|05-15-2012, 12:11 PM||#1|
Join Date: Feb 2008
Riding the Delta – Straight roads, Blues, and the Ghost of Robert Johnson
We made a run to Clarksdale, MS to hear some blues. We started out on Wednesday with a ride from Georgetown to Shreveport, La. We rode Hwy 79 most of the way, we ended up for a short time on IH20.
I was quite surprised with the Horseshoe in Shreveport. While not a gambler, I do spend a lot of time in Las Vegas and this place reminded me so much of the casinos there. We got a $49 room, which was excellent for an overnight stay. Had a good meal in Binions Steak House. The steak was better than one I had a few years ago in the steakhouse at the top of Binions in Las Vegas. A restful night and we were on our way to Mississippi.
After 100 miles on IH20, we got back on backroads for our first destination, BB Kings Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, MS. However, it was lunch time and we needed some food. We were passing through Bastrop, La and came upon PT’s Eat-A-Bite. Looked like a cool place so we stopped to check it out. We stepped into probably the friendliest place I’ve ever been. There was a gentleman standing and talking to some folks at a table by the door and immediately included us in his conversation. Wanted to know where we were riding from and to, the usual stuff, then he told a guy sitting by himself to get up, we needed food. Then he told us to sit down with the guy as that’s how it’s done there. So we sit down in the booth with Pastor Vic who’s having a burger and fries. Very nice guy, let’s us know the gentleman who was carrying on with everybody, ministers to bikers in Bastrop. How cool is that? We talked to Pastor Vic for a while about Jesus and church while he finished eating and we ordered. He waited for our food to come, the excused himself and went about his day. In the meantime, the folks at the next table engaged us. One of the women is an inspirational speaker who is going to be speaking in Georgetown (go figure) in May at Sun City. We finished up, told everyone goodbye and headed back out on the road.
The BB King museum in Indianola is a great place to visit. I’ve enjoyed BB King’s music since I heard “The Thrill is Gone” in 1969. The museum is dedicated to giving the visitor a history lesson of BB (his real name is Riley, but when he left to go to Memphis, he became Blues Boy which was finally shortened to BB), the area he grew up in, and the social issues of his youth. They also have zumba on Thursdays.
We left Indianola, but instead of taking the short route to Clarksdale, we backtracked a bit to take Hwy 61 known as the Blues Highway through the delta to our destination for the next 3 days.
The blues highway gets it’s name from the fact that it connected New Orleans to Memphis before IH55 was built. The musicians from the delta traveled either north to Memphis or South to New Orleans looking for a better life. These folks were mostly sharecroppers descended from slaves that worked the plantations. Sharecropping didn’t seem to me to be any better than slavery even in the early 1900’s. As we passed the miles and miles of cotton fields, I could feel the oppressive heat these farmers felt while picking cotton by hand. The blues comes out of the situation of needing a release to help the day go by while out in the field.
We rode through Shaw, Renova, Merigold (home of Po Monkeys Juke Joint), and finally hit the Crossroads in Clarksdale. The Crossroads is where Hwy 61 N crosses Hwy 49 N. Legend has it that this is the spot Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. According various accounts, he was told to be at the crossroads at midnight with his guitar. The devil, in the shape of a large black man took the guitar, tuned it, played a few songs, and then gave it back to Robert, giving him mastery of the instrument. We never visited the Crossroads at midnight…
Our hotel was in West Helena, AR as all the rooms in Clarksdale were booked. This meant that each day, we had to ride roughly (no pun intended) 45 minutes to get to our room. Hwy49 was the roughest paved road we had ever been on. There were 3 different buckles in the road that sent us flying off the seat the first time we hit them. Finding them in the day was easy. Finding them at night, not so much.
We wandered around Clarksdale on Friday. There were some pre-festival activities going on and we grabbed some lunch at Abe’s BBQ at the Crossroads. They had BBQ Pork, BBQ Ribs, and BBQ Beef. I asked if the beef was brisket, the waiter said no it was “beef”. I ordered a pulled pork sandwich. Phyllis asked about the pork and ribs, the waiter said the pork was pulled and the ribs had bones in them. She ordered the ribs. The food was good, but not the best ever. From there we went to Ground Zero Blues Club on Delta ave. Morgan Freeman is co-owner of the joint. It was packed with tourists, little kids sitting at the bar, not the type of authentic juke you would expect in Clarksdale. There was a band from Iowa playing some blues. This wasn’t what I had come for. I was looking for authentic bluesmen. Those souls who live and breathe it. I knew they were there, just needed to find them.
