Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Mojo Walkabout c.3

Chapter Three - Land of the Delta Blues

The next morning as I packed my modest suitcase preparing to leave the casino hotel, I gave a small measure of thought as to what I would do with the day. I knew where I was planning to end up: Memphis, at the Marriott downtown. And, that pretty much meant dinner, some fine Memphis BBQ, and Beale St. later in the evening. The rest of the day was for me to explore. And I had absolutely no idea where to begin. So, I began with breakfast at the buffet in Sam's Town.

“I have a few chips I want to play down before I cash out,” mother said, indicating she had $25 or $35 dollars in extra chips from making it an even $200.

“That's fine,” I said. “I'll just go get some breakfast while you play.” I'd won my money, and had no interest in giving any of it back. That was that. My attention was now turned to my “walkabout”, and I was quite pleased that Sam's Town casino was going to foot the bill on that.

After choking down a marginally palatable breakfast buffet, mom met up with me as I enjoyed some coffee. She gave back the extra chips in a vain effort to increase her winnings total, but all in all she also walked out a winner from the casino. I could tell she was pleased with herself. Hell, I was pleased with myself. Not only for winning as much as I did, but for walking away a winner, and not yielding to the temptation of playing further, risking giving it right back.

“Well, what do you want to do now?” she asked me as I sipped some warm coffee. “Do you want to go check out some of the other casinos?”

“No,” I said. If you've seen one, you've pretty much seen them all, I figure. They were of no interest to me apart from winning money, and I'd already accomplished that. Next challenge.

“I'm pretty much in the mood to drive, explore, find interesting things about this area,” I told her. “This is the Home of the Delta Blues, and I just want to wander it, discover it. I have no agenda. Just a need to explore.”

What was implied, but what I didn't vocalize to her was I simply was soul searching, in a place where the music that speaks to my soul was born. There was no "where" to go, I was here. My feet and my soul will guide me on this pilgrimage. I bore full faith in that. She was fine with it. As I mentioned, while the basic history of the area meant little to her, she too has the heart of an explorer, a traveler, and wouldn't mind a minor detour through some back roads to pass the time until we get to Memphis this evening.

I hit out on the open road back along the casino strip, keeping my eyes peeled for any clues to where my journey would take me. I stopped along the main drag to capture a cell phone photo of an unharvested cotton field, something completely foreign to me as a Midwestern prairie boy. I couldn't explain the fascination, but, these cotton fields spoke to me. Or, maybe just intrigued me? There was a fascinating, almost mystical appeal about them to me.

I found an access way towards the Mississippi River that led to a museum resting along the shores. A yellow school bus from Tishomingo unloaded its rowdy cargo of middle schoolers, and I knew that whatever this museum was, I wasn't that interested in sharing the experience with all of them. But, I did stop to examine the river's edge.

In many ways, it reminded me of back home near Hartford, Illinois along the sight of the Lewis and Clark Expedition's genesis point, only perhaps a little bit wider; the river a little more broad. But, the same familiar Mississippi that I grew up fishing on. And caught very little fish from. I did drink my share of beer along it, in my youth. Mark Twain's Mississippi? Perhaps. But Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn have cell phones and Facebook pages these days. They don't float down rafts.

I snapped a quick photo, and climbed back aboard the jet black Camaro convertible. My journey wasn't to bring me here; there were other places to explore. I had an inspiration! I was blessed with an extremely valuable tool: the mobile Internet! From my cell phone, I brought up a search engine, and looked up Delta Blues historical locations. As I expected, there was a treasure trove of information, with a site devoted to the Trail of the Hell Hound, a reference to a Robert Johnson song. Within this website were loads of suggestions to visit and the significance to the Delta Blues. I now had my compass.

Traveling back on the main strip, I paused at a gas station to fill up and also grab a map of Mississippi. As I unfolded it in the parking lot, I began to see names of towns mentioned in the Internet research. Places like Indianola, where B.B. King and Albert King were born. They were farther to the southern end of the Delta. I saw names like Rosedale, resting along the Mississippi. That's the town mentioned in Eric Clapton's “Crossroads”. I realized that I was searching for the crossroads in a metaphorical sense, searching for my soul. Perhaps I should go see Rosedale? Find the crossroads? Beg for my soul?

Closer still was the town of Clarksdale, Mississippi. It was mentioned several times on the Internet site, and obviously held a plethora of Blues history there. Among them a museum. At only about 20 miles away, I thought it best to head that direction. If that didn't pan out, I'd simply move on further south, and explore more places on the map. The Delta Blues history is steeped in this area. I was sure to find something of interest. Something to fill my soul.

