EM-EYE-DOUBLE ESS-EYE-DOUBLE ESS-EYE-DOUBLE PEE-EYE

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There was something in the air the night we left Memphis and therefore Tennessee behind and it wasn’t cos Phil Collins said so.  It was strange and I’m not sure if I can describe the feelings I felt accurately here.  But I’ll bloody well try!

Having left Memphis with feelings of such disappointment, I wasn’t really looking forward to anything that lay in wait.  Mississippi had always intrigued me, even more so when I read Uncle Toms Cabin, a book I guess a lot of people grow up reading in the States, not so many at home in England.  It’s a shame we don’t have it as part of our school syllabus, it paints the most vivid picture of the times of slavery in the U.S.  Instead, we get to learn about JFK and The Red Baron.  Go figure.  And now this historical state, so pertinent in my thoughts when i finished that book, was within touching distance and I just wasn’t sure how i felt about that.  Fear was maybe one emotion I experienced.  Other conflicting ones were excitement, sadness, apprehension, determination.  The reasons were many.  I guess not knowing where we would stay in a state where the racial divide is so apparent coupled with our number plate (registration plate for you foreigny types) being from Ontario, Canada, the ‘Whiter than White country’, lead to fear and apprehension.  Thoughts of being a target whilst camped on the side of a road in a poor town, of potential breaking and enterings, of how I would be received, a white foreigner with nice shoes!  But then there was determination, not to be the fearful tourist basing all beliefs on what I read or saw on sensationalist newspapers/websites/programmes.  Also, a determination to break down in some way, any possible way, a perceived racial divide by approaching as many locals as possible, being friendly, funny and open.  And, well, excitement is never far away for me when I’m travelling to new places.  I guess it’s the same for you too.  Something new should make one eager to see what experience will unveil itself.  And in my mind’s eye, there wasn’t anything as exciting as going to Mississippi.  Hell, I’d never had to spell it but I knew from watching The Wonder Years how to remember how to spell it… all the consonants are doubles except for the first, unless you are trying to indicate that you find it delicious in some way… think about it! (on a completely unrelated note, as I sit and write about this wonderful state, who else comes wailing over the speakers but that iconic blues man of Mississippi, Robert Johnson!!  More of him later).

So, The Delta awaited us and some emotions were running high.  But as we drove south from Memphis, and out of the state with some of the most grandiose, awe-inspiring and ‘American’ looking rivers I’d ever seen, all eyes were on the road that lay less than 6 feet ahead of us, one Highway 61 (and yes, it would be re-visited on many occasions).  Why 6 feet?  Well, that’s about as far as the biblical blizzard we were in would let us see.  Seems the least likely career path yours truly could ever take is the one that points towards Meteorologist, such is my failure at predicting what weathery fronts lay in wait.  If you ever thought, like I, that the Southern states of the U.S were hot, balmy places that one could while away hours in, sipping whiskey and chatting to hoochy coochy women in Jook Joints, throughout all months of the year, well think again.  I’d never EVER seen a snow storm like this one and I was driving our 1976, 48 ton camper van through the center of it! But if nothing else, I have a steely determination to live as long as humanely possible and so, imprinting my fingers into the steering wheel for the rest of its days as my forearms rippled with their usual Iron Man form, I stared grimly at the road ahead and decided that tonight, we weren’t going to die!! Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the guy in the pick-up in front of us, who, after a couple of dramatic weaves across the Highway, shot into the ditch separating us from the oncoming traffic and did the equivalent of a triple Salchow followed by a double toe-loop and landed upside down.  I hope he was ok.  It was one of those situations I faced that you discuss with friends sometimes, the ‘WHAT IF’s’.  Not the one that goes something along the lines of ‘WHAT IF you had to choose between snogging Maggie Thatcher for free or a seahorse for eight quid?’  I mean one of those that’s something along the lines of ‘What would you do if you saw an accident in front of you and knew that someone may need your help but in helping you risked having a potentially fatal accident yourself?!!’  Luckily, we were only doing about 30 mph and so from the looks of it, there weren’t going to be any severed limbs, maybe only a thick ear and some damaged pride but in trying to slow down our tank, the same couldn’t confidently be said.  And as I looked in my mirror, I saw other cars further back that were able to stop and help and so I knew things would be ok.  But for us, it was touch and go a few times as we slid across the road towards the trenches either side.  And I’m not exaggerating when I say this was THE most terrifying drive of my entire life.  Even more terrifying than the one from Worthing to Southampton in 1997 when on the M27, in a torrential rain storm, my windscreen wipers failed and Marcus Williams had to lean half of his body out of the window and try to move them from side-to-side, whilst passing lorries sprayed deadly acid rain into our eyes!!  And not only could we not see for the driving snow in Mississippi but the depth of the falling snow on the roads was becoming increasingly dangerous, as was the freezing of our windscreen wipers.  Of course we wanted to turn off and park for the night but we just couldn’t see any turnings off the highway, visibility was so low and so we just had to keep on going……. for 2 AND A HALF HOURS!!!!  Eventually, we spotted some lights in the distance and after realising that they weren’t white and that the voice telling me to ‘come towards them’ was actually my travel braud telling me to go towards ‘those’ lights, i stopped panicking that death was imminent and with all my Nigel Mansell skills, skidded to the left, across the wrong lane of traffic and into the warm nuzzly bosom of the greatest gas station i ever came across!  And boy, was my sphincter tighter than a Hulk Hogan chinese burn!!  But we were alive, we were safe and we had somewhere to rest.  And as the soft, fluffy pat-pat of snow on the roof covered our little cocoon, we were able to sleep, wrapped around each other, thankful that we would live to see another day of this epic adventure.

Our first destination in Mississippi was to be Clarksdale, the city said to be the actual birthplace of the Blues, which has the distinction of being the place where Robert Johnson infamously sold his soul to the Devil in return for the skills and fame of a Blues musician.  It’s a very intriguing story, the basic premise of which was that Mr. Johnson was a crap guitarist who longed to be famous and after disappearing for a few short months to go and make his way in the surrounding counties, returned the sorcerer of the six-string, leading all who knew of him to the summation that he must have made a pact with Mephistopheles in return for his now legendary talents.  At the crossroads of this supposed event, there are a couple of big blue gaudy guitars forming an x-marks-the-spot…

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There’s also a fantastic li’l food-stop that is as legendary in these ‘ere parts as the Blues music that makes it so famous and it goes by the name of Hick’s, home of the World Famous Hot Tamales!  I’d never had a Tamale, didn’t even know what one was and that was all I needed to make me drive around in the Mississippi snow looking for this tiny li’l joint.  And heck, was I glad I did.  Check this out…

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After all the previous evenings weather based excitement, we decided we needed a breather, a shower and a woo (as always) and so we checked into what is generally regarded in my World as ‘The Coolest Lodgings i have ever come across’, namely the Shack Up Inn (www.shackupinn.com).  If you are ever in this part of the World and you don’t stay here, i will send a bunch of lairy prawns to your house every week for 7 months and delight as they sweat on your life and invite their crustaceany mates that look like this (on the right)…

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round for Carling and you-punching nights, every night.

The story goes that the owners, after already acquiring an old Cotton Gin house to turn into guest rooms, decided it would be an amazingly cool idea if their future guests could stay in old plantation shacks, inhabited years ago by farm slaves.  They approached a guy who had 4