The Blues Trail

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August 18th 2017
Published: August 21st 2017
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Natchez - pronounced as in 'book of matches', is famed for its antebellum mansions, that is grand houses that pre-date the American Civil War. It is the oldest settlement on the Mississippi River, dating to a French settlement of 1716.

There used to be a tribe of Native Americans, the Natchez Indians, who were by all accounts generally brutal. They snuck into the French fort and killed everyone except for a cooper and a tanner. In revenge the French wiped out ALL the Natchez, who are now an extinct tribe.

It is the first deep water port north of New Orleans, and there was great trade along the route - cotton and lumber going south, luxury goods coming north - and this made Natchez very wealthy. Then in 1850 it became 'the wealthiest city in the US'. This followed the invention of the cotton gin which picked the seeds out from cotton. This used to be a slave job. Mechanising that job 'freed' up thousands of slaves for field work instead, and so more and more cotton could be planted. In 1850 there were more millionaires per capita than any other city in the world.

There were 174 millionaires in 1850, each trying to outdo the other particularly in their homes. Hence the architecturally striking antebellum homes. There are 430 Antebellum structures, not all mansions. Many of the mansions do guided tours, but we only had an overnight stay before going on to Memphis. We took a drive around to several of the mansions in the morning before leaving town. We also saw the location, the brick built club, where Jerry Lee Lewis performed his first professional gig at age 13.

More sobering though we also went to Forks Of The Road, the site of several slave markets in operation from the 1830s to 1863. Natchez was one of the busiest slave trading towns in the US.

The US legally abolished the import of slaves direct from Africa in 1807 but the domestic trade of enslaved people was still big business. Between 1800 and 1860 750000 enslaved African-Americans were moved from the North to the South, mostly to work on the sugar plantations ( like The Whitney which we wrote of in the previous blog), hence the expression 'sold down the river'.

We drove through Port Gibson, said by Ulysses S Grant to be 'too pretty to burn'. Just out of Greenwood we noticed a bright red metal roadside information sign, and saw that it was the Ashwood Bridge, on the Tallahatchie River, made famous by Billie Gentry in Ode To Billie Joe, which won her 3 Grammy awards, sold 750,000 copies in the first week and knocked 'All You Need Is Love' off the top of the charts.

Not much further on, on a bit of a back road that we just happened to be on because it was a detour route to our destination, we saw a Blues Trail sign (there are 100 or so in the area) and found that we had happened upon, by chance, the grave of Robert Johnson. Pip nearly had palpatations! We screeched to a halt and were able to locate Robert's grave in the graveyard. Our 'Blues' odyssey had begun. Robert was only 27 when he died and there are only 29 of his recorded songs from two recording sessions in 1936 and 1937. But he remains one of the most famous and legendary Delta Blues musicians, influencing such as Elmore James, Eric Clapton, Rolling Stones and, of course Led Zeppelin / Robert Plant - can you see why Pip had palpatations!!

Our next planned en-route destination was Money, a one street village in the middle of nowhere. Pip had first heard of Emmett Till from a book Simon had given her for Xmas last year, The Deep South by Paul Theroux. We learnt more about him at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery a few days back. Now we had almost come full circle. 14 year old Emmett came to Bryant's Grocery Store to buy candy one day in August 1955, from his uncle's with whom he was staying nearby. He had a slight speech impediment and had been told to whistle if he felt awkward or struggled to speak. Carolyn Bryant accused Emmett (black) of flirting with her. Shortly after Carolyn's husband and his half brother abducted Emmett, tortured him, barb wire around his neck, and murdered him. His horribly mutilated body was pulled out of the river . The two men were arrested, accused and stood trial. But they were aquitted, by an all white jury, who deliberated for just 67 minutes. One juror is quoted as saying they only took that long because they took a soda break.

Emmett's death received international attention. His body was returned home to Chicago where his mother had him in an open casket so that all could see the brutality. This murder is widely credited as sprouting the American Civil Rights Movement.

The two murderers later sold their murder confession to 'Look' magazine but couldn't be retried under double jeopardy rules. Earlier this year Carolyn admitted that her original accusation had been made up.

Emmett had been killed because of a lie.

There is little left now of the grocery store, a derilict building totally overgrown with ivy and trees. Such a sad, sad place.

We did, however, meet with Dr Sue Clifton, an author who was in the area doing research and photography for a book she is writing on the story. She filled us in a little bit more but also suggested that we go see the courthouse at Sumner where the men were aquitted. This was on our way so we duly did so. The place looked unchanged over 60 years. 12 juror seats, defence and prosecution tables.