On the way down, I wanted to run through Tunica proper, a sleepy little Southern town a few miles east of all the casinos that bear its name. I took the back road, the original US Highway 61, just to get the feel of it, eschewing the more modern 4 lane highway that replaced it. Cotton fields and bales of cotton littered the landscape, most of it looking very modest, very rural. Similar to the farmland of Southern Illinois I used to travel in my delivery days, but also quite different in topography. This was the Deep South and Cotton is King. And in some places, at a lonely crossroads, you had the feel that some poor soul was lost to the Devil in exchange for glory and fame. Wonder where that could have been, I wondered as I passed each crossing? The Clapton song Crossroads constantly rang through my head.

Downtown Tunica was very pedestrian, and not unlike some of the other small towns I'd passed through back home during my delivery driver days. Shuddered furniture stores, the odd tavern nestled amongst a row of offices, a city square. I was hard pressed to tell the difference between it and, say, Jerseyville or Sparta, Illinois. Americana. Something we all have in common with our small rural towns. A centralized business district of decaying 80 year old buildings speckled with vacated storefronts, a town square, a fire station, some nicer homes close to the downtown, and smaller, simpler homes pushing towards the city's edge.

I declined to stop as nothing in Tunica seemed to offer anything of interest. Clarksdale seemed to be where I wanted to be, and this detour was simply keeping me from it. Mother had been here to downtown Tunica as well, and she agreed, there wasn't that much to see. Quaint little town, very friendly. But my calling was further down the road. Hopping on the more modern 4 lane, I ventured south.

I approached Clarksdale about 20 minutes later with little notion of where to start. Which exit should I even take off the main highway? It was exciting, and at the same time unsettling. I really wasn't sure where to begin. What exit leads to my richest discoveries? I simply allowed my instincts to guide me. There was no wrong answer. It was all a discovery.

I found myself, quite by accident, at theintersection of Highway 61 and Highway 49. A refrain from Howlin' Wolf echoed through my head: “I'm gunna get up in the mornin' baby, and head down Highway 49”. This was it. In fact, the was “The Crossroads”, apparently! Holy cow! What luck!

In the middle of the bustling intersection stood a touristy landmark; a triangle of three blue guitars visible from different directions, along with the familiar road signs for 61 and 49. Beneath them was a sign announcing this as “The Crossroads” Excitedly I found a place to park, grabbed my trusty cell camera, and documented my discovery! In fact, I made it my cell phone wallpaper! Here I was, the heart of it all. With simply instinct and curiosity, I'd discovered the place where blues legend was created.

I knew there was a Delta Blues museum somewhere, and I set out to find it. It wasn't really that big a town, a little smaller than my home town of Granite City, if that. I turned north and looked for signs, and eventually it directed me to an old railroad terminal which now housed the Delta Blues Museum, at the foot of Johnny Lee Hooker Avenue. I could imagine old bluesmen on a porch or stoop, with guitar and harmonica emulating the pulse and rhythm of the freight trains moving down the tracks. The pulse of the Delta, the cotton shipped out of town to New Orleans, or St. Louis, or where ever.

The entrance opened to a small gift shop, and for a modest fee, they allowed us into peruse the museum, housed in the back warehouse once used to stage freight loaded onto and off of freight trains in the old days. Along the wall, magnificent photos of people and places of Clarksdale and the Delta painted a sort of mural of the blues: the dark, weathered lines on peoples faces; the stoops and wooden, weathered storefronts where people gathered; the impoverished, simple homes where they would dwell. This was the poor South. And, thereby these worn faces and weathered places gave birth to The Blues.

But, the Blues isn't all about suffering, hardship, and sadness. Its about good times, love, friendship, and celebrating life as well. And that message comes across in the museum. Mojo. Vibe. Emotion. Blues is about emotion and passion, whether good or bad. Lonely and sad, or happy and joyous. Hurt and betrayed, or loving and committed. The blues articulates our human passions into music in a unique, Southern way. Largely an African-American articulation, but not exclusive to that. The Blues doesn't discriminate. We all can connect to its power and message.

Throughout the museum were displays revealing many of the Delta's great blues artists, their lives and histories, and their story. Often they also displayed instruments that they played, and even clothing they wore. A good number of artists presented I was familiar with, but many of them I'd never heard of. I'm a rookie when it comes to delving into the Blues, but I was here eager to learn.

Of course there were displays representing the famous, well known Delta blues artists: W.C. Handy, Johnny Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Bo Diddley, B.B. King, Brooklyn/Lovejoy resident Albert King (born in B.B. King's hometown of Indianola, Mississippi who later moved to the small village north of E. St. Louis) and another man that made his name in E. St. Louis, Clarksdale native Ike Turner. It was obvious that there was a strong pull between the Delta Blues and the St. Louis area, namely the East Side, close to my own home. An amazing feeling. I could feel the threads that tie me into the Blues.

