Tag Archives: blues

Greenwood, Money, Cleveland, Merigold, Clarksdale : Mississippi Delta

Great drive here from Birmingham. We took the longer more backroads route from Birmingham through Tuscaloosa back into Mississippi. It was technically maybe 2 hours longer than using the interstate but seemed much shorter because there was so much to see: one small church after another (picture a neighborhood street but lined with churches not homes); vast fields of cotton; big new McMansions, the occasional old beauty and many tumbledown shacks and trailers (although not as many as I remember from my last trip here 10 years ago).

Greenwood is a well-heeled town with an elegant looking spa hotel on the main strret, a great book store (Turn Row which I liked better than the more famous one in Oxford), an excellent local crafts/gift shop next door with excellent local pottery. We had a stylish lunch at the surprisingly sleek and contemporary Delta Bistro, which has white walls with colorful contemporary art. We ate surprisingly light  fried green tomatoes dotted with chunks of crabmeat and excellent jalapeno catfish cakes with “comeback” sauce akin to a spicy Russian dressing. The  famous Italian restaurant in town, Lusco’s, is open for dinner only. It gets rave reviews!

Heading north to the tiny town of Money, we drove over the Tallahatchie bridge (made famous by the Bobbie Gentry song) and drove past the gracious-living old home where “The Help” was filmed. (The lady at the gift shop tipped us off.). Then we stopped at an old church where blues legend Robert Johnson may be buried (“may” being the key word) and the crumbling weed-strewn wall of the remains of the drug store, Bryant’s, where the Emmett Till tragedy began. (There are very helpful historical signs in these lonesome spots).

Onto the bigger city of Cleveland where we dropped in at the famous meat market/restaurant which was setting up for what looked like a good dinner, with the tables at the opposite side of the room from the meat counter. My favorite t-shirt was in a shop next door (“Jesus loves this hot mess”) plus some “fighting okra” gear (apparently the real mascot of Delta State). (Later read that Trump has opened its first small town hotel in Cleveland. Ick.)

Next a quick stop in the worn but interesting town of Merigold where we sound the famous pottery shop (after passing by it twice) on a residential street. We were excited to find the famous juke joint Poor Monkey on the other side of Highway 61, a wooden shack with hand painted signs on the edge of a field along a tree -lined dirt road. The sign said it was open for music on Thursday only (this was a Thursday) but we soon found  out that the owner died almost exactly a year ago and the place is closed indefinitely.

Delta Bistro, Greenwood

Robert Johnson believed to be buried in Money, MS

We stayed at a remarkable airbnb in Clarksdale, an elegant old White House run by a bohemian and charming Southern belle who grew up on a “farm” nearby. (We’re guessing it was a plantation from the presumably inherited furniture and photos inside the White House.)  We stayed in  a beautiful old room with a well-appointed bed, old faded lamps, and three of four walls were windows.  The other two rooms weren’t occupied and the owners live elsewhere so we had this huge house to ourselves. The ground floor had an eccentric mix of old to-the-manor-born furnishings and contemporary art and photos of the belle during her modeling and design days in NY City.

Our loquacious host, sent us to a great place for dinner that we never would have found otherwise — Kathryn’s on the Lake, about a half hour outside of town on Moon Lake. Very unassuming on the outside, just a plain lakeside building, inside it had knotty pine walls, taxidermy, local art and red and white checked oilskin tablecloths. Clearly a favor of locals, four good old boys sat in one corner, another big family in another. The food was outstanding– steak filet, onion rings, a squash casserole, Kentucky Alexander (yes, I will be dieting when I get home) and excellent service.

At night, we went to Ground  Zero for blues. Not the best. It was open mike night and the talent was spotty but interesting to see who gave it a go. The pros on stage were good. A weathered old black guy named “razor blade”, willowy white girl playing guitar, a white middle aged guy from England also on guitar (and particularly good!) and a young black guy on drums. We were struck again by how many Europeans were there as well as some very drunk Aussies. We were hoping to go to Red’s (a more “authentic” juke joint) but it didn’t offer music on Thursday. We did find out that unlike in the past, blues can be found almost every night in Clarksdale now. The city seems to have made a concerted effort to do this, which is good news and useful for the future. Red’s, for example, has music on Wednesdays, as well as the weekend.

