As I mentioned last week, my trip to the Deep South had dual goals of chasing Robert Johnson’s ghost and meeting some 1960s Civil Rights nightmares head on. I was armed with little more than the lyrics for songs like Bob Dylan’s The Death of Emmett Till, Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam, and Phil Och’s Here’s to the State of Mississippi, looking to update that with a 2023 experience. We flew into Nashville on April 3, meeting up with friends Linda and Alan, who had driven down from Maryland. Our three-week trip would take us in a big circle, west to Memphis, south down Highway 61 (The Blues Highway) in Mississippi, ending at Vicksburg and Natchez, east to Jackson and Meridian towards Alabama and the Gee’s Bend quilting collective, then on to Selma and Montgomery, and north to Birmingham before heading back to Nashville. Because I keep thinking and writing more and more words, this travelogue got kinda long, so I’m splitting the next part in two. This week I’ll focus on everything up to Vicksburg, although I do jump around, and so suddenly in the midst of Memphis you’ll find me talking about Montgomery, Alabama.
There’s a serious FOMO (fear of missing out) factor in bigger towns like Nashville and Memphis; there are just too many places or things to choose from. In addition, I was itching to get on to the “real South.” Of course, I discovered each town had its charms. The downtown areas - Broadway in Nashville and Beale Street in Memphis - are comical, in the manner of 6th Street in Austin, or Bourbon Street in New Orleans, or anywhere that preys upon the fantasy that drinking alcohol in the middle of day is where it’s at. But once we stepped outside of those lion’s dens, into, say, East Nashville or the Cooper-Young area of Memphis, we were able to find more laid back fun, music and food. In Nashville, we were guided by our friend Gina Bacon, who has a number of different musical irons in the fire, including radio shows for WFMU (Big Planet Noise and Someday Matinee), a Join with Video TV show, and working for singer Robyn Hitchcock. She had great suggestions, including bars with shows featuring members of Marty Stuart’s and Vince Gill’s band, and a Boston Indie songwriter by the name of Michael Viola. Besides that, we wandered around town, looking at the outsides of Ryman Auditorium and the Country Music Hall of Fame, and basically spent our days adjusting to vacation standard time.
From Nashville, we took the less direct route to Memphis via Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to visit the famous recording studio, getting there driving the northern section of the beautiful Natchez Trace Parkway. I ate up all the details of the tour of Muscle Shoals. Keith Richards’ cranked up his amp in this bathroom for that distorted guitar part on Brown Sugar, or this very piano was played on Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock and Roll, or this is where the Swampers sessions musician stood. Then it was on to Memphis. Memphis is seedier than Nashville, that being a plus. As I mentioned before, Beale Street was, as Google Maps describes it, a lively street crawl with bars and music. Regardless, I think it’s very cool that there’s a BB King Blvd. (Who doesn’t love BB King? Later on in Indianola, Mississippi we would visit his museum and gravesite. A life lived.) I had to go to Sun Studios and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. I learn by doing, so when I stepped inside and went on the tours, I found myself saying oh, I get it now; Ike Turner/Jackie Brentson cut Rocket 88 at Sun Studios, and Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash also recorded there. Rufus Thomas was a DJ in Memphis and was one reason Stax founder Jim Stewart (with sister Estelle Axton; STewart and AXton, get it?) moved the studio from Brunswick, TN to Memphis, and then came Booker T and the MGs and Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes. I didn’t know as much as I thought I did; a whole lot has happened in my life since I first heard “That’s All Right” by Elvis or “Green Onions” by Booker T.
Similarly, I thought I knew a lot of facts about slavery in the US, Jim Crow, and Martin Luther King, but being at actual locations and seeing well-curated exhibits with rare photos and artifacts and clearly laid out timelines was so helpful to me in seeing the bigger picture. Never thought about the International (pre-1808) vs the Domestic slave trade. The latter is what dominates my and most people’s image of slavery, when families were ripped apart as slaveholders scrambled to forcibly transfer people from the East Coast and upper South to Alabama and MIssissippi after the International slave trade was banned and the high price of cotton and invention of the cotton gin caused an explosion in demand for slaves to pick more cotton and feed those more efficient machines. The population of enslaved people in Alabama went from less than 40,000 in 1808 to over 435,000 at the start of the Civil War. It is something to stand at the edge of the Alabama River in Montgomery and realize this was an important port where enslaved people were taken from ships to Alabama plantations. There are plaques and signs and markers that note such things as you move through the area, evidence of a healing process. I’m not sure what the Critical Race Theory boogeyman is about really. A sign that tells me about the Domestic Slave Trade is extremely enlightening and more information is a good thing. That’s the funny thing about reckoning and acknowledging. It’s just about absorbing and thinking about the complete story, warts and all, versus reacting with defensiveness and bloviating about being anti-Woke or anti-1619 Project. We should be able to reflect without losing our soul. The Germans did it vis a vis the Holocaust. It could make us stronger and prideful as a people to come together over a righteous and moral issue.
