John & Susan Simpson
Sun 10 Jul 2022 12:33
Driving due north from New Orleans the Interstate I55 was an amazing piece of engineering. As we left New Orleans it started on stilts driven into the mangrove swamps and there were places where we were surrounded by water on both sides. The swamps soon gave way to straight tree-lined roads much like we'd had seen in Florida. We commented on how different motorway driving is in the US compared to the UK where we would expect to be able to see countryside or townscape on either side of the road. In the US it was just trees and a straight road for tens or hundreds of miles with the farmland stretching out as far as the eye can see. As we progressed north, the vista gradually changed. The swamps, mangroves and trees gradually gave way to the Mississippi Delta. Here the trees have been cleared to grow crops and the fields stretch from one horizon to the other. The scale of the farming we saw as we travelled up through the Mississippi State was awe-inspiring. Vast fields of crops spread out in every direction as far as the eye could see. The land was so flat it felt like driving across Lincolnshire but on a huge scale. We thought the size of the fields might be linked to modern day farming mechanisation, but photos we saw later in museums, appeared to show fields of the same size and scale being worked by hand. It must have been a monumental task and we could understand why the local (forced) labourers came up with their own music. The area also felt - even now - surprising isolated and before the advent of the motor car or the rail road, it must have felt very remote. It was into this wilderness that slaves were imported and forced to work on the land. They brought with them their own music traditions which over the years became intermingled with local musical styles to form what we now call 'the blues’ (which went on to become rock and roll and the whole genre of contemporary music)
Mississippi Delta farmland
We’ve seen quite a few museums during our time in the US and on the whole we’ve been disappointed in their quality. They've tended to feature a few artefacts with a bit of blurb about each one and no sense of where they might fit in a particular story. The museum dedicated to the late blues musician BB King was an exception. The BB King Museum and Delta Interpretive Centre in Indianola was absolutely first class. It tells the story of BB King's life and career, all weaved around stories of life in the Mississippi Delta. We came away feeling inspired by the man and how he had conducted himself during his long and eventful life. From working in cotton plantation fields at the age of 7 to his death in 2015 aged 89, he achieved a transformation that would have been unthinkable when he first started out. His mother died when he was only 10 but he always heeded her advice to treat people he encountered with honesty, civility and compassion. Segregation was still very much in place in his early years and his success as a black musician is all the more remarkable for that. He was such a prolific performer that in one year he played 352 live performances - a gig virtually every night of the year. We also particularly enjoyed the fact that he had accepted the claims from 15 people that he had fathered them! Even though there were no children from his two marriages and his own doctor declared him to be infertile he still supported the 15 ‘ children’. Whether he did that because he was just a generous man or because he enjoyed the notoriety is not clear. The final part of the museum featured BB King’s grave and the shrine that surrounded it. It seemed fitting that even after death the man still wanted to be there for the crowds, there was even a life-sized bronze of him sitting, with an empty seat next to him. John stopped and had a chat!
BB King’s grave and shrine
John having a chat with BB King
Before BB King achieved notoriety, tradition has it that the blues was started by one Robert Johnson. Johnson started his career in Clarksdale, Mississippi so our next stop up the Delta Blues Trail was Clarksdale. We stayed overnight at The Clark House Inn, an unusual stay in part because we didn’t get to meet the owners at all. When we arrived we let ourselves in with keys from a lockbox and the only other people we saw were two people we met at breakfast who were on holiday from Scotland. It was a DIY breakfast with everything we might need set out in the kitchen and it seemed a little strange to be just helping ourselves in someone else’s home. Added to that was that this was a historic house, the oldest in Clarksdale and dating from 1859. It was older than many of the museum exhibits we’d seen and we were just allowed to wander about and make ourselves at home!
Clark House Inn, Clarksdale, Mississippi
Clarksdale itself was a sad looking town with empty retail units all along its high street and not much open on a Monday evening when we were searching for somewhere to eat. If there had been tumbleweed rolling down the empty high street it wouldn’t have looked out of place. A fellow diner at the restaurant we finally found was delighted to hear that we were visiting from the UK and thanked us profusely for visiting Clarksdale. We had the impression that he really did appreciate it!
We visited the Delta Blues museum which, whilst being nowhere as good as the BB King experience, helped us understand the history and background of the area and set us up well for our forthcoming visit to Memphis. Just about every musician who was anyone in this area migrated to Memphis to further their career.
Our last stop before we left Clarksdale was to find the crossroads at the intersection of US Highways 61 and 49 where Robert Johnson was said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the blues. The story goes that Robert Johnson was a struggling blues musician who was walking through Clarksdale when he met a mystery stranger at the crossroads who offered to tune his guitar. Afterwards Robert Johnson’s fortunes were transformed and he went on to become a great blues player of his day, leading to the legend that he had traded his soul to be able to play the blues.
John by the marker where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil
We parked our car on the forecourt of Abe’s Bar-B-Q restaurant whilst we visited the crossroads as it was the closest parking place. Later we ate there for lunch - a most delicious BBQ pork sandwich with Abe’s special ‘come back’ sauce, so called because once you’ve eaten the sauce you just have to come back for more. Abe apparently began serving on this site at the crossroads in 1924, amazingly the same year that Robert Johnson encountered the devil. Although Robert Johnson’s most famous recordings were made nearly a decade later, we liked Abe’s claim that Robert Johnson was tucking into one of his BBQ pork rolls whilst the devil tuned his guitar! A marketing opportunity too good to miss!! We chuckled all the way to Memphis about that story!