 

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central BBQ, Rum Boogie Cafe, Otherlands Cafe, Rev. Green’s Church, FourWay, Sun Studio, Southern Folklore center – Memphis!

Rum Boogie Cafe

Loving this town. This morning we spent over two hours in church, much of it listening to fantastic gospel music by not only Al Green (aka Rev. Green) but an assortment of church members, all with fantastic voices! The church, on a remote exurban road, was full of visitors from Brazil, Germany, Australia and Iowa….we bumped into a friend sitting in the pews who is from Des Moines.

Central BBQ

New friends, Judy and Brian from northwest Iowa (met them at Rum Boogie Cafe)

Affter church, we went with two friends we met for the first time last night at Rum Boogie Cafe, a fun juke joint on Beale Street, to Four Way, the famous soul food restaurant for lunch. Turns out the rest of the after church crowd was there so the place was packed. But it was worth the wait. Great people watching, especially the church women dressed so elegantly, with fabulous hats worthy of Ascot. The last time I saw such great hats was at Charles and Di’s wedding in 1981. The food was delicious too — fried chicken, with two sides (excellent cornmeal dressing). We sat next to a table of churchgoers who were really friendly and we enjoyed talking with them while our chicken was being fried (which took awhile).

Trying out Elvis’s mike at Sun Studio

We have been struck by how nice and welcoming people have been here. People smile and say hi when you pass them on the street or wait in line with them at a restaurant (“Where ya’all from?”) and everyone seems to have a story or favorite rib joint to share. (The man I was sitting next to at Four Way told me his favorite rib place is Memphis BBQ which is actually in Horn Lake Mississippi, which we have since tried. Too fast food  an atmosphere for us. We will stick with Central BBQ, where we enjoyed dry ribs yesterday in the “historically hip” Cooper Young neighborhood, where our lovely 1920s Craftsman style Airbnb is located. Our hosts have done a great job fixing up this house, as have many of their neighbors with similar bungalows. (We also saw some great shotgun shacks on Blythe Street, parallel to Cooper.)

Heavenly gospel music at Rev. Green’s church

After Four Way, we took a totally entertaining tour of Sun Studio— our guide was a lot of fun and the tour reminded me a bit of touring the Motown headquarters in Detroit. Then to the Southern Folklore Center, which happened to share space with a Jewish museum. The center’s co-founder, an outgoing filmmaker named Judy, gave us a guided tour of the center and pointed out several of her relatives in the historic photos of Jews in Memphis decades ago. Who knew? (Apparently Jews own the famous Peabody Hotel…) Also thoroughly enjoyed a light breakfast at Otherlands Cafe in our neighborhood, with mismatched tables and local art including a folk artist named Karen Capps who it turns out lives a block from where we are staying.

We went back to Beale Street tonight (Freeworld, 30-year -old cover band, at Blues City Cafe where we sat with a nice couple from Denmark. Swedes were at the table next to us.) At one point, a guest artist – an older woman – got on stage and played a mean harmonica and sang. Who knew?

A singer with the band

Beale Street was more fun than I expected. I was worried it would be full of drunks like New Orleans’ Bourbon  Street …but we got there relatively early, which may have helped. And the music was great. On Saturday night, we  wandered into Rum Boogie and encountered, as one guy put it “a smoking hot band” (Vince  Johnson  and the Plantation Allstars) followed by a slightly less smoking one but when I walked to the bathroom, I stumbled across  another great band in the next room and a dancing crowd. Just nice to see people having a good time. Some of the best music was on the street with various bands playing and at one point on a surprisingly warm night (it was 91 degrees at one point) I found myself line dancing in the street with a bunch of strangers. Why not?!

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Clarksdale, Miss/Ms.: songs/albums inspired by

I got to wondering how many songs have been written about Clarksdale – after reading about Robert Plant’s Walking into Clarksdale album – so I did a quick search on itunes. I found 50 songs with either Clarksdale in the title of the song or album (most were song titles) -and they had great titles like

Stranded in Clarksdale

Clarksdale Moan

Crying Down in Clarksdale

Down Around Clarksdale

Slow Night in Clarksdale

Clarksdale’s Burning

No We Ain’t From Clarksdale

Clarksdale’s Waiting  for me.