At the far end of the warehouse stood a huge exhibit dedicated to Muddy Waters. They had actually taken apart the old log cabin he'd lived in and assembled it inside the museum. It was fashioned out of thick, gray cypress logs, much more round than the pine or oak used, say, in the time of Lincoln back home on the Illinois prairie. Humble doesn't begin to portray it. Inside ran a short video about his life and his music, and below the video monitor sat a wax figure of him dressed in a dapper white suit, playing his guitar, playing the blues. They say that Muddy always dressed in the finest clothes he could when he performed, because he wanted to present the blues as a fine gentleman. That, he did.

I'd wandered into so much more than I'd ever expected to find!! Fascinating. I couldn't stop grinning as my soul began to fill with what I'd been missing.

In the corner of the shack, encased in a glass box was an oddly shaped, white guitar with a green snake or something painted on it. Very unique. The inscription read that it belonged to ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons! He had the axe fashioned out of a piece of lumber from Muddy's house (an addition that wasn't present in the exhibit, but had been torn down) and when not on tour, Billy allows them to keep it at the exhibit on display. Wow! Who knew?

I wound my way back through the museum, taking in the remaining exhibits on the south side of the warehouse, noting names I didn't recognize, and admiring the ones I did. Guitars, outfits, faces, record albums, stories, history. It was inspirational, actually. So much talent and art from such a small, poor sliver of the country! The vibe, the Mojo, the emotion, it was all there. I had allowed myself to be guided there, and found myself beginning to feel renewed.

The gift shop sold recordings of various artists represented in the museum, along with souvenirs and tee shirts. I was so tempted to pick up some recordings of these artists I'd never heard of, but I knew I could spend a fortune there doing that. I found a tasteful shirt, and happily purchased to help fund the museum, keep it alive. It was a wonderful, much needed discovery. One I may pay a visit to again.

After exiting the museum, I decided to truly “walkabout”, and wander the streets of downtown Clarksdale, snapping pictures like a total tourist. Larger than Tunica, it resembled it in much the same manner. Reminded me quite a bit of my home downtown in Granite City, too. Tremendous similarities. No building too old, or too new. All roughly 45 to 85 years old. Some of them used to house a Five 'n' Dime, now long since shuddered, or a jewelry store long since vacant, no treasure to be found. But other business remained, mostly catering to the Blues.

Outside what once was the Hotel Alcazar, stood a tall blue sign dedicated to Ike Turner, “Rock 'n' Roll and rhythm & blues pioneer”. Apparently, as a pre-teen, he worked at the hotel as an elevator operator and janitor. I wandered around the small urban center, noting small music shops and taverns, along with the odd blues souvenir shop and such. They know there are others, like me, seeking out the history and roots of the Blues. They have begun to cater to that. They could probably do much more, but, its nice that it isn't too over-commercialized yet.

Lampposts were plastered with handbills announcing future (and past) Blues events hosted in the area. I certainly would have liked to have been able to see one of these! Perhaps in the future. I continued to wander the city streets, taking it all in, marveling. You know, it really wasn't that much different than home? Granite is a small, blue collar steel town that's seen better days, but still kicking. This is a small cotton belt town, past its prime too. But the people there are proud, and making a living.

But, this was the cradle of the Blues. A unique place. I'd been to some interesting places that gave birth to styles of music. I've walked the streets of Haight/Asbury in San Francisco. I lived in Seattle in the late 80's where grunge was spawned in places like Pioneer Square. I've drank and dined on the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans where Jazz was born. Now I walk the streets where Delta Blues legends were born and played. Something I should be thankful for having the opportunity to experience, and I am. Very thankful. Its moments like that which make your life feel special.

I snapped my last photo of a humble “juke joint” at the corner of Blues Alley and Delta Ave. The afternoon sun was shining on a mild October autumn day. There wasn't much activity there now, but I suspected that later this evening, the place would be jumping. Love to experience something like that. But, I had to move on, move on down the road. Mother had been quietly patient, letting me explore and do my own thing. It was time to let her off the hook, so to speak, and on to other things that she could enjoy as well.

Suffice it to say, that little jaunt into Clarksdale was more than I'd ever expected, and while there was so, so much more to explore and to see in the Delta, it would have to wait for another pilgrimage. Promising myself that some day I would return, I decided to head back towards Memphis, get settled into our hotel, and get some dinner before hitting the famous Beale Street, which I was eagerly anticipating. I have several friends that love Blues, love Memphis, and absolutely love Beale Street! I knew, if it were anything like Bourbon Street, I was going to have a wonderful time. These places fill my soul.