Memphis & ‘The Mississippi Delta’

Published: March 28th 2014
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Memphis – Tennessee

We’re going to Graceland, Graceland…….. Memphis, Tennessee (said Paul Simon). Actually, that’s not why we’re coming here at all. We wanted to see the Delta and the LP gave Memphis an interesting write up. And we largely have to thank Rick Stein for one of his obscure travelogue/food programmes which M saw purely by accident back home and decided we had to fit the area into our travel plans and definitely a stay at the Shack Up Inn near Clarksdale.

It’s a very early start as we have to get 2 buses to the Greyhound station for our bus to Memphis which leaves at 9am and surprisingly isn’t very full. It’s a Jefferson bus (a partner of Greyhound), but the facilities aren’t as good – no Wi-Fi or chargers on board for such a long trip. Phase 1 is the section to Little Rock, Arkansas – The Clintons used to live here. The Phase 2 is Little Rock to Memphis (after a 45 mins change over stop) where the ETA is 8.40pm. We are not looking forward to such a long journey.

The ride takes us through sections of Missouri we haven’t seen before and the landscape – unlike the plains with the same boring vista – is different and more interesting. We soon learn why the ride will take so long – we seem to stop at almost any small town – interesting but this looks like the local bus service not an interstate express! No matter, the surprise package for us is Arkansas which we had discounted as a destination. The Ozark mountains provide a refreshing landscape with rivers, ravines, waterfalls and the trip resembles and feels like a quintessential ‘Road Trip’ of America as the settlements and landscape look more familiar – as in the movies. We can hear Simon & Garfunkel’s “We’ve all come to look for America” as the theme music.

We get to Springfield where we join the old Route 66 – ‘The Mother Road’ as named by John Steinbeck. We pass a place called Branson near the Ozarks which is supposed to be the alternative or poor man’s ‘Las Vegas’. Many old crooners come and perform here. There are regular shows with The Osmonds (or what’s left of them), Daniel O’Donnell etc. We are told it’s pretty tacky but the crowds come especially around Christmas time and holidays.

We also go through some obviously ‘Red Neck’ areas and one with a huge poster saying “Anti-Racist is code for anti-White”. After all the struggles and sacrifices of the Civil Rights movement and a Black President in the White House, the country still has its share of fanatics. What is also pretty clear is that we are still very much in The Bible Belt of the country – churches abound everywhere (do they really have enough people to fill them?).

We get to Little Rock at 6.40pm and leave on another bus – Greyhound this time but no Wi-Fi, not sure why – and get to Memphis after a sort of boring journey as the landscape is initially plains and then it gets dark.

We had been advised by the Pilgrims Hostel where we have booked in to catch as cab as the bus journey at night might mean us getting there after closing time. They suggested $15, we end up paying $25 but it’s late, dark and cool … and it’s been a long day so who cares. We later discover that the guys/women who work here don’t really know much about the area and how it operates, they are all working for their boarding here while working elsewhere – perhaps not for much money. A way of life for young folk we have come across in hostels in the US so far.

The Pilgrims Hostel is in Midtown Memphis – 5 miles from the airport where the Greyhound bus stop now is and 5 miles from Downtown where the attractions (other than Graceland is). It’s part of a Congressional church that runs a hostel conference and retreat facilities. It’s cheap $50 for a private room & shared bathroom. It’s pretty basic but for the price what can one expect. This a good place for catching up with basic stuff including the laundry which is a steal here at $1!!. So all clothes cleaned now!

We go to the local bar – Sweet Grass (with its Bar Next Door) and have a few Memphis brewed ales and some dinner. The Oyster Stew was lovely, the shrimp & grits less so (too fancy and not the real McCoy, even though the shrimps were large!). It’s a bit upscale & pricey but heyho it’s been a long day and lunch was a cheese and jam sandwich with crisps!!! Great though!

