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Posts Tagged ‘Clarksdale Mississippi’


Today would be the shortest drive of the trip, just eighty one miles to our next overnight stop in Memphis, Tennessee.

And I was in no hurry to abandon Clarksdale, Mississippi!

And that is despite enduring one of the worst hotel breakfasts I can recall. We entered the dining room at 8.20am, a full forty minutes before service was due to end, to find fried eggs and bacon (at least I think it was bacon) dried, burnt and stuck to the containers. The server declared that there would be no fresh hot food today. At least the muffins and bagels were edible.

Oh, and Fox News was belching out of the television.

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Things could only get better – which they undoubtedly did as we wandered those scruffy, sun scarred streets of Clarksdale. It would appear that the automobile in the above photograph had not moved from its parking spot in front of the Delta Blues Alley Cafe for some time. Its roadworthiness might have been questionable (take that on a road trip!), but it was a mighty fine sight.

Our main purpose this morning was to explore the Delta Blues Museum, but not without taking a peek in the Ground Zero Blues Club, opened in 2001 by Bill Luckett and Morgan Freeman. It had, sadly, been closed the night before.

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And who better to look over it than the incomparable ‘Hoochie Coochie Man” himself, Muddy Waters, who spent much of his long career working out of this town?

The Delta Blues Museum was the world’s first museum dedicated to blues, opening on 31st January 1979. Originally based in a room of the Myrtle Hall Elementary School, it moved to its current location two years later.

Not only did it consist of some spectacular exhibits (unfortunately, I could not take photographs inside again), but it has an education programme that has trained many young musicians to carry the blues forward.

This was a slicker affair than the Rock and Blues Museum we had visited the day before. The latter gave me an impression more of a devout fan’s personal collection. So different in approach but equally successful in impact.

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Among the formidable figures that appeared to follow you around the town was the magnificent Boogie Man, John Lee Hooker.

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He even has his own street.

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Another of the Clarksdale musical royal family was the “man who invented soul”, Sam Cooke. His upbringing in the town had led him down a different musical path, but one no less influenced by the blues.

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One of the most apt descriptions of rock ‘n’ roll comes from a song by Muddy Waters – ‘the blues had a baby, and they named it rock ‘n’ roll”. I was thrilled to spot this among the more elaborate pieces of street art.

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Before leaving town we had a coffee in the Yazoo Pass Espresso Bar, Bistro and Bakery, which appeared to be the main daytime hangout spot in town.

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We left town bound for Memphis with the “father of the Delta Blues”, Charley Patton, still “a-screamin” and a-hollerin”.

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But we could not leave without paying brief homage to the “Empress of the Blues’, Bessie Smith, who died in the Riverside Hotel from injuries sustained in a car accident while travelling to Clarksdale for a performance in 1937.

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We returned to a largely deserted Highway 61 and those “big skies” for the hour and a half trip to Memphis. The car temperature gauge flirted with the mid nineties.

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But there was still time to make a brief visit to another blues museum, Gateway to the Blues in Tunica. Whilst we did not actually look round the museum, Janet did buy bracelet and keyring in the shape of a guitar.

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We arrived at our Airbnb cottage by mid afternoon, and walked round to the nearby Kroger supermarket to buy dinner and other provisions for our three night stay.

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We would save our energies for tackling Memphis in the morning.

 

 

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The idea for this trip came thirteen years ago when I bought the book entitled The Blues Highway: A Travel and Music Book by Richard Knight.

But then, as we were on the point of booking the trip, Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans, the planned starting point for the trip. We resolved then that we would wait to do it when life in the city had returned to some semblance of normality.

In 2012, we did finally embark on a road trip, but in a very different part of the country – the National Parks of the South West, covering the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

Setting off from Las Vegas, our expedition took in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell, Monument Valley, Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon, followed by a sizeable detour through New Mexico, visiting Santa Fe, Albuquerque and iconic locations on Route 66 such as Winslow, Arizona (“Standin’ on a Corner”) and Gallup, New Mexico before returning to Vegas.

Numerous trips to San Francisco, Tahoe, Vegas as well as the North East (of the U.S, not England!) followed, as the Southern states, other than Florida, failed to seduce us sufficiently into venturing in their direction. Maybe their racist past (and present), Christian fundamentalism and gun culture all have had something to do with it. Moreover, the scene from Easy Rider where the main protagonists get short shrift in a southern diner still haunts me, and the song by Folkestone band, the Transients, entitled They Don’t Like Hippies in Baton Rouge, only serves to exacerbate the anxiety.

But now, with mid-term elections looming and the divisions in America widening, we have chosen this moment to plunge ourselves into the belly of Trumpsylvania, though a Californian friend’s recent assertion that we were essentially visiting “blue cities in red states” is a comforting and far from innacurate one.

So what is the attraction of this particular itinerary that has stubbornly refused to disappear from our vacation radar?

The Blues Highway, essentially Highway 61, runs, for the most part alongside the mighty Mississippi, from New Orleans  to Chicago and traces the migration of many African Americans from the Deep South to the Northern cities following the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Equally, it charts (sic) the development of the major music genres for which we are so much indebted to the United States for, principally the blues and gospel (Mississippi delta, Memphis, St Louis and Chicago), but also jazz (New Orleans), cajun and zydeco (Lafayette), country (Nashville) and soul (Memphis again, and not forgetting Elvis!).