The performers included Elvis Costello whose Clarksdale Sessions songs were recorded at a studio in Clarksdale, Son House, and Jelly Roll Morton. I couldn’t find a recording of Robert Plant singing Walking into Clarksdale but I did find a good cover by Nanette Workman. Also enjoyed Charlie Musselwhite’s Clarksdale Boogie, and Super Chiken (a local favorite) singing Clarksdale.

Might be fun to download a few of these for your trip – I think I will next time.

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Clarksdale, Miss.: takemewithyou (what to do/see)

Some helpful reader reminded me it’s Miss. not Ms. for Mississippi. So I stand/blog corrected. This is the final installment of takemewithyou suggestions for E. and friends as they head to Clarksdale this spring. Things to do:

– Listen to the blues, of course. Ground Zero club is an obvious choice. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon and Ground Zero wasn’t open just walking around the largely deserted town, we chanced upon some musicians playing inside the little Bluesberry Cafe at 235 Yazoo Avenue.

They all seemed to be locals who knew each other but couldn’t have been more welcoming so we got some sodas and listened to some blues and boogie piano  played, oddly, by a middle-aged white guy from the Netherlands (aka Theo D. “The Boogie Man”) who moved to Clarksdale to open a storefront rock and roll museum (which we didn’t get to: http://www.blues2rock.com/Site/Theo_D.html) ; and a older black man who sang with a weathered voice. A local favorite, Super Chikan, was there but we didn’t hear him, alas.

One woman sat down with us, carrying a photo of another tourist who had visited the cafe recently – Paul Simon. That Paul Simon. Clarksdale is that kind of place.

– The Delta Blues Museum is, as promised, very low-tech but that’s part of the charm. In a former train depot, it has Muddy Waters’ childhood cabin, among other blues items. I got to talking with the woman behind the front desk who told me how Robert Palmer (the Robert Palmer) often takes her out to eat when he visits. Palmer put out a 1998 album with Led Zeppelin buddy Jimmy Page called “Walking into Clarkdale” (with a song by the same name…some lyrics below.)

– The Mississippi (i.e. River.) – One thing that surprised me about is that it’s hard to see the river at all from lots of Delta towns which are often miles from the river, which in turn is hidden by levees. If you have time, drive about 1 hour northwest to Helena Arkansas, another struggling Delta town with lots of blues history that has fixed up its worn downtown and has a riverwalk atop the levee.

For more ideas check out the NYTimes’ 36 Hours in Clarksdale piece from 2006.

Here’s lyrics from Robert Plant’s song:

When I was born I was running
As my feet hit the ground
Before I could talk I was humming
An old railroad sound
Things didn’t get much better
When by the age of five
They found me walking into Clarksdale
Trying to keep my friends alive

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Clarksdale, Miss.: takemewithyou (where to eat)

And now the all-important where-to-eat suggestions for E. and friends who are taking a road trip to Clarksdale, Miss. (among other places):

– Madidi (www.madidiires.com) is a surprisingly fancy and sophisticated restaurant to find in a struggling Mississippi Delta town…until you remember that the Mississippi Delta is where actor Morgan Freeman (aka Nelson Mandela in his latest film) was raised – and still lives. He has pumped money into the area – including by bankrolling this restaurant.  The food, upscale Southern,  is very good but to be honest, I’d stick with some of the lower-key places, which seem more reflective of the “real” Clarksdale.

– Ground Zero – This isn’t really “real” – it’s another Morgan Freeman effort but it’s designed to look  gritty that it passes muster. Ground Zero is a blues club that also serves food.

– Hicks Tamales and BBQ Shop – Noah and I tried several times to pick up a hot tamale here at the drive-through window but the line was always too slow (not long, just slow.) Supposed to be good though.

– Abes BBQ – We did get take away pork (I think) sandwiches from this hole-in-the-wall and some BBQ sauce to take back to Iowa. Very good (and quite different from our usual Gates BBQ sauce)

– Delta Amusement Blues Cafe – This is a small downtown working-guys cafe, basic greasy spoon with some local character.

