I've always wanted to do this . . .

Highway 61 . . . to take a week in the hot summer and go there: the land where the blues began. So did my old friend John and my new friend Bill. The Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi, was our ultimate destination, but as exceptional as this year's fest turned out to be, I will always cherish more the memories of the lesser places we went, the good folks we met, and the enchantment we shared during that week we did the Delta. Whatever your Mecca, it will always be the pilgrimage that holds the most meaning. This particular one should be required.

This is Part 1 of 2. On these pages, I've got 62 jpeg images to share with you. They range in file size from about 10k to 45k. (Ain't is always true that the best ones are also the biggest.) I think most web browsers have a jpeg viewer built in, and this should work fine. If not, you'll need to configure a viewer to use with your browser. Try ACDSee for Windows 3.X and Windows 95. It's fast and versatile. Enjoy the pictures, but please do not distribute them without asking me first. You sure as hell cannot use them to make money. Thanks.

Cruisin' To The Crescent City

The night before we headed out, John and I took in Josh Smith -- a fine young guitarist -- at my beloved JunkYard in Orlando. Jimmy Thackery said he was three heartbreaks away from becoming a genuine bluesman. This is true.

The next day, a Sunday, we put in about 10 hours on the road before falling out in Pascagoula. We were to dodge various alphabetical storms the whole week, and we caught the worst of it here, but, hey, we were in Mississippi. The next afternoon, we settled into a room in New Orleans, then made a beeline for Bourbon Street.

Just across from the Absinthe, we found the Famous Door Jazz Cafe; a lot of good, cheap beer; and an exclusive audience with Ironing Board Sam, so named because he plays his mean blues keyboard atop -- an ironing board. Note his young drummer. That's the exceptionally talented Dwayne Nelson. Sam's other third is Eugene Senegal. Eugene's also a great unknown, a guitarist from the T-Bone Walker school.

John and I like cemeteries, and death makes as good a subplot here as any. So the next day, Tuesday, we defied all the warnings and drove through a half-dozen of them. Here's a shot from Metairie Cemetery, the biggest and best in New Orleans.

Our search for New Orleans blues continued that night. First we found Coco Robicheaux and Kenny Holladay at Margaritaville down on Decauter Street. Coco's the one on the right. They were both excellent. (Yes, we did hike down to the other end of Decatur and the House of Blues. We passed on Todd Rundgren.)

Then we headed back up to Bourbon Street and the R&B; Club, where we discovered a fine and funny guitarist named Rooster. The man did get the ladies to rockin' that night. Another big beer tab later, we stumbled into the Seaport Restaurant, I think it was, for some outstanding gumbo and étoufée -- all of which was made possible by eventually having found the only ATM machine in all of New Orleans.

Goin' Up The Country

Suddenly it was Wednesday. We had Bill to meet up with in Jackson, Mississippi -- a 3-hour drive. Like all good meanderers, we took 6. We followed I-10 west through Baton Rouge, then headed north along the Mississippi via some scenic blue highways through Glynn, New Roads, Morganza, then Lettsworth, the birthplace of Buddy Guy. That was the only acknowledgement of the fact. We asked some bicyclin' local kids about him. They laughed when I said "Buddy Guy." Nope, never heard of him.

We didn't know it at the time, but Angola, Louisiana, was just across the river from Lettsworth and accessible via ferry. The notorious Angola prison farm was where John and Alan Lomax discovered Leadbelly in 1933. He was doing time for attempted murder. Anyway, we headed west to Marksville, looking for a trace of Little Walter Jacobs. We found a monument to Marc Eliche, whose Conestoga lost a wheel here in 1809; some ancient Indian site; and a McDonald's.

Undaunted, cuz it was still Wednesday, we turned north, cruised through the Saline Wildlife Area, and east to Natchez, Mississippi, and Highway 61. John risked his head, but more importantly, the camera, by shooting that one through the sunroof at 60 miles an hour. We soon found that perfect snapshot -- the one I always wanted.

