The Highway that Sings
A road is a road, but sometimes it's more. Sometimes a road sings. I'm driving the old Blues HighwayRoute 61 between Memphis and Vicksburgin search of music, and I'm finding it everywhere I turn.
Soul, gospel, and R&B spill out of car windows and church doors. Sometimes the music is played on guitars picked with calloused fingers in juke joints tucked under the pine trees. Muddy Waters rode the Blues Highway. So did John Lee Hooker, Bessie Smith, and B.B. King. Elvis knew it, toohis rock-and-roll is as rooted in the delta as a cypress tree in the lowland muck.
Tonight travelers and locals alike gather around platters of barbecued chicken for a jam session. The setting is the old commissary of the Hopson Plantation in Clarksdale, Mississippi, not far from the storied blues crossroads where legend says the devil walks, guitar in hand, at midnight. Seth Limmer, a rabbi from Armonk, New York, finishes his version of Neil Young's acoustic classic, "The Needle and the Damage Done"; then Ronnie Drew, owner of a Clarksdale music store, picks up the pace with a rendition of Roger McGuinn's "Chestnut Mare."
Hopson's attracts an eclectic mix of fans, writers, artists, and other free spirits eager to travel the byways of the delta and sample the famed Mississippi hospitality.
Some people recall a time when Highway 61 played a more ominous tune. Before leaving Memphis I meet Deanie Parker. She spent the summers of her youth with her grandparents in Duncan, back when anger and fear mingled with the heat, and oppression was a fact of life. "One day in 1951 a sheriff's officer came out of the cotton fields and pulled us over while we were driving in the family cara new Chevrolet. I guess we looked too prosperous."
Those days are long gone. Today, Parker directs the organization that runs the new Stax Museum of American Soul Music, named for an influential 1960s label that recorded such talents as Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, and Isaac Hayes. The Stax sounddriving, playful, passionategave voice to a new optimism rising from the region. "Highway 61 was the road by which black people left Mississippi to find better opportunities," Parker tells me. "And by leaving they took their music to the world."
I tour the Memphis blues clubs with local guide Tad Pierson, who drives a cream-colored 1955 Cadillac. We enter the Hard Luck Cafe, a juke joint a mile south of touristed Beale Street. The air swirls with cigarette smoke and guitar chords being thumped out by Laurence Morris and the Total Package Band & Show. The song is Prince's hit, "Purple Rain," played blues style. The crowd shouts its approval.
"There are only two reasons to go to the Hard Luck Cafebecause you're feeling good or you're feeling bad," says Pierson. "These are hardworking people, and maybe things aren't going their way. This music sets you free. The blues are cheaper than therapy."
Back on the road south of Clarksdale, I notice that Highway 61 is a lot of four-lane now, slicing through the flat, black earth of the delta as easily as a silver knife through moist cake. Occasionally I divert to the parallel Highway 1, a quiet two-laner running along the Mississippi's "Great Wall," a never-ending levee. Sooner or later, however, you always return to 61.
Nearing the end of my journey, I'm jabbing the seek button on my car radio, trying to stay tuned to WNIX-AM, a classic soul station. I'm still north of Vicksburg, where old 61 is relegated to "business" status, when I brake at what appears to be a fever dream on my right: a collection of plywood and brick towers rendered in white, pinks, reds, and yellows, with hand-painted Bible verses. Welcome to Margaret's Grocery. While no longer a working store, it is an enduring testament to the faith of Reverend H.D. Dennis. Back in 1984, he promised his beloved Margaret that if she consented to marry him, he would build a palace to honor God. Now 87, Dennis is still perfecting his shrine. As I step up for a closer look, he's painting a panel the color of Pepto-Bismol.
"You are my white brother," he says, shaking my hand. "I am your black brother. Have you been reading your Bible?" His eyes, indigo blue, look right at me. I feel guilty.
"No," I answer. "Not recently."
He shakes his head. We chat. Dennis tells me his life story, of being raised by a grandmother who was once a slave. To the reverend this fact is familiar; to me it's electrifying. I'm standing along the Blues Highway with a man whose grandmother experienced slavery and liberation from it.
