Cruising the Blues Highway
Editor’s Note: In September 2002, Sheri Gaynor, Andy Putnam and their black lab, Feats, rented their Glenwood Springs home and traveled across America for a year in a 24-foot trailer, writing, shooting photographs and playing music with people they met. Sheri created a “trailer” industry by shooting photographs along the way and selling them to other travelers and shops. The following is a chapter from Sheri’s journal of their travels, called Everywhere and Nowhere.
We have been following the Blues Highway through Mississippi and Louisiana for days now, on a pilgrimage of sorts. I am traveling with my husband Andy, a bluesman and musician. This is an important part of our yearlong road trip, but we have no idea where it will lead. Combining Highways 61, 8 and 49, the blues route runs through sleepy Baptist towns where the blues history has faded except for a few juke joints that get hopping only on the weekends.
“Nobody passes through this way no more” we are told. “Too hot, too buggy for most folks.”
“Feels like we’re chasing ghosts,” Andy says.
He was right, at least until we hit Clarksdale.
Shotgun houses line the highways. It’s early April, but it must be 80 in the shade. People sit on front porches, or in the shade of the trees, cooling off, just watching the traffic go by, a game of chess or dominoes here and there.
Our Colorado plates turn a few heads and even draw a few waves. There are rows upon rows of plantation fields, barren and brown now. It’s planting time and tractors kick up dust and dirt mixed with way too much pesticide for anyone’s health.
We travel through Natchez, Rosedale, Cleveland and all the tiny towns in between, towns that bluesmen memorialized in song, names Andy has heard for years. With no particular schedule, we follow maps, plaques, signs, obscure directions and intuition as we go. I feel as if I have been transported to another time when life moved at a slower pace, when neighbors knew each other’s names, computers were massive machines, and the Internet hadn’t even been conceived.
At Rosedale State Park, we meet Bob and Pat, who hail originally from New York and Toronto but have lived in Cleveland, Miss., for the last 12 years. One is a social worker and the other a scientist, but their lives revolve around listening to the blues.
“We were both into the blues before we moved here, but it has sustained us living here,” Pat says.
They invite us over and have a map, snacks and some chairs ready for us. Bob is more knowledgeable than the guidebook we have been following. They share their perspectives on the music scene and Delta life in general. After feeling us out a bit, they share some tips on secret spots they’ve found over the years ” roads, graves, plaques and juke joints. Bob is like a walking encyclopedia of the blues.
We ask about places to stay in Clarksdale, and he marks our map and tells us about a hook-up site at the Expo Center. He also suggests a stop at the Hopson Plantation, also known as The Shack-Up Inn, which I had already circled in the guidebook.
“I bet if you ate dinner and drank a few beers, they would be happy to have you stay,” Bob says.
When I first began to travel, I would go with itinerary in hand. I have learned over the years not to plan every moment of a vacation, not to get locked into what a guidebook or travel agent recommends. My preference is to find a starting place and then to let the trip unfold. It makes for the most profound and spontaneous experiences and adventures that you could never have planned.
This approach would reward us richly in the Mississippi Delta.
We thanked Bob and Pat and headed back to our campsite, our heads filled with possibilities for our time in the Delta country.
We arrive at the renowned Crossroads, the intersection of Highways 61 and 49. You can’t miss it, as two massive blue guitars, lights and a sign loom high above the four-way crossing. Here the legendary Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil to become the greatest guitar player around. As the story goes, Johnson was a pretty awful player before the deal was consummated, but he eventually became one of the country’s most prolific and influential musicians. And the story became myth.
Musicians like Eric Clapton have memorialized this place in song. Andy smiles. I can tell he is in heaven. We find the Expo Fairgrounds that Bob had mentioned, pay our fee at the chamber of commerce and park the trailer.
We drive downtown and stop at the Clarksdale Blues Museum, which occupies a converted railway station. This fantastic space, devoted to the rich musical background of the Mississippi Delta, contains artifacts, photographs and musicians’ personal belongings. The place is clearly a labor of love, and you can linger as long as you like.
