Thursday, April 29, 2010

Delta Blues-Final Installment (thank goodness)

Rat's directions had us driving in the late afternoon through long, silent fields of grain, pastures, copses of trees. A beautiful, silent, lonely place. Lonely to us anyway; I'm sure there are those used to the distances between things and the scarcity of people.

Somewhere on the way to Rosedale we stopped at a very rural gas station, building made of wood, people made of gossip. We had some delicious pie (not homemade) and excellent coffee, and an older gentleman asked us where we were from and then warned us about Rosedale. He used certain terms which prepared us for the next part: watch out for those cops in Rosedale, he said, they hate white people. Gave me a ticket for no reason. Clocked me before I even hit the speed limit sign and then ticketed me in the middle of town where the speed limit had dropped by ten. Got a huge expensive ticket and I didn't even do anything.

Hmm, we said. Thanks.

Several grains of salt notwithstanding, we slowed down a bit on our way into town, and made it ticket-free to the Great River Road State Park. We climbed the observation tower and looked out over the Mississippi River, walked down a path to watch it lap at the muddy shore, and were eyed by several locals as we explored a building which appeared to house a disc golf club.

Back on the road. We passed through Cleveland, didn't see much, kept on our way towards Ruleville in order to stop at Dockery Farms, one-time home of the famous Charlie Patton. It was a lush, lovely spot and fairly easy to picture rich evenings of necessary blues; easy also to picture the harsh life of even the best of the sharecropper/itinerant worker situations of the time (which Dockery Farms is said to have been).

Next we went to Indianola and stopped for food at Club Ebony, which is owned by B.B. King. Ray Charles, Ike Turner, Howling Wolf and others have taken the stage at this small juke joint; today, however, it appeared to be a private birthday party or something--we felt more than a little out of place as not only the only white people, but the apparently the only ones not there for the party. We were welcomed kindly, so we took a seat and ordered some beers, the fried catfish, and the "buffalo fish," which turned out to be a delicate endeavor as the bones were still inside of it and easy to eat by accident.

We didn't stay too long once we were done--we were eager to get back to Clarksdale and one of the most anticipated destinations of our trip, Red's juke joint. Since we were feeling a bit tired, we pre-gamed with some energy drink malt beverages, which I was sure were going to give us heart attacks or at the very least devastating hangovers, then walked to Red's--it's about a five minute walk from the Riverside Hotel.

It's an unassuming building from the outside. Except for the giant grill and the music barely contained by brick walls, you'd never know that this is one of the best blues spots in the world on a Friday night. We entered with something like reverence and became swiftly a part of the ecstatic, energetic, worries-out-the-window crowd of musicians, dancers, and lovers of the blues. I have never had music run through my entire body quite like that before--I couldn't help but express it with my shoulders, my arms, my waist, my hips, my feet. At some point in the night we saw Rat, who had mentioned he might stop by, but he didn't stay long.

It was very late--or early--by the time we traced our way back to the Riverside Hotel and our room. The next morning was a bit confused. We hurried to gather our things, I took a shower, Andy thought I was skipping the shower so he didn't take one, we couldn't find a breakfast place... in any case, we finally found ourselves on the road and headed to Memphis.

We tried to pack a bit too much into the afternoon. We went to visit the National Civil Rights Museum, housed at the Lorraine Motel, the site where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a trip deserving of at least two hours of time, potentially much more. The exhibits are a bit reading-heavy. Lots and lots of information packed into an assortment of plaques all over the walls. We scanned them hungrily, trying to hurry through but also get as much as we could out of the experience. There is so much about the Civil Rights Struggle that you don't learn in schools; years and years of ordinary people making extraordinary sacrifices to achieve equality, to better the lives of others, of future generations. So much hatred, resistance, apathy, belligerence. It's amazing how ugly humanity can be; it's also amazing how the spirit can triumph over the evils of the world. I really wish we had realized how much time we had--we were trying to make it to the riverboat tour, which ended up leaving almost an hour after we thought it would.

Oh, the riverboat tour. There was crazy wind the whole time--it was a bit cold. The tour guide offered a strange array of facts, folklore, and commentary; the view was pretty boring, really. Not much more to say about that, except the trip definitely gave us a sense of the power and breadth of the River.

After the tour we headed to our digs, the Inn at Hunt Phelan, an Antebellum mansion close to Beale street. The innkeeper (as he insists on being called) was amazingly generous with his time and services, insisted that we call him day or night if we needed anything, etc. etc. Our room was beautiful but a bit eerie. Not much light. We settled in, had a complimentary drink at the bar downstairs (followed by a non-complimentary drink--our bartender, Brandy, was excellent) and then headed out to Beale street.

Unfortunately the weather was not conducive to bar-hopping; a little after we finished our dinner at Blues City Cafe, it began to rain. We managed to check out the Beale Street Tap Room, Black Diamond, and Alley Katz Gift Emporium, which has a crazy assortment of retro, tacky, and collectible gift items (three categories which often overlapped). The rain was getting both of us down, and we almost headed home, but I convinced Andy that we should stop by Ernestine and Hazel's first--an erstwhile whorehouse transformed into a dining and dancing establishment.

On a tip I had gotten from a liquor store clerk on prior trip to Memphis, Andy and I ventured up to the second floor, where we discovered in a back room a corner bar. Nate, the bartender, has been at it for several decades, and we had some enjoyable conversation with him about the area, his many children and grandchildren, his wife. It was a bit of a quiet night, and we ended it relatively early--our cab driver spiced things up a bit for me by telling us that one of the rooms in the inn is haunted by a man named Nathaniel, a butler, I believe, with some kind of bone to pick. He described a room he had stayed in and had a run-in with Nathaniel--our room, of course.

We got back there and Andy, my knight in shining armor, passed out almost instantly and was impossible to wake with frantic whispers and shaking. I lay staring at the two glowing embers of the lights, which refused to turn off all the way, and listening to a cacophony of noises--it was about three in the morning at this point, mind you, and there was plenty to hear, and I still feel convinced that it wasn't the staff. At least not the current staff. At some point I managed to drift to sleep.

The next morning we had planned to visit the Reverend Al Green's church. I was pretty reluctant. I felt like I didn't have the right clothes, didn't feel comfortable in a church, especially as a tourist, etc. Andy was set on going, though, so I gave in. I'm glad I did. The voyeurism thing was a bit weird, but we certainly weren't the only ones--there were a ton of bland white people (I say bland because they were stiff and didn't clap or dance or seem to enjoy themselves much at all, not just because of their boring, clean cut appearance) who sat all in a block and basically sucked energy from the air around them. We sat in a different section than they did and immersed ourselves as fully as we could in the music and the spiritual experience. Al Green was there as we had hoped he would be (I think they called him "Bishop Al Green," not sure what the distinction is) and he preached and sang to us; the choir was fantastic, and there were a couple of soloists whose names I can't remember who also blew us away.

I had been nervous for the part with the collection plate--reports suggested that Al Green would personally shame anyone who "donated" less than $20 to the church--but he did no such thing, not this time at least.

Right before they were about to close the services, someone whispered something to someone, who whispered something to Al Green, who announced that one of the Blind Boys of Alabama was in the audience and had requested to come up and sing for us. Said gentleman took the stand and delivered a fantastic rendition of "Amazing Grace."

The trip was only a glimpse of the Delta trail, of the South, of the blues, but we both felt it was a rich, beautiful, authentic glimpse. I highly recommend a similar trip to anyone who has an interest in the history of these places.
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