Delta Blues & Cajun Spice: Day 1

Memphis, TN, to Clarksdale, MS: The music of Memphis from Blues to Elvis to Al Green; Faulkner memories in Oxford, MS; the crossroads at Clarksdale, MS, a tale of BBQ, blues, Mose Allison, and sleeping in a sharecropper shack

From the King of Rock and Roll to the Reverend of Soul in South Memphis

I’m not the church-going type, but after a Saturday night of booze and blues in the bars of Beale Street, the only proper thing for a man to do is to get saved. 

And in musical Memphis, Tennessee, the only proper place to do it is The Full Gospel Tabernacle (787 Hale Road, Memphis, TN, tel. 901-396-9192, www.algreenmusic.com/fullgospeltabernacle.html, free Sundays at 11:30am), where in 1976 the Reverend Al Green went from singing soul to saving souls.

I’d brought along my dad, the artist Frank Bramblett, not because his soul needed saving, or even because it happened to be Father’s Day (though that was a nice coincidence).

I’d invited Dad on this musical quest from Memphis to New Orleans because he loves music, too, and I don’t think we’ve ever taken a trip together, just us guys.

After a quick stop at Graceland (3765 Elvis Presley Blvd., Memphis, TN, tel. 800-238-2000, www.elvis.com/graceland, $28 More on Graceland) to pay our respects at the royal palace of rock and roll, Dad and I sidled into a pew at The Full Gospel just in time for the 11:30am service.

There were 50 or so die-hard congregants, with a core constituency of ample women arrayed in their pastel Sunday best and matching hats.

One brought a tambourine in her purse, and we soon learned why.

Church with Rev. Green combined the benefits of a full-body workout with a spiritual endurance test. The freeform, three-hour service included preaching, singing, anecdotes (both biblical and musical), and more singing, with copious amounts of dancing in the aisles throughout.

“If you feel the need to kick off your shoes and cut a rug,” said the reverend as septuagenarians rose from their seats to jitterbug with the Holy Spirit, “you go on ahead and dance!”

Rev. Green teased his guests—handfuls of curious fans like us clumped in the back pews—by singing, quietly but beautifully, a few lines of his golden oldie "Let's Stay Together." Then he flashed that million-watt smile and said, "Yes, I could sing that—but that won't get you saved," and launched into another gospel tune.

Southern hospitality in the Mississippi Delta

After church, exhausted and starving, Dad and I took our freshly cleansed souls south down Hwy. 51 into Mississippi. We stopped for the first food we saw: Old Venice Pizza (330 West Commerce St., Hernando, MS, tel. 662-429-9998, www.oldvenice.com, individual pizzas from $10.99) on the courthouse square of pretty little Hernando, named for the first European to clap eyes on the Delta, conquistador Hernando de Soto in 1542.

For dessert we had gloriously thick French vanilla malteds at Velvet Cream (2290 Hwy. 51, Hernando, MS, tel. 662-429-6540, malteds from $2.98.), a roadside ice cream and burger shack, where a man in the parking lot spontaneously asked us, “Where y’all from?”

I mention this only because it occurred everywhere we went. People along the southern Mississippi were almost pathologically friendly, and there seemed to be a 30-second rule when it came to strangers.

Stand still next to anyone for more than half a minute and they’re obliged to stick out their hand with a wide smile and a “Where y’all from?”

Luckily, Dad was born in Georgia and raised in Alabama, so his ability to swap stories of small-town life in the Deep South helped soften the blow when I had to admit I was a damn Yankee.

Not that anyone ever held it against me. They seemed to view being born a Yankee as a chronic condition, like lazy eye or gout and, if anything, pitied me and laid on the southern charm extra thick.

We continued south and as soon as we crossed the Coldwater River into Tate County, Rte. 51 became a causeway through swamplands flecked white with egrets, the still waters reflecting a cloudless sky between knobby knees of cypress.

This was the Mississippi Delta, a vast and preternaturally flat alluvial floodplain of endless cotton fields and sun-baked crossroads towns.

A literary detour to Oxford

We cut east on Rte. 4 then south on Rte. 7 as the swamp gave way to rolling farmland and kudzu-blanketed woods and we entered central Mississippi’s Hill Country.

By the time we got to Oxford, MS, it was raining and we found the gorgeous little university town screwed down tight for the off-season. It seems once the students leave Ole' Miss, many businesses take advantage and close for renovations or to go on vacation.

None of the historic B&Bs in town were answering their phones—or their doorbells—so we decided to ditch our plans to spend the night.

We paused to pick up some Faulkner in the fantastic Square Books on the main square, took a quick circuit of the empty but pretty campus, and made a pilgrimage to the suburban Rowan Oak, home of William Faulkner, leading light in a long line for Mississippi literary titans from Eudora Welty to Tennessee Williams to John Grisham. Rowan Oak was closed for the day, but I peeked through a gap in some curtains and saw Faulkner's typewriter still sitting on a desk by a window next to a half-empty bottle of whiskey.

