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Posts Tagged ‘Vicksburg’


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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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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