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Searching for the Soul of the Delta
January 2003

Everyone has their own passion. Mine is music. With my wife, it is photography and food. Thus it was that we conceived a trip up the Mississippi Delta as an exploration of the cradle of blues and jazz, accompanied by visual stimuli and generous samplings of the local cuisine. The plan was to make our way from New Orleans to Memphis via Highway 61 in a car…the same way thousands migrated north from the plantations to Memphis, perhaps to Chicago or Detroit, in search of jobs and a better life.

We arrived in New Orleans late, around 10:30…too late to get into the Acme Oyster Bar. Settling for passable Cajun food with windows out onto Bourbon Street, we happened to see a segment being videotaped for "America’s Most Wanted." The next day was my birthday, so we planned a day filled with highlights. First was an obligatory stop at the Café Du Monde for chicory coffee and beignets, followed by a drive out to the Garden District with its fine old houses. Soon we located the distinctively turquoise-and-white striped awnings of the Commander’s Palace Restaurant, where we were served one of the most extravagant lunches we have ever consumed…turtle soup, an artistically-arranged catfish salad, and bread pudding souffle. We walked off the lunch around the Garden District in sub-freezing weather, admiring the gothic ironwork and stately presence of the grand and imposing mansions…inspiring me to get out my blank book for a sketch from the cozy confines of the car.

K-Paul’s Kitchen (that of the larger-than-life Paul Prudhomme) was the choice for dinner which, tragically, we could not finish. Rather, it finished us…but the food was undeniably terrific. After dinner we found a jazz haunt called Snug Harbor…an intimate little room just outside the Quarter where jazz of the more avant variety is featured. We were treated to a kaleidoscopic set by the Rob Wagner quartet: Wagner on a variety of saxes, a pianist on a grand that took up half the stage, a monster stand-up bassist, and a talented but perverse drummer who generally avoided any sort of groove whatsoever, but occasionally sustained one long enough to tease us into thinking he might for an entire song.

The next day, we booked a bayou swamp trip hoping to see some alligators. Unfortunately, they prefer temperatures higher than the 30 degrees it happened to be, so most of the tour consisted of good stories, although our guide managed to produce a one-foot-long live baby alligator from a cooler. As evening approached and dinner was discussed (a major decision on any night you are in New Orleans) we opted for Dooky Chase’s, which features "homier" cooking in a sophisticated ambiance and was enthusiastically recommended by the hotel staff, who were not impressed with the more famous tourist-oriented places. It was located in a neighborhood where it was suggested that we take a cab, but we had a great meal there, and much admired the vibrant colors and original Afro-themed artwork decorating the walls.

The next part of the trip was a two-day stay at an elegant plantation in Natchez, Mississippi. Our time there included tours of other nearby plantations, and a very elegant formal dinner on Super Bowl Sunday. After suffering through the first half as our local team (the Oakland Raiders) were getting pummeled, it was easy to leave the game and have dinner, which we shared with two other couples at the end of a hopelessly long banquet table laden with enough silver and china to host a coronation. Six wonderful courses later, we were ready for our four-poster bed next to a gas fireplace…a room we took much advantage of during our stay.

As we headed north on 61, we entered the land of the blues. Natchez to Memphis is a lot to drive in a single day, and Clarksdale (with its famous "Crossroads" where legend has it bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil) was located conveniently towards the middle of that stretch, so we booked a room at the Shack Up Inn, a former plantation with "shotgun shacks" (so named because a blast fired through the front door would hit anyone in the house) that had been "B&B-ized" (running water, heat, electricity, coffeemaker, etc.) but otherwise left in their original state of near-dilapidation. Our shack was dubbed the Pinetop Perkins Shack, dedicated to the venerable blues pianist. The in-room entertainment consisted of a TV monitor receiving only an audio feed of blues music (identified by artist/title/label) and a piano in a corner of the main room. After tickling the ivories a little, we ate an unremarkable dinner in a local hangout with more sports memorabilia than you’d think could fit on the walls, with a clientele to match.

Had it been a Saturday night, we might have been able to find a good fish fry with live blues. Being a Monday night, no juke joints were open, so we snuggled under a blanket on the couch back at the Pinetop Perkins shack. Ellen read a novel while I listened to good blues (Junior Kimbrough on Fat Possum Records!) looked at the musicians who had gotten together to buy the 88-year-old Pinetop a grand piano (Bonnie Raitt was good for two keys) and read back issues of "OffBeat" magazine, which provided an insider’s view of the New Orleans and Delta music scenes and artists. We went to sleep comforted by the heater, wondering what it would have been like without it, in a dwelling where the concept of insulation had never been considered.

