This article first appeared in Gap Year Magazine
The Mississippi Blues trail
It was the ducks that did it. Even they had their own musical accompaniment: the King Cotton March by John Phillip Sousa, as it happens.
Any trip worth remembering will have its own soundtrack that stays with the traveller long after the souvenirs have gathered dust: whether it be the favourite tracks you load onto your MP3 player or, if you seek escape from your private tourist bubble, the local music you stumble across as you pass through exciting new landscapes.
There are few sounds more powerful than the music associated with the American blues trail, carrying with it the history of an entire people from tragic beginnings in slavery to the creation of a major art form that’s sired jazz and rock and roll in all its forms … except maybe for ABBA.
From what’s left of sleepy sensual New Orleans in the Mississippi Delta in the south after Hurricane Katrina and the developers got through with it, to the speedy urban setting of Chicago on the banks of Lake Michigan 930 miles away in the north, the Blues Highway is one of the culturally richest journeys you can make. The cast in this story features African American music legends John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, Buddy Guy, Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday, Sam Cooke, Charley Patton , Willie Dixon, and not forgetting Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and a whole bluesmobile-full of others.
I did this by car, taking in all the main centres along Highway 61 in little over a week. A leisurely fortnight would have been ideal and if you can manage longer, well, lucky you.
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The invention of the cotton gin in the late 18th century rejuvenated the use of slavery in the massively profitable cotton growing areas of the Deep South including the Mississippi River Delta. When the Civil War brought an end to slavery, it was replaced by sharecropper poverty and vicious Jim Crow laws as the chief source of misery.
A generation of young African American men left the plantations for work in the cities. The easiest escape was jumping the train north to St Louis and Chicago.
The blues had grown out of field hollers and spirituals. Musical instruments were improvised out of any materials that were to hand. Thus the diddley bow was born out of a piece of wire strung between two nails hammered into the porch. Guitars and harmonicas could be bought cheaply from catalogues and stores.
The luckier among them could get work in the Chicago heavy industries, and because their instruments were portable, the talented ones could make a living or at least feed their souls with their music.
When you take the Mississippi blues trail, you are following in the footsteps of these refugees and early pioneers of jazz and rock. So load up your MP3 player with blues goodies and get ready to roll.
Situated on the banks of the Mississippi River at the crossroads between Tennessee, Louisiana and Arkansas, Memphis is the centre of the American heartland that gave birth to the blues. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Jim, the runaway slave, would have sailed past on their raft on their way to freedom.
There’s an observation you’ll see emblazoned everywhere except in sky writing so I’ll introduce you to it here: the Mississippi Delta "begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel (in Memphis) and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg". They may as well have a T-shirt printed with it. They probably do already.
Stepping into the Peabody Hotel on Union Street conjures up Tennessee Williams, mint juleps and a hundred variants of barbecue sauce that have me drooling even as I write. This homage to the original Peabody, which closed in 1923, was built two years later in the style of the Italian Renaissance, with all the grandeur of the deep south but with ethnic minorities. Suffering more tragic declines than Blanche DuBois, its faded fortunes were revived in 1981.
If you can’t afford to stay here, you can still enjoy the bar which did brisk under-the-counter business during prohibition, but it won’t be the plush surrounds or the travertine marble fountain that amaze you. Time it right and you’ll witness a sight that has had tourists crowding the lobby since the 1930s with not one call for BBQ sauce.
Every morning at 11am, the poultry wrangler known as the “Duckmaster” escorts one mallard drake and four hens from their penthouse Duck Palace (cost $200,000) on the Plantation Roof, into the elevator and down into the lobby where they waddle in line to the fountain to frolic for the rest of the day until bedtime at five o’clock when it all happens in reverse. Reader, I have watched movie star Nic Cage on the balcony watching the duck parade below, as spellbound as any other out-of-town visitor. That’s how weird and wonderful it is.
