You can't properly experience the Delta
without savoring its food and its music. Reporters Leslie Kelly and
Jon W. Sparks, and photographer Matthew Craig went down Highway 61
(and a few two-laners) recently to check out the authentic roots
of great food and great blues. From tamales to 12-bar blues, from
catfish to Johnny Conqueroo, we soaked up the chicken shack treatment,
from the state of the blues to a taste of barbecue. We've been reporting
frequently on this blog, so check us out.
February 27, 2004
Touched by Lucifer's luck
The keys in question (see below).
Posted by Jon W Sparks at 04:04 PM
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When you visit the Delta, you necessarily absorb the mysteries around the life of blues legend Robert Johnson (see several of the postings below).
So for this whole trip, I had my mojo radar working. I figured if the devil could get such extensive PR out of collecting Johnson’s soul that remnants of evil juju would be hanging all over the place like an especially voracious strain of kudzu.
But it was more like hoodoo hooliganism.
I have photographs with odd things going on that can’t be explained even by my inept picture taking skills.
Various computer glitches occurred in ways that can’t be explained even by the fact that we were running Windows.
But the phantom’s prank that nearly did me in involved the keys to our van. I locked the vehicle Thursday morning before we took our bus tour of the Delta. Part way through at lunchtime I realized the keys were no longer in my pocket. I envisioned them sunk in some muck by Po’ Monkey’s juke joint or buried next to Fanny Lou Hamer’s grave in Ruleville.
Or worse, they’d been dropped or lifted in Greenwood and some rascal was barreling around Leflore County in the company van with all our computers and cameras.
So for half the tour, hush puppies sat hard in my stomach as I fretted about the van’s fate and how we’d get back to Memphis.
When we returned to the hotel in Greenwood, Matthew Craig got to the van and pointed at the keys still hanging from the driver’s side door. Including the key to the Club that dependably held that steering wheel in place.
Now I have never done such a thing before, so I’m not taking the blame for this. It was a diabolic prank done by the Beelzebub of the Blues, the Delta Demon, the Mephistopheles of Mississippi.
It’s just part of the spiritual landscape of the weird, alluring and sometimes impenetrable Delta. Where it doesn't hurt to keep both a gris-gris bag and a book of scripture nearby.
Posted by Jon W Sparks at 03:36 PM
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Highway 61 resurrected
An eagle eyed and highly literal reader noticed that our original introduction to this blog (above) said we were getting on Highway 61 and going to Greenwood. Since 61 doesn't get much closer than 40 miles to Greenwood, he allowed as how we might get lost in the levees. Well, we did take 61 to Clarksdale and then did make the proper turn onto 49E. So there. But for the record, the original reference was intended to be more cultural than Rand McNally. Still, we have amended the intro to encompass a few more lonely Delta roads to make it all technically correct.
Posted by Jon W Sparks at 02:38 PM
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It all started here
A year ago, the C.A. EYE column did a quick Internet survey to determine the birthplace of the blues.
Puhleeeze. We found some shills for St. Louis and Chicago making claims. They’ve purveyed some fine music, but the birthplace is indisputably the Mississippi Delta.
And the exact spot, well, that’ll always be open to debate, but one of the leading candidates is Dockery Farms near Cleveland.
One authority that sez so is B. B. King, citing the presence of Son House, Charley Patton and Willie Brown.
These days, there’s certainly not the activity that once covered the area. In its day, it was a company town with a post office, railroad terminal, a doctor, churches, a graveyard, stables, commissary and even its own money. All that in addition to the cotton gin and seed house where many of the laborers worked.
We celebrated the heritage by dining on fried catfish, hush puppies and cole slaw with Mrs. Keith Dockery McLean. It is unseemly to reveal her age, but let’s say she graduated from Ole Miss in 1936. She was married to Joe Rice Dockery, the son of the farm’s founder, but her contributions to community service around the state have been a lifelong pursuit.
And she is an exquisite lady.
Posted by Jon W Sparks at 02:07 PM
A whole lot to digest
I'm still flush with excitement after taking a two-day trip down to the Delta. It was so meaningful to hear the story of the blues at Ground Zero, where it all began.
Luther Brown, our terrific tour guide, started with the very basics... giving us a lesson in geology. Because without the big floods that created that fertile land, there wouldn't have been the plantations where the blues were born.