Leaving the museum, we wander over to the Amusement Cafe in search of something cold to drink. A guy named Anthony is standing outside having a smoke. He walks up, shakes our hands and invites us inside. We aren’t sure if we’re entering the front or the back.
“It doesn’t matter, it’s all the same.” he says. “What would you folks like to drink?”
We meet the retired owner, Attillo. He sits down, offers us iced tea and bends our ears with the story of his Italian immigrant parents, his restaurant and his sons who now own it. Attillo is old and slow-moving, a sight to behold in his starched button-down shirt, tie and canvas golf hat. “Well, I’ve been doing all the talking,” he says. “Tell me about yourselves now,” and we do.
As we leave he will not let us pay for our drinks. “Just make sure you come back before you leave and have some food with us.”
We wander by Ground Zero, a blues club, and one of two restaurants in town owned by actor Morgan Freeman, who grew up here. Not much is happening so early in the day, and we decide to return for music over the weekend.
While Andy checks out the local music store, I walk over to Cathead Folk Art and Delta Blues. The store is owned by Roger and Jennifer Stolle, who gave up successful careers and moved to Clarksdale a couple of years ago. Cathead is filled wall-to-wall with music and handmade folk art. The ancient brick walls, paint-splattered wood-plank floors and partitions created from old salvaged windows make the place feel like an artist’s studio.
There’s vibrant folk art on the walls and sculpture made from shoes, television sets and other objects covered in buttons, beads, paint and anything else the artists could find. Tabletops are lined with wooden crates filled with blues music and CD-ROMs both new and obscure.
Delta artists and musicians are a spiritual bunch and their art and music reflect their deep faith. Starting from Gospel roots, music was shared by white and black sharecroppers in the cotton fields. Working sunup to sundown, they would learn songs from one another and pass them down. Roger and Jennifer support Delta artists and provide a gallery to showcase their work. The store is both an information hub and a concert and jam session venue.
Roger is a wealth of information about local music, folk art and the entire Delta region. He is clearly a man in his bliss; we think the local chamber of commerce should pay him a commission. He asks where we are staying and I tell him the Expo. “The Expo? Why aren’t you guys out on the Hopson Plantation? You would love it there.” I tell him we are pulling a trailer and had planned on visiting later. “Hang on a minute, let me make a phone call,” he says. I hear him talking to someone named Amy. “Amy says to go on over,” he says, “They would love to meet you.”
As we drive up to the Hopson Plantation-Shack Up Inn, crossing some deserted train tracks and passing through a gate, we realize what we have been missing. Old shotgun houses beckon, washed in green and red. Sand-filled bicycle tires hold down the tin roofs. Each unique shack has been restored using mostly recycled materials and collected antiques. The shacks have names like Legends, Pinetop’s, Cadillac Shack and Robert Cray. An offbeat fountain/grotto serves as a happy-hour spot to gather and cool off after long days in the Mississippi sun.
We pull up to an old tin-walled seed house that has been converted to a home, and a woman with a thick Delta accent comes out to greet us. It’s Amy. She was born and raised in Clarksdale. She notices our license plate and asks, “Where y’all from in Colorado?”
“Glenwood Springs,” I reply.
“No Way!” she exclaims. “My friend is from Carbondale. He is sitting right over there in that circle. Go right on over and introduce yourselves.”
We amble over and meet Bill, James, Jim, Greg, Wes and Semmes. We don’t know any of these guys, but when we mention Glenwood we are welcomed as if to a family reunion. We get a personal tour of this funky place from Jim, a partner in the venture, and begin a round of “Do you know so-and-so?” Amazing how you’re never too far from home.
At the Shack Up Inn, the proprietors have created a one-of-a-kind “Bed and Beer” inn, with a laid-back attitude and Southern hospitality.
“We like to say the main building ” Bill’s house and the ‘lobby’ ” cost $12.50 to build,” Bill says. People of all ages and life experiences seem to find their way to the Hopson Plantation. If you’re supposed to be there, you will find your way.
The Plantation’s distinguished history includes the first mechanized cotton picker. Before machines, men, women and children carried long cotton bags on their backs and labored for hours in the sun, filling the bags one boll at a time. This method of picking cotton still exists in the Delta, but is now supported by machines as well. That all began on the Hopson Plantation, an old, family-owned operation that was on the verge of being sold for development when James got the idea to share his wife’s family heritage.