We walk inside a cramped chapel where Dennis shows me his Ark of the Covenant. It is cobbled together from plastic, old Mardi Gras beads, and gold spray paint, but he has made it beautiful to honor God. He turns on a string of Christmas lights. They catch the shards of mirror affixed to the ceiling.
The only music here is a song for the Lord that rings in the reverend's heart. I can't hear it, but I can marvel at the amazing form it takes in this "grocery" built for his wife. It's getting late.
"Come back tomorrow," Dennis says. "Come back, and we can talk more." But I can't. There's no time. I've got a plane to catch. So I shake the reverend's hand and pull away for one last drive along the singing 61.
Andrew Nelson's Roadside Attractions:
Want to hear the blues? Tad Pierson offers evening tours of Memphis nightclubs and day trips down the delta (+1 901 527 8870; www.americandreamsafari.com). In Clarksdale check the "who's playing" board at Cat Head (252 Delta Ave.; +1 662 624 5992), a blues music store that lists performances at local joints like Sarah's Kitchen (28 Sunflower Ave.; +1 662 627 3239). Catch a band and a down-home meal at actor Morgan Freeman's nightclub Ground Zero (0 Blues Alley; +1 662 621 9009).
Pop culture fans should not miss the Stax Museum of American Soul Music (870 East McLemore Ave., Memphis; +1 901 946 2535; www.soulsvilleusa.com; $9) or the more modest Delta Blues Museum (#1 Blues Alley, Clarksdale; +1 662 627 6820; $6). Visit Reverend Dennis at Margaret's Grocery (4535 N. Washington St., Vicksburg; +1 601 638 1163).
Mexican tamales, oddly enough, are a Mississippi staple. Sample them at the White Front Cafe Joe's Hot Tamale Place (Main St., Rosedale; +1 662 759 3842; $2.50 for six).
The Shack Up Inn is a collection of restored sharecropper shacks plunked down on the Hopson Plantation (Hwy. 49, Clarksdale; +1 662 624 8329; www.shackupinn.com; $50-75). Prefer sleeping on high-thread-count sheets? Then try the Madison Hotel in downtown Memphis (79 Madison Ave.; 866 446 3674 [U.S. and Canada]); $190-255). The 17-story Madison has a distinctly European sensibility with down-home warmth. I heard an elegant receptionist announce she was "fixin'" to do something. Also consider the stately Peabody (149 Union Ave.; 800 732 2639 [U.S. and Canada]; $180-1,625), famous for the ducks that traipse through the lobby daily at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. In Vicksburg the Battlefield Inn offers an alternative to cut-and-paste chains (4137 I-20 N. Frontage Rd.; 800 359 9363 [U.S. and Canada]; $40-75).
Tunica, with its garish casinos, may look like Vegas, but the classic Dixie diner, the Blue and White (1355 Highway 61 N., Tunica; +1 662 363 1371; $9), remains on 61, its fried chicken and peach cobbler Southern cooking at its best.
Memphis is alleged to have more than a hundred barbecue joints. Downtown's Rendezvous (52 S. Second St.; +1 901 523 2746; $22) is justly famous for its dry ribs, but my favorite is Tops Bar-B-Q (1258 Union Ave.; +1 901 725 7527; $5), where the meat, if not the decor, is sublime. Catfish is ubiquitous in Mississippi but not catfish cakes in Provenšal sauce. Madidi (164 Delta Ave., Clarksdale; +1 662 627 7770; $45) is a surprisea high-end eatery, co-owned by Morgan Freeman, with a continental-California-Dixie cuisine.
Memphis Visitors Bureau (Tennessee State Welcome Center, 119 N. Riverside Dr., Memphis; 888 633 9099 [U.S. and Canada]; www.memphistravel.com); Mississippi Division of Tourism (www.visitmississippi.org); Clarksdale Tourism (www.clarksdale.com; has links to Delta Blues Museum, Ground Zero, Madidi).