Birthplace of the Delta Blues
Day 8 – Saturday, April 25, 2015
We awoke to a wonderful breakfast with Donna and Pete. There wasn’t anything particularly special about it, other than the company, but waking up in the south to a box of anything Kroger brand immediately puts a smile on my face and makes me feel at ease and at home. Anything Publix is the same way. Even though we moved away when I had just turned five, I have always held a special grocery-store-pedestal-place in my heart for Kroger and Publix. After breakfast we got ready for a Mississippi Delta Cultural Tour around the area, specifically Clarksdale, which we were very enthusiastic about since it was also on our personal list of things to do near Cleveland. There was supposed to be a van leaving from Mississippi Grounds Coffee House at ten (we, of course, were running late). It’s crazy how one can go off to college and manage to be to everywhere and to everything on time, and then back with one’s parents and siblings, they somehow regress into perpetual tardiness. Luckily, though tension had risen, the rest of the punctual group had gathered to hear much of the historical information in a large circle overtaking the coffee house. They covered the history of the Delta region. My father reiterated to us the sad history of the African American landowners who later became sharecroppers due to a string of bad harvesting weather and financial issues. There were too many people who wanted to attend the tour to comfortably squeeze into the van, so another caravan formed, and we rode with our cousins, Ivy and Justin. As fun as it is to be at a large family get together, especially when you live where literally none of your relatives live, getting to have some time together in smaller groups is nice. As the two youngest in our generation (ranging from 8-20 years older than me), we have always felt a slight separation at family gatherings on my father’s side. For many years we were too young to legally go out at night with our cousins who were 21+, and too old to go to bed before sundown with our cousins’ children that were under 7 years old. As we’ve finally reached our twenty-something’s, getting to know our cousins has been a really wonderful revelation and right of passage. We enjoyed our time with Ivy and Justin and felt privileged and appreciative not to have to ride in the van.
Our first stop was Dockery Farms. The first thing that draws the eye to this preserved historical landmark is an old service station painted in red and white to match the Coca-Cola signs. There is a video that plays through a window that was hard to see and harder to hear. Dockery Farms is an old cotton plantation credited as the birthplace of the Delta blues. Inside, the current owner of Dockery Farms gave us more information and significance of the place. Here’s a brief history as I understand it:
Will Dockery, the owner, was known for treating his workers better than any other farm within the region. He even had a train stop built directly from the main stop to make it more accessible, brought in a doctor to care for the workers, and minted his own coins to be used in the store. The coins became recognizable enough that surrounding stores acknowledged them as valid cash, which they would exchange for other money. The sharecroppers would sing in the fields and created a genre of music that the locals grew to love and listen to recreationally. Juke joints began sprinkling across the country as a place that, at first, black workers would go to dance, drink moonshine, gamble, and relax after a long week’s work in the field (one such juke joint was Po’ Monkey’s from my last blog). The musicians that worked at Dockery Farms would play guitar together and learn from each other’s styles. Thus, the blues was born. Each Saturday night the musicians would play and Dockery would charge locals to come listen and dance. Charley Patton was one of those musicians. Each week Charley made $250, which for the time was enough that he could buy a brand new car each week. As a sharecropper, making that much money was unheard of. A well-known musical group came down to play and the audience requested some of the local music to dance to. The group didn’t know any, so they made a few phone calls and brought in some locals to play the music. The musicians learned how to play the music and brought it back to Memphis and other cultural hotbeds that spread it around the country.
Before allowing us to freely roam the historical grounds, the owner showed us some of the original Dockery Farms currency that he had personally found in one of the attics. He believes them to be the only in existence.
Often in my life and on this trip I have imagined what existence was like for the animate and inanimate things that have been exactly where I am at each moment in history. Because there is so much left of Dockery Farms, it is not hard to imagine what it looked like while active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There are raw recordings of field songs and blues music playing from speakers attached to a barn-like structure near a door high above the ground with no stairs leading up to it. The farm is very close to the river. There is a large, circular stone basin where baptisms were often performed. I wandered off away from the group and the remnants of the old stone porch where the black musicians preformed on Saturday nights before the rest of the building burned down. There was a very small, decrepit house that still had some dusty remainders of the people who resided there. It is fantastical and yet also so difficult to accurately imagine. The heat was already getting to us, and we had an air-conditioned car to return to, plenty of clean water, no workload, and it was only an April heat. Cotton picking and walking miles to go anywhere seemed impossible. How advantaged I am to be born of my color, social class, decade, and as a United States citizen.
We were hurried along to our next location, McCarty’s Pottery in Merigold, MS. Perhaps we missed an explanation because we weren’t on the van, or maybe we weren’t listening, but we didn’t really understand the relevance of this pottery place except that McCarty, the artist, is well known to everyone in the area as a kind, talented, old man who had been making and selling pottery for decades. The interior was claustrophobic and covered in beautiful clay pieces. After having a look around, I went out and waited by the car. There were too many people, not enough space, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to buy anything as all my money is going to help fund the trip. Later, after everyone else had left except our car and one other, Allison came back with pictures and descriptions of these somewhat hidden gardens she had followed our cousins in to. I was bummed I had missed out, but we had waited for them for a while and the drivers were eager to leave. Clarksdale was next. We started in Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club. It is covered in more black Sharpie graffiti than anywhere I’ve ever seen. Graffiti is scribbled all over walls, chairs, floors, ceilings, the bar, the restrooms and even the stage. A couple of our cousins had beaten us there, but most where having lunch at a different place called Yazoo Pass, where we ended up walking to afterward. At Ground Zero we nibbled on an assortment of fried foods: tamales, green tomatoes, grits, mushrooms, pickles, and more. We went into Cat Head Records and Folk Art store to check it out. It wasn’t as exciting as we had pictured, but it was air-conditioned and had cool books, records, and art to buy. Walking through Clarksdale and its surrounding neighborhoods gave us a more detailed image of what rural Mississippi outside of Cleveland is like. It seemed far from the Minneapolis suburban life we had grown accustomed to. The contrast was real and provoking.
Back in Cleveland we picked up the cargo bag we had ordered for the roof of our car. We still had to find a way to squeeze our mom in with all the stuff we had given to our dad to hold on to. We took a nap, got ready, and met up for another caravan, this time for a forty-five minute drive with our father to Doe’s Eat Place, a world class steak house that feels more like a country kitchen in Greenville, MS. Perhaps it is because customers walk through the kitchens to get to their tables that it feels this way. It was a home and then a grocery before the current owners acquired it in the 1880’s. It has been a “family owned restaurant since 1941” by the same family. The woman who tosses the salad and dressing there has worked there for sixty-four years. The food was all phenomenal and preordered for us by our hosts. We squeezed forty-five or so people in a room that was meant for forty. We were among the last to walk in and ended up being split up from our closer relatives, leaving us to chat and connect with people form Terry’s side of the family who we hadn’t seen in years, which was wonderful. The wine was already on the tables and the food seemed to just keep coming. Steak, fried shrimp, boiled shrimp, fries, tamales, salad, etc. It was a feast fit for a southern king. There was more coconut cake and caramel cake from the night before. We headed back to Cleveland for some after dinner schmoozing at Terry and Mark’s where we were offered a bourbon and ice cream drink that tasted so smooth but no one had any room left for second dessert. It wasn’t long before we headed back to Donna and Pete’s for a good night’s rest.