We got back into the car in a drizzle and struck out an hour west back into the Delta, through endless fields of corn and cotton, to its spiritual heart, the musical Mecca of Clarksdale

The crossroads at Clarksdale

Clarksdale (Clarksdale/Coahoma County Tourism Commission, tel. 800-626-3764, www.clarksdale-ms.com) lies at the intersection of Routes 49 and 61 (recently renumbered 161), where we gobbled some pork sandwiches at Abe’s Bar-B-Q (616 State St., Clarksdale, MS, tel. 662-624-9947, sandwiches $3.25).

Abe’s has been a Clarksdale tradition since 1942, but it’s not why this intersection is world-famous among blues fans. The commemorative sculpture of crossed guitars on a traffic island where 161 and 49 cross marks the most renowned (but least likely) candidate to be the Crossroads, where 1930s blues legend Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil to become a guitar god.

Among the many problems with this most famous of Delta myths is that there’s no record of it being told about Robert until after his death. Some say it was bluesman Tommy Johnson who made the Faustian deal, including Tommy himself.

Either way, I later learned this couldn’t possibly be the spot because Route 49 didn’t extend this far north until two decades after Johnson reportedly died the ultimate blues death: His whisky was poisoned by a jealous husband.

Every trip needs a quest, and the search for the true Crossroads seemed perfect. In Clarksdale’s small but well-presented Blues Museum (1 Blues Alley, Clarksdale, MS, tel. 662-627-6820, www.deltabluesmuseum.org, $7), where we paid homage to Muddy Waters’ reassembled shack, I saw a map of the Delta marked with half a dozen potential Crossroads candidates and dutifully copied them down.

At Cat Head (252 Delta Ave., Clarksdale, MS, tel. 662-624-5992, www.cathead.biz), a store devoted to blues music and folk art, I picked up the Delta Blues Map Kit, a wonderful handmade guidebook (photocopied pages stapled together) written by record producer and Blues Hall-of-Famer Jim O’Neal. A treasure trove of information on the entire region, it also listed 11 Crossroads possibilities, including eight I hadn’t yet heard of.

Even jazzmen get the blues

We drove four miles south of the Clarksdale crossroads to the historic Hopson Plantation and its Shack Up Inn (1 Commissary Circle off Rte. 49, Hopson Plantation, Clarksdale, MS, tel. 662-624-8329, www.shackupinn.com, doubles from $60), a collection of genuine cypress plank-and-tin sharecropper's shacks (updated with electricity, running water, A/C, TV, and WiFi), where we lucked into a last-minute cancellation. Our shack, appropriately enough, was called “Crossroads."

The man at the front desk asked if we had come for that night’s concert at Ground Zero (0 Blues Alley, Clarksdale, MS, tel. 662-621-9009, www.groundzerobluesclub.com, cover varies), a barn-like juke joint converted from a century-old railroad depot in downtown Clarksdale. The club, co-owned by Morgan Freeman and local lawyer Bill Luckett, usually features live acts only Wednesday through Saturday, but it turned out this was a special Sunday: Mose Allison was in town.

On the ride over, my father excitedly babbled about how he used to buy Allison 78s for 10¢ back in grad school. The joint was hoppin', the beer was $2, and the music was terrific. Normally Allison's more of a jazzman, but Ground Zero brought out his bluesier side.

We had been planning to continue south toward Vicksburg in the morning, but an invitation from a bearded man named Gregg Cook I met at Ground Zero changed our plans.

Cook had driven down for the show from Helena, Arkansas, where he was the curator of Helena’s museum-like Delta Cultural Center (141 Cherry St., Helena, AK, tel. 800-358-0972, www.deltaculturalcenter.com, free), one corner of which is set aside for a living legend of blues history.

Day 1 practicalities

Tourist info

• Memphis: www.memphistravel.com
• Mississippi: www.visitmississippi.org, www.experiencemississippiriver.com

Activities

• Graceland, 3765 Elvis Presley Blvd., 800-238-2000, www.elvis.com/graceland, $28.
• Rev. Al Green Gospel Service, Sundays at 11:30am, Full Gospel Tabernacle, 787 Hale Road, Memphis, 901-396-9192, www.algreenmusic.com/fullgospeltabernacle.html, free.
• Delta Blues Museum, 1 Blues Alley, Clarksdale, MS, 662-627-6820, www.deltabluesmuseum.org, $7.
• Cat Head, 252 Delta Ave., Clarksdale, MS, 662-624-5992, www.cathead.biz.
• Ground Zero, 0 Blues Alley [yes, the street number is "zero"], Clarksdale, MS, 662-621-9009, www.groundzerobluesclub.com, live music Wed-Sat, cover varies.

Dining

• Old Venice Pizza Co., 330 West Commerce St., Hernando, MS 662-429-9998, www.oldvenice.com, individual pizzas from $10.99.
• Velvet Cream, 2290 Hwy. 51, Hernando, MS, 662-429-6540, www.myspace.com/velvetcream, malteds from $2.98.

Lodging

• Shack Up Inn, 1 Commissary Circle off Rte. 49, Hopson Plantation, Clarksdale, MS, 662-624-8329, www.shackupinn.com, shacks $60–$75 ($15 surcharge on weekends).

» On to Day 2: Clarksdale, MS, to Vicksburg, MS

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in June 2012.
All information was accurate at the time.


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