If this is making you hungry, you’re in the right place. Southern soul food is another one of the delights of this region. Several blues maestros own music venues serving the local fare. If you head for BB’s (owned by B B King) on Beale Street, a famous centre of African-American music, you’ll get great food and music in the same hit. Forget burgers. We ate cornbread, Jack Daniels-marinaded steak, gumbo and a rack of ribs smothered in sticky BBQ sauce until we were stuffed silly. All washed down with the weak brew which the locals joke gets its flavour from the Mississippi water it’s made from.
If that doesn’t satisfy you, you can try the Elvis Presley restaurant that replicates the menus that ultimately killed the King. Speciality: a loaf halved lengthways and fried in butter, filled with bacon fried in butter with peanut butter, jello (jam), mashed banana and probably a knob of butter. Add a carton of clotted cream and this would be my idea of heaven even if my heartburn would be hell.
Elvis was a local lad made good after he ventured into Sun Studios, round the corner from Beale Street, and caught the ear of owner and producer Sam Phillips. For twelve bucks you can take the studio tour and see where the legends of Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash were created. I have a snap of me singing into the very same Epiphone microphone (or one just like it) that Elvis would have used.
Charles Shaar Murray at Sun Studio, Memphis
If you have time, get over to Graceland, Elvis’s famous mansion home. It’s a lot smaller than you imagine. Who knew you could spend half a million dollars in Woolworths?
A sadder story is the one of the other King at the Lorraine Motel in Downtown Memphis. It’s here that Dr Martin Luther King was shot dead on the balcony outside his room by racist loonies eager to keep black people in their place. There’s some controversy attached to the building as it was home for the wretched poor when the decision was made to turn it into a state-of-the-art museum. While the shell has been preserved and King’s room encased in glass, the area behind has been completely rebuilt and the residents evicted. The exhibits include a bus like the one where Rosa Parks, an African American woman, refused to give up her seat for an able-bodied white man, kicking off the Montgomery Bus Boycott and galvanising the Civil Rights movement of which King became a leader. Worth seeing but you may first want to speak to Jacqueline Smith, the last of the motel residents to be evicted and who has mounted a lonely protest outside for twenty years.
If you are a music fiend, you could make a detour to Nashville, home of the po' white folk equivalent of the blues: Country and Western. Otherwise, head south towards New Orleans on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
After 60 miles, where Highway 61 meets Highway 49 just outside Clarksdale, there’s a junction steeped in myth — the biggest one in the whole mythography of music. It’s where the young musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in order to gain his supernatural guitar skills. It gained him fame, glory and sex for a few years before the devil called in his marker and Johnson was poisoned by the jealous boyfriend of a woman he was seeing. The Crossroads of legend turns out to be several places in the real world as there are different intersections all telling you you’re crossing 49. We were stymied. It’s not like you can trust the gigantic crossed guitars at one of them — even if X does mark the spot — as this was smart advertising for a local business. My advice: pick a place and meditate. It was all invented so you might as well join in. As long as you locate the crossroads deep in your soul …
Squealing like a porker that’s caught a whiff of BBQ sauce, I nearly crashed the car when I spotted the Riverside Inn (now Hotel) just outside town. For this is where singer Bessie Smith breathed her last with her magnificent lungs when it was formerly a hospital for black people in the bad old days of legalised racism.
Smith should rightly be referred to as “legend” rather than mere singer, but we are now in an area renowned for its legends. Throw a rock and you will hit a spot that had something to do with one, whether it be Ike Turner, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Duke Ellington or Robert Nighthawk who all stayed at the Riverside. There must be ley-lines or a spooky alignment of the planets or maybe they put whisky in the water. Whatever it is, I want some.
Clarksdale is a small town — maybe one and a half horse’s worth. But what a history. I stood staring at the tiny single-platform station where mile-long cargo trains trundle past on the Illinois Central Railroad, very slowly but never stopping, with the ghosts of desperate young men showing me how easy it would have been to hop a train north.
