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Posts Tagged ‘Mississippi’


Back on the road today.

Jazz, blues, zydeco, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, funk – we had experienced them all in the first ten days of the trip, And we had travelled in a south-north direction, driving or, on occasions, skirting Highway 61.

But now, we were not only switching the musical focus to country, but taking a two hundred and ten mile detour eastward to Nashville.

We left our East Memphis house on a warm, partly cloudy morning with the temperature gauge in the car already touching ninety. Once we had settled onto Interstate 40, our companion for the journey, the traffic lightened and the straight roads with forested trees either side that we had become accustomed to in recent days, resumed their natural position.

We filled the car with gas for the second time on the trip, taking the cost so far to $56 (we had picked it up in New Orleans with a full tank, and we’re required to return it in the same state i..e. full, not in Louisiana).

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As we approached Jackson, the first town of any real significance, and were looking for an attraction to break the journey (we were nearly half way), we came across Casey Jones Village which marketed itself as the “best whistle stop between Memphis and Nashville” and officially one of Tennessee’s top 10 travel attractions.

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The extensive complex contained an Old Country Store, a restaurant, nostalgic gift shoppe, an 1890’s Ice Cream Parlor & Fudge Shoppe, the Dixie Cafe Takeout or Dine-In, a village baker’s, a village chapel and many other features.

In addition, it was home to the Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum, which commemorated the legendary railroader who worked for the Illinois Central Railroad, and who was killed on 30th April 1900, when his train collided with a stalled freight train near Vaughan Mississippi. His spectacular death while trying to stop his train and save the lives of his passengers made him a national hero.

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He was subsequently immortalised in a popular ballad sung by his friend Wallace Saunders, an African American engine wiper for the railroad. It had first come to my attention when, as a small boy in the late fifties several thousand miles away, I sat spellbound by the television programme starring Alan Hale Jnr.

Around fifteen years later I learned a different account of the incident from rock band, the Grateful Dead, with the drug-riddled refrain “driving that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones you’d better watch your speed”.

I still prefer that version!

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John Luther Jones was particularly famous for the manner in which he tooted his train whistle on “Old 382” Engine. Visitors can climb aboard the replica inn the museum and perform that act themselves.

At the time of his death, Jones was living in the house pictured below, which we were also able to explore.

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We spent a pleasant hour walking around the village, but, even though it was lunchtime by now, the food on offer in the restaurant was not to our liking.

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We returned to the road in pursuit of coffee and eats. But we were not hungry enough to be tempted by the regular sight of roadkill.

Our salvation, not for the first or last time on the trip, proved to be………yes, you guessed it, McDonald’s (we were to eat here more often in a fortnight than we had in thirty years),

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We encountered more traffic, especially trucks, on this stretch than we had done before, though the fact that the road had only two lanes, and it was Friday afternoon, might have contributed to that.

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Another phenomenon that occurred to us for the first time today were the strong “southern” accents of everyone we came into contact with.

At the risk of offending (I don’t mean to) Tennesseans, the intonation was reminiscent of the British comedian, Benny Hill’s, character on his television show in the seventies and eighties, when he performed a sketch about ‘teddy bear’s chair”. I can never hear a southern accent without recollecting that performance.

But then if any American is upset by this, I will just mention three words………….Dick Van Dyke.

You know what I mean, y’all.

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As Nashville got closer, the traffic, especially, got much heavier. But we safely negotiated it and located our artist’s bungalow in East Nashville, booked through Airbnb,  without difficulty.

We were staying in a variety of different properties on the trip. Starting off in a classy hotel in New Orleans, we had spent the subsequent nights on the road in modest motels before residing in a suburban house in Memphis. We were living for the next four nights in a bungalow in the back garden, next to the garage, of our hosts’ family home.

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It was clear on our arrival that some of the home comforts we had enjoyed in New Orleans and Memphis in particular would not be available to us in our temporary Nashville home.