So many memorable moments filled this quick trip to Mississippi, which was part of the Living Blues Symposium this weekend in Oxford: I was thrilled to meet the legendary owner of Club Ebony, Mary Shepard. After we talked for a while, she showed me a picture from the '70s she had taken with B.B. King.
Visited Robert Johnson's grave and went to a famous juke joint, Poor Monkey's near Cleveland.
I was impressed with the training center in Greenwood built by Viking Range Corporation, and to see real evidence of the good that outfit has done for the community.
The food people we met were so friendly and so willing to share secrets. Gloria from Hoover Grocery didn't hesitate when I asked for the secret to her fried chicken. (Eggs, she said.) The reason Spooney's ribs have that slightly sweet, smoky quality? Pecan wood.
Locals I met were extremely generous in sharing suggestions. Here's a list of some tasty places:
Airport Grocery in Cleveland for the slaw-topped burgers and barbecue. They occasionally have live music.
Also in Cleveland, The Country Platter (great catfish, slaw, hush puppies), The Warehouse, The Shanty and KC's.
Madidi in Clarksdale. (I also enjoyed and wrote about the Rest Haven's kibbies, and liked the tamales at Hick's.)
The Crawdad in Merigold.
Leo's in Rosedale. Along with the tamales at Joe Pope's White Front Store.
I am already planning my next trip.
Posted by Leslie Kelly at 02:02 PM
February 26, 2004
Going through the dying town of Drew, we learn that one of the key
industries around here is tearing down buildings, gathering the bricks
and reselling them -- very desirable in new homes going up in places
like New Orleans.
Drew once was a fine place to shop. But when Wal-Mart chose to locate in
the college town of Cleveland, the Drew decline became inevitable.
And so farewell to Drew.
Later on the tour, we're introduced to the unusual town of Mound Bayou,
known as the center of black culture in the region. It had success
stories that belied the nature of the segregated South, from providing
fine health care to creating its own telephone system to having some
semblance of control over its political destiny.
It is yet another landmark of the Delta and its culture that we'll be
writing about for Tuesday's print editions of The CA.
Posted by Jon W Sparks at 07:24 PM
Last night's tamale
Photo by Matthew Craig
Tamales and the blues have been tangled up together for years on the Mississippi Delta. "They're a good drinking food," said John T. Edge, food scholar for Southern Foodways, part of the University of Mississippi.
But why does this Mexican standby come with saltines in this area? It's one of those traditions that nobody really knows how it got started. "Maybe it helps cut the grease," Edge suggested. Yeah, that and a ice-cold Bud.
By the way, that's Edge sampling tamales in this photo.
Posted by Leslie Kelly at 08:47 AM
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Correction to previous item
Well, OK, we'll be back today. Singing the blues. Me, I think there's some of Robert Johnson's leftover mojo at work.
Posted by Jon W Sparks at 08:41 AM
Blues travelers, second verse
This morning we're going on a tour with Luther Brown, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning. We'll be hitting Cleveland, Merigold, Clarksdale and Tutwiler among other Blues centric sites. He'll be putting the Blues in some context with the region and its history.
Luther is a fascinating source of Blues info and between his knowledge and the takes of the other Blues brainiacs on the tour, we oughta pick up a thing or two. We'll pass it along during the day whenever we can find a place to transmit.
This Alluvian Hotel, by the way, is a gem, beautifully appointed and comfortable. Leslie, Matthew and I have decided we need another day to explore the Delta and sample the cuisine. Hope this is OK with our editors. Sure, it'll cost a little more, but they wouldn't dare cut us off since w...
Posted by Jon W Sparks at 08:40 AM
The morning after
This X'cursion Jon Sparks, photographer Matthew Craig and I are on is like a doctorate level course in the Blues. (Yes, with a capital "B".)
Food plays a role, but it's definitely a supporting one among this group of music afficiandoes. The small group who have gathered in Greenwood, Miss., for this two-day pre-party before the serioius symposium in Oxford starting tomorrow are absolutely passionate about the music.
I don't know that much about it. I just know I like it.
In this convivial crowd, I feel a little like a white zinfandel drinker slightly intimidated listening to connoisseurs discussing the merits of one first-growth Bordeaux over another. Much like wine, the more you learn about this music, the more you learn that there's so much more to know.
But I'm willing to learn. No matter how much white zin I have to drink before graduating to chardonnay.
