Son" Thomas, a blues player as well. He was playing in the Highway 61 Blues Museum, but I think he was just warming up, or maybe it was all the bandages on his fingers.
I lunched at the Crystal Grill in Greenwood and I highly recommend it. The $7.95 lunch special I had was fried catfish, turnip greens, mac & cheese, hush puppies, corn muffins and a piece of pie, oh yeah, and a drink. And it was just about perfect, even if my arteries weren't happy about it. It was fish, wasn't it? That's good for you. And there were greens, so what if they were loaded up with ham hocks.
After lunch I turned north up old Highway 49. I passed Parchman Farm, famous in dozens of blues songs. It's the Mississippi State Penitentiary and was famous as a truly hellish labor camp. These days there don't seem to be long rows of stripe-clad prisoners with hoes or bent over chopping cotton. There were a bunch of road signs telling you what sort of trouble you'd get into if you stopped along that stretch of road for anything other than an emergency, but it didn't look much different than most of the other stretches of road I'd been passing along.
Then I got to Tutwiler, the town where W.C. Handy supposedly first heard the blues on the train platform.
There was an oddly decorated house there. Driving around the Delta you see a lot of art in people's yards and decorating their houses. I couldn't find out any details about this place.There was a nice swampy area right in the middle of town.
Finally I got to Clarksdale, the town that makes the loudest and most persuasive argument for being the home of the blues. I checked into the truly fantastic Big Pink Guest House, and had it to myself for the night. (This is the interior courtyard.)Then I wandered around town for a little while.
There are a number of intersections that claim to be the actual "crossroads" where Robert Johnson, and others, sold their souls to the devil to play the blues. In Clarksdale, the intersection of Highways 49 and 61, the two main highways that run up and down the Delta, would seem to have the greatest claim on it. Sadly, here it is.
I'd never been to Helena, Arkansas, and it is just across the Mississippi from the north Delta. It seemed like as good a place to cruise to as any. It has a beautiful park built along the levees.Which is good, because downtown has fallen on some hard times.
I went back to spend the night in Clarksdale, where at the Ground Zero Blues Club I saw, among other things, a 14 year old white boy (he looked like a little surfer kid) named Jake, shred the hell out of blues guitar licks. That brought to mind the age old question of whether or not white people can play the blues. Far greater minds than mine have mulled this over and come to a wide variety of conclusions. I spent some time mulling it over, too, and I came to some of my own conclusions. I will blog about them, possibly tomorrow. But for the moment, this blog is plenty long enough.
I leave you with a picture of the northern part of the Natchez Trace highway. Just about 200 miles of my drive today, from Clarksdale to Nashville, looked just like this.