Highway 61 Revisited

Originally posted on bluesandlit.blogspot.com

By David Lackey

I don’t know exactly when this blues thing began. I started teaching high school English in 1982. Muddy Waters died the following spring, April 1983. Still at it when Robert Lockwood died November, 2006. How many years is that? Twenty-three? I never got to see Muddy Waters, but we did go down to Fat Fish Blue at Prospect and Ontario in Cleveland a couple three times to hear Robert Lockwood. To think that Robert Johnson’s protégé finished up in Cleveland messes with your mind.

Hopson Plantation_v2 I spent most of those years teaching the connections between literature and it’s place, how Twain’s Missouri informed Huck Finn, how Steinbeck’s Salinas shaped of Mice and Men, Jack London’s Yukon, Hemingway’s Upper Peninsula, Thoreau and Emerson, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, New England – their works have their genesis in the ground they sprung from. Literary terroir – how the soil of a region imparts its characteristics on the flavor of what’s grown there – if books were wine, they could be said to taste like their place. Shouldn’t the same be true for the blues?

So when Linda signed up for a course on Faulkner that would take us in search of Yoknapatawpha, I figured it’d be a fine time to experience the places where the Blues began. So after we toured Rowan Oaks and after we scoured Square Books and even after we explored the special collections at Ol’ Miss, where Faulkner shares the room with Larry Brown, we headed up to the Delta, Robert Johnson and Eric Clapton’s Crossroads, Clarksdale, Mississippi.

finding out exactly where Po’ Monkey lived meant asking directions from the locals

We hit Bardstown first, chased our whiskey with ghosts at the Talbott Tavern and Makers Mark, then over to Oxford before heading up to the Delta where we stayed at the quintessential blues motel, the Shack Up Inn outside Clarksdale. With the help of a patient librarian, we tracked down a couple of Robert Johnson’s graves and left the requisite guitar pick and pecan shells.

The next morning we got ambushed by a crop duster on a ninety degree morning trying to locate Muddy Waters’ cabin site on the Stovall Plantation. Found it, too, with good directions from a cyclist in an RC Cola jersey. “About half way to Stoval – can’t miss it.” He caught up to us while we were still out taking pics, chatted awhile about him being a retired postal worker and us doing our English teacher summer thing.

P6210143_v2The guy on the bike said we should get an early lunch at the Stovall Cafe – great catfish and greens – so we did just that. While I repeat the directions, I find myself eye to buckle with his belt – a water bottle, a cell phone and a small calibre pistol. Guess that’s what a cyclist needs in those parts. Anyway, he was right – the Delta’s best catfish, collards and cole slaw with a side of spaghetti and a couple large sweet teas.

I’m sure it wasn’t over tens bucks for the two of us. By the time we got up to pay the retired mailman had caught up with us and covered our tab, then told us to finish off the day we ought to head over to Helena, Arkansas and try and catch Sonny Payne’s Sonny King Biscuit Hour radio show on KFFA. So we did just that and got ourselves on the radio. Since Robert Lockwood Jr got his start there we talked about hearing him in Cleveland, and Sonny talked about how Mary Lockwood had been by the station just a week or two earlier.

Not too long before we headed south the New York Times featured a shot of a Mississippi juke joint near Clarksdale – Po’ Monkey’s. I’ve long been a fan of Annie Leibovitz’s photography, mostly her work in Rolling Stone of iconic musicians, and Po Monkey’s shows up in one of her collections, too. Figured as close as we were we should track it down. Now ours was the only Honda Civic in Mississippi that week. And it was the last vacation Linda and I took without the benefit of GPS or iPhone, back seat littered with AAA guidebooks and maps. So finding out exactly where Po’ Monkey lived meant asking directions from the locals, all of whom were inside out of the sun, mostly in Walker Evans vintage gas stations and general stores. Suffice it to say we did our part to support integration and racial harmony that afternoon.

The last set of directions had us rolling down a gravel road canopied by magnolias, a road that looked like it headed nowhere good. Rounding a bend about a half mile past where Linda thought we ought to turn around we came on a sheriff’s cruiser stopped in the middle of the road. He was headed the same direction as us, so when I pulled alongside he rolled down the passenger window to see what these out of towners needed. I told him who we were looking for and he said he’d be glad to take us there, “Soon as I get rid of this snake here – picked it up for my boy” – as he raises his left arm above the sill to display a fist full of corn snake, I guess, maybe three feet long. Linda declined his invitation to get out and take a look, so he tossed it in the ditch and offered to lead us the rest of the way to Po’ Monkey’s place.

 

On the way back to Clarksdale that night the fields were on fire. Smoke and flames hung low over the cotton stubble and made the setting sun all the more red

 

Willie Seaberry, it turns out, drives tractor on the cotton plantation where his juke joint sits. Willie was just off work, in a sweat drenched sleeveless shirt, but he invited us in to see the place. We followed the sheriff up the steps and inside. It was pitch black until he flipped the lights which illuminated his own Mardi Gras of reclaimed bubble wrap and plastic beer rings, child’s dolls and God knows what else that shined and sparkled. Words hardly exist to do it justice.

Willie sold us a couple two dollar beers and some t-shirts, and took us back to his bedroom to see his collection of tuxedos and suits. He’s only open Mondays and Fridays, so we didn’t get to hear a show, but David Lackey with the grave markerword has it the place holds its own. The rules posted outside the porch remind guests that – “no baseball caps, no guns, no baggy-ass pants, no fighting, no beer bought in and no dope smoking” will be tolerated at Po’ Monkey’s.

On the way back to Clarksdale that night the fields were on fire. Smoke and flames hung low over the cotton stubble and made the setting sun all the more red. We’d found Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters in the same day, experienced true Southern generosity, and had our thirst for local color quenched in a real deal juke joint. We finished up at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero, where a no-name guitar and harmonica phenom proved he’d won the better end of the bargain he’d struck with the bad boy down the road. Looking for the blues? As Bob said, “Yes I think it can be easily done – Just take everything down to Highway 61.”

 

Hopson Plantation

The plantation has been converted into The Shack Up Inn. Guests can stay in a shack or a “bin” in the converted old cotton gin.

Johnson Grave

Robert Johnson, legendary bluesman, is buried next to a church outside of Greenwood, Mississippi.

Crossroads

The legendary Crossroads of highway 61 and 49 is outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi. Here, according to musical folklore, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the blues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

David Lackey

David Lackey

David and his wife Linda taught high school English and chased down dead authors and blues musicians for thirty years. Now he builds guitars and she works at an Ohio winery near Lake Erie.

More Posts - Website - Facebook