We found Terry “Harmonica” Bean playing on the sidewalk outside the Delta Amusement Café. There were a few people enjoying his music, most were locals. One thing I did notice was it is easy to tell the locals from the tourists in Clarksdale. This was the first of three times we would see Terry over the weekend. From there we walked over to the Hambone Gallery where a couple of guys were playing harmonica and keyboard. I didn’t get their names unfortunately. After they were done, we moved over to Lady on the Levee for dinner and then headed back to the hotel.
Saturday was Juke Joint Festival 2012. Music all over downtown, locals playing the blues. We grabbed some brunch at Rust and then we camped out in front of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art.
Enjoy the video.
In the evening, the music went inside to local bars, clubs, and jukes. The line to get into Ground Zero was about a mile long. I didn’t come all this way to stand in line. We decided to walk to Red’s Lounge, the last authentic juke in the world. Reds is backed by the Sunflower River and fronted by a graveyard. The BBQ pit was smoking right by the front door. The sun had set, so it was dark on the sidewalk. Evidently, they don’t get streetlights on this side of town. We walked to the door and was met by a friendly security guard who checked our wristbands and let us in. We got about a foot inside of the door and stopped. Wall to wall people. People sitting at the bar, people sitting on the floor, people everywhere. On the stage, Robert “Wolfman” Belfour. We made our way across to the opposite side and located 1 seat. Phyllis sat down and I stood for a bit. Then someone else got up and I sat down. All I could see was the back of the people standing in front of me.
Let me back up a second and talk about the building itself. It couldn’t have been more than 1500 square feet. Shaped like the old house it was built out of. With the bar taking about 100 square feet and the stage taking another 80 – 100, meant there was roughly 1300 square feet of room. The ceiling had plastic stapled to it in many spots. This was so that rainwater would be diverted to the sides of the building. One person told me it was raining in there last year and water was coming through the electrical fixtures. I estimated that there were probably 200 people crammed into this space. I guess there is no fire code in Clarksdale.
Finally, the guy sitting next to Phyllis left and I got his seat. My evacuated one, was taken by a guy whose two friends had grabbed seats next to it when another couple left. Thinking we were in it to win it, I looked at the guy and said “Score.”
He looked at me kind of funny and in broken English said, “I don’t understand. My English is not to good.”
I said, “We both got what we wanted, so we both win.”
He said, “We are Dutch.”
“Like from the Netherlands?”
“Yes we are on a 3 week holiday touring the American south.”
I could finally see Wolfman, but there was so much chatter around me, I couldn’t hear him, so we decided to fight our way back across the room and try another venue. On the way out, Red sold me a t-shirt.
We walked past Ground Zero again, line still long. The two bands I had wanted to see, Rev Peyton and his Big **** band and Super Chiken were the best known of the festival, both playing at Ground Zero, which is the best known club in town, so it only made sense it would have the most people. I developed a new strategy. Hopson Commissary was hosting Big George Brock, a cool old harmonica player, and his band. Hopson was about 3 miles outside of town at the Shack Up Inn and there was a bus running between it and downtown. I figured if people had to ride a bus, there still might be a chance to get there and get a seat. So instead of getting on the bus, we fired up Ruby and headed over. The club was full by the time we got there. We were standing in the back near the bar and a fellow came up to me and asked if we had a red and black Harley and if we were staying in West Helena Best Western. I answered to the affirmative. He’s like; “We got a table with two empty chairs. You want to come sit down?” We spent the rest of the night with this nice couple from St Louis. Big George brought it and a good time was had.
We left Hopson about midnight. The music was still playing, but I wanted to get off the road before the drunk locals got in their trucks to go somewhere.
