(I was a guest of the Mississippi Delta Tourism Association on this trip; almost all of my travel expenses were paid for by them.)
Prince’s “Purple Rain” came out in 1984.
31 years later, 16-year-old blues guitar phenom Christone “Kingfish” Ingram wailed away at his version of the song, on the front porch stage of the converted 1800s wooden railroad depot that is now a Highway 61 visitors center in Tunica, Mississippi.
In the golden light of a Delta sunset, with cotton and other crops spread in every direction, the crowd swayed and sang along with Kingfish. I joined in, standing next to a dear friend and fellow traveler from Seattle, our smiles as big as the setting sun. For a few special moments, life itself glistened for us, while music by the Purple One from Minneapolis floated out across the Blues Highway.
THAT is how you visit Mississippi.
You see, although there are plenty of “things to see in the Mississippi Delta,” and many are quite worthy of your time, the moments that you will remember the most will sneak up on you.
They’ll happen as you unwrap freshly-made tamales (they’re a culinary highlight down here) at Abe’s on the famous Crossroads, or from the original Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, or maybe they’re a pile of divinely greasy ones with just the right balance of meat and masa, from some guy named Larry in Clarksdale.
They’ll happen on a porch one morning, when a nearby screen door metal spring squeaks, and then the wooden door shuts with a little bounce, and your memory leaps with recognition although you haven’t heard that sound in many years, along with the “da-ding!” of a manual cash register (they’re still using one at Doe’s) or the quiet tick-tick-tick of plastic numbers rolling past as you fuel up at an old 1970s-era gas pump (one is still in use in Onward, MS, and no, honey, there’s no credit card swiper, you go inside the store and see the nice lady behind the counter and say, “$20 on Pump 3, please, Ma’am.”)
They’ll happen in the “middle of nowhere,” except that it’s a “nowhere” where many things happened, if only you could see the ghosts all around.
Fortunately, you can, because there is so much history in the Delta that you can’t go three feet without stumbling over a Blues Trail Marker, or a Freedom Trail/civil rights history marker, or a Country Music Trail marker, or even a plain ol’ state historical marker with a metal magnolia blossom at the top.
In tiny Moorhead, there’s a place in town with not one, not two, but three markers around one spot. Starting in 1897, this was the junction where tracks from the Southern Railway and the Yazoo Delta Railroad (nicknamed the “Yellow Dog”) crisscrossed each other, and Moorhead was bursting with commerce and juke joints.
In 1914, W.C. Handy wrote the “Yellow Dog Blues,” about being fed up with his woman and heading out to “where the Southern cross the Dog.”
There’s nothing like going and standing right there.
In addition to railroad and blues history, Moorhead is also the hometown of country songwriter Johnny Russell. You may not know his songs “Catfish John” and “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,” but you probably know his crossover hit that Buck Owens and the Beatles made famous – “Act Naturally.” That’s why there’s a red Country Music Trail marker jostling for attention in the same fifty foot area with the blues one about the song and the state one about the railroad junction.
Musical moments will sneak up on you often in Mississippi.
They’ll happen as Dwayne Dopsie and his accordion – you know that he is zydeco legend Rockin’ Dopsie’s son, right? – and his band including washboard player Vincent Doucet play an ecstatic, sweat-soaked closing set at the Mighty Mississippi Music Festival, part of many Bridging the Blues music events across the Delta.
At Mighty Mississippi, you’re right on the river at Warfield Point Park outside Greenville, and the waterway they call Big Muddy is so close that during nighttime music sets, you can see the red and green navigation lights of the tugs that are pushing barges up and down the river.
You soak in the Delta atmosphere, especially the food, if you’re doing it right.
Soak in some good coffee, pastries, and a damned fine pimiento cheese sandwich at the Starving Musician cafe on Cotton Row in downtown Cleveland, also home to the Fighting Okra at Delta State University (you can’t make this stuff up.)
Let your tongue soak in whatever pot liquor they use in those delicious greens piled up on the Lazy Susan for family-style dining at an old house that is now the Walnut Hills Restaurant in downtown Vicksburg.
….although really, you spell and say it like this….”pot likker”….which is also the Twitter handle for the Southern Foodways Alliance. That’s a genius bit of naming. It’s almost as good as “Okracast,” the Alliance podcast about Southern cooks and Southern food.
Wait, where was I?
Oh, a diversion.
Look, that will happen in the Delta. You’re on your way to X, and Y suddenly appears as an option, and now instead of X you’re driving to the Catfish Museum in Belzoni, because why the hell not? Instead of X, you go to Red’s in Clarksdale because Roger at Cat Head Blues and Folk Art told you that Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry is playing tonight and you’d be a fool to miss it.
There is no free lunch in life or in travel, though.
The price you pay for all this atmosphere is that, well, you’ll keep running into things that are just a little bit broken.
You know how Mississippi ranks towards the bottom in all those surveys and charts on U.S. income levels, health, education, etc.? Well, it is one thing to read a bar graph, and quite another to see what grinding poverty really looks like in the “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.”
Admittedly, as a wandering visitor, I’m usually whizzing past it at 60-70 miles an hour, trying not to think about it, until I see something that could be fixed or vastly improved with a little money, but there simply isn’t any.
Still, I’d rather visit a place that is bursting with stories, culture, music, and even painful history, with all of its challenges and occasional frustrations, than some sanitized plot of perfection where I would never stack up the joyous moments I found in the Mississippi Delta.
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