Across from the station, the Ground Zero Blues Club: perhaps the most famous of the juke joints, part owned by Morgan Freeman. Outside on the sidewalk, one of the kitchen staff sits on an old armchair for a smoke. Inside, it’s a large square room with a small stage at one end with just enough room to swing a Strat, and a bar running down the side. We drink bourbon and eat ribs followed by peach cobbler and feel like we are in hawg heaven.
Clarksdale’s Delta Blues Museum documents the town’s amazing history and is run by volunteer heroes. Star feature is Muddy Waters’ shack from Stovall Farms where he was a sharecropper before finding fame and fortune with his axe. Son House and Charlie Musselwhite were local lads who also have their own sections in the exhibition.
Three miles from Clarksdale, the Shack-Up Inn is one of the most unusual places I’ve ever stayed at. Occupying a slice of the old Hopson Plantation where the early cotton picker was trialled, it’s an unconventional hotel complex made out of real sharecroppers’ shacks, giving cultural historians an authentic glimpse of the environment that produced the blues. Some might call it misery tourism but there are skint creatives out there looking for a quiet place to think and compose: patrons include Morgan Freeman, Samuel L Jackson, Charlie Musselwhite and the late Ike Turner. None of the cabins are luxurious, although they contain the requisite bathrooms, fridges and fans, and many come with keyboards and sound systems. Trying sitting on the porch in the torpid heat of a southern summer evening, drinking a cold beer with Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf or Waters playing in the background. Ah, magic. Apart from the mosquitoes. They’re just maddening.
Anna and CSM in the Cadillac Shack at the Shack-up Inn, Clarksdale
Short of time, we miss New Orleans — home of dixieland jazz and all things Creole — and head back north through Memphis to St Louis, best known for ragtime jazz and a major stopover for the black exodus of the 1920s and 30s. The only obvious landmarks are the Gateway Arch on the West bank of the Mississippi, looking like half a monument to McDonalds, and the gorgeous rail terminus. Union Station’s huge vaulted ceiling is more cathedral than railway station, once the biggest in the world, now the luxury hotel that annoyingly gave up our room despite notice that we’d be arriving late.
We spend our evening at BB’s Jazz, Blues And Soups, a smallish joint which stays open until 2am, and serves pleasant food to some cracking live music.
Driving to the Windy City of Chicago, the spiritual end of the Blues Highway, we struggle to find any of the great blues stations we’d listened to on the car radio at the start of our journey. The further north you go the angrier and meaner become the jocks and commentators.
The architecture of central Chicago is fabulous: a creamy Gotham of art deco and waterways. We stay in the Essex Hotel on Lake Shore Drive fronting onto Lake Michigan, in the four-mile part of the city destroyed in the Great Fire of 1871. The rebuilding took place during the wealthiest period in America’s history, when skyscraper construction had just been made possible. No wonder it looks amazing. Except for the Essex Hotel which looks like something constructed in Essex; perhaps Ripple Road in Romford. Luckily, we were on the inside looking out.
The best way to see the sights is to take the tram, touring the El railway, the Sears Building, Wrigley Field stadium, the waterfront, Oprah Winfrey’s modern tower block and the fairground underneath.
Take a cab down town to Chess Records to complete the music tour. Willie Dixon, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley; all the blues giants recorded here. So great was their impact that their effect was felt in Britain, inspiring bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Just one last music stop: Buddy Guy’s Legends, serving some of the best food I have ever eaten. Jambalaya, gumbo, frogs legs, ribs, catfish, crawfish etouffée … Mmm, excuse my drool. If you’re lucky, you may get to see the man himself perform. If you’re luckier still, Buddy might even be personally cheffing in the kitchen ...
Music and artists associated with the Delta:
Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Junior Parker, Jimmy Reed, Sam Cooke
Sun Records: Sam Phillips (producer), Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin' Wolf, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Ike Turner
Chess Records: Muddy and Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker
Shack Up Inn, Clarksdale
Delta Blues Museum
1 Blues Alley - Clarksdale, MS 38614 - 662-627-6820 Current Hours - Monday thru Saturday - 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM
Sun Studio, Memphis
Buddy Guy’s Legends, Chicago
Chess Records, Chicago