The next morning, we drove to the infamous crossroads to take photos of the guitar sculpture that now graces the spot. Afterwards, we stopped in Clarksdale’s fascinating and informative Delta Blues Museum (and purchased a Highway 61 sign for my music studio) and made our way up Highway 61 itself…a lonely artery made more so by the very apparent efforts to turn it into a four-lane throughway.  Signs everywhere trumpeted the availability of riverboat gambling at various locations up and down the river…apparently the local population was moving from one long-shot, marginal form of existence to another. Eventually we crossed a bridge into Memphis, looking forward to our stay at the esteemed Peabody Hotel. We had chosen a route into town that went by Graceland and somehow had missed the mansion entirely, as our eyes were distracted by an enormous complex of parking lots, shuttle buses, a jet plane, gift shops and the like, on the other side of the street. Soon, we arrived at the Peabody, just steps from Beale Street, where the action still seemed to be…despite some ill-advised urban renewal that had left only a three-block stretch of clubs, shops and restaurants surrounded by empty lots.

We made sure to be in the lobby of the Peabody when the evening duck parade began. A horn player in elaborate garb played a fanfare as the Peabody’s ducks exited the fountain in the lobby and made their way, in a very organized single-file row, to the elevator to the top floor, where they would spend the night. Again with the help of the hotel staff, we found a great place to eat just opposite B. B. King’s blues club, where a female singer was scheduled to perform later. The gumbo at the Blues City Grill was spicier and better than anything we had in New Orleans. We walked across Beale to the club, where a spiffy-looking R&B outfit with a couple of horns held forth, playing predictable covers such as “In the Midnight Hour.” The featured singer never materialized, and the band was fronted by a fill-in whose sense of attire was out of synch with the rest of the sparkly outfit, but he was a decent singer in a gruff, Wilson Pickett sort of way. The music was pretty loud and we were right in front, so I couldn’t take a whole lot of it before sensory overload set in, and we headed back to the hotel.

The next day we took in Graceland and Sun Records…the former dedicated to The King, and the latter where he recorded his first hits. I’ll try and describe Graceland, although I feel doomed to failure. It’s not just a house that’s been decorated a bit…unusually. It’s a sprawling document to the monumental impact that one performer had on our culture, and how our culture reflected it back to him. Separate exhibits highlighted his recording accomplishments, memorabilia created to merchandise Elvis (Elvis Lipstick – "Be on my lips always") displayed alongside homemade portraits (and trophies) sent to him by fans, stage costumes, posters from more than thirty movies, a collection of cars and motorcycles, even his private jet, the Lisa Marie. Each of these exhibits conveniently funnel patrons into vast souvenir shops where every conceivable type of Elvisiana can be found. The total effect of all this was overwhelming, and moving. Elvis’ standing among the faithful seems much closer to that of a religious figure than an entertainer. Sun Records was quite a contrast…a small brick building virtually unchanged since the mid ‘50s, where we were given a tour (with soundbites) of the studio that launched the careers of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. Ellen photographed me with Elvis’ microphone, in front of a giant blow-up photo of Elvis singing into the same microphone, and I plunked a few Jerry-Lee-like chords on the spinet piano. An engineer, preparing for a session later that afternoon, looked up and I stopped as suddenly as I had started.

Dinner in Memphis (as opposed to New Orleans) is more a matter of "where’s some good barbecue?" A friend’s tip (and a John Hiatt song lyric) pointed us towards the Rendezvous, just a short stroll from the Peabody. The no-frills atmosphere provided the unusual combination of cloth napkins and plastic silverware; the barbecued ribs, although OK, suggested the place’s reputation is based more on familiarity than actual quality…the equivalent of San Francisco’s Alioto’s Fish Grotto in Memphis. Returning to Beale, we were drawn into the Rum Boogie Café by some spirited blues playing and stayed for a set, gazing up at the collection of autographed guitars hanging from the ceiling. Some made perfect sense (ZZ Top) others none at all (Brian Boitano and Rudy Galindo?) but the music was just what you’d want in a blues bar house band..,a much better Wilson Pickett-style singer, and an imposing dyed-blond blues lady (looking like Serena Williams after living under a bridge for twenty years) who sat in with them and got the crowd going with some fine call-and-response. Our final day was spent touring the Gibson guitar factory and the excellent Rock and Soul Museum, who share the same vast brick building off Beale. A long afternoon and evening of flying and time changes got us home to San Francisco about midnight, dreaming of a Saturday Night Fish Fry at a roadhouse near Clarksdale, pulsating with the energy of joyous release that gave the Delta blues its power.

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"Soul of the Delta," a travel blog by Dan Reich