At Dockery Farms, near Cleveland, Mississippi, there may be a mouse, who may run up a clock. But any nursery-rhyme rodent in these former cotton fields has to play second fiddle to legendary blues greats such as Charley Patton and Muddy Waters, who conjured up, and decades later embellished, the soulful Delta sound: Patton on the steps of the plantation commissary at Dockery in the early 1900s, Muddy Waters on the front porch of a simple cabin on nearby Stovall Plantation in the 1930s.
The birth of the blues in Northern Mississippi takes as many twists and turns as the dusty, winding roads of the Delta.
At the baseline mid-state city of Meridian, far south of bonafide Delta country, the compact Jimmie Rodgers Museum houses a hodgepodge of intriguing memorabilia, including the renowned guitar (kept in a plexiglass-fronted safe) of the “Singing Brakeman,” known for the languid yodeling he’d picked up as a young man working with his father on trains after his mother died of tuberculosis, as he would do at the tender age of 35 in 1933.
In the 1950s, Zonaphone records of London popularized Rodgers’ music among black audiences in Africa. Members of the Kipsigi tribe of Kenya, struck by the similarity of the singer’s guitar pickin’ to the sound of their traditional six-string lyre, and enamored of his yodel, began using his music as a potent element in puberty rites for young women.
Tribesmen, anointed for the event as “Chemirochas” (say it quickly, with a nasal twang) would dance furiously to the beat of a high-octane version of Rodgers unique sound, eventually fulfilling the women’s fantasies that their loin cloths would fall off.
And you thought the blues were all about juke joints in small rural towns.
For other enthusiasts, the Mississippi Blues Trail begins in Tupelo on the front porch of the 450-square-foot, two-bedroom wood-frame house that Vernon Presley, Elvis’s father, built in 1934 with a $150 loan from his employer. The birthplace of the King, who was delivered in an iron-frame double bed in the front living/bedroom on January 8, 1935, still stands in its original location, on what was the boss’s land.
Across a swath of lawn that sports a deep-toned bronze statue of a guitar-clutching Elvis at 13, the one-room Assembly of God church (moved and restored in 2008), where the King first joined visiting choirs in Gospel rejoicing, stuns visitors with a sophisticated audio-visual program. Unexpectedly, the deep-brown beaded-board ceiling opens, and huge projection screens descend silently to recreate on three sides a rollicking religious service with a pre-pubescent Elvis child actor shyly intoning the hymn “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.”
Delta-music uber-performer, casual-educator and unabashed-promoter Memphis Jones — whom you can hire for tours from Tupelo to his namesake Memphis — appears in the film, shorn of his shoulder-length locks and praising the Lord, as Brother Frank Smith, the pastor generally credited with teaching Tupelo’s young music enthusiast how to play the guitar.
As you leave the church by the side door, the $4,000 replica of the Presley family’s outhouse confronts you — slim comfort if you buy into the story of the King’s death by impacted bowels.
Moving north to Clarksdale, where Miss Daisy’s chauffeur, Hoke — a.k.a. Actor Morgan Freeman — and the town’s mayor have opened Ground Zero Blues Club, we lingered in the impressive Delta Blues Museum, with its 2012 Muddy Waters extension to the 19th-century train-station-turned-museum. I learned that the singer’s Stovall Plantation cabin began, as did Elmfield Cottage at Madewood, as a one-room trapper’s cabin in the the early nineteenth century, garnering three additional rooms as the Civil War approached.
Just down the road toward Cleveland, we hit birthplace-of-the-blues venue Dockery Farms. There’s little left of what once was a 28,000-acre rice plantation, but what remains conjures up images of the age in which this music took root.
You might think a man baptized McKinley Morganfield — Muddy Waters’ given name — would be a Garden District neighbor of Dockery descendants now resident in New Orleans; but he was born in 1913 to a share-cropping family that could never have dreamed of dining at Galatoire’s.
By that time, Patton, who around 1900 had moved his family to the well-paying rice plantation of Will Dockery, was long gone, hustling the blues in Chicago. Patton, earning the above-average wage of ten cents a day at Dockery, had been able to add as much as $250 to the kitty in a single day from as many as a thousand workers, each paying a quarter to hear him play on Saturday or Sunday evening outside the commissary.
Muddy Waters doesn’t merit a mention in a presentation given by Dockery Farms Foundation director Bill Lester, as the focus at Dockery is on the early twentieth century — the birth, not the adolescence, of the blues.
A hop, skip and a jump down a dirt road, in nearby Merigold, Willie Seaberry, holds court at his classic, photographed-to-excess juke joint, Po’ Monkey’s.
“How often do you have this many people taking your picture?” enquired Eric Lindberg, twice winner of the Society of American Travel Writers Travel Photographer of the Year award, as Millie and I, along with a dozen others, snapped madly away while the cocky owner mugged in front of his iconic shack.
“Just about every day. Folks from all over the world,” he casually quipped.
Next was a visit to the multi-million-dollar B. B. King Museum in Indianola, built around a towering brick cotton gin, and a drive-by of the Club Ebony, where the town’s blues ambassador-to-the-world first played, and continued to play until he left for the big city, Memphis.
Our journey ended at the glamorous Alluvian Hotel in Greenwood, a country-that-need-not-go-to-town cousin of New Orleans’ International House Hotel.
But along the way, there’d been an unnervingly discordant note, as powerful as any dissonance in a blues singer’s lamentations.
In a field outside another North Mississippi town, I felt uneasy as we casually wandered through a collection of tawdry-in-appearance, but carefully-renovated cabins that showcase rusty appliances, old tires and creaky chairs on their porches. Trip Advisor trumpets the spot as the number one B&B in the area.
It suddenly dawned on me that just down the road from Madewood are similar houses with f’true poor folks living in them, not cultural tourists.
Visiting this revitalized scene of former privation reminded me of the conversation I’d had with a guide at Robben Island, the prison off the coast of Cape town, South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years. Like the other guides, he’d been imprisoned there; and reliving his nightmare on a daily basis was painful. But it was a decent job, and really the only one he could get as a former ‘insurgent’.
Over snacks at the old commissary — now a bar and restaurant — across the tracks from the cabins, I confessed my confused emotions to a photographer from Colorado, who expressed the opinion that visitors like himself from outside the Deep South might find spending a night in these ramshackle cabins a new and interesting experience.
From my side, I explained, it was if I were to go to Colorado and spend the night in a reconstruction of Columbine High School.
But ultimately, it’s what I’ve learned over several days about the men who created a new music in the Mississippi Delta, their lives and untutored genius, that remains with me.
I can question history, but I can’t change it; and the music is what lives on.