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Our only cooking facilities, for example, were a kettle and basic microwave, as well as a refrigerator. We drove to the local supermarket to buy some basic provisions, including potatoes, salad, cheese, ham and avocado that made up a presentable jacket potato.

And, our spirits were not going to be quashed. Tomorrow, we would begin to investigate the home of country music.

And it would be my birthday!

 

 

 

 

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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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Today we were destined to spend the whole day in a single state – Mississippi. It began with a passable breakfast of sausage patties, scrambled eggs, bagels, cream cheese and coffee in the hotel.

Which brings me straight away to one of my favourite rants of life on the road in this country. I would love somebody to explain to me why every breakfast room in every hotel appears to have  the  TV tuned into to Fox News.

I suppose in the south it is more likely to have a captive audience among the truck drivers and Hanks and Mildreds expelled from their tour buses. But, with few exceptions, the  staff working in the kitchens and dining rooms are black. I am sure that going to work every day with the bile and make believe spewed out from Fox must have a debilitating impact on them.

Or perhaps they tune it out. I wish I could! I did once turn it over to CNN on our south west road trip and nobody batted an eyelid. I doubt I would receive such a gentle response in Mississippi.

Which brings me rather neatly to the American Civil War.

The reason I chose Vicksburg for one of our overnight stops was to give us the opportunity to visit one of the most important battlefields when “brother fought against brother”.

With a 144 mile drive to our next overnight stop in Clarksdale, we made an early start.

Following fast on Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, the Siege of Vicksburg, the last major Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, in 1863 proved the major turning point in the war.

The Vicksburg National Military Park contains over 1,340 monuments and the adjacent National Cemetery holds the remains of 17,000 Union soldiers, a number unmatched by any other national cemetery. Given the expansive rolling land and extensive foliage, it was not difficult to imagine the epic nature of the battle.

As we walked among the statues, pillars, buildings, gun emplacements and other memorials, it was evident that victory for Major Ulysses S. Grant, was gained at a mighty heavy price. Ohio and Illinois in particular were heavily represented around the park.

It had been an affecting experience, but we needed to return to the road, leaving Vicksburg at midday under a hazy sun and 88 degrees of heat.

The “big sky” and flat, deserted road were reminiscent of those we had encountered during the south west road trip six years earlier. We could have been in Utah (thankfully we weren’t as Mississippi is not a dry state).


Mile upon mile of pretty cotton fields, ready for harvesting it appeared, adorned either side of road. Picking is, of course, now mechanised but, again, I could not help a passing thought about the thousands of lives that were debased in the process in the past.

 

Farm machinery, silos and abandoned buildings – along with the customary plethora of religious establishments – were also regular features by the roadside.

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I had been looking forward to visiting Clarksdale, Mississippi, as much as anywhere on this trip. Whilst there is considerable debate about its precise location, the legend persists that it was at a crossroads in the Clarksdale vicinity where the “King of the Delta Blues Singers”, Robert Johnson, sold his soul to the devil.

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The town was the birthplace of many Blues luminaries,  John Lee Hooker, Son House and Ike Turner were born here, amongst many others. including Sam Cooke (I had not been aware of this before now). Muddy Waters moved to the town as a child.

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You could sense the history and mood the moment we stepped out of the car on 2nd Street in a dry, ninety degree heat. This place was drippin’ with the blues. The ghosts of those great bluesman walked the empty streets where many buildings remained either empty or derelict, and others boasted colourful, celebratory murals.

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With just an eighty mile drive to Memphis planned for the next day, we had plenty of time to explore the town, notably the two fine museums dedicated to blues and rock. We decided to visit the Rock & Blues Museum this afternoon and return in the morning to frequent the Delta Blues Museum.

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It was understandable, though still a pity, that we we were not permitted to take photographs once inside the museum, though I had not realised this until I had already snapped this fine specimen.

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One surprising piece of street art was this tribute to the early Beatles.

