Mississippi Writin’ Blues

When circumstances converge to produce an unexpected or unusual result, some people call it “intuitive planning”.   Others call it temporary insanity, or taking leave of one’s senses.  Roger Stolle, proprietor of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art  in Clarksdale, Mississippi, has heard it all.  A St. Louis executive with a love for the Blues and high tolerance for risk, he  left a lucrative job in advertising to move to the Mississippi Delta and start promoting musicians with names like Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, Robert “Wolfman” Belfour and Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry.  “A year ago, I was meeting with the CEO of May Company and traveling to Hong Kong on business,” explained Roger, speaking of his changed life. “Last week, I booked a blues musician named T-Model Ford for our grand opening and set up a store display that included a chair made out of painted cow bones. You tell me which sounds more fun.”     

I’ve had my own experience with the kind of intuitive planning that turned Roger into a combination entrepreneur and impresario – I ended up varnishing boats for fun as well as profit, after all  – so when I spot the first signs of circumstantial convergence drifting over the horizon like high cirrus, I start looking for the storm.  Not so long ago, a casual browse through Words..Music..and Sometimes Baseball, an obviously eclectic blog,  sent me over to Cat Head for the first time.  Browsing their site, I discovered something called the Juke Joint Festival, a gathering of home-grown Delta blues musicians taking place just on the fringes of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.  I could sense an impulse running down the tracks toward me like the 3:09 out of Memphis when it still barreled straight for the heart of the Delta.  I found Clarksdale on the map.  I looked at the calendar.  I thought about my old twelve-string guitar and wondered, “Whatever did happen to Howlin’ Wolf?”  There was no turning back.

 

The town of Clarksdale sits in the heart of the alluvial plain known as the Mississippi Delta, at the convergence of two highways traveled in spirit by Blues lovers around the world.  Running north from Baton Rouge, US 61 reaches to Vicksburg, and then on up to Rolling Fork, home of Muddy Waters.  It crosses US 49 in Clarksdale and continues on to Memphis.  From Clarksdale, US 49 extends south to Greenville, home of the Mississippi Blues and Heritage Festival and northwest to Helena, Arkansas, where King Biscuit Time”, the radio show that helped popularize the blues, began broadcasting  in 1941. ”King Biscuit Time” is still on air, hosted by its longtime emcee, John W. (Sunshine Sonny) Payne and preserving an irreplaceable part of American culture.

In the Delta, story and song are interchangeable.  As early as 1936 Robert Johnson, one of the most influential of the early blues musicians, immortalized Clarksdale’s popular designation as “the crossroads”  in his Cross Roads Blues.   Today, a new generation with a different historical context seems to prefer the term “ground zero”, and so it was that award-winning film actor Morgan Freeman and his business partner Bill Luckett established the Ground Zero Blues Club, a not-to-be-missed venue for performers and aficianados alike.

Full Moon Lightning at Ground Zero ~ “Mean ol’ Frisco”

On a more personal level, Clarksdale represents for me a convergence of music, writing and life. To the east lies Oxford, home of William Faulker and the heart of Yoknapawtapha County where I traveled in 1964 to pay homage to one of the greatest writers of our age just two years after his death.  To the north and west the Yazoo Pass winds. My great-great-grandfather David Crowley arrived with his 34th Iowa Regiment after the ill-fated Battle of Chickasaw Bayou to participate in the Yazoo Pass Expedition before being sent on to Louisiana and Texas.  On the way from Houston to Vicksburg, my route will take me near Shreveport, to Shiloh Baptist Church out on Blanchard-Latex Road and the grave of Huddie Ledbetter. It was Ledbetter – “Leadbelly” to his fans –  whose recordings helped teach me what to do with my twelve-string guitar.

Just outside Clarksdale is Moon Lake, where I’ll be staying at Uncle Henry’s.  A casino in the 1930’s, Moon Lake was shut down when townspeople discovered its profits were going to the Chicago mob.  Henry Trevino, foster father of the current proprietress, Sarah Wright, bought it.  After Uncle Henry’s death, Sarah and her son George took responsibility for running the establishment, and promoting its history. 

