My husband and I recently made a road trip across Mississippi to the little town of Clarksdale.
Each year we try to surprise each other with birthday trips. This year he took me on a horse adventure in Georgia.
He was thinking we were headed to the Viking Cooking School~ the Alluvian Hotel and Spa, but I had some more rural destinations in mind.
Clarksdale has become famous stemmed by events revolving around blues music and the characters who surround it. Morgan Freeman, who has revived a local blues joint called Ground Zero Club has helped spark renovations nearby. Just recently, among all of the newfound interest, you will find loft rentals for weekend guests wanting to immerse themselves in the music and Southern culture.
On the outskirts is another spot called THE SHACK UP INN. My husband has wanted to go there for a while.
We recently sold our Tiffin Motor coach and had always talked about having an airstream. I thought a night in an airstream might be fun to check out. I just happened to find one at a quaint little artist place (with renovated barn which holds a dark room and art studios) on the internet called 7 Chimneys. It rivals some of the dreams I have had of fixing up the old family place to have artist retreats and live off the land spreading creative cheer across the countryside.
When we arrived we found that the main house and pool belong to the owners (they were out of town) so we did like anyone else in a shack would do (a quite nice one at that) and sat for a spell on the front porch, absorbing the breeze until the window unit could catch up with the June 90 degree heat, taking photos of the sun as it set across the airstream I had hoped to be renting for the night. They were kind enough to upgrade us to their largest cabin since the airstream was under renovation.
We have talked about taking an airstream across country. I would probably be happy having one in my driveway, full of artwork and creativity I could park in front of anyone wanting a class or take it along to the beach or a festival. My mom cringes at the thought.
Since we were about ten miles out of town and were planning on tasting a bit of moonshine if we ran across any (when in Rome), we decided to call a cab. Friends told us there was a cab driver called Mr. Jolly who helped out some friends who told us about the place. He was “down the road a piece” and said he would call us when he got back to town. Mr. Jolly IS, “in his words”, the only paying cab service in town.
Lo and behold, he did call us back.
We explained by cell phone (thank goodness times have changed where those are an option) after we watched him pass us a few times that we were “in the shacks by the white house with seven chimneys”.
“Oh, yeah, you must be at Miss Stovall’s place!” he said.
We waved and hooped as he rounded the dirt driveway.
“What yall stayin up in here for? I used ta live in one of them shacks like that?” he said with a half toothed grin. ” Spent my life tryin to get out of one. This is a ways, you know. Gonna cost ya about thirty.”
The owners of the house had told me when I called to check availability, “oh don’t worry, just leave the door open. Everybody does, and we will have it open with the keys on the counter for you.”
When I called the owner after arrival to see how we might get to town without driving she said, “oh you should drive, there is only one cab. You might get there but not sure if you will get back. Sorry to cut you off, but we are a bit frantic as a truck was stolen from here last night. It was a worker I believe, a person we are mentoring so don’t you worry. Nothing dangerous.”
Luckily I had brought Bertha as I always do when I travel.
Just before we were loading into the car with Mr. Jolly, a bright red pickup pulled to the back of the house. We then noticed three black kids who were casually playing out front in the sprinklers. We waved to them as we pulled across the yard. They couldn’t have been older than twelve years old.
“Aw, they must be the workers children hanging out for the weekend,” I thought as we bumped along beside them on the gravel road in the cab.
Minutes later as Mr. Jolly and I began chatting about places to eat and things to do we heard police sirens and realized we were being pulled over.
“Lawd, that is the pow-leece,” Jolly said as he kept rolling not sure it was for him, but finally pulling over.
“Jolly,” the policeman said as he gave him a pat on the back and motioned for him to come to the back, “there has been a break in up at the …. place.”
I have to say, as a writer, I can never be in a situation and and not try to hear all that is going on. I heard “stolen truck”, leaned out the window almost jumping over my husband who was trying to hide his beer beside the door like we were still teenagers and yelled, “Is it a red truck?”
“Well, yes it is,” he said. “Have you seen any young chullins too?”
“Those kids back at the house I guess were dropping one off. We thought they were with an adult. Holy moley! We have solved a robbery!”
