Part two, part one here.
We hit the road after Vicksburg, back on route 61 with the plantations spreading out ahead of us. The road here is awful, concrete slabs that haven’t been joined properly so every few seconds there’s a thud and you feel the bump as you go over the join between sections.
We headed to Indianola, the home of BB King, for our next stopover that night. It was exciting, reading about the blues clubs there – Club Ebony, 308 Blues Club, The Blue Biscuit – and thought tonight we’d get to see some great live music. But every place was shut. It was so weird. The town was silent, so we made the decision to drive all the way to Greenville, home to so many musicians as it was where two large roads and a river dock met, about half hour away with Charly Patton buried halfway between the two towns. We waved as we drove past.
There is a famous blues bar in Greenville – Walnut Street – and we pulled up expecting that there would be music here, after all it said on various internet pages that it was open most nights. It’s not. We met the owner, Danny, as he was being interviewed for the local TV news, and he kindly let us in to explore the club and let us drink a beer in his bar.
He was great, full of stories and told us the history around the Delta: essentially blues music is dying out among locals. Their lives are the blues, they grow up with it, live it, see it everywhere, and they don’t want to know it anymore. A lot of people move away and there aren’t many farm workers any more, so the population has dropped off. There’s no one to come and listen to the music if he was open more than two nights a week, so most bars limit themselves to opening Friday and Saturday night, sometimes a Thursday too, if you’re lucky. It’s so sad. Tourism is keeping the music alive, without the visitors blues would have died off long ago. Even BB King’s home town can’t keep bars open more than two nights a week.
It was a bit of a shock. But then it makes sense. There is a lot of poverty in the Mississippi. We drove past beautiful mansions with falling down trailers in the park across the road. It’s a place of extremes, always has been and it seems it still is. Danny said that African Americans in the north are coming to visit his bar and local blues festivals as they explore the connection with their heritage, which is great to know!
Danny closed Walnut Street back in January 2018 but local musicians persuaded him to stay open so that they have somewhere to perform and have promised to help him out. I really hope it works out for him, for us, for the musicians in the area.
Back to Indianola via Rosedale to see the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul. Or at least one set of crossroads in the Mississippi where he’s said to have sold his soul. Rosedale is a weird little town, broken and falling down and the crossroads are right next to the railway. That line follows us everywhere.
Indianola – the BB King museum was brilliant, a must-see, not only for BB King fans, but for people interested in wider blues culture.
And the staff are so friendly and helpful – one chap took us to see Club Ebony, which is now only open for special occasions. It was part of the Chitlin’ Circuit – the bars for African American performers in segregated times – and everyone has played there from Tina Turner to BB King to James Brown. It was amazing to see, and you could imagine the place jumping, full of people. The club can hold about 400!
We talked to our host and he agreed that the blues is dying off, that tourists are keeping it alive, and it’s a sentiment I’ve been often told now on the trip. People aren’t interested, it’s tourists keeping it together.
Ugh, so sad.
The BB King museum also explored the origins of blues, how this was an expression for a voiceless, powerless, oppressed people, and it’s really starting to hit home for me what that means as mentioned before, but it can’t be stated enough.
Indianola, Greenville, Rosedale, all of these are small rural places of a few thousand people, surrounded by vast expanses of grey mud currently. I’d love to see the land when the plants are grown and ready for harvest – I can imagine the place having a feeling of life. But it’s alive now, the land doesn’t seem to stop moving. The earth is silty and water collects on top of it, reflecting the sky. Birds, squirrels, possums, are around, and there’s one bird in particular that you can’t help but notice – the red cardinal, a bright flash of colour against the mud.
The long road round
We left Indianola and drove to Clarksdale the long way round via Parchman and Tutweiler. Parchman Penitentiary is a bloody scary place. I don’t know if it was the grey skies but there was an impending sense of doom hanging over the land, and the signs saying no stopping made us lock the doors and drive a little faster. It’s still a prison, still has prisoners working the land, and half of the blues men from back in the day were in and out of Parchman at least once. Alan Lomax found Leadbelly in Parchman and got him out. It has a huge connection with blues men, but we weren’t gonna stop to look at it.
Tutwiler seems like a broken place, huddled around the railway tracks with a sad brown lake. Lots of businesses are closed and buildings falling down. This place is where WC Handy heard the blues for the first time, at the railway station.
Cleveland, I forgot to mention this town. It was a break from the smaller places we’d stayed and was a bigger place. Everything still shut early though. This is where WC Handy had his momentous breakthrough about how the common music could be something to get involved in as he watched money rain down on the local boys who played the blues. He went home and wrote his first blues song the next day.
This place is heaving in history but markers are few, and there’s not also something to see. Blues isn’t always a tangible thing. I haven’t seen a lot/any markers for the blues women at this point either. We drove past Port Gibson where the Rabbit Foot Minstrels – Ma Rainey and her troupe – were based but we didn’t stop so I don’t know if it acknowledged her.
Despite the mud and poverty and broken towns, there’s something about the place, I can’t explain it. The fields that go on and on are hypnotic and the small towns have the same feel to them. The people are courteous to a point; you’re a stranger with a weird accent. I’m writing this in a city and I miss the rural areas now, feel hemmed in by tall buildings and hanging traffic lights.
Gotta go, will write more and realised I’ve totally missed out Po Monkeys and Dockery plantation. This blog ain’t in chronological order, that OK?