It does have a history, particularly for literary sorts.  As a child, Tennessee Williams came by occasionally with his grandfather, the Reverend Walter Dakin, who was rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church from 1915-1933, and Moon Lake Casino plays a role in several of his plays.  According to Sarah Wright, both Tennessee and Rose Williams spent time at Moon Lake, but as far as she knows he never stayed there. Faulkner hunted in the area of Moon Lake, a bit of history that brings a smile in light of this report from Joel Williamson in his book, William Faulker and Southern History:

Phil (Stone) also introduced Faulkner to Eula Dorothy Wilcox in Clarksdale.  Dot was born in Oklahoma, orphaned at twelve, sold her inheritance at sixteen and put herself through beautician’s school.  In the twenties she had her own shop in Clarksdale, also her own house with a high solid wooden fence to insure her privacy.  She was very  much a bachelor girl, almost one of the boys, in a time when girls of traditional families would not dare such a life, and she was a favored companion to some of the more rakish men of the local elite.  At first Bill would come over with Phil. Later, when he had his own car, he showed up every few weeks alone. “Put on your best bib and tucker”, he would say, “I’m gonna take you up to Moon Lake Club.”
To its patrons, the Club was a refuge from the ordinary, stilted life of middle Mississippi.  One Sunday morning about eight o’clock, Bill was at Dot’s house having coffee. She was still in her nightgown and housecoat. The doorbell rang. It was County Commissioner Hooks and Judge Talbert determined to kidnap Dot as she was and take her off to Moon Lake. Falulkner declared that he and Dot were twins, so he must be taken, too. So off they went, in spite of it being the Sabbath, and didn’t return until three in the afternoon.
 Moon Lake Casino

Two months ago, I’d never heard of Clarksdale or Rolling Fork, Moon Lake or Ground Zero.  Today, I’m off to explore a entirely unexpected convergence of music and writing that makes Mississippi feel like home.  What I need for such a trip, I have – a guitar, a map to Huddie Ledbetter’s grave, a book of Tennesee Williams short stories, a history of the Yazoo Pass Expedition and the directions to Uncle Henry’s at Moon Lake.

As I talked on the phone with Sarah Wright about the history of the old casino-turned-bed-and-breakfast, she began to recite lines from Blanche Dubois’ monologue about the death of her husband as he ran out of Moon Lake Casino to shoot himself.   She talked about Summer and Smoke as though Alma could be her own doppelganger.  “Oh,” she said, “we don’t get many folks interested in literature.  We used to have porch plays and serve meals during the Tennessee Williams festival, but people didn’t want to drive the 17 miles from Clarksdale.  And here you are, gonna drive some hundreds of miles to come see us.  That’s just fine.”

It is fine.  It’s so fine I wish I could sing it for you, breathe out the story like a singer exhaling the blues. But I can’t, and so you’ll have to make do with words, just as I’ll make do with words for just a little while.  Eventually, the melody will clear and the rhythm tick away, easy and measured as a man’s steps across a field.  By Rolling Fork, the words won’t need paper to be remembered. In Clarksdale, there’s a bluesman on every corner, ready to bring words to life.  At Uncle Henry’s, the ghosts roam free around the front porch while the moon shimmers off the sheeted water and the anonymous penitants walk into the baptismal lake, and Dot Wilcox and her friend Bill, and  Tennessee and his beloved Gramps and Blanche and Alma and John all will converge and listen to another story, from another passing life, sung in the ages-old way.

Gonna lay down my paper,
lay down my pencil too,
Open up that front door,
put on my walkin’ shoes,
I ain’t typin’ no more,
I got the Mississippi writin’ blues.
Fly like an eagle,
cry like a moanin’ dove,
spread out my wings
and sing to the sky above
I ain’t sittin’ no more
I’m headin’ back to the place that I love.
Goin’ down to the Delta,
lookin’ for a brand new rhyme,
Gonna find me a clock
that don’t tell a single time,
Gonna find me a river
where the muddy waters flow just fine.
Gonna tear up my edits,
turn off my hard drive, too,
Walk out that door
no matter what’s left to do,
Gonna find me a way to cure
these Mississippi writin’ blues.