“He skirted off in his outdated police vehicle and we high fived and told Mr. Jolly how much we loved the excitement.”
“I still don’t get what just happened,” Mr. Jolly kept saying as he scratched his head, adjusted his cap and headed again towards town.
I think even after we got out he was not sure what had gone down.
That night we paid him $100. He had recommended a few places to eat but we headed to a more trendy looking spot just down from Ground Zero Blues Club.
We ate at Stone Pony Pizza on Delta Avenue. It appeared to be a locals place with live music. We had a quick pizza after our half day of work and the three hour drive from Tuscaloosa to Clarksdale. Many of the restaurants that people had recommended as icons had closed to our disappointment and we passed on the bar-b-que because we live in the town where Dreamland was born, but hear ABE’s is noted as the best in town.
We headed to Ground Zero where King Fish (who happened to be a large, brown teenager with a set of lungs and talent that would make Led Zepplin take notice) and a group of young kids at the blues camp held each year were showing their talents, bending notes on a harmonica towards a packed house. We fit right in with the families of teen musicians, someone asking us which was ours.
“We are too young to have kids that old,” my husband chimed as he often does in denial on road trips. “I know my place….My baby is now 19 and on the road somewhere near Michigan with a band called LONGREEF as I write this.”
*note, Ground Zero has a free taxi limo but Jolly gave us a tour of all the great spots to eat and be seen and perhaps never return from in Clarksdale. Who can resist that?
We called Mr. Jolly and he picked us up for the return ride within a few minutes. The ride home after a night of Blues that rivals any on Bourbon Street (NOLA), continued to be a surreal event. Mr. Jolly had picked up his girlfriend as he came to get us, but on the ride home, it was only him. He told us about his wife, how he had lost her six years before.
“Ain’t never gonna find another like that one,” he told me. “I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to find what I had.”
Some things that change, just can’t be duplicated.
“It’s ok,” I said as if he needed my consoling. “You will meet her again one day.” We were the only souls anywhere to be seen on that long stretch of two lane between miles of huge, lush corn rows, even in 2013.
“Sho Nuff,” he said with a smile that glittered in his wide rear view mirror.
I squeezed my husband’s hand and watched the headlights shine high into the trees on the oak lined two lane road just in front of Muddy Waters Cabin site with my hair blowing across my face. I watched the needle bounch just right of center on his dash. I tried to remember the last time I had ridden in a one seat wide car, especially with the windows down on a two lane road. It didn’t take long to remember I learned to drive in a car like this.
“You know, you don’t need to know nothing in this world but whether you are going to heaven or to hell,” he said. “The rest don’t really matter much.”
There is a lot of talk in Clarksdale about heaven and hell.
After all, this is where Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil that made him a legend,
brought blues to the world, and cost him his life.
We heard all about him the next day when we ventured into the Cat Head Store. The man working there already had a small group of regulars gathered round as he told stories about the crossroads.
He told us about the spot where Robert Johnson is buried.
“Go left on Highway 8 until you find Money Road.
Don’t forget to stop at the remains of the old Bryant General Store where Emmit Til was said to have flirted with a white lady cashier and was killed by the owner. That moment started the Civil Rights movement. You might miss it so go slow. It is a boarded up two story brick gas station. “
He continued with directions and I wrote them down like a roaving reporter in my little notebook tucked inside my snakeskin purse.
“There will be a blues marker about five, no two to three miles down the road, and a white church on the right. Robert Johnson’s grave is one tucked under a big Pecan tree in the back left side of the yard.
Nothing has changed since he was buried except for the driveway which was once river gravel,” he continued.
The shop keeper had a few new bodies venture in and continued with his stories about the man who was in church that dug the grave in that, the only black cemetery of the day.
“You know the sickest part,” someone there said as we all leaned in to hear his whispers, “Roger Stoli owns Robert Johnson, and his name is on the back of his headstone. Makes me crazy sometimes and I wanna go rub it off or something. He had his only kin sign over rights. Come to find out there was a child no one knew about. That kid still gets only half of the sales of his songs. Stoli still gets a piece. That my friends is pure robbery.”