Ready by 9am we go for a coffee and find the local coffee shop not open. We walk to the next one further down the road and come upon Otherlands Café – a funky joint, great coffee & have Cheesy Spinach & Turkey grits – fantastic (we come back a couple of times for more!). What a find – someone up there likes us. It’s a great place with an alternative and photos on the wall, one of which is of the mass graves of very young babies in Tennessee – a testament to the high mortality rate here. All the bodies were in caskets like shoe boxes stacked into a long single grave – quite graphic and it won the photojournalist an award quite rightly for bringing attention to the problem. Alarmingly, it’s a modern photo from pretty recent history.

We have a really lovely and fun Face Time with Louise and Olive (and she has grown!). We can really see the difference in her each time. Then we walk to Central BBQ, just up the road (a mile) – the place that everyone recommends and we have the Platter with a choice of 3 meats – Pulled Pork (ok but slightly dry), Ribs (the best we’ve had, moist) and Brisket (good but not the best) with Turnip Greens & Mac & Cheese. We shared and boy are we full – so no dinner tonight.

Who would have thought that M would ever say this, but he did – ‘No more BBQs till we get to Texas’! We’ll see……….

We get the No 2 bus to Downtown, get on a Tram (they call it the Trolley here) down to the Visitor centre for information. They have 3 trams operating – one just goes up and down Main Street, the other along Madison Ave and the third does a Loop around the River Front along the Mississippi and Main Street. A day ticket $3.50 gets you unlimited travel on the Trolley & Bus.

We then make our way to Beale Street – the centre of the Universe as far as Memphis is concerned (other than Graceland – but that came later). It’s too late to try and give justice to the various Museums – that’s for tomorrow.

Beale Street is about 200 yards long and has neon lights everywhere – bars, blues and jazz joints and many cafes. It’s a mini Nashville Broadway and pretty tacky as well. There is a mix of country music, rock and roll and blues being cranked out very loudly and making a pretty awful sound. Nashville this ain’t! Randomly, there is a group of performers on the street, singing, dancing playing slightly off key jazzy/rock and a couple of girls twirling hoops (they’re actually quite good). Then suddenly they’re finished and we’re back to the noise.

There are some interesting plaques up commemorating some great African Americans; rightly so as history shows that they were the ones that saved Memphis when the whites abandoned it after the depression and a bout of Yellow Fever. The city went bankrupt and it took a rich Black American – a freed Slave - to invest in the area and create the environment for black businesses and people to feel free and to flourish here. Beale Street is part of that legacy. It is also the place where gospel music blended with African folk music and the sounds of the slaves & The Blues was born which eventually lead to Rock & Roll.

Memphis is a mix of the old and the new – a strange co-existence. There are several iron bridges across the Mississippi as you enter but the modern double arch structure Hernando de Soto Bridge is lit up at night which makes it look impressive. It’s behind the Visitor Centre and near Mud Island. Nearby is a new building that looks like a modern Pyramid made of concrete and glass – some sort of Cultural Centre with Egyptian Pharaohs on the front – only in America eh!

Given the poverty and dereliction around the city centre we wonder if the money could have been better spent regenerating and maximising the use of many existing buildings. The same could be said for the $27m refurbishment of the national Civil Rights Museum.

Memphis as a city is very spread out (20 miles in each direction wouldn’t be a bad guess) with a small downtown it’s hard to imagine how the poor folks (and there are plenty of them) get around. Buses aren’t that often and the service is sketchy.

We have a real challenge picking up the car we had hired via Hotwire – it takes 2 buses to get to the address they have given us for National Cars and it turns out to be a depot that closed a year ago! (we can feel a stroppy letter coming on). Thankfully the Alamo guys give us a drop to the Airport where we pick up a fancy Buick. Really impressive but slight heavy on the juice (petrol).