   

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14 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hello from Clarksdale, Mississippi — America’s blues crossroads! I enjoyed your blog. See you soon at the Juke Joint Festival….

    Thanks and best regards,
    Roger at Cat Head

    Hi, Roger,

    I’ve spent a good bit of time learning – now it’s time to enjoy! Looking forward to it immensely.

    Linda

  2. Linda,

    I did head over to Words…Music…Baseball. What a great site!Somebody else actually remembers the Banana Splits (though my memories are pre-cable)! Thanks for the heads-up; I will be a “repeater.” And gee, who else did I find there ;)

    This is a fascinating post. The whole Delta area is a foreign country to me. If you need any more listenin’ material for your trip, I do recommend the soundtrack to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Fabulous stuff, right up that dark back alley (movie is great too). Your lyrics are great–can’t wait to hear the tune. Have a great, great trip!

    Thanks, Deb,

    There are ironies all over the place here, including the fact that my “blogaversary” is taking place on the road. Maybe I should throw some Kerouac into my bag! It’s been a bit of a struggle to break loose, but as the old saying goes, sometimes a girl does what a girl has to do!

    I’ve always loved the music, and I’d sure rather be in a juke joint than a cocktail party, so this will be a wonderful trip all the way around. It sounds like Sarah and George both are talkers, so a little porch time with good conversation may be a possibility. I’ve already discovered Tennessee Williams was far more than “The Glass Menagerie”, and anticipate learning a whole lot more. They always say you should combine learning with fun, but when you think learning itself is fun – well, what could be better?

    Linda

  3. Well, good for you, Linda! You’re about to get some blues culture of the purest kind – E N J O Y! This was a great read, thanks!

    PS: Keep us posted of your travels and deeds! :)

    Moonlightcowboy,

    If anyone knows Mississippi blues, I’ll bet you do. I’m looking forward to it – about time I got inland from Mobile and Biloxi. Thanks so much for stopping by – always a pleasure.

    Linda

  4. Oh Linda,

    I am so excited for you I can’t sit still long enough to type!

    Have a fun, wonderful, amazing time and then come home and tell us all about it.

    (BTW – I love your song, especially the line –
    “fly like an eagle, cry like a moanin’ dove,
    spread out my wings and sing to the sky above”)

    Kit,

    I had so much fun with the song. I’d been listening to Robert Johnson one morning, and started singing on my way to work. The whole thing took just an hour or so to put together, with some tweaking after that. The neatest part was realizing it was different every time I sang it – and yet the same.

    Just think – if it hadn’t been for you, none of this would be happening. Granted, something else would be happening, but not THIS! I am excited – I love traveling like that eagle.

    Linda

  5. Sounds like a bonafide adventure to me. I do love an adventure that doesn’t have lions or tigers or bears in it. Wonderful post and wonderful videos. Have a great time, Linda.

    Bella,

    When I was a kid, my dad would give me “that look”, and say, “Want to go exploring?” He’d tell Mom we were going to the hardware store or the dump, and away we’d go, with no destination in mind but a determination to see what there was to be seen. He’s gone now, and has been for years, but every now and then I just have to get up and go. There’s too much world not to.

    Linda

  6. What else is there left to say except have a wonderful time and tell us all about it when you return! Sounds like loads of fun! Wish I were going with you!

    Karen,

    Wouldn’t it be fun? Quick! There’s still room in the car……

    Linda

  7. Hey, how cool is that! Those places are exotic to me, someone living thousands of miles north of Mississippi, experiences and places I can only taste in literature and movies. BTW, Tennessee Williams’ influence spread far and wide. I’ve seen The Glass Menagerie on stage way up here in hinterland. And since you’ll be on the road, may I send early congratulations on your blogoversary! Have a fun and wild ride, Linda!

