Birthplace of the Blues


V51A6496A photographer makes a trip to the Delta, where the Blues are still sung.

Words and photos by Beau Gustafson

 

It must have been as a kid that I fell in love with roads trips. Every year, several times a year, my mom, Alice; brother, Brett; and I would pile into our VW hatchback and drive from Philadelphia down to Amarillo, Texas, and then on to Denver, Colorado. We would take three days to do it, a pretty good pace with a couple of young kids. We made lots of stops at Stuckey’s, rest stops, and roadside parks to stretch our legs and run off some steam. We would head down through Roanoke and the Shenandoah Valley, get Daniel Boone hats in Kentucky, drive through Nashville and Memphis and across Arkansas and the Ozark Mountains, and into the great plains of Oklahoma and the panhandle of Texas. There is something reflective about driving through this country. One of the highlights of the trip—when the license plate game had lost its luster, and I couldn’t bug my brother about breathing my air anymore—was crossing the Mississippi. We would yell the letters as we crossed the bridge into Arkansas at the top of our lungs: M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I! That great muddy river, the sign that we were a little over halfway to Texas.

I remember marveling at how large the river was, and I had already heard the stories of Huckleberry Finn. This was in the early ’70s. On the local radio station, they played the blues: B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Howlin Wolf, Elvis. Even then, I instinctively knew of the mystery and magic of the place, though it was but a fleeting view out of a car window.

I came back, after a short drive up from Birmingham, to explore the home of the blues along the Blues Highway, Highway 61. I started on the bridge crossing into Arkansas just so I could cross back and start the trip from the beginning, and yes, I yelled it. Twice.

It was the hottest week of the year, 100 degrees and humid—not the weather this Colorado boy is used to, even after living in Birmingham for 20 years. What I needed was a drink, a little food, and a little music before a look around Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. I stopped in at B.B. King’s place for some hot wings and a whiskey and Coke. You can always count on some good music here; Bo Diddly, Buddy Guy, George Thorogood, and James Brown have all played on this stage. After cooling down a bit, I strolled around Beale Street and then walked down to the riverfront to see the mighty river up close.

V51A6681In the morning I stopped for a mouthwatering meal of pancakes, coffee, and beignets at the Arcade, Memphis’s oldest eatery, which was opened in 1919 by Speros Zepatos. I would recommend a stop here; with its old diner style and great food, it has become a destination of travel and eatery shows for good reason. After my belly was full and fueled with coffee, it was time to head south to Highway 61.

I have a few ground rules for road trips.

Rule number one is to have a great playlist of music. I decided to go to the roots of blues: Robert Johnson, Son House, W.C. Handy, Charlie Patton, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey. Son House is singing these words on the radio:
Now look it here baby, please don’t

dog me round

Look it here honey, please don’t you

dog me round

I’m going to leave south end of town
Rule number two is that if you have been driving on a highway for more than 30 minutes, you have to pull off the road and explore. It’s not just the miles of cotton fields or the low inaudible hum of the Mississippi, or the blazing heat or the Cyprus trees growing in swamps that they formed into blues guitars. It’s not just the history of slavery and repression, which is still intertwined in the plantations, in the cotton and corn. It is not just one thing; it is all of it. It is why so many people make the pilgrimage to this place. Why so many musicians and music lovers come to feel and hear the way the music flows. They come feel the land, hear the insects, wave at folks walking by. They come to talk with the locals, to see the vast cotton fields that stretch for miles and miles. The spirit of the place both formed and informed the sound so ubiquitous to American music. They come to hear the living legacy of the birthplace of the blues, where it still flows in juke joints and bars, off porches, through living room windows, and out of parks from Beale Street to Bourbon Street. Stop and walk down a dirt road that Muddy Waters was sure to have walked down; then you can understand that if they didn’t create their own music, there would have been little else to soothe the soul. On the radio, Robert Johnson sings,
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees

I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees

Asked the Lord above, “Have mercy, now

save poor Bob, if you please.
Rule number three is to try not to stay at chain hotels and motels. Whenever possible, find a bed and breakfast, someplace with character, where you can talk to the owners and fellow travelers. My home that night was just outside of Clarksdale at the Shack Up Inn. This should be on any list of 100 places to stay before you die. The Hopson Plantation is a collection of refurbished sharecropper shacks, with corrugated roofs and Mississippi cypress walls, and with a restaurant called Rust, where I had trout, creme brûlée, and beer. You should arrange your stay close to the weekend, when they have bands playing on their eclectic stage. And you can always drive the 10 minutes to Clarksdale and go to Morgan Freeman’s bar, Ground Zero, and The Delta Blues Museum.

Rule number four is when in small towns across America, go in the local shops, talk to the shop owners, and listen to some of their stories. I went into Bluestown Music and talked with Ronnie Drew. He showed me his collections of blues guitars, electric guitars, and posters, some of which Joe Bonamassa had bought just a few minutes before. Then I wandered down to Deak Harp’s place, where he refurbishes and makes harmonicas for the best harp players in the world (and also gives some harmonica lessons by appointment). He has played with many of the blues greats around the world and has settled down in Clarksdale after years of traveling around the globe. “I love it here; it has always felt like home to me,” he says.

Back at the Shack Up Inn, at sunrise, I played the harmonica softly as the world started to heat up and the warm light hit the trains and the large tractor making its way to the fields. We owe much of the spread of this music to this technological revolution in the early 1900s. Labor was no longer needed on the scale it had been and the sharecroppers and musicians went north to Chicago and New York. But this is where it started.

On the way back to Birmingham, I stopped at Robert Johnson’s grave to pay my respects. I left the Delta, taking with me a piece of it. I can still feel the Mississippi slowly making its way to the Gulf when I hear that familiar music playing on the radio.

 

One Response to “Birthplace of the Blues”

  1. Alice Gustafson says:

    This is a wonderful piece. I read it and now want to go and stay at the Shack Up Inn. The music descriptions are great and the food….sounds delicious. I remember listening to Brandy Was A Fine Girl, Afternoon Delight, Leaving on an Airplane, Bo-Jangles, and a whole host of others on those trips. Usually was glad to reach Knoxville or Fayettville and spend the night, both in the mountains. Glad it provokes such good memories.

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