Armed with a car, we can now get out and about more easily. We start with the Stax Museum of American Soul Music which is recommended. It’s a Museum of American Soul Music and demonstrates how Stax records made it famous. Stax was unusual as it had mixed colour groups and was run and operated on a non segregated basis. The museum demonstrates the evolution from the gospel and blues to soul music. It had a mixed group of recording artists such as Booker T & the MGs, Otis Redding, Isaacs Hayes, Sam and Dave, Aretha Franklin (who was born here), Al Green (who still preaches at a local church here), Ike Turner etc. The latter comes up a lot in this part of the world and seems to have been influential throughout Clarksdale – where he lived in the Riverside Hotel, and Memphis before he made it bigger with Tina Turner.

Next it’s the Sun Studios trip – the birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll. It’s reproduced as it was with points at which various artists stood and sang. This is the place where Elvis made his first recording & hit under Sam Phillips the owner. Other celebs that recorded here are Johnny Cash, BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. The studio is still in use today having become a ‘Museum’ to the good old days. It’s a great tour with snippet of music made here by the stars of the time. FYI, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash are the only 2 white singers who are commemorated both in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Elvis has his roots in church and gospel music in Memphis where he grew up although he was born not far away in Tupelo, Mississippi.

We are keen to see the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel where on the 4th April 1968 Dr Martin Luther King Jnr was assassinated on the balcony outside room 306. Jesse Jackson was with him at the time. However, the main part of the Museum is undergoing a big refurbishment so was closed till April. Nevertheless, it’s quite poignant being at the place where it happened all those years ago. We take some pictures and move on.

What is worthy of note is that the Black Power movement of the time never seems to get a mention in the Civil Rights struggle in the US at the time. No mention of the black athletes and their protests on the rostrum at the Olympics. Shades of black politics perhaps?

As we have a car we drive miles to Walmart to stock up and eat in for a change. We also pop out to witness Beale Street at night. The neon adds to the atmosphere but it’s still a bit underwhelming. The blues bands are pretty hit and miss, though the crowds are out and a few pretty pissed already.

On our way back to the hostel we come across a gallery; The Withers Collection – Museum and Gallery – great set of black & white pictures of the area and people over the years by Dr Ernest C Withers – some are of people playing the blues, there’s Elvis with BB King, Martin Luther King Jnr at the Lorraine Hotel just before he was shot, a graphic picture of a black guy who had just been beaten up and lynched at the morgue, various Civil Rights campaign shots – pretty evocative stuff.

Next day we are off to Clarksdale and The Mississippi Delta area to follow some of the Blues Trail and understand the evolution of music as we know it today……………

Clarksdale and The Delta – ‘Land of The Blues’

We decide that we’d like an early start as there’s a lot of ground to cover and because some of the Museums we’d like to visit do not open on Sunday, so we are up and leave at 7.30am leaving behind a rainy Memphis and drive towards a sunnier Delta in Mississippi

The first stop is Tunica which describes itself as ‘The Gateway to the Blues’. It’s on The Blues Highway – Highway 61 from Memphis. Bob Dylan did an album with such a title. There are a host of Sites along the ‘Blues Trail’ and we take the time to explore some of them. We eventually make our way to the Highway 61 Blues Museum in Leland a very small town and referred to as ‘The Hell Hole of The Delta’ (not sure why).

The exhibits (folk art, photographs, equipment and paintings) are in 5 rooms and recall the history and personalities of the Blues and the area. Notable among them are Charley Patton, James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas (his son Pat Thomas pops in and gives an ‘impromptu’ performance on guitar and a song for all visitors – for a Tip of course!), and Little Milton etc. Artists that performed in the town include BB King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf – the mega stars of the Blues.

The history and evolution of the ‘Blues’ is evocative and inspiring. It was the story telling/ singing medium that sustained the slaves in the cotton fields and during the harsh times; this coupled with their Christian devotion and Gospel Music created initially Blues and led to country music, soul & rock and roll in its current form.

We travel onto the B.B. King Museum in Indianola where he lived a large part of his life and still visits regularly. His story is remarkable. The B B stands for ‘Beale Street Boy’ when he went to Memphis. He’s nearly 90 but still performs and is called ‘The King of the Blues’. All the greats including Elvis and Clapton acknowledge his genius. What comes across is not only the musical genius of the guy man but also what a good human being he is, and the values that shaped his life from his youth. The Museum is a fantastic experience and should not be missed.