We continued north on Highway 61 through Port Gibson and Vicksburg, then east on I-20 to Jackson, where we met Bill and his roommate at the excellent Wilson Inn. But more excellently, Bill had brought along a dozen Guinness Stouts and his laptop, so we got drunk and read Blues-L. As I recall, we found some blues content. Then we drove up to the Red, Hot & Blue barbecue place for dinner, while also enjoying their incredible displays of first-rate blues memorabilia.

Then it was Thursday. Bill's roommate drove back home to Starkville, and Bill joined us as we headed west to Highway 61 We turned north and skirted the Delta National Forest before rolling into Rolling Fork. Again, we found no reference in Rolling Fork to it being the birthplace of Muddy Waters, but we did manage to catch up with a cropduster tending to the cotton.

I wish I wouldn't have tried so hard for a better shot. About 30 seconds after this one, I perched my right front tire over that 3-foot-deep irrigation ditch you see about 100 feet ahead. About 10 minutes and 10 aborted attempts later, with the car listing at a very precarious 40 degrees and our pilgrimage crashing down all around us, up rolled the defensive front four for Mississippi Valley State University, who promptly huddled up, got set, and sacked the damn thing for a 10-yard loss. Thank you, guys! And you too, Muddy, for sending them our way.

Just north of Rolling Ford -- er, Fork -- we detoured through the classic old plantation towns of Anguilla, Nitta Yuma, Panther Burn, and Hollandale, where we found some great old jook joints like this one, where you can't loiter, apparently, if you're under 21.

Payin' Our Respects

With one of those alphabetical storms on our trail, we made our way up to Highway 82. And with Jim O'Neal's Delta Blues Map Kit* by our side, we quickly navigated our way to the Holly Ridge Gin and the grave of Charley Patton. We have John Fogerty and Skip Henderson to thank for the beautiful marker, which was dedicated here in 1991. Just a few miles east, we rolled through Indianola, where there is a subtle mention of B.B. King's existence there.

Another few miles east is Moorhead. As the historical marker tells us, this is where the Southern crosses the Dog -- where the Southern Railroad intersected with the Yazoo Mississippi Valley Railroad, which is said to have inspired "countless folksongs, stories & paintings" since 1895. This is the place that W.C. Handy's mysterious bluesman was singing about up at the Tutwiler train station in 1903.

In another 30 minutes, with the skies growing ever more ominous, we found our way to Quito (pronounced Quit-o) and the modest Payne Chapel. Maybe 50 feet behind the chapel, we found what we were looking for -- Robert Johnson's headstone. We will kindly refuse to believe that his body lies anywhere else, thank you. We might be willing to accept, however, that this is not the Three Forks Store where Johnson was poisoned by a jealous husband in 1938.

Due south of Quito is Morgan City and the also humble Mount Zion Church. It has been accepted that Robert Johnson was originally buried here, but that he was soon moved to the Payne Chapel site or perhaps somewhere else entirely. It's also possible that he never really was moved, but if so, nobody seems to know where the plot is. Or he could be living on an Indian reservation in Montana, with Elvis and Jimmy Hoffa. Anyway, Skip Henderson and Columbia Records dedicated this beautiful, four-sided memorial marker here in 1991.

We were lucky. The rains never came. We checked into a room in Greenwood, birthplace of Furry Lewis and possible burial site of Robert Johnson. Then, with just a few hours of light left on an already long and spooky Delta Thursday, we promptly grabbed Jim's map kit and headed north to Avalon, where Mississippi John Hurt was born, lived, and died, more or less. Don't ask us how, but we eventually found John Hurt's grave tucked in the corner of a peaceful family plot deep in the shady hills overlooking the Delta.

The Delta Blues Map Kit may no longer be available, since its author, Jim O'Neal, has moved out of the area. But the Delta Blues Museum might have some for sale or be able to tell you how to get one.

Delta Blues Museum
phone: (601) 627-6820
fax: (601) 627-7263

Another great reference is The Jazz and Blues Lover's Guide to the U.S. -- an Addison-Wesley paperback by Christiane Bird. It's about $15 in most major bookstores.

For Part 2, click here.

Go To:

Robert Johnson / W.C. Handy / Willie Dixon

The Delta Map / The Essays / The Index

The Bluescasts To The Introduction The Blues Mall
The Blues News The Gutbucket The Blues Links

The Blue Highway
For the 'Buked and Scorned

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