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.