Next door is a diner ‘The Gin Mill’ and we stop over for a quick beer and Tamales which seem to be the in thing to eat here. It’s not bad.

We head back to Clarksdale on Highway 49, but as time is running out to see the Delta Blues Museum in the town we decide to detour to ‘The Shack Up Inn’ where are booked in for 2 nights. It’s a fascinating location and a really unusual place – a photographer’s delight. It’s old Americana recreated in an old plantation grounds with rooms in old sharecropper houses or in the Cotton Gin. Derelict cars sit around the grounds and assorted farming paraphernalia. What is disappointing is that the regular weekend jamboree – one of the reasons for us coming here for the weekend - is not on. This is annoying as there’s no discount on the higher cost for the Saturday night rate. Anyway we make the most of it, get some beers and food from Walmart and have a BBQ.

A real surprise is we are so close to a so called iconic spot ‘The Crossroads’. It’s where Highways 61 and 49 intersect. There’s a set of guitars set above the spot – which is pretty non-descript and tacky. The legend is that Robert Johnson did a trade with the Devil which allowed him to play the Blues really well and find fame and fortune in exchange for his soul! Sound familiar? Also there are a lot of theories where the real crossroad is or was as the current Highway 61 isn’t where the old one used to be etc etc. Hell but it helps make the stories surrounding The Blues Trail more interesting.

We eventually venture into Clarksdale downtown and find it’s a reflection of the state – the town is quite genteel and attractive but the areas with the Blues Bars/Clubs is surrounded by derelict, poor areas inhabited largely by black folk. Even in the evening the area lacks any vibe – we assume that the emotion is in the ‘Juke’ Clubs (quiet closed dens of music). There are however a lot of Blues historic landmarks around such a small town.

Morgan Freeman lives here and had an upmarket restaurant (now closed) and is part owner of ‘Ground Zero Blues Club’. Apparently he called in there the night before unannounced. He moved here after his parents moved back here in the 50s as he feels most at home here. He does a lot for the community and young kids through his Foundation.

The state of Mississippi unfortunately has a pretty bad history of mistreating black people, burning and lynching innocent blacks; it’s considered one of the poorer areas of the US and this is pretty evident as we travel around. The land is largely farmed and has a history of poverty and poor health (due to the delta being flooded regularly and mosquitos being prevalent during the wet season).

We unfortunately did not mention the Ku Klux Klan in our blog on Georgia and South Carolina – a bad omission – as they were largely ex confederate soldiers and bigots who wanted to frighten the black communities by burning crossed to intimidate them and had a history of torture and indiscriminate murder of black people over the years. Another sorry tale of American history!

The irony, however, is the fact that the very thing that people despised and abused most – the black folk, through their hard work, survival instincts, endeavour, tenacity and music have become the salvation of this part of the US in part! The area otherwise has nothing else to offer other than Casinos all along the Highway or on The River Mississippi.

While walking around Clarksdale on Sunday taking pictures a car pulls up and asks us where we are from, it’s only the Mayor who part owns the Blues club with Morgan Freeman and leaves us his business cards. We continue our discovery of the town taking some pictures of the various Blues Clubs some which look like crack dens. The Delta Blues Museum was closed as it was Sunday; we should have known better as this is part of ‘The Bible Belt’ so most other places are closed too. There are a few interesting historic buildings, businesses and plaques as part of the Blues Trail in town. We sort of warm to the place a bit more but there’s a lot of dereliction and run down places in the main area.

We decide to go to Crawdad’s in Merigold for lunch as it does crawfish (a Mississippi river delicacy we understand). After a 30 min drive we arrive to find that the place is closed as it’s Sunday! Damn, so we have to settle for Captain D’s Seafood place – a chain where the price is cheap and quality questionable but fish & shrimps with 2 sides for $9 filled a gap.

