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Posts Tagged ‘Muddy Waters’


I had omitted to mention in my last post that, shortly after Alicia and Jerry joined us in our Chicago house, they presented me with my birthday presents – two t-shirts from their Land of the Sun store in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. I wore the Watchtower” tie-dye today, not only as a token of my gratitude but also because it was one I had been pursuing for some time, and was so excited to receive it.

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It was accompanied by a touching “card”, adorned with Aiden and Ely’s artwork.

Alicia was queen of the kitchen again, this time serving up scrambled eggs and bacon, providing us with the necessary fuel for what was to prove a long, exhausting but thoroughly enjoyable day.

Ely held court in his armchair while he waited for everybody else to get ready.

Our first port of call was Millennium Park, a former railroad yard in an industrial corner of Grant Park that had been reclaimed to celebrate the turn of the twenty first century. It is now a popular and successful attraction, especially for those interested in art, architecture and the performing arts.

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The extraordinary piece of sculpture, Cloud Gate, was the primary reason for our visit. Designed by British sculptor, Anish Kapoor, it resembles an enlarged, reflective kidney bean, prompting its nickname, The Bean. Wherever you stand on its perimeter, you experience a different, dazzling and somewhat disorientating reflection of the surrounding skyline.

Since the days of ER, one of our favourite US drama series, I had wanted to ride the “L”, the elevated trains that run overhead, providing a great rooftop perspective on the city going about its business.

We walked to the nearest station to Millennium Park, Adams/Wabash, serving, amongst others, the Brown Line, and took it in the direction of Kimball.

Aiden and Janet were happy to be riding the rails.

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Although most of the stations we passed through were quite plain, there were others with gorgeous murals.

We had learnt while standing in line for Willis Tower on the previous day that Jerry’s former business partner and his wife were also in town, and it had been agreed that we all meet up for pizza at 5pm today. With that in mind and time passing we alighted at Belmont on the North Side in search of lunch. Cheesie’s Pub & Grub opposite the station looked enticing, so we took our chances there. There was some confusion initially over what we should have, but my grilled cheese sandwich was certainly worth the wait.

Judging by the baseball memorabilia, we were in the vicinity of Wrigley Field, the fabled home of the Chicago Cubs, World Series Champions in 2016 after a 108 year wait.

While we waited for our food, the boys and I had a few vigorous games of table (ice) hockey. Although Ely may have not been especially tactically astute, his more rudimentary, enthusiastic style made him a match for both Aiden and I.

Cheesie’s was renowned for its root and craft beers, of which Jerry partook, but less so for its coffee. The Osmium Coffee Bar a few blocks away was recommended and we made our way there. We were able to sit in the backyard where all the wooden tables were painted beautifully .

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We took the return to Adams/Wabash. Ely decided that he was no longer with us and needed his own space. We were not the only passengers to be charmed by his subsequent siesta.

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It was time to honour our reservation at Pequod’s authentic Chicago deep dish pizza restaurant. We arrived around twenty minutes early which allowed me the opportunity to do something I had been starved of on the trip so far – look around a bookshop. The large branch of Barnes & Noble called to me from across the street and I escaped from the rest of the party for a few minutes. I did not, however, make any purchases.

Oh, but I could have with more time and money!

We met Joyce and Artie and sat down to dinner. I’ll confess that both Janet and I prefer the traditional Italian thin crust pizza, but there is no denying that our cheese, extra cheese, onion and black olive deep dish version was tasty – and certainly, filling, so much so that we requested a “box” to take back to the house. Jerry and Alicia did the same with their meat pizza. But more of those leftovers in the next chapter.

The final instalment of the day returned us to the Blues Highway theme that had triggered this trip in the first place. Janet, Alicia and I had bought tickets to Blues legend, Buddy Guy’s club, for the evening.

Jerry had expressed his willingness to stay behind at the house looking after the boys. This might just have had something to do with his desire to watch the San Francisco 49ers at the Green Bay Packers live on television in peace.

But if that was the plan, it was thwarted before we even left the house to pick up our Uber. Despite ploughing through what appeared to be hundreds of channels, we could not locate a live transmission of the game. To add insult to injury for Jerry, we discovered that the blues club was showing it on several television sets!

After checking in at the club, we found what appeared to be the only empty table close to the stage – though we may have annoyed a large group of women who had begun to place additional chairs around it as we arrived. Playing dumb was a successful tactic.

I took the opportunity before the outstanding house band, led by singer and guitarist Jimmy Burns, began their first set, and our server arrived with the first gin and tonic of the evening, to look around. Original guitars and photographs of some of the greatest Blues musicians adorned the walls.

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Towards the end of the first set, it was announced that there was a special guest in the house – none other than the venerable owner of the club himself, Buddy Guy, a guitarist revered by Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to name but a few guitar gods.

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Belying his eighty two years, Buddy delivered a suggestive, knowing and brilliantly phrased performance. He had the entire audience smiling and applauding, in particular holding women young enough to be his granddaughters in the palm of his hand.

If this were not enough of a gift, he agreed to sign t-shirts during the interval between sets. Alicia and I soon joined other starstruck fans in line for this unexpected and thrilling experience.

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It had been a great evening, the perfect ending to a lovely second day in Chicago in the company of our San Francisco family.

The only disappointment? The 49ers went down to the Packers in the last three seconds of the game. In some respects, it was probably a relief that Jerry had not had to witness it.

 

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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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