– Uncle Henry’s Place (www.unclehenrysplace.com) – This is a very strange Southern inn about a half-hour outside of Clarksdale in a really faded town (so to speak) called Dundee near “Moon Lake.” We went here because of its history – it was a hangout of William Faulkner’s and owned at various times by the family of Tennessee Williams and Conway Twitty. The food was  rich and  pricey Louisiana fare and it was empty when we ate there (we arrived kind of late) which gave it an even more strange, faded feel.

– Ramon’s – We never made it to this place, which looked pretty low-down, but it sounded intriguing (chicken livers with spaghetti!)  when I heard an NPR report on it by Jane and Michael Stern. The onion rings on the Sterns’ roadfood.com page for Ramon’s look amazing. (roadfood.com is another good source for food during your trip although be forewarned – some places will be not-so-pretty.)

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Memphis: takemewithyou (as promised)

Okay Emmylou, here’s what I’ve got for YOU – recommendations for Memphis based on our 2008 trip there!

We stayed at the Sleep Inn at Court Square  downtown – good location, clean, pleasant, reasonably priced ($125 for a double in 2008) right near the Mississippi and near the tracks for the funky old Main Street Trolley car that will take you to Beale Street and back for much less than the hassle of driving, parking, and returning possibly inebriated.

Things to do:

Walk or jog along the Mississippi Riverwalk.

Be sure to walk through the Peabody Hotel – this is the one where the ducks parade through the lavish lobby.

The Civil Rights Museum, located in the former Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated. Give yourself plenty of time. (Oddly, when I was in Memphis with my dad in 1989, a woman was protesting outside the motel – she didn’t want it to become a museum. In 2008, a group was still out there protesting.)

We loved the STAX Museum of American Soul Music – complete with Isaac Haye’s real car (which, as I recall, had power blue fake fur upholstery).  This rough n’ tumble neighborhood reminded us of the one portrayed in “Hustle and Flow” – the very good movie filmed in Memphis (“It’s hard out here for a pimp” was its Oscar-winning song.) If you haven’t seen, do! There are several music museums in Memphis – this one struck us as the most interesting and authentic, located in the original STAX Record Co. building/neighborhood rather than glitzy downtown.

En route to the museum, we stopped for soul food at The Four Way (998 Mississippi Blvd.) an old neighborhood place. Great fried chicken, okra, lemon meringue pie etc.  Be careful with the hot sauce.

If you happen to be in Memphis on Sunday morning, DO NOT MISS   a visit to Rev. Al Green’s church (that would  be Gospel Legend Al Green.) He is often there singing – along with many other church members who are great singers and musicians. Alas, when we visited “Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle,” Al was off promoting his latest album but there was a several-piece band – horns, keyboard, drums, etc. – and one person after another got up to give wrenching testimony, some of it inevitably in the form of the most astonishing gospel singing. We were a little shy about entering at first but we were far from the only visitors – there were rows of us, mostly white folk, some from as far away as The Netherlands. Noah had to drag me out of the church after over an hour. I could have stayed all day.

Rev. Green’s church is not far from Graceland and if you haven’t been, you should go – it’s overpriced and tacky but truly an American experience. There’s a good BBQ joint across the street called  – i can’t remember the name. will look up.

Speaking of BBQ, we had some good ribs at  Blues City Cafe, I think,  on Beale Street. Beale Street is very touristy but it’s  fun and there’s as much free music outside in little pocket parks along the street as there is inside the clubs. Our choice of clubs was a bit skewed – since my priority was finding one that would  admit a 16-year-old kid  (which Noah was at the time…oddly the criteria wasn’t booze, it was smoking. If there was smoking, no kids allowed.)

Not all the Beale Street clubs are on Beale Street – we enjoyed local favorite Reba  Russellaround the block at Ground Zero, an offshoot of the club opened by Morgan Freeman (yes, that Morgan Freeman) in his hometown of Clarksdale, Ms, about two hours south of Memphis. (I’ll blog on that next!)

To find the best music, consider emailing this guy: wesley@rumboogie.com. Don’t know if  Wesley is still at the Rum Boogie club on Beale Street but  he was incredibly helpful, filling me in on all the musicians playing on Beale Street. (Unfortunately we couldn’t go to his club because…it had smoking.)

all this really makes me want to return to Memphis. takemewithyou!

Check out the 2005 NYTimes 36 hours memphis piece and the one last Sunday in NYT travel section on edgy Memphis….I was fine with touristy Memphis….

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