The silver lining in all this is that we are near to Dockery’s Plantation called The Birthplace of the Blues. Charley Patton lived & worked here on and off over 30 years. It was a sort of one stop shop with a Gas station and a church etc. The Gas station has been recreated and would not look out of place on old Route 66. The rest of the place looks more like it would have done in 1885 with a bit more wear and tear. It produced cotton and the Foundation that looks after it has Blues music coming out of the cabins when you press a button near the plaque for the site. Great atmosphere and no one in sight.

Next we head to Cleveland where K C Handy apparently got his ‘enlightenment’ as he called it. The enlightenment was making money from singing the Blues when he heard a local farm band play to great applause to a white audience – who then threw money at the band. He’s known as The Father of the Blues – we are not sure why as his first hit record was a copy of a song by a local black singer called Prince McCoy who till now has had no credit for his music. Besides the trues blues started, we suspect, before Handy was even born!!! He has a statue and a whole park honouring him on Beale Street Memphis – we guess he must have done something right?

Back in town and on our way to a gig into Clarksdale but via another route where we pass railway tracks, many goods trains, and rows of abandoned warehouses – a look of old America & it’s industrial decline (great photo opportunities) we have a bust tire.

Thankfully it’s daylight. A passing guy stops to help and we change it for the spare – or he does as he has all the gear, and the rest of the time is spent running around trying to get a replacement. Unfortunately Walmart’s Auto centre doesn’t have the replacement type and the other 2 stores don’t open on Sunday, so we limp back to the Shack on the emergency spare and hear an impromptu short session in the bar which livens the place up a bit. Why they don’t use this place more as a music venue is beyond us, as without the music it seems a bit soulless.

Later we head off for the entertainment at the Reds Blues Club with ‘Watermelon Slim’ performing and Omar (a young black guy from the area) hoping to have a go later. He shows us a few videos of his work – he’s a great guitarist but needs to work on the voice! The main man (he’s a white guy with a well-worn face and a gravel voice – not bad either) sings the blues & plays Hawaiian guitar. What surprises us is that all the guest in this Juke joint are white tourists – no black folks. Maybe the $5 entry is a deterrent? Or do they get it better elsewhere? Or does their life now preclude attendance at such places which created the blues in the first place??? Who knows……………..

Well it’s up at 6 am to race to the Tire Shop to get a new tire and then make for Memphis. It costs $185 and we hope the insurance will cover it ……. Lesson is beware where you travel…………….

Graceland – Elvis’ Home

Having driven back from Clarksdale early, we get to Graceland at 10.30am. It’s $35 each for the Platinum Tour which does the Mansion where he lived and is buried, his Car Museum, his aeroplanes, Tupelo (his birthplace exhibit), Sincerely Elvis – the story of his life as a singer (especially his life in Vegas), the 1968 Special TV show on NBC that brought him back to a wider audience and Hawaii (his shows and holidays there). And oh we must mention the countless merchandise shops (some with really tacky stuff) we have to go through after every venue (except the mansion).

Next door to the complex are The Heartbreak Hotel and one grill place and a diner selling “Elvis Favourite” Foods. Parking costs $10 in addition. They definitely do rake it in here.

The tour starts with a very short bus ride – with audio – across the street to The Mansion. It’s a slick operation as they keep fans, the curious and pilgrims moving through. First it’s the living and family dining room. All the rooms are in their original state - quite southern and smart. Upstairs is a no no as Elvis would have wanted. The place was bought in 1957 for $100,000 including 14 acres of land which he used as a paddock for horses. The place was already called Graceland and he kept the name. The mansion is not too grand to look at though it has a sort of antebellum architectural structure to it.