The road was dark. I had noticed the night before that this was one of the darkest area’s at night that I had ever been. That includes a trip I took several years ago from Isla Mujeres, Mexico to Galveston on a 50 foot sailboat. We cruised up the four lane at 65 mph, but when we turned on to the two lane (roughest road ever) I dropped down to 55 for the short 10 mile trip across the delta and over the Mississippi River. But it was dark. I could feel the ghosts of Robert Johnson and those bluesmen of old. Slaves picking cotton and share croppers doing their back breaking work. The Devil poking around. Bugs everywhere. The only light was the led headlight I bought in 2011 after getting stuck in New Mexico after dark and not being able to see down the road. The headlight washed the road in bright white light so I could see, but had the side effect of pulling in every bug within 10 miles. We made it to the bridge and I slowed down to 45. That’s the oldest, narrowest, bridge I had ever been on. I had to downshift to get enough torque to take us to the top. The river shimmered below in light of some old riverboat…
The next morning the Weather Channel said the tornado producing storms that had killed people in Oklahoma was getting close. When we went to bed the night before, there were tornado watches all across eastern Arkansas. Now they would be bearing down on us. We had a short 75-mile ride up the blues highway to Memphis and some sight seeing planned for the day. We quickly packed Ruby up and got on our way. The sky was overcast and the wind was howling. We ran straight (there aren’t a lot of curves on the Blues Highway) up to Memphis and luckily the Doubletree let us check in early. They had covered parking about a block away, so I put Ruby up for the night in a protected, covered corner of the parking lot.
We walked over to Beale to find some lunch. BB King’s Blues Bar was open and there weren’t many people inside. This is usually a sign that the food isn’t great, but we were hungry and gave it a shot. It was actually really good. It was still early and not a lot of folks out looking to eat just yet. While we were eating, a band started assembling on stage (bonus!). They got all tuned up and then a woman walked an old man up the stairs and helped him sit down in a chair. He was wearing a great looking chartreuse suit complete with a derby and had what looked like a fanny pack around his waist. He sat down and opened up the fanny pack to show about 6 harmonica’s. He was introduced as Blind Mississippi Morris (super bonus!). Here we are in the presence of a delta blues legend with about 10 other people and he’s playing like the house is packed! I didn’t want to leave.
We grabbed a taxi and headed for the Stax Museum. I’m a huge fan of the Blues, Rock and Roll, and the Gourds, as well as soul music. As a kid I loved to watch the groups on TV with their matching suits and choreography. I secretly wanted to be a Pip. After a $12 cab ride that should have been more like 8, we paid our $20 and went inside Soulsville. It’s a great place with plenty to see and hear. Everything from every album cover and 45 record ever created at Stax to the Custom Cadillac Coupe Deville they bought and gave to Isaac Hayes is in there. I highly recommend it!
On the cab ride back (have the museum call for you, it’s only $10 to get back to Beale St.) we shared a ride with another couple that had called a cab on their own. The cabbie was a born and raised Memphian who was extremely proud of his city. He took us on a side trip (no charge!) to see some of the mansions built in the late 1800’s.
The driver dropped us off at the Peabody hotel to see the ducks, but we were about 30 seconds to late. They had just gotten on the elevator and the crowd was starting to breakup. Oh well, another reason to go back. We walked through the Peabody, it’s got a nice lobby and I’m sure the rooms are nice, but the Doubletree is across the street and about half the price.
We went back to Beale to see what was happening and the crowds were off the hook. Lots of music in the outdoor areas. Lots of folks standing around on the street. I just wanted a quiet place at that point to have a drink and decide on dinner. We found a Flying Saucer on a side street and grabbed a drink at the bar. The weather was starting to get busy, so instead of going to one of the local places I had read about, we stopped at a Texas De Brazil on the way to the hotel and had a nice white table cloth dinner. They treated us well, even though we were in full biker regalia and I hadn’t shaved in a week. The food was good and plentiful and after we ate our share, we walked back to the hotel for the night.
The storms never really got bad. There was some thunder and lightening, but for the most part they were much weaker than when they crossed Oklahoma. The next morning, we loaded up and headed home. My plan was to ride all the way back, but once we turned on to the back roads in Texas and it started getting dark, we stopped for the night in Palestine, TX. The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel and then completed our trip by noon.
|05-22-2012, 11:11 PM||#2|
Join Date: Sep 2007
Location: Northern Fayette County
Re: Riding the Delta – Straight roads, Blues, and the Ghost of Robert Johnson
Great post! And great vid!!!
'06 TW200 Mountain Goat, '06 XR650L Sumo, '98 XR440R trick and plated, '98 KDX220 plated,
'84 RZ350, '83 XR350R, '83 XR200R '84 ATC125
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