TravelEssay

What the Mississippi Delta teaches me about home—and hope

Finding struggle and resilience on a road trip through the birthplace of the blues.

Photograph by Andrea Morales
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The Delta in silhouette: flat, Gothic, the sun hanging low and big and throwing off a spectral heat that has inspired songs, words, and generations of people who simply quit this hard land and went looking for a new life in a more hospitable place.

Photograph by Andrea Morales

I’ve thought a lot about home during the quarantine. The place and the idea. The way it calls to us, and the way the pulse of daily life can sometimes drown it out.

My home is near the courthouse square in Oxford, Mississippi, a vibrant modern college community. That’s where we wake up and make scrambled eggs for our toddler. But I’m from a nearby place called Clarksdale, birthplace of the Delta blues, the town that gave the world the likes of Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, and Nate Dogg—a place where on a clear night I can hear plantation blues, the protest soul of Stax Records, and the heavy sound of G-Funk LA all mix in the open air.

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The Blue Front, in Bentonia, is across the street from the house where the author’s father grew up. On Friday and Saturday nights, the ghostly music from the guitars inside filtered out of the cinder block bunker through the air and window screens into the dark of the room he shared with his brothers.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, my wife, Sonia, and I took our two-year-old daughter, Wallace, on a drive into the Delta. The plan was to sit somewhere for a picnic. We’d stop in Clarksdale and pick up some takeout at an old-school Italian roadhouse called Ramon’s, drive out in the country, spread out a blanket, and just be there for a while.

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Clarksdale is 64 miles by car from Oxford, but it feels farther than that. It feels like something out of a novel or a play. In fact, it is. Tennessee Williams grew up in my neighborhood. Two doors to the left of the house where we moved when I was five was a big white mansion. The woman who lived in it was named Blanche.

Heading into town, I turned off of the highway and we bumped along a busted country road. We looked out the right window of the car and saw a nearly burned down house, still smoldering. A soot-stained chimney reached into the blue sky. Out the left window, a tall white grave marker sat in the middle of a pecan orchard. The son of a prominent local farmer had recently died of an opioid overdose. I worked for the farmer a long time ago, and he’s a good man, funny and generous. I saw a bench situated next to the grave, and in my mind I could see the outline of the farmer and his wife, year after year, growing old on that bench, watching leaves come and go on the trees.

“It’s a town full of ghosts,” Sonia said as we arrived.

That’s Clarksdale.

The places we haunt

We are a nation of ghosts these days. In a strange twist, the places we’re haunting are our own lives. To me right now, the idea of traveling isn’t so much about making new experiences as it is communing with old ones. I think that’s why I wanted takeout from Ramon’s.

I texted ahead to place our order.

In the late 1800s, Sicilians landed in New Orleans on lemon boats and worked in the sugarcane towns of Louisiana, and in the cotton towns of Mississippi. Open any phone book in the Mississippi Delta and all the vowel-ending names give away a time and a place that has mostly been forgotten. The Italians speak with southern accents now.

Beverly Ely runs Ramon’s, after her wonderful husband, Thomas, passed away. Her daughter Scottie, and her granddaughters Meri Hollis and Sara, are in there a lot of the time, too. When I think of what home tastes like, I imagine their fried shrimp, and their red gravy ladled atop tubular cavatuna noodles and veal cutlets. Their veal might be my dying wish. In this time of social distancing, which is just a fancy word for loneliness, I find myself craving it.

We pulled up out front and waited. The restaurant is squat and long, with weathered siding and an old faded sign. The original owners wanted to name it Raymond’s. The sign painter messed up and the mistake stuck.

Their dining room is closed. Beverly still goes to work and sits behind the low counter in the front room. Scottie says her mom is really struggling with that. Beverly has a reputation as a tough lady, but I think she loves how this little town passes by her counter. On one recent visit, I saw my friend Fred’s parents sitting there with the local parish priest.

Scottie talks to her late father a lot when she’s in there alone. The restaurant isn’t her primary source of income but patrolling the dining room in this little joint is her way of paying tribute to her family, of making sure some essential idea about them endures. She likes that there is a community that exists around Ramon’s. And she hopes it can survive, not just this moment, but the inevitable passage of time.

The virus is super-charging a fear she always has about what time does to cherished people and places. I think right now Americans are realizing something that people who grew up in towns like Clarksdale have always known: We live in a country that has been blowing away like poorly managed topsoil. This virus isn’t destroying as much as revealing how fragile our way of life has been for generations.

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There’s a marker where Muddy Waters’ house once stood, in between Stovall Road and one of the cotton fields where he worked.

Legacy of longing

Placed on the back seat next to Wallace, the Italian food smelled amazing.