Downstairs is his TV room still with furnishings he handpicked – interesting choice of colours but it works and a drinks cabinet beside, then there’s a pretty modern (now looking dated) kitchen, the Trophy Room with all his award including his 3 Grammys which he got for Gospel Music – not Rock & Roll. Then it’s through The Jungle room – decorated with ceiling carpet as well when he went through a phase of decorating in African kitsch - hence the name. There are a few outhouses with his Dad’s office, his personal firing range, the Gym which now has a host of his gold & platinum albums and memorabilia, and last but by no means least is the Graveyard with the graves of Elvis, his mother, grandmother and father (who incidentally outlived him). There is a marker for his twin brother Jessie who was still born and is buried in their birth place Tupelo in Mississippi not far from Memphis. Elvis only moved here when he was 13.

The Trophy room has displays of his clothes, posters, albums and TVs with songs played on it. It’s a quick run through of his life and death including interviews with Pricilla Presley & his daughter Lisa. The audio information is pretty good and all in all the tour is quite informative about his music career and a bit more about him as a person.

The car museum is a fun look at his style and madness/childishness with 2 Rolls, various Mercs, Harley bikes, motorise toys including mowers, a Lincoln Continental and an impressive Pink Cadillac.

The Sincerely Elvis section is largely about him Live from Las Vegas.

Elvis’ birthplace – Tupelo, is really a great visit – it’s free as well. They have a short feature film with a couple exploring the Presley family story while in Tupelo. It’s really creatively told and Elvis did go back and perform there for his hometown.

Elvis’ Custom Jets – are essentially 2 jets that he used for getting around America. One’s a large standard jet furnished as a travelling motel with all mod cons of the time. It’s named Lisa Marie after his daughter who celebrated her 10th birthday in it at 40,000 feet. The other is more a latter day Lear Jet for executive with very bright colour seats – greens, yellows etc. It takes all of 10 mins to see.

Finally there’s the Elvis’ Hawaii: Concerts, movies, and more exhibits. More of the same and as the name says there are clips from his films he shot there. The least interesting but the outfits look amazing even today and Liberace would be envious.

The whole trip has taken about 3.5 hours and we are starved so off to lunch at Otherlands – again; and the Pilgrims hostel to prepare for our last night here as we have a very early Amtrak Train to New Orleans tomorrow morning at 6.50am so it’s another very early start……..

However, not all the excitement is over yet. We have cut it very fine to get the car back to National cars at the airport, via Walmart for some booze but they don’t have a liquor store here – nuts, we then fill the car with gas as we are running out of time and end up paying more than we should as 50 yards ahead around the corner the prices are cheaper. Our fault for rushing at the last minute. This also leads to more problems……

Eventually having returned the car we then discover that the No 2 bus that is supposed to run from the airport to downtown & goes past the hostel does not run after 5.24pm. We should have checked. What a fuc***** system – well done Memphis for nothing! So we have to catch a cab back for $22. Then we realise that we have left our USA LP guide book in the car……….. What a fucking day!!

We go to the Youngs Avenue Deli around the corner pretty pissed off but have a couple of good Memphis pints and a great Philly Cheese Sandwich before going to bed for our 4.45am wake up call to catch a cab at 6am to the Amtrak Station.

We are looking forward to New Orleans and a very different experience……………..!!

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15th May 2016

Memphis & the Mississippi Delta
Great blog. You've done a very nice job describing the area and providing history.
18th January 2018

Thank you for your blog...a great read. In 1997 l did a similar trip starting in Atlanta, Montgomery, Jackson, Oxford, Canton, up the Natches trail to Tupelo Memphis and then Nashville. I loved it and always want to revisit. We live in the UK, and now travel to San Fran 3 times a year to see my partners daughter who lives there and lve always wanted to redo the Deep South and Blues and Civil Rights trail. I saw the Rick Stien programme a couple of years ago and mentally noted the places he visited. Clarksdale is definatley on our agenda. Im a huge fan of John Mayall who was very influenced with American Blues music and JB Lenoir whose grave l want to find and visit. We've just come back from a trip to California and visited LA and in our own way discovered a bit of the City. We are planning the trip in April and l have found your blog really helpful and very informative( the good side of the Internet) Really appreciated reading this Thank you Tony

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