Posted by Leslie Kelly at 06:57 AM
What we heard ... or didn't hear
Well, we've sampled tamales, chowed down on barbecue, heard the splendid sounds of Big T and the Family Band and taken a jaunt to Club Ebony in Indianola. Super Chikan was the night's entertainment along with his fairly amazing Chikantars -- guitars that he's made from gas cans. Honestly. It's too late for me to be making this up.
But permeating all this good food and good music has been the spirit of Robert Johnson. Can't shake it. Did he really sell his soul to the devil? The question was bandied about by blues experts and blues lovers throughout the day.
Some claim it was just a jealous claim made by Son House who was tired of Johnson getting all that attention even though he'd been long dead. Some say it was insulting to claim that he could only be good because of a bargain with Satan -- what about the notion that Johnson was good because he was talented and practiced? But others point to the confusion that surrounds the whole affair. How did Johnson really die? And where? Which crossroads -- there are at least three -- did the soul-selling supposedly take place? And is the Little Zion grave the real spot of his remains? And if there is all this confusion, isn't that a classic sign that the devil is manipulating things?
All I know is that at his gravestone were a hairpin, a stubby pencil, a pink guitar pick and exactly $1.11 in change. And far beyond the church, there was some unearthly laughing.
Posted by Jon W Sparks at 12:47 AM
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February 25, 2004
State of the blues, baby
What's the state of the blues? Gathered here in Greenwood, Miss., are some of the staunchest advocates and lovers of the form. And what they'll tell you is that one of the big jobs ahead is to promote the blues, the Mississippi version in particular.
Preston Lauterbach is a field editor for Living Blues magazine and presented some questions for the group to consider. Some are real posers and unique to the history and feeling of the blues. Such as: How do tourism bureaus deal with sending visitors into the neighborhoods and juke joints that embody blues culture? After all, it ain't Disneyland.
Other questions are larger in scope. How can Mississippi reward its blues musicians to keep them from moving to greener pastures? How to the venues, festivals and museums stay in business? And how do you bring people back after the first visit?
Lauterbach found some inspiration in the words of B.B King, who he interviewed for an article in the March-April edition of Living Blues. In it, King says, "And why shouldn't we bring visitors from out of state to learn about the culture we have there? Maybe then they'll feel about like I do: This is a people world, and Mississippi don't have to stand back for anybody. We've contributed to this world. Lay it out where everybody can see it."
For what Lauterbach calls the "fledgling blues tourist industry," these are marching orders.
And, by the way, he wants it clearly understood that he is out to combat "detrimental stereotypes," one of the most invidious of which is that "the blues is dying and we must keep it alive." Lauterbach says that's not so. The blues has been around for a hundred years and the issues are not survival but of making the most of the resources and heritage already in place.
Meanwhile, tonight we visited the gravesite of Robert Johnson. I was looking for some evil in the air, but he's buried in a sanctified churchyard. I found some beer bottles. Still, there was something more. That'll be in my next post...
Posted by Jon W Sparks at 06:56 PM
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Welcome to Clarksdale
An hour and a half on a rainy Highway 61 and we're stopping at the Resthaven Restaurant in Clarksdale that touts American, Italian and Lebanese food. Leslie will fill us in later on the delights we sampled, but you can check out the place at http://www.clarksdale.com/resthaven/Chafik.htm
Meanwhile, Matthew Craig is taking photos of the place that we'll post soon. We're liking this place, right down to the piped in tunes that I'm pretty sure is pan flute music. How Delta is that?
Posted by Jon W Sparks at 11:44 AM
Low pressure cell blues
Woke up this mornin', tuned in Todd on Channel 3.
I say I woke up this mornin', tuned in Todd on Channel 3.
But beware of smilin' meteorologists
Especially if they're on TV
Picked up the remote and checked out Channel 5
Yes I grabbed that remote,and checked out Channel 5
And smilin' Ron just gave me
More of that weatherman jive.
So our trip to the Delta, gonna be through a low pessure cell
Oh, that trip down the Delta, gonna be in a low pressure cell
And we wanted to be authentic
But did we have to go through this, uh, inclement stuff?
Posted by Jon W Sparks at 07:05 AM
February 23, 2004
The gorgeous hotel that's the headquarters for this week's Blues X'cursion was featured in the March issue of Food and Wine magazine.
The Alluvian was opened by The Viking Stove Corporation so folks making the pilgramage to the company's home base would have a swank place to stay. The hotel's got fancy sheets, flat screen TVs and luxurious bath products. Definitely uptown down on The Delta.
Posted by Leslie Kelly at 12:30 PM