October 27, 2011

Back to Mississippi: Exploring the Delta, part I

It's a cold, grey day in Clarksdale.  I've returned for a more extensive visit than last year's, back again at the Shack Up Inn, but with a different ride.  Lucifer the Pony, a black Mustang, has been replaced by a silver Camaro that, with it's wide mouth-like grillwork and side "gills", reminds me of a shark.

The weather, though, is just as unsettled as last year.  Woke up this morning to the sound of wind whipping around outside the windows of my Cadillac Shack.  Broke the night's fast at the Rest Haven restaurant, smoking a cigar while waiting for two eggs sunny-side up with a pork chop, surrounded by good ol' boys who were all also puffing away while waiting for their meals.  Smoking in restaurants is enough of a novelty these days, at least where I come from, but is even more exotic before breakfast.  Reminded me of my crotchety grandfather who began each day with coffee and a cigarette, which was soon followed up with the first of many Budweisers.  But back to Clarksdale-- The topics of conversation among the Rest Haven regulars that morning ranged from deer hunting to ant and roach control.  A handful of Japanese tourists then wandered in and squeezed into the booth in front of mine to complete the scenario.  William Least-Heat Moon wrote in Blue Highways that the more calendars on the wall in little country restaurants, the greater the guarantee of good food.  Rest Haven has only one calendar, but I've now had the same breakfast there three times and the pork chop has been perfect every time.  So much for Least-Heat Moon's rule.

Headed into downtown Clarksdale, such as it is, to re-visit the Delta Blues Museum, then stopped in Morgan Freeman's Ground Zero blues club for a post-breakfast Coke and peach cobbler.  Perhaps it's ignorance or snobbery on my part, but I just don't think much of Freeman's place.  His intentions are good, but it's like Bourbon Street is to New Orleans-- You get only a gloss of the real thing, a touristified version.  I'm sure the music booked at Ground Zero is very good, but the atmosphere, with the encouraged graffiti of visitors on every bare bit of wall and ceiling and the studied dilapidation, is just too cheesy for me.  And their peach cobbler leaves much to be desired.

While spooning up the gooey, soggy cobbler, I sat and contemplated the scribbles all over the bar and the wall behind it.  What is with the need people have to write on walls, anyway?  From graffiti to bathroom stalls to places like Ground Zero, where it's encouraged, to the shacks at the Shack Up Inn, where it's specifically not-- Is it some sort of cry for attention?  Or perhaps, on a deeper level, a fear of mortality?  So many people seem to have the need to be seen, recognized, remembered, even if it's only by anonymous strangers.  They need to leave a bit of themselves for eternity, even though their graffiti'd scribbles represent nothing worth being remembered for.  Though as I write this, it occurs to me that perhaps it's not all that different from babbling to the anonymous interwebs in some blog...

Braced by breakfast and the double shot of sugar from Coke and cobbler, I mapped a route around the Delta that headed east and then south on 49, east on 8, south on 7, then west on 82 to loop back towards the Mississippi River, north a ways along 1, and then back over to Clarksdale, then queued up the soundtrack for my wanderings--  John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Son House, and the White Stripes Live in Mississippi.  The last is significant because it was their final show as a band and was, ironically in light of Jack's deep love of Delta blues, the first and only one they ever played in Mississippi, at a venue between Clarksdale and Memphis.  John Lee's Boogie Chillun was the band's walk-on music to begin the show, and after a moody, brooding version of Death Letter, Jack very touchingly thanked Son House for letting him finally come home.  He ended that last show by saying God bless you to both House and Robert Johnson, and so I felt it was fitting and necessary to include this album in the day's listening.

Stopped at a convenience store outside of Tutwiler for a package of dill pickle-flavored sunflower seeds and couldn't help but compare the real dilapidation of empty store fronts next door to the faux effects at Ground Zero.  The faces of a handful of older gentlemen lounging outside matched the buildings, but the freshly mopped floor of the bathroom inside the convenience store was spotless and had just enough of a bleach aroma to smell clean as a sunny day. 

I feel alien in places like this, with my fast rental car and my rock'n'roll attire, having slept comfortably the night before in a restored version of the sort of sharecropper's shacks that still line many of the roads down here.  What am I documenting when I snap photos around here?  I've felt the same thing driving through certain neighborhoods of Baltimore back home.  Am I romanticizing a place and people I don't fully understand?  My family was pretty poor when I was a kid and I'm far from well off now, so I have some idea of what it's like.  But this seems to be a level of poverty I've never experienced anywhere near firsthand.  Or is life around here really not as hard-scrabble as I imagine based on appearances?  What's the reality?  Without living it the way these people do, I'll likely never know, and that leaves me uncomfortable about pulling out the camera in these spots where I find a sort of desperate beauty and picturesqueness.