Now I grew up in a small town. You can believe ALL of what you hear, or some of what you hear, either way the story is gonna be good.
Robert Johnson was 27 when he died. He was at an extended gig in Greenville, MS. It was known he loved the ladies. He shacked up with the wife of the owner of the place where he was playing. Unfortunately, his girlfriend happened to be a waitress there. The owner had her serve him a bottle of whiskey laced with poison. (click his name above for music and history)
“He was poisoned on a Saturday but didn’t die until Tuesday,” the shopkeeper said with this look of revelation on his face.
We ventured into to an upscale shop called The Delta Bohemian, part of a bed and breakfast type hotel downtown. We chatted with Madge, the owner awhile and I fell in love with a butterfly covered silk sarong she had designed and had made in New York.
We left there in search of a tamale, finding Larry’s Tamales just down the way. We rolled up in there a bit earlier than they are accustomed and ordered a dozen tamales. “Fountain broken,” the owner told us as he motioned while barely looking at us towards the machine just beside two men rolling the tamales in the back. Luckily we had our own chilled drinks in the car.
We learned about Sonny Boy Williamson and W.C. Handy, and saw Wade Walton’s Barbershop where these guys would have spontaneous jam sessions back in the day. The country’s oldest blues station, WROX 1450-AM may have been the station that was cranking out all of the blues tunes as we paraded the streets.
That night after our enlightenment and being immersed in the culture we stayed in the Gunny Shack at the Shack Up Inn. The stories had made the adventure more than just a trip to an old town. We felt like part of the story as we checked in to a shack that had once belonged to a black lady who was an artist. Her brushes and a canvas were still lying on her desk in the corner when we walked in. I felt, as an artist, this was some part of my history that would plant itself as one of my “moments”.
There was a band from New Jersey warming up for the filming of a music video. We were some of the only people in the daylight crowd of six.
We hung with the band and a guy who had come from Australia once and never left.
“I bought me a piece of land down the way,” he said.
Jolly later told us when he picked us up for dinner in a local joint that he had had a call to that place a few years back when he was working for the police force.
“He’d done put his woman out on the street. She was screaming and carryin on. He told us to take her back to the bus station,” Jolly said.
Never know what you will find in a small town and how big the stories tend to get throughout the years.
Surrounding the town is thousands of acres of what used to be cotton. The Hopson Plantation once had a 4000 acre cotton farm and commissary. Cotton is no longer king in Clarksdale. Apparently corn is, for bio-fuel, according to the locals.
So there is no surprise that on the way out, we took the route towards Money Road.
It is a good thing we didn’t follow the directions because the miles were off, but the descriptions were right on. The place was almost abandoned, except for the big sign saying he was buried there. The gravestones surrounding him were turned over and broken. His was coated in Mardi Gras beads, old bottles of whiskey, plastic flowers covered in mud.
We pulled out onto County Road 6 towards town and attempted lunch at Giardinas in the Alluvian Hotel and Spa in Greenwood, MS, but it was closed on Sunday. We had also been told DOE was one of the best places ever to get a steak…EVER. So next time, we will have to find a way to get there for dinner.
As we toured Greenville in no hurry to get back to Tuscaloosa, we found a restaurant tucked within the old Train Depot. Immediately a family began asking us how we found the place.
“We never eat fast food on trips,” my husband explained.
“Well, welcome!” at least two to three people said as they greeted each other then motioned to us, one an elderly man in his 90’s whose daughters had driven from Oxford to take him for a Father’s Day lunch.
We devoured the special, roast and gravy, among photos and read the news clippings dotting the walls of all of the latest achievements of anyone in town as we prepared to ease back to a bit quicker pace.
Not much has changed along the Delta Blues Trail. Sunday’s are still defined by flocks of cars lining the roads beside the rural churches. Fried chicken and heavy roasts are still favorites for after church feasts and there is always an excuse to go a calling to friends and neighbors across the trails, dirt road and two lanes. We said a prayer as we eased off back to T town and towards the bustle of our family of three children, two dogs, a cat, two parakeets and a hamster awaiting us at the end of the paved drive.
Story and Photos by Allison Adams
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