Every Thursday, James fires up the barbecue pit (made from an old family tractor) and hosts a community dinner with all the pork, beans and coleslaw you can eat for $6. There is usually music in the commissary building to go with the eats, and you never know who might show up. From local talent to some legendary local blues artists, the original commissary building at Hopson is the place to be.
We were going to Clarksdale for a day or two, but ended up living on the Plantation in the trailer for almost a month.
Andy is playing his dobro one afternoon in the commissary when a group walks in. They sit down and J.B. introduces himself. “I love listening to people play music.” he says. “My brother is ‘Super Chikan’ Johnson and Big Jack Johnson is my uncle.” Both of these Johnsons are legendary in the Clarksdale music scene. In the next breath J.B. invites us to meet Big Jack, who lives in town. J.B. doesn’t play an instrument, but he offers us a live “hambone,” using his hand, feet and voice.
After applause all around, we hop in the truck and show up unannounced at Big Jack’s home, where a granddaughter’s birthday barbecue is in full swing. It seems every kid in the neighborhood is there laughing, running free and jumping on the trampoline.
We’re a bit embarrassed, having shown up without an invitation, but Big Jack and his wife, Annette, are as open and kind as everyone else we had met in Clarksdale.
“Welcome, you two! What can we get for you?” they say. “Would you like some food, soda? Please, help yourselves to anything.”
This warm welcome hatched something of a relationship. Just back from a European tour, Big Jack invited Andy to come by each day and spend some time with him, and Andy obliged.
It was phenomenal to watch Big Jack play atop the gleaming red tractor on his front lawn (It’s the tractor he drove in the cotton fields as a young man. Later in life he found it, bought it and took it home.) His massive hands made a mandolin look like a toy. The music poured out of Big Jack and he smiled toward the heavens as he played. One afternoon at Big Jack’s we met Sam Carr, a longtime Clarksdale bluesman who had played in the legendary Jelly Roll Kings with Big Jack and Frank Frost.
One morning I woke up, looked out the trailer window and noticed Andy sitting on the porch of Pinetop’s Shack with a man smoking a cigarette. Could it be, I wondered? Sure enough ” it was Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, the legendary boogie-woogie man, who turned 90 in July.
Pinetop needed sugar for his coffee, so I brought some while he and Andy talked. He once picked cotton at the Hopson Plantation, which is why they rebuilt a shack in his honor, a refuge where he can share his life and his music. We meet Pat Morgan, Pinetop’s manager, and after a private concert in the shack they invite us to drive to Leland, Miss., with them the next day. Pinetop was to be interviewed by a local museum as part of an oral history project and taken to Boss Hall’s bar, where he played one of his first concerts.
The drive to Leland was an education in Delta history, as we passed by long empty fields and Pinetop told stories.
“I started out playing the diddly bo,” he said. “I tied a string with a brick on the bottom to the side of my house and used a bottle to make the music. I had to start that way ” we were too poor to buy an instrument.
“I played the guitar first until some woman stabbed me in the arm in a bar,” he said, pointing to his scar. “I had to learn to play the piano after that.”
We sit in on the museum interview and feel fortunate to have been included. Pinetop talks about all the people he has played with ” Sonny Boy Williamson, Frank Frost, Edgar and Johnny Winter (“nice boys, those two”), Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bonnie Raitt, you name it.
Pinetop may be 90, but he’s still touring hard and will soon cut a new record. We thanked Pat and Pinetop for a special day and traded information so we could keep in touch.
Our time was winding down in Mississippi and we did not want to overstay our welcome. But there was one last treat before leaving Hopson, an opportunity to see Sam Carr and Pinetop play together onstage at the commissary.
Watching Sam smile as he banged hard on the drums, I felt like I was witnessing a piece of history. It brought tears to my eyes.
Each day in the Delta was pure magic, and we were grateful for every moment of our time there. We felt a connection to this town and our new friends like no other in our year on the road. It’s just that way in Clarksdale. We left a piece of our hearts on the plantation and we are counting the days until we return.