    Arti,

    The fun started with Spud, the Guinea Pig mascot of a certain police department – I have photos, yes I do. The sun is shining this morning and each pot of quite terrible motel coffee is a little weaker than the last, so it’s time for me to get out of here and find some caffeine to go along with my music.
    The Glass Menagerie made its rounds, didn’t it? It was our senior class play….

    Linda

  8. What a delightful post and an equally-delightful sounding trip. I look forward to you writing about it and taking us there too.

    ella,

    I actually thought about you last night when I had some of the best Natchitoches meat pies I’ve ever eaten – sort of a Cajun empanada, I suppose you could say.

    I loved writing this post, and am loving even more starting to see what I wrote about! “Just going” is great, but going with a little foreknowledge is even better.

    Linda

  9. Linda, I’ve spent most of my life in the Mississippi Delta. From Helena to Greeneville. After reading your post and feeling your excitement, through your words, I almost feel as though I’ve taken my own history for granted. I do hope to hear more of your journey.

    P.S. Ground Zero has the best fried catfish you’ll ever eat!

    Keith

    Keith,

    I didn’t have a clue – knew you liked the music and seemed to be knowledgeable. Well, I guess! As for taking things for granted – I live across the lake from the NASA space center. have I ever taken the tour? Of course not. But, I may do that one of these days. Just now – I’m off to explore your roots and eat some of that catfish.

    Linda

  10. I’m so very, very glad you are finally getting away — and this sounds like an amazing trip! Between music, literature, new territory, Uncle Henry’s — which sounds like a grand place to be, ghosts and all — and just being free as a bird, it should be an amazing holiday on any number of counts.

    I love the blues, too. I’m not a student of it, but always eagerly await the local blues festival, attend the blues acts as priorities at our three-day folk festival and have my own favorite group (Mississippi native and local hero Freddie Cunningham and Root Doctor — check out youtube.com/wkar under Root Doctor for some samples from their recent show they did for us!)So, I’ll be very eager to hear more!

    I suspect over the next week or so, every single one of your senses will explode with something new, something joyful. I am so happy for you.

    Hi, Jeanie,

    I just discovered this little clutch of comments I missed responding to – no matter now, because we’re all caught up, but I’m really appreciative of the links. Haven’t heard of them, and I’m always happy to listen to someone new.

    There will be plenty to share, that’s for sure. I’m looking forward to it.

    Linda

  11. Ah, travel. There is nothing better for stretching out life.
    Hope you are having a fabulous time, and I know there will be stories to tell us when you get home.
    Sing on!

    qugrainne,

    One of the best things about travel, for me, is the change – of scenery, of people, of routine. All of that could be done at home, but a new location, a new destination, just makes it easier. And it’s always enjoyable!

    Linda

  12. Hey Shores … thanks for the lovely words n’ great music.
    Since you’ll be passin thru the ‘Cajun Highlands,’ maybe
    a stopover at Lafayette for some gumbo, a Cajun fa de do
    n’ Zydeco might be a nice break from the road. Have a big
    time – I’ll be waitin for your report … Mike

    Mike,

    Ah, but I missed the “Cajun Highlands” both ways. On the way, a little trip through east Texas to Ledbelly’s grave outside Shreveport, and on the way home, it was Mississippi to Arkansas to Lousisiana. No I-10 for this girl! But it was wonderful fun, and now it is story-writing time! Thanks so much for stopping by!

    Linda

  13. Happy Blogoversary :)

    Thank you!

  14. I didn’t catch you before you left, I think, but I hope, that is, I know, you are having a blast. Your song is great – yes, you must do a little recording and pug it in for us here. I am, as always, enlightened by the history and nowledge you so easily and blissfully weave into your blog entry(ies). Yes, I join Q in saying ‘we look forward to hearing about your trip!’

    PS I’ll bet you do a whole lot of writing during your adventure!


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