A good museum leads you through this reflection process. Both the National Civil Rights Museum at the Loraine Hotel in Memphis and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama offer sweeping coverage of the history of black people in this country, slavery in the US and the Civil rights movement from the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to MLK’s assassination. While the exhibits and presentation are very good, equally powerful is where these museums finish: For the Loraine Motel museum it is the balcony where King was shot. And after you are finished with the extensive exhibits on African-American history at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, a 6-minute drive brings you to the starkly powerful National Memorial for Peace and Justice, aka The Lynching Memorial, with cast iron monoliths in memory of the over 4,400 lynching victims between 1877 and 1950. Both this and the Lorraine balcony are “sacred spaces for truth-telling,” as the website for the lynching memorial puts it. No matter how you might feel about the grim reality of all the MLK Blvds in rundown areas of towns and cities throughout this country, they are a sign of hope that his dream didn’t die. While we were in Nashville, Justin Jones and Justin J. Pierson, the two black lawmakers of the “Tennessee Three” expelled from the Tennessee House of Representatives for joining protests for gun reform exemplified to me a new generation that refuses to accept business as usual from the predominately white ruling class. I can place Jones and Pierson within the continuum of MLK and other great black leaders like WEB DuBois (Pan-Africanism), Marcus Garvey (black nationalism and the Back to Africa movement), Booker T. Washington (black education and entrepreneurship, Ida B. Wells (anti-lynching and suffrage crusades), and James Weldon Johnson and Rosamond Johnson (the Negro National Anthem “Lift Every Voice.”).
Back to the rest of Memphis. It was kind of seesaw - in addition to the Lorraine Motel, we caught a Memphis Redbirds minor league game (nothing more American than a minor league game) and also a drag show, to show support in the face of the just-passed ban on drag performances in public spaces and anywhere in the presence of people under 18 years old. We checked out the Cooper-Young section of town, where friend/filmmaker Skizz Cyzyk asked us to look up Eric at Goner Records, who in turn pointed us to Al Green’s church for Easter Sunday. The Reverend, er Bishop, Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church for Easter Services was one of the peak experiences of our trip. He started the church back in December 1976. Wow, was it good. Beautiful gospel choir and Bishop Green sang a bit himself. He still has it. Killer band, if you can say that about a church band. Killer band for Jesus. Green’s daughter Rubi has a beautiful voice, and his brother gave an uplifting sermon. While I still can’t get behind the whole Jesus thing and I remain as a rule highly suspicious of organized religion, we did stay for about 3 hours and I admit to getting weak in the knees, and not from fatigue. I see how important the church is to the black freedom movement, how it is often the only place of solace or security for an oppressed people. Beautiful people, beautiful spirit. Memphis spirit too. The universe is split into two spiritual camps: Elvis Presley’s Memphis vs Pat Boone’s Nashville.
We were ready to wind our way down the Blues Highway. Highway 61. I soon realized that my knowledge of the Delta geography was thin, which is odd considering how fundamental the blues is/are to me. Indeed, I am embarrassed to admit that I vaguely placed the Delta farther south, like a delta emptying into a bay that looked more like the area around New Orleans where the Mississippi spills into the Gulf of Mexico. I also confess to doing a lot of Blues Highway memorial marker-hopping, though it was an essential anchor for the experience: so and so was born here, died here, played here, caught a train here, lost his/her woman/man here. This is the story of sharecropping African-Americans at juke joints, train stations, crossroads, under an endless sky and clouds, tending to furrowed rows in black soil. The soil and the people are dark and rich.
Travel costs me money but it’s worth it, because I find myself in actual places where stuff happened, a scene, a cultural ecosystem. I was yanked out of the flat experience of a book and thrust into, say, the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where you see the remains of Muddy Waters’ actual cabin from Stovall Plantation and then can go outside and drive down the road and gaze out on a cotton field or see shotgun shacks and old empty juke joints. It enhanced the fragments of blues lyrics, song titles, and album liner notes rattling around in my brain: Clarksdale (THE crossroads at Highways 49 and 61), Indianola and Itta Bena (BB King), Rosedale (lyrics from Robert Johnson’s Crossroads), Parchman Farm Penitentiary (Bukka White, John Mayall), Dockery Farms (Charley Patton), Greenwood (Robert Johnson’s grave), Leland (Johnny Winter), Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan), and Rolling Fork (Muddy Waters).
I choked up at Robert Johnson’s grave in Greenwood. It was some kind of closure for me. I felt like his music and his story were everywhere in my life and it took me by surprise to feel what an emotional experience it turned out to be. I got that close to him, assuming it’s him in that grave. We stopped in other towns for reasons big and small. We visited Leland only because I liked the song Leland Mississippi Blues from Johnny Winter. I had no idea he was from a prominent Leland family - I always associated him with his actual birthplace of Beaumont, Texas. Johnny Winter was The Man for me as well. I really liked him because he played guitar really fast and had a great voice. There were other places that were of interest simply because we had heard their names somewhere, like Cleveland, Tunica, Lula, Port Gibson, and Mound Bayou. Mound Bayou was a black oasis during the Jim Crow era, with black-owned businesses, hospital, newspapers, and was considered a crowning achievement in the struggle for self-determination and economic empowerment. During the trial of Emmett Till’s killers, black reporters and witnesses stayed in Mound Bayou and were given an armed escort to the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi.
In 2023, though, I simply met a lot of good, friendly people in Mississippi. More than once I saw a confederate statue in front of a courthouse but no, I mean no, confederate flags. There’s a lot of Mississippi in Mississippi.
Lynching Memorial, Montgomery, Alabama
Indianola Mural: Exactly 7 times hotter.
Channeling Elvis at Sun Studios
The Crossroads in Clarksdale, at Highways 49 and 61
Muscle Shoals Studios
Rest in Peace Robert Johnson, Greenwood, MS