September 8, 2010

Back to Tennessee, Day 2

Began the day in Mississippi by rolling up the legs of my jeans and walking barefoot through the wet grass from my Cadillac Shack (pictured below) to Lyle's Tinth Shack. 

Our plan was to visit the Delta Blues Museum in downtown Clarksdale and eat tamales at Hick's, then head back up to Memphis to check into our hotel there and hopefully collect Lyle's wayfaring luggage.  Accordingly, we piled into the Pony, which Lyle christened "Lucifer" after the pony in Bob Dylan's song as covered by The Dead Weather (we certainly had no plans to shoot our Pony).

I had a pony, her name was Lucifer
I had a pony, her name was Lucifer
She broke her leg and she needed shooting
I swear it hurt me more than it hurted her

Sometimes I wonder what's going on with Miss X
Sometimes I wonder what's going on with Miss X
She got such a sweet disposition
I never know what the poor girl's gonna do to me next

Everybody say you're usin' voodoo, your feet walk by themselves
Everybody say you're usin' voodoo, I seen your feet walk by themselves
Oh, baby, that god you're prayin' to
Is gonna give ya back what you're wishin' on someone else

Come over here pony, I wanna climb up one time on you
Come over here pony, I wanna climb up one time on you
Well, you're so nasty and you're so bad
But I love you, yes I do


Clarksdale's a fairly bleak place, with a history as rich as the local Delta soil but way too many empty store fronts to make it a truly going concern.  Even Morgan Freeman's Ground Zero Blues Club has apparently failed to make it the successful destination that it could, and perhaps should, be.  It's still a necessary visit for anyone looking to understand the blues.  The Delta Blues Museum is basically one room in the old train depot, filled with photos, instruments, costumes, and information about the musicians that put this place on the map.  The largest exhibit focuses on Muddy Waters and includes a portion of the shack where he was living when discovered by John and Alan Lomax.

We wandered from there to Cat Head, Inc, then over to the town cemetery which is unlike any other I've visited.  I've seen a lot of cemeteries in my time, but never one quite so stark.  It's obviously maintained, but only at a bare minimum.  The crabgrass is mowed, but the dry mowings are left piled at the base of the headstones.  And there are no other plantings aside from decades-old trees.  Many family plots are completely bare dirt, not even graced with crabgrass.  A favorite motif was apparently what I call the "bathtub" style of grave marker, in which the area above the casket is marked with a marble rim that would have been filled with flowering plants and greenery.  The sight of so many of these markers in one place indicates that the Clarksdale cemetery must have been beautiful at one time, very different from the poor place it is now.

Lyle and I decided that we weren't yet getting a good feel for the blues, so we climbed into Lucifer and headed for Tutwiler, which is where W.C. Handy supposedly heard the first true blues but which is now more known for the nearby prison (and traditional quilts made by local women).  This is no surprise.  A bunch of small homes and an empty downtown in the middle of vast, flat cotton fields, Tutwiler appears even more rundown and decrepit than Clarksdale.   

At the time, I think we were too busy looking and talking and taking photos to be able to sink into the moment and feel what was around us.  Thinking back as I write this, though, it's clear that we were surrounded by the atmosphere that birthed the blues.  It's easy now to imagine W.C. Handy in that lonesome train station all those years ago, waking up to the sound of that unidentified musician with his knife sliding on the frets of his guitar and his song of "goin' where the Southern meets the Dog".

Back up in Memphis, Lyle was finally reunited with her luggage.  We cleaned up a bit and drove down to Beale Street, where we ate ribs and more tamales, then wandered down the block and listened to local street musicians including Big Jerry, from whom Lyle had to buy a cd before he broke her heart (go to that link and buy some of his music, he's good).

Afterward, I re-lived the experiences of my April trip by dragging Lyle past Minglewood Hall (where I first experienced The Dead Weather), C.K.'s 24-hour coffeehouse, and the cemetery behind the Piggly-Wiggly. Settling into bed in the Sleep Inn later on, I found myself missing the less homogeneous but much more comfortable Cadillac Shack out in the middle of those dark cotton fields in the Delta.

Full album of photos here.

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