Heading down South 49W towards the site of the notorious Parchman Farm, you pass a sign that reads "Penitentiary area.  Emergency stopping only next 2 miles."  And yet there's a Blues Trail marker directly across the road from the prison, which is now the Mississippi State Penitentiary.  Of course I pulled over to snap a photo of the sign, then turned my head to look across the street and found a handful of inmates, in their distinctive green and white striped pants, lounging near the gate and watching the crazy tourist who wasn't supposed to stop.  One of the more notable inmates of Parchman was Son House, who spent two years there supposedly for killing a man in self-defense, though there is apparently some debate over the accuracy of that story.


Between stops, the Shark and I rolled past the ubiquitous, endless cotton fields of the Delta, which is not as monotonous as you might think.  Fallow fields of empty dirt rows alternated with harvested fields bordered with huge rectangular bales of compressed cotton, along which the roads were scattered with loose, dusty white puffs.  Occasionally you pass an unharvested field in full bloom and the white of the cotton against the brown of the plant stems creates a silvery shimmer that, on this day, mirrored the grey of the cloudy sky above.

Unfortunately, I got so caught up in the joy of moving fast on un-trafficked backroads that I missed the turn to the church where Mississippi John Hurt is buried outside of Avalon.  Wanted to also find Robert Johnson's gravesite (the official one, according to the Mississippi Music Tourist Sites map I was using as a reference), but drove around Greenwood without finding the right road.

Looked for something to eat while in Greenwood, too, but there appeared to be nothing except the usual fast food and chain restaurants.  Until I got to the edge of town and caught sight of a little shack with smoke pouring out of the side of the building and a bunch of cars out front.  Turned out to be the Rib Shack, of which Johnny Edwards is head chief (according to his business card).  I ordered a pulled pork sandwich with cole slaw and a side of baked beans.  Would have sat right there in the car to eat it, but felt I was providing a bit too much entertainment for the locals.  One gentleman asked if I was from around there.  When I said no, he confirmed that he didn't think so, 'cause he didn't think he'd seen a Camaro around town.  When my food was ready, I headed down the road and found an empty public park, where I sat and had a very windy picnic of gloriously succulent pork.  If you ever find yourself in Greenwood, MS, be sure to look around for Johnny's shack. 

One pilgrimage site I did manage to find was the gravesite of Charley Patton, in a sad excuse for a cemetery next to Hicks Cotton Gin outside of Holly Ridge.  Just a scrubby field scattered with graves, many with nothing but a small, plain white cross, some unmarked at all, and a few collapsed to the point that you'd fall in if you weren't watching where you were walking.  Most touching of all, for a reason I can't define, were the plain concrete slabs that had name and dates of birth and death scratched in by hand, like the way people scratch their names into freshly poured concrete on a sidewalk.  There was something very caring about those headstones, despite the bleak simplicity of them.

Wandered about for a bit, but the place was so disorganized that I couldn't find what I'd come for right off.  The wind began to push me back toward the car, but then a good ol' boy wandered over from the gin and asked if I was "looking for Charley".  The way he asked-- not "was I looking for Charley Patton", but "looking for Charley"-- was so disarming I couldn't help but smile.  He pointed me in the right direction and walked with me a bit, asking where I was from, then headed back over to work while I trudged the rest of the way through the dusty grass to the spot.  Stood there looking at the headstone and accompanying empty bourbon bottle and tried to imagine the slight, ornery man with the growling voice and flamboyant playing style.  Patton was one of the first precursors to today's modern rock stars, though few of those rock stars probably realize it.  I couldn't help but wonder how Charley might've felt if he'd had any clue that people like me would make pilgrimages to his grave in the heart of the Delta, eighty years and more after his death.

Ended the day back at Ground Zero for some passable electrified blues.  Decent stuff, but not as moving as Johnson's or House's acoustic blues or as mesmerizing as Hooker's groove or Patton's growl.  And certainly not as gut-wrenching as any version of the blues from the White Stripes, but decent enough for an evening's diversion.  Fell asleep worn out from hours of driving, listening again to the wind blowing around the edges of the windows of the shack.

Full set of photos from the trip, here

No comments: