Today’s blog has a definite musical theme, as we drove Mr. Bond through East Arkansas, North Mississippi and Southern Tennessee. We were looking forward to catching live blues music in Memphis for instance, but we got a whole lot more in the bargain… Thanks to terrific local museums and old recording studios, we learned about the musicians behind the music, where they played, with whom and with what instruments and most important where they came from… the Mississippi Delta.
But wait…! This blog post is not only about musical roads. It’s much more than that, so I invite you to come with me on this special journey!
According to Wikipedia…
“The Delta blues is one of the earliest-known styles of blues music. It originated in the Mississippi Delta, a region stretching from Memphis, Tennessee, in the north to Vicksburg, Mississippi, in the south and from Helena, Arkansas, in the west to the Yazoo River in the east.”
The number of blues musicians who lived within these boundaries is quite astounding. However, as African-American musicians—often former slaves in the mid to late 19thCentury—moved in search of work, their music permeated way beyond these regional borders, to big cities like Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago. Wherever these musicians stopped or settled down for a while became fertile grounds for a style of music and especially a style of playing—Blacks & Whites often playing together way before or in spite of Jim Crow laws that enforced cruel and unfair racial segregation particularly in the South.
Soon blues influenced jazz all over the world but bluegrass begat country music and establish permanent residence in Nashville, Tennessee.
So, it was with an great dose of excitement that we found ourselves in the heart of the Mississippi Delta! However, we very nearly missed all of that. The itinerary here came as a result of a cancellation at an RV Park in West Memphis (the Mississippi River had flooded the campground) which forced us to reroute. It happens fairly often in the life of RVers – but “gotta roll with the punches”. In shuffling through the myriad of road maps we tend to collect along the way, I found the “Great River Road” map that follows a national scenic byway along the meandering Mississippi River, from Minnesota to Louisiana. Several towns on that map were highlighted for their Mississippi Delta blues heritage. We decided it was worth getting a little out of our way to check some of these out.
According to the little bit of research we did, Helena, Arkansas is where the roots of the blues were firmly planted. But as we drove down Main Street, very little of this illustrious past was evident. Like many small towns in Everywhere, USA, most stores were closed, obviously abandoned a long while ago. But it was more than that with buildings dilapidated or simply crumbling due to negligence. Helena has an annual blues festival in October, but you’d be hard pressed to see any evidence of that.
But at the very end of Main Street, a small royal blue awning attracted my attention… It read, “Delta Cultural Center”. It looked closed. Luckily we decided to check it out because not only was it open but it was probably the most instructive ‘museum’ I’ve been that helped to further our understanding of the blues history in Helena with amazing photography and old phonograph recordings of blues songs of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
King Biscuit Time is the longest-running daily American radio broadcast in history and has won the George Foster Peabody Award for broadcasting excellence. The first broadcast of King Biscuit Time (named after the show’s sponsor, a local brand of flour) was on November 21, 1941 on radio station KFFA in Helena, and featured blues artists Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Lockwood, Jr. The show’s 12:15 pm time slot was chosen to match the lunch break of workers. KFFA was the only station that would play music by African-Americans, and it reached an audience throughout the Mississippi Delta region.
A mere 30 miles (48 km) from Helena, on the other side of the Mississippi River, is Clarksdale, Mississippi. Tucked away in the heart of the region, surrounded by cotton fields, Clarksdale is also believed to be where the blues began! A visit to the Delta Blues Museum in the Blues Alley district complemented the history learned in Helena.
The story of Robert Johnson is an interesting one. According to legend, he ‘sold his soul to the Devil’ at a local crossroads to achieve musical success’.
Well, I hope he sold it for a good price because in spite of his short life, Johnson is recognized today as a master of the Delta blues style.
Not far from the Museum is Ground Zero Blues Club, a juke joint with graffiti-filled walls, which is (apparently) co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman, himself a native Mississippian.
Unlike Helena or Clarksdale that are living through their illustrious past, Memphis still has the best live music pouring out of the clubs along Beale Street all day long. Famous bars are all there, from tiny juke joints to full-blown dance clubs. Much like in New Orleans, people bar-hop carrying their alcoholic beverages from bar to bar (mind you… provided they are in plastic cup—that’s the law!). It’s fun to look inside these bars, some with legendary names where blues legends like W.C. Handy and B.B. King and many others got their start.
Of course, Memphis is also about Elvis Presley. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis came to Memphis as a teenager. Tourists flock to Graceland, his mansion in South Memphis as well as to Sun Studios where he recorded his first hits. Neither of us are hardcore Elvis fans, so we decided to skip Graceland which is always very busy and quite expensive to visit. We did, however, visit Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Studios as well as Stax Studio.
Sun Studio is known as “The Birthplace of Rock and Roll”. It was the home base of musical legends from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash to Jerry Lee Lewis to B.B. King to Roy Orbison. Elvis showed up at Sun Studio one late afternoon to record a song. It was known in the musician community that recording producer Sam Phillips was after new talent who could ‘do’ Rock and Roll material. Elvis chose to record“My Happiness” a Country ballad, which failed toimpress Phillips—too mainstream a sound—though the producer did like Elvis’ voice and style. Nothing much happened until a year later when Elvis recorded another song at Sun Studios with musicians selected by Sam Phillips. After a tedious session, Elvis and the guys broke into a sped-up version of “That’s All Right.” That was to be Elvis’ first hit. The rest, as they say, is history!
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
I love the story of Stax Studio because right from the get-go Stax gathered a racially integrated team of staff and artists unprecedented in that time of racial strife and tension in Memphis and the South.
Even its founders and co-owners were ahead of their time. In 1957, Jim Stewart, a banker who was a white country fiddle player at night borrowed some money from his sister, Estelle Axton(the name Stax comes from the first two letters of each of their last names) and together, as equal business partners, they bought some recording equipment and threw open the doors for people to come in and record. They didn’t have to let black people in the door, but they did.
Renowned for its output of blues music, Stax, in association with long time business partner Atlantic Records, featured dozens of popularartists like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett,including the label’s house band, Booker T. & the M.G.’s. The label’s use of one studio, one equipment set-up, the same set of musicians and a small group of songwriters led to a readily identifiable sound based in black gospel, blues, country, and earlier forms of rhythm and blues. It became known as southern soul music. And here’s an interesting factoid… Stax didn’t have ready access background singers as it was popular in those days, but they had horns! And the horns added so much energy. They became essential to the Stax power and sound.
Stax Museum was chock-full of memorabilia of its artists, their recordings and even that of rival studios such as Motown in Detroit. The last word on Stax goes to native Memphis R&B and soul singer Rufus Thomas…
“Motown had the sweet. But Stax had the funk.”
The Natchez Trace and Tupelo, Mississippi
After Memphis, we were off to Tupelo via the Natchez Trace Parkway. It its entirety, the Trace is a 444-mile recreational road and scenic drive through three states (Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee) managed by the U.S. National Park Service. It roughly follows the “Old Natchez Trace” a historic travel corridor used by American Indians, European settlers, slave traders, soldiers, and even future presidents. Today, people can enjoy not only a scenic drive but also hiking, biking, horseback riding, and camping along the parkway. With speed limit of 50 mph (80 km/hr), the parkway is not open to commercial vehicles. RV length restriction including a tow vehicle is 55 ft (17 m) and the height restriction is 14 feet (4 m). The road is smooth and curvy and the landscape is absolutely beautiful in a Zen-kind of way. However, with a lane width of only 11 feet (just over 3 m), and no shoulder, drivers or cars and RVs as well as cyclists need to be careful.
At Milepost 180.7 the French Camp Historic Village and The Council House are well worth a stop. The Council House is part of French Camp Academy, a Christian boarding school-home dedicated to creating a warm and nourishing environment for its students, who often come from troubled households. Incidentally, if you wonder where the name French Camp came from, it is owed to Louis LeFleur, a French storekeeper who traded with the Choctaw Indians in 1812. LeFleur married a Choctaw woman. They had a son, Greenwood Leflore (family names evolved quickly in those days), who became a Choctaw Chief and a Mississippi State Senator!
But the ‘real’ reason for our stop at French Camp was to get lunch at the Council House Café… gargantuan sandwiches (truly big…no exaggeration here) are served with all ingredients homemade or homegrown by the students. Everyone seems to stop at the Café…
at the time of our stop, there was a motorcycle touring group from New Zealand, a couple of families from nearby towns, and us! Our tummys well fed, we hopped back on the Natchez Trace to our next stop point, Tupelo, Mississippi.
We spent 10 days in Tupelo, through the Fourth of July Holiday, and we were quite taken by it! It is quite a charming little town. Its main claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Elvis Presley—his childhood home of the 1930s is right in the middle of a tastefully designed park with a visitor center. But it is also a busy innovative centre in the financial and healthcare sectors among others that attract young workers from all stripes and backgrounds and give this Deep South city a truly diverse flair.
But the best part about Tupelo is its food and coffee culture! A handful of young entrepreneurial chefs have established themselves here. For my birthday on June 29, we went to Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchenlocated in a 140-year-old brick building ‘downtown’ Tupelo. Its local farm-to-table menu is ever-changing, sometime daily, all executed by Chef and Owner Mitch McCamey. Chef McCamey—whom we chatted with as he was busing a few tables during a busy Saturday evening service(!)—grew up in Tupelo, worked in kitchens all over the US and abroad before returning to his hometown. He mentioned that he knew of 6 new original restaurants about to open in town!
Case in point, Queen’s Reward Meadery, making mead, an alcoholic beverage created by fermenting local Mississippi honey with water, fruits, spices, grains and/or hops. Not one to like ‘sweet’ beverages of any kind, I nevertheless persisted and tried a flight of their liquors. Nice!
As Mark went looking for his beloved Starbucks, we encountered a small coffee counter located inside an antique warehouse, appropriately called Lost + Found Coffee Co. Owner Collin McIntyre is passionate about coffee and made me try all kinds of coffee-derived concoctions I would have normally never tasted. It became our ‘home-away-from-home’ while in Tupelo.
If you go by Tupelo, be sure to visit Collin and Kelsie at Lost and Found Coffee Co.!
An unexpected point of interest was the Vietnam Veterans Replica Wall Memorial, a permanent 300 ft (91 m) long black granite replica of Killed in Action and Missing in Action servicemen & women of the Vietnam War, with special story accents on local veterans. I have not yet been to Washington, D.C. to see the original, but Mark has. He was quite impressed with the ‘replica’ which is just as emotionally compelling as the one in D. C.
We said goodbye to Tupelo in the crushing humidity of mid-July! But before reaching Nashville, our next port of call, we stopped at yet another famous studio, aptly called FAME Studio and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, just a short distance from the Natchez Trace.
We had seen “Muscle Shoals”, a long feature documentary that celebrates
Rick Hall, the founder of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, and who developed the signature sound in songs recorded by Etta James, the Osmonds, Bobbie Gentry, Aretha Frankli
Speaking of Aretha Franklin, there’s the story about how a 24-year old Aretha came to record at FAME. As an Atlantic artist she was to record at Stax Studio but couldn’t for some reason. She instead was sent to Rick Hall’sFAME studios in Muscle Shoals, where, as legend has it, the Queen of Soul found her true voice (sound) and recorded her first hit, I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You), first starting on the piano, then joined by the FAME studio band, The Swampers. The raw power of her famous voice had been unleashed! The Swampers ultimately left Rick Hall to create their own recording facility at the other end of town… where the Rolling Stones spent one week recording an album. The two studios are now open for tours.
For me, Nashville is all about 1) County music and 2) The Grand Ole Opry. That’s really all I knew going in. So we set out to see what The Grand Ole Opry House looked like. Except that the building that originally housed the Grand Ole Opry is really called Ryman Auditorium. What’s going on?!…
The auditorium opened as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892. The Grand Ole Opry was a weekly one-hour radio “barn dance” country music stage concert, started in 1925. The Opry Show moved to a permanent home, the Ryman Auditorium, in 1943. Mystery solved and history lesson learned! J
At $30 per person, tours of the Ryman, we decided to pass. As full timers, we have to remind ourselves that we’re not on ‘vacation’ and need to budget our outings, the same way we’d do if we were still living ‘at home’.
It turns out, the Opry Show left the Ryman in 1974, moved out of downtown Nashville to set up residence in a new building as part of a theme park and hotel situated east of downtown. I don’t know what Country fans think of that change, but as far as I’m concerned, placing the Grand Ole Opry in the middle of a family-oriented theme park, with giant water slides and other Vegas-inspired trappings was a bit disappointing… perhaps the shows are worth it. We’ll never know. And full disclosure, the $32 fee for barely 2-hour parking didn’t exactly help in changing our first impression.
However, we do like to explore a city’s neighbourhoods and Nashville has several that seem interesting. In the 1 ½ days we took to visit the city (under a serious heat advisory at that), we chose to explore two: The Gulch and Belmont-Hillsboro which didn’t disappoint. Lots of young people adding energy and Millennial pizazz to everything!…
I don’t know if we will be back in Nashville in the near future. But one thing is certain, it will NOT be in July! The Fall months on the other hand would be lovely!
A little nature R&R time… we got to spend the next 3 days at a lovely Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) campground, in Cages Bend (Gallatin, TN), a 30-min drive east of Nashville. Tucked away by a large reservoir, it was just what we needed. There are dozens of campgrounds maintained by ACE throughout the country, mostly in the Midwest, the Northeast and in the South, where water management issues are required. Their campgrounds are well maintained, with lots of space and low rates. That was a good place to recuperate from our urban explorations before heading east toward Knoxville and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
Note to my subscribers: You may have received this blog (Blog 11) twice in your email inbox — first time from “WordPress”. I had a bit of a technology issue, which WordPress helped me solve. Sorry about the repetition if you have got it twice.