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In both the museum and the Cathead Delta Blues & Folk Artstore, we were advised that there was a special live concert in the Blues Berry Cafe that evening (Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club was closed on Monday evening).

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We duly honoured the recommendation and had dinner (fried shrimp and spaghetti with garlic) there prior to the live performance.

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Sean “Bad” Apple, a Clarksdale boy who plays five nights a week at 152, Beale Street in Memphis, was making a rare return to his home town to play to an audience that, with probably the only exception of ourselves and a young Danish couple sat at the next table, he knew extremely well.

Supported by another local boy, “Iceman” Billy Williams on drums, Sean treated us to a mix of tasty Delta blues and anecdotes about legendary Clarksdale characters. He is an outstanding musician, but rather like the evening in the Blue Moon in Lafayette, we felt a little like outsiders, almost intruding on a private party, as he engaged in extended banter with friends, and even shared the stage with some.

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But we did get a slice of birthday cake!

 

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Our second day on the road was a quiet and uneventful one. Consequently, I will give a blessedly shorter account than usual (well, that’s what I say at the beginning of it).

Besides, it was Sunday too, so I’ll keep this all quiet and peaceful like, y’all.

Breakfast in the room was included in our Juliet hotel tariff, which made a pleasant change to our early morning routine. Unfortunately, the weather was not as accommodating as we left in that light drizzle we had become accustomed to over the past few days. But when we left, the temperature was still in the low eighties.

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We made two false starts as the windscreen was greasy and it took several ingenious attempts to clear it. A4 printer paper did the trick, and we finally left the environs of Lafayette at 10.30am.

One of the fascinating aspects of driving in the USA is the preponderance of massive roadside signs, advertising everything from hotels, restaurants, casinos, gas stations, people running for political office and, of course, in this part of the country, extolling the virtue of having Christ in your life.

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And then there are the churches themselves, principally Baptist and Pentecostal, many of which pop up from nowhere with their immaculate, well scrubbed exteriors and attached cemeteries on a much more modest scale than those we had wandered among in New Orleans.

Some are so small that the congregation could not be more than a couple of dozen. We speculated, however, that, on this late Sunday morning, they would be packed with worshippers.

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Aside from those signs, we had very little company on the road (perhaps everyone was in church).

We drove through miles of bullet (unfortunate use of language in this part of the country, sorry), straight road with grass verges on either side, watched over by woods and forest. An occasional vehicle came into view and disappeared as quickly again.

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We slowed down as we drove through Baton Rouge for fear of waking it up (though last night’s football victory might have done the job for us).

Our intention on this trip had been to spend as much time on the (‘Blues”) Highway  61 as possible. Our sat nav, however, had taken us up Highway 19 at the intersection of both roads at Baker, and we were required, unless we were to turn back, to continue to Centreville where we could turn west to return to the 61.

Small towns with names as exotic as Slaughter (back to the bullet theme), Zachary and Ethel passed by in a blink of an eye.

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We crossed into Mississippi, annoyingly missing the large welcome sign, and sought sustenance at a roadside McDonald’s just south of Natchez.

Although it didn’t have the high tech booking system that we had marvelled at the previously day, the restaurant was clean, colourful – and “minimalist”, as remarked upon by a Facebook friend at the time.

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We didn’t believe that we could pay less than yesterday for our lunch, but the bill below cannot lie.

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We pulled in to the Vicksburg Best Western hotel at 3.15pm as planned, affording me the opportunity to complete a blog piece before dinner.

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In keeping with the “rubbish” food theory I expounded in the previous article, we refrained from negotiating the hair-raising road intersection to get to a Mexican or barbecue restaurant, deciding to walk the two hundred metres to the Waffle House. 

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I did not expect my Steak ‘n’ Eggs to warrant any Michelin stars, and although there was some gristle in the steak, it was cooked to my requirements and was edible.

And cheap!

We rounded it off with yoghurts bought from the supermarket next door.

And we went the whole day without alcohol!

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