I'm not the churchgoing type, but after a Saturday night of booze and blues in the bars of Memphis's Beale Street, getting saved seems like the only proper Sunday-morning activity. And seeing as how my dad and I are in the Bible Belt, the place to do it is a church with a good gospel choir.
My dad, Frank, is a lifelong music lover who grew up in the Deep South. Our goal on this trip is to delve into the region's rich musical traditions--particularly its role in the birth of the blues--and leave enough time for some Civil War history and home-style Southern cooking.
After a quick stop at Graceland, we slide into a pew at theFull Gospel Tabernacle, where legendary crooner Al Green has been a pastor since the 1970s. About 50 parishioners sit in front of us, the women dressed in their Sunday best and matching hats. One woman has a tambourine in her purse, and we soon learn why: The three-hour service includes preaching, singing, and dancing. "If you feel the need to kick off your shoes and cut a rug, you go on ahead and dance!" Green cries, as the crowd rises to jitterbug with the Holy Spirit.
Thoroughly exhausted, Dad and I then head south on Route 51 into the Mississippi Delta, a vast alluvial floodplain of seemingly endless cotton fields and sun-baked towns. We're going to the Delta's spiritual and musical heart--Clarksdale, Miss.
Clarksdale lies at the intersection of routes 49 and 61, where, many blues fans believe, the iconic 1930s performer Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in order to become a guitar god. The tale's origin is murky, as is the site of the crossroads itself--nobody can agree just where it's located. I later learn that this intersection can't possibly be the spot because Route 49 didn't extend this far north until three decades after Johnson suffered the ultimate bluesman's death (a jealous husband apparently poisoned his whiskey). We gobble down some messy pork sandwiches atAbe's BBQ, an institution since 1924, before moving on.
Every trip needs a quest, and the search for the crossroads seems perfect. In Clarksdale's smallDelta Blues Museum, where Muddy Waters's reassembled shack is on display, there's a map of the Delta marked with four crossroads candidates. Later, atCat Head, a store devoted to blues music and folk art, I pick up theDelta Blues Map Kit, a guidebook written by blues producer Jim O'Neal. It lists 11 potential crossroads.
That night, we drive four miles south of the Clarksdale crossroads to the historic Hopson Plantation and itsShack Up Inn, a collection of cypress-and-tin sharecroppers' shacks (updated with electricity, running water, air-conditioning, and Wi-Fi), where we luck into a late cancellation. Our shack, appropriately enough, is named Crossroads.
The man at the front desk asks if we've come for the concert atGround Zero Blues Club, a barn-like juke joint in a century-old building. The club, co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman, usually has live acts Wednesdays through Saturdays, but this is a special Sunday: Jazz singer Mose Allison is in town.
On the ride over, my father recounts how he used to buy Allison records for a dime back in grad school. The joint is hoppin', the beer is $2.50, and the music is terrific.
We take a slight detour on our way to Vicksburg, Miss., driving into Helena, Ark., to sit in on a broadcast ofKing Biscuit Time, which claims to be the world's longest-running daily blues radio show.
The show went on the air in 1941, initially featuring live music by blues-harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson II. Boogie-woogie piano pioneer Pinetop Perkins (a mentor to Clarksdale native Ike Turner) and guitarist Robert Junior Lockwood frequently accompanied him. It was only 15 minutes long and started just after most sharecroppers came out of the fields for lunch.
"Sunshine" Sonny Payne has been the host since 1951, opening each show with the same catchphrase--"Pass the biscuits, 'cause it's King Biscuit Time!"--in honor of the first sponsor, King Biscuit Flour. In a studio at theDelta Cultural Center, we sit several feet from Payne, 82, as he spins records on the 15,243rd broadcast.
From Helena, we head back to Mississippi and turn south on Highway 1, the Great River Road. Driving past old plantations, we can smell the crop burns even before we see smoke rising over the cotton fields. East of Beulah, Miss., I follow my guidebook's directions down back roads to the dirt and asphalt intersection of Frazier and Walton roads, a more likely candidate for the Robert Johnson crossroads than the one from yesterday. Crop dusters buzz low overhead as I climb a gate to photograph the spot.
