Owing to a combination of things beyond my control I had to go to the Mississippi Delta in August to do research for ‘Radio Activity’ novel. For the uninitiated, August in the Mississippi Delta has never been confused with springtime in Paris. However, the planets lined up for me and I had good mojo the whole trip. See for yourself…
I flew into Memphis and drove south on Highway 61, I was looking for juke joints and other old voices as the story I’m writing reaches back to that part of the past. The ‘old’ Highway 61 isn’t all there anymore and, like so many things, the new one lacks the romance of the original. There are garish casinos dotting the landscape which I drove past as fast as I could, looking for something local and authentic. I worked my way down through Tunica County (roughly the territory of Elmore Leonard’s fabulous “Tishomingo Blues”) and made a side trip out to Friar’s Point which, before they built the bridge to Helena, Arkansas, was where you caught the ferry across the Mississippi River. From there I took Highway 1 down to the 322 which took me into Clarksdale.
I stopped at the Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art store and over to the Blues Museum which I recommend to anyone who finds him or herself in the neighborhood. The museum is a stone’s throw from Morgan Freeman’s blues club, Ground Zero. First bit of bad news: they don’t do the blues on Mondays, which is when I was there. Mr. Freeman also has a fine dining establishment in Clarksdale, called Mididi. Second bit of bad news: they were hosting a private party that night so dinner was going to come from somewhere else. So, I decided to head out to where I was staying and make different plans.
Just outside Clarksdale, on Highway 49 is the old Hopson Plantation, which, by 1944 was one of the first completely mechanized cotton plantations in the world. On the grounds of the Hopson Plantation is a B&B called the Shack Up Inn. They say they don’t like to get up and make breakfast there, so they consider it a Beer and Bed. The story of how this place came about is longer than I intend to go into, but if you’re interested, go to “shackupinn.com” and read all about it. As you can see they got a mess of shacks you can stay in, each with a different name.
I reserved the Cadillac Shack. Comfy and authentic (except for the AC and the indoor plumbing), the Cadillac Shack has its own bottle tree and a nice settin’ chair on the porch. I can’t recommend this place highly enough. Tell ‘em I sent you.
After settling in, I drove back into town, grabbed a couple of BBQ sandwiches from Abe’s (since 1924 or thereabouts) then went back to my shack and sat on the porch, eating my BBQ, looking out on Highway 49 while listening to Howling Wolf (with Eric Clapton, et al.) from the London Sessions singing “Highway 49.” My bad luck turned good as there was actually a cool breeze and it felt as nice as springtime in Paris or anywhere else. I took this as a good omen.
The interior design of the shacks is early Delta funeral fans, concert posters, and nic-nacs. There’s a small sign from the London Underground above the headboard of the bed that says, “No begging.”
The next day I continued south on Highway 61 (the blues highway) passing through Cleveland, Mississippi, where I nearly ran over a pedestrian to get to a Shipley Donuts. Don’t get me started on the Shipley’s vs. Krispy Kreme argument, Shipley’s wins, period. Then it was on to Leland, Mississippi (home of Jim Henson) where I met my Aunt Frances and her friend Jamie Tate at Flavors for a meat and three.
We went to the Leland Blues Museum where I met Billy Johnson who I believe runs the place and who writes the occasional article for the local paper.
The next day it was back to Highway 49, going north to Ruleville, Mississippi where I hooked up with famous musician and all around good guy, Duff Dorrough (of Tangents and Taylor Grocery Band fame). Duff, who grew up in that neck of the woods, took me out on a search to find Fitzhugh, Mississippi. It’s on the map between Ruleville and Parchman Farm. We got to the penitentiary without seeing any sign of Fitzhugh. So we stopped at a little store and asked the woman behind the counter. She just shook her head, no idea, never heard of it. Duff saw an older man sitting at a table in the store, reading a paper, like it was his own kitchen. (Imagine that at your local 7-11.) After playing the usual game of ‘who’s your daddy’ it turned out Duff and this man had people in common. He wasn’t sure where Fitzhugh was but thought it might’ve been between where we were and Drew, Mississippi (home of Archie Manning, father of Eli and Peyton). Another older man came in the store, a black guy who turned out to be a pal of the white guy. Both had been guards at Parchman for twenty years before retiring. They bragged about having been the first black-white guard tandem at Parchman. The second man and the first man chewed on the whereabouts of Fitzhugh for a while before declaring it was the wide spot in the road just south of here (near some rusty old farm equipment and a building). Duff asked if they meant the place where they used to have the cockfights and they all agreed that was it. There was no there there now.
Duff showed me around Sunflower and LeFlore counties and told me where I might go to find some of the few remaining juke joints. Duff provided some keen insights into the region and gave me some great research material that will find their way into the book. Over the next day or two I found some of those juke joints.
They look pretty sad during the day, but at night. . .
The next day I drove down to Vicksburg and checked into my room at the Cedar Grove Mansion Inn, an antebellum B&B that boasts a cannonball lodged in the parlor wall.
It was my bad luck that the River City Blues Museum was closed the days I was there but I did find all I needed for the setting of the story, since Rick Shannon (my protagonist) lives in Vicksburg. In fact I decided to move him in to the apartment building that was converted from The Vicksburg Hotel.
After two days there, I drove up to Yazoo City where an old friend happened to be selling off the family mansion. The once fine Bon Ton restaurant was now a scuzzy convenience store called Beer & Butts, a true sign of the times. Then it was north again on Highway 49 through Eden, Thornton, Tchula, Cruger, and Sidon on my way to Greenwood where I was staying at The Alluvian Hotel. An honest to God five star hotel in the middle of . . . Greenwood, Mississippi’s famed cotton row district. Unfortunately, none of my photos of this place do it justice. But go to “thealluvian.com” and check it out.
More bad luck that the Greenwood Blues Museum was closed when I was there. However the nice folks at the Dancing Rabbit Books gave me directions out to Robert Johnson’s grave (one of several graves in the state purported to hold the remains of the blues master, but this is the one that is supposed to be real).
Later, my pal, the beautiful and exciting, Carol Daily (of Sweet Potato Queen, Everyday Gourmet, and Viking fame) took me out for a drive at sunset, past the remains of the store where Emmett Till wolf-whistled at a white woman, for which he was killed. (See Lewis Nordan’s ‘Wolf Whistle’ review on the Recently Read page elsewhere on this site). On the way, we passed this little old radio station that was too perfect.
We had a big ripe peach sunset over a cotton field before returning to the Alluvian and dinner at Giardina’s, a Delta tradition with great food (get the tamales!) and private booths since 1936.
The next morning, after a nice breakfast at the hotel, I drove back to Memphis to return to LA and get to work on the book. I wish I had time to go back for more.