But what we saw next shocked us. Across from the courthouse was an Emmett Till Interpretation Centre, closed. Looking through the window it looked empty so we don't know whether it is operating or not.

BUT, inside leaning against the wall was a metal info sign to mark the site where Emmett's body was found. It was shot through with bullet holes! An Internet search has also shown that the sign back in Money has been vandalised twice in the last couple of months.

There are times when this country is so f***ed up!

On a less sober note our next stop was Dockery Farms. We had first learnt of this place through a Rick Stein documentary of all things, and later by another doc by Reginald D Hunter. Dockery Farm was established in 1895, so was never a slavery farm, but employed white and black locals to produce cotton. African-Americans here created a culture that inspired the music known as The Blues. Even BB King once said "You might say it all started right here.". Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Son House lived here and learned from each other. In turn they left Dockery and went north to record. Charley Patton in particular is said to have inspired Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, BB King, Elvis, Howlin' Wolf, and we therefore circle around once more to Stones, Clapton and .... Zep.

Our 3 night stay is at the Shack Up Inn just outside of Clarksdale and about 3 miles from THAT Crossroads at the junction of Highways 49 and 61

The Shack Up Inn proclaims 'The Ritz we ain't! '. It is a collection of ramshackle sharecropper huts and converted grain silos. Corrugated tin roofs and walls and Mississippi Cyprus conjure up visions of a bygone era - but with air conditioning, hot water and a few other modern amenities. It has an on site bar/barn space where live performances are held 2 or 3 times a week. Tom Waits, Pinetop Perkins and even Robert Plant - anyone else detecting a bit of a LZ/RP obsession here? - have played the space.

In the morning we thought someone had built a F1 racetrack just outside of our tin grain bin!! On stepping outside, at around 7am, we found there were two, very fast, crop dusting aircraft spraying the fields of the plantation that the Shack Up Inn is located on! Boy, do they fly low over the fields between the trees and power cables.

We kept to Clarksdale today. Firstly to Crossroads where Robert Johnson is famously said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for mastery of the Blues. In its day Clarksdale was known as the golden buckle on the cotton belt. In 1920 the Wall St Journal called it the Magic Ciy because it had so many milionaires.

We started at the Delta Blues Museum, housed in an old train station, as used by Muddy Waters when he took the train to Chicago one morning in May, 1943, to make a living out of music instead of tractor driving on the Stovall Plantation. Amongst the exhibits are Muddy's plantation shack, as well as rare footage from a 1953 Europe tour. There is a 'Muddywood' guitar, made from wood salvaged from part of the cabin that was destroyed by a tornado, given by Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. There is also the 1939 Ford Deluxe driven by folklorist Alan Lomax when he visited Clarksdale in 1942 to record Waters for the Library of Congress. Along with much more memorabilia, even a frame of Led Lep cd covers presented in 2006 by Robert Plant in recognition of who inspired them.

We then moved on to the Rock and Blues museum, which focused more on how The Blues has influenced music from 1950 to 1980. This was more our era with great exhibits and memories eg Muddy Waters' contracts, Jerry Lee Lewis autographs, Buddy Holly crash display, plus artifacts from Clapton, Cream, Hendrix, Doors, Woodstock, Velvet Underground, Byrd's, CSN&Y, Vanilla Fudge, Led Zep - what! again!!

After a rest from the heat that evening we went to the Shack Up's barn to hear Cary Hudson sing some great blues songs. Then into town to a Juke Joint called Red's. This place would make a 'dive' look palatial. At these places it is just about the music. Feels like the place could collapse at any moment but great atmosphere. We listened to the Lucious Spiller Band, blues and some rock classics. Very good indeed.

A few thoughts about 'The Delta'. It strikes us as as being a bit prarie-like, but also very much like the Fens. Roads, straight as rulers, diminishing towards a distant, flat horizon. Abandoned cotton gins silhouetted against the stormy skies, and yes we had some torrential downpours. 'The Delta' is not really a delta. The Mississippi flows south for another 500 miles before reaching the sea at NO but it fèels like one, as if the sea is just over the horizon. In fact the great river is usually only just out of sight, over the levee, fat, sluggish, brown and occasionally glimpsed.

Long enough for this blog. We still have Memphis and our trip across to here, Nashville, to blog catch up on. But, we are now north of Nashville for tomorrow's eclipse -weather / lack of cloud cover looking good - and in a few minutes we are off into Nashville to the Grand Ole Opry for a country music gig at this world famed concert hall.

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