We cross the Mississippi River again to drive a section of the levee north of Arkansas's Lake Chicot State Park. It's one of the world's longest levees (640 miles), rebuilt after the 1927 flood immortalized in early blues songs and re-created in the filmO Brother, Where Art Thou?The road is one of the scenic highlights of our trip. Cattle and horses graze on the levee's grassy slopes, while closer to the river, the landscape flattens and turns to swamp--the water flecked white with egrets. On the other side, cotton fields stretch to the horizon.
Built atop a 300-foot-high bluff, Vicksburg occupies perhaps the most strategic location on the Mississippi River. In 1862, at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln ordered Ulysses S. Grant to seize Vicksburg from the Confederacy. After nine months of fighting and a 47-day siege, Confederate forces surrendered the city on July 4, 1863.
Vicksburg's role as a turning point in the war makes theOld Court House Museumfar more interesting than I expected. My favorite exhibit is a .58-caliber lead bullet that was said to have impregnated a woman when it passed through her womb. The soldier who fired the shot reputedly did the honorable thing and proposed.
It's hard to escape the echoes of the Civil War in Vicksburg. The gorgeous 1840Cedar Grove Mansion Inn, where we spent the night, is proud of the apple-size Union cannonball still embedded in a parlor wall. The shelves in theCorner Drug Store, more homespun museum than pharmacy, are stocked with an armory's worth of cannonballs, shells, and bullets, along with 19th-century quack-medicine bottles, glazed moonshine jugs, and a still with a cardboard sign outlining a recipe for whiskey.
We have just enough time before lunch to make a quick circuit ofVicksburg National Military Park, home to the largest Civil War cemetery in the country--more than 17,000 white markers are laid out across rolling grasslands. Also at the park is the U.S.S.Cairo, the country's only surviving Civil War river gunboat, sunk off Vicksburg by a Confederate "torpedo" (an early version of a sea mine) and preserved in the river mud. In 1964, its timber skeleton, armor plating, cannons, and engines were raised and then reassembled.
AtWalnut Hills, an 1880 home that's been converted into a restaurant, Dad and I share a big round table with a family from Dallas. The massive lazy Susan is laden with platters of fried chicken, okra, lima beans, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, coleslaw, biscuits, and corn bread. We swap travel stories until it's time for the bill: a bargain at $15 apiece.
From Vicksburg we pick up theNatchez Trace Parkway, which follows what was once an ancient Indian trail through the dense Delta forests. Along the way, we stop to walk the Sunken Trace, a rutted section of the original trail cocooned in trees, and to climb Emerald Mound, the country's second-largest ceremonial Indian mound.
I knew thatBayou Cabins in Breaux Bridge, La., would be a perfect place to spend the night when I called for a reservation and couldn't understand a word the owner said. Rocky Sonnier speaks with a swamp-thick Cajun accent, punctuating each sentence with a deep chuckle. When he finally passed the phone to his wife, Lisa, I managed to book a cabin overlooking Bayou Teche.
After a breakfast of cracklin' (fried pork rinds), boudin (sausage), eggs, and hoghead cheese (a terrine made from pig-skull scrapings), we drive to Lake Martin to meet Walter "Butch" Guchereau ofCajun Country Swamp Tours.
We spend two hours in a crawfish skiff, maneuvering through mazes of water hyacinths and cypress trees, their branches dripping with gray-green tangles of Spanish moss. I've never seen so many species of birds: great blue herons, purple gallinules, Mississippi kites, white ibis, and a peregrine falcon. I know I should be more excited by the alligators sitting on logs, but for me the birds are the highlight.
Breaux Bridge claims to be the crawfish capital of the world, so after the swamp tour, we go toCaféDes Amisfor lunch. Zydeco musicians play during Saturday breakfasts, which would have been a fitting end to our musical journey. Since it's a Wednesday, I have to settle for a crawfish-stuffed chicken breast topped with étouffée. All in all, not a terrible trade-off.
Finding Your Way
Route 61 from Memphis to Baton Rouge is the main highway through the Delta. More scenic drives include the Great River Road (Route 1) from Helena to north of Vicksburg, and the Natchez Trace Parkway.