I wanted to eat it on the little square of grass where Muddy Waters’ house used to stand. It’s the spot where he sang plantation songs that Alan Lomax and John Work recorded for the Library of Congress. The home is gone now, transplanted to a nearby museum, but when I was in high school, the wreck of it still stood abandoned alongside a cotton field.

The road there runs through the old Stovall Plantation, where Muddy Waters worked. It was owned then by Colonel William Howard Stovall, a World War I flying ace who died just six years before I was born. His family still owns it. Not much changes around here.

Muddy’s genius was that he took that nostalgia for homeplace music, combined it with his pain and anger at that place, and let it rip—loud, dangerous, and alive. He played this new invented sound in juke joints like Chicago’s Smitty’s Corner or Theresa’s Lounge, to crowds of newly urban country folk like him, many of them in the city to leave behind the same plantation fields he had fled.

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Muddy Waters (left) performs in concert, circa 1960. After being recorded by Alan Lomax in 1941, Waters went on to a wildly influential career as a musician, pioneering an electric blues style after his move to Chicago.

A few miles from Stovall’s, I pulled up to Muddy’s grassy patch on Burnt Cane Road. We spread out the blanket and Wallace sat down, gripped a fried shrimp, and took a bite. She pointed at the clamshell of spaghetti and I twirled up a forkful and she ate it with delight.

Sitting there with her, in a place where something used to be, I never felt more strongly connected to my hometown. I grew up serenaded by the lullabies of vanished worlds. By songs of regret and decay. Now I find I crave those feelings. I find myself communing with them, seeking them out, as if the bittersweet in them might inoculate me against future pains and regrets.

I’ve been worried the virus might leave a similar inheritance for my daughter. I worry that she, too, might grow up surrounded by stories of places lost, of how things used to be. I wondered if bringing her back here was good or bad, whether to sit tight or run from that spot.

I looked at the empty field behind us as we ate, the cotton picked clean and the stalks rolled under in preparation for another cycle. It was getting close to time to plant—if farmers can get crop loans, if the rain will hold off.

Wallace started making the noise she makes when she has to go to the bathroom.

“Home,” she said with urgency.

We laughed and started to gather up our things.

“Home,” she said.

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The Delta has problems: diminishing job opportunities, widespread poverty, failing public infrastructure, and inadequate civic services. But home is home—and in the blues, you can hear the promise that, though you struggle, you will emerge and survive.

Country blues

I put on some Muddy Waters for the drive back.

That glorious noise he invented rarely made it on to his recordings thanks to commercial-conscious record-label men who’d softened him. But seven years before he died, he finally laid it down on “Hard Again,” recorded on Blue Sky Records in 1976.

In the beginning of the first tune, his voice is accompanied by a single slide guitar. Everything he had overcome in his life lives inside his cry, at once wounded and defiant. The band slides into gear, the younger musicians confronted with something they’d read about in books but never truly experienced, as if it weren’t 1976 any longer but the end of the Depression, as if they were standing in cotton fields surrounded by gnarled trees along Stovall Road. Muddy is speaking from the soul of a tractor driver and guitar picker and moonshine runner whose first memories of Alan Lomax included shock that a white man would share a water cup with him.

I’ve been thinking recently about how these specific blues could be the soundtrack for a country trying to emerge from quarantine in one piece. A friend I trust told me that sentiment sounds like a kumbaya, and I know what he means. There is real pain and irreducible violence in the music. It records a very particular history.

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People dance at a juke joint—an informal gathering place for music, booze, and dancing—circa 1940 near Clarksdale. During his time working on a sharecropped plantation as a young man, Muddy Waters turned his home into a juke joint on weekends.

But I think I also know the grace in Muddy’s music is that he has given it to everyone, even the descendants of his oppressors.

That makes me hopeful. Whatever gets rolled under the wheel can be reborn; home is an idea and if the idea lives, then home lives, too, no matter what individual pieces of it slip through our hands. The human spirit is in flight not only when it triumphs, but when it struggles and strives. That’s the message in the empty spaces between Muddy’s band and his voice. You cannot miss it. He’s an older man talking to his younger self, singing to him, and sometimes laying back and letting those guitar strings ring out like a church bell calling to worship, letting him know he will struggle, yes, but he will emerge and survive.

At the end of the track, the band hollers with delight. You can hear it on the record—Muddy hops around the studio, on fire, reborn.

We listened to it the whole way home.

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Downtown Clarksdale sometimes feels vibrant and sometimes feels like a shadow of its former self. Even its attempt at reinvention as a blues destination is built on the seductive and nostalgic idea that here lies a dying town that was once capital of a dying world.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN. His next book, Pappyland, is due to be released in November 2020.
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