After an initial overnight stay in Newark, New Jersey (flights from the UK being so much cheaper), we fly to the “Big Easy” for four nights before hitting the road with single overnight stays in Lafayette, Vicksburg and Clarksdale. A three night residence in Memphis follows before we head east to Nashville for four nights, arriving on the eve of my birthday.

From “Music City” we cross country back to the main road for three nights in St Louis, followed by a night in Peoria before arriving in the “Windy City” for another four nights, when we are hoping to be joined for a couple of nights by friends from San Francisco. Two nights in New York City conclude the trip before we catch our return flight from Newark.

The trip has the added bonus of introducing us to seven new states – Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Illinois with brief detours through Kentucky and Arkansas. The prospect of experiencing new cultures, historic tours and spectacular scenery is, of course, exciting, but it is the music that is the driving force of the trip. Clubs, bars, museums and street musicians will, therefore, be the major focus of the next three weeks.

And we must not forget the other star of the show – the road itself.

Little thrills the blood more than the thought of exploring this amazing country by car with the radio blaring out the music style that reflects the landscape you are travelling through at the time. I am sure it will reveal some entertaining adventures as this blog grows over the coming weeks.

So let’s get on with the show!

See y’all later!

 

 

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It’s four months now since I entered my sixtieth year on this blessed, blasted planet. In fact, 2012 is a rare year for major anniversaries – the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, the five hundreth anniversary of the death of Amerigo Vespucci, the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic and last, and definitely least, there’s lil’ ol’ me.

So how do you “celebrate” such a feat of stamina? Big family party? Trip of a lifetime? Crawl into a corner and curl up into a ball? Well, my 40th was spent in Amsterdam and my 50th in Paris, whilst my wife’s corresponding birthdays were played out in Paris and Venice respectively. Bit of a clue there then (though Janet also wangled a not inexpensive party for the latter in the boardroom of the local football league club)!

But I think you get the picture – we’ll be spending it somewhere other than home.

Janet has been “encouraging” me for months to decide where I wanted to spend the occasion. Unfortunately, I am no nearer making that decision than I was on my 59th birthday, though I have narrowed it down to a handful of candidates (feels a bit like I’m deciding on where the next but one Olympics or football World Cup will be held).

One trip that has been on my wish list for much of the past decade is what is known as the “Blues Highway”, effectively tracing the migration of blacks from the deep south to the north following the Civil War, and, in the process, reliving American musical history.

The tour starts in New Orleans, with extended stops at Nashville, Memphis, St Louis and eventually Chicago. Visits to such iconic venues as Graceland, Sun Studios and the Grand Ol’ Opry, would be essential, and we would also want to sample cajun and zydeco music in their locales.

A tour through blues history would not be complete without a pilgrimage to Moorhead, Mississippi where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog or Dawg, the spot where the “father of the blues”, W.C. Handy, heard “the first blues song” in around 1903, or the crossroads (there is much dispute as to its location) at which the “king of the delta blues singers”, Robert Johnson, apocryphally, sold his soul to the devil. And an evening at the Ground Zero Blues Club, owned by Morgan Freeman, in Clarksdale, Mississippi would not go amiss.

But in August 2005 Hurricane Katrina put a temporary end to that dream.

The other front runner at present is the national parks and canyons of the American south west, notably Monument Valley, Bryce and Zion Canyons, the Arches and Canyonlands. Even this trip would have some musical resonance for me in the form of the great Jackson Browne / Glenn Frey song Take It Easy, popularised by The Eagles:

Well, I’m standing on a corner

In Winslow, Arizona

And such a fine sight to see

It’s a girl, my lord in a flatbed

Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me

Come on baby, don’t say maybe

I gotta know if your sweet love

Is gonna save me

We may lose and we may win though

We will never be here again

So open up, I’m climbin’ in

So take it easy

When I first started to ponder this, our adopted second home of San Francisco figured strongly in my plans. The timing would have enabled us to attend a Giants ball game or two on their last homestand of the regular season against the Pittsburgh Pirates. But since then, in an increasingly common fit of weakness, we have succumbed to its allure and – for us – late booked a two week trip to the city in April. And we have succeeded in purchasing tickets for two of the first games of the season – against the Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies.

This has had the added advantage of granting me a stay of execution on the fateful decision on the birthday break, though I know that I cannot hide behind that excuse much longer, hence this post.

The downside is that it may now necessarily be shorter than we had originally envisaged – two rather than three or four weeks. But we shall see.

I should also mention another U.S. option – that of staying at a friend’s condominium in Tampa, Florida – because I know he will be reading this!  He has very kindly offered to accommodate us at any time, and we will certainly take him up on that offer, though perhaps not this year. So, Melvyn, you have been spared – but only for now!

And finally, I have begun to pine again for Italy, our favourite holiday destination before the United States colonised our travelling consciousness. So I would not rule out Rome, Tuscany or Sicily at this stage, though they remain dark horses.

Or perhaps I should just take my lead from Ellen de Generes’ grandmother “who started walking five miles a day when she was sixty.  She’s ninety seven now and we don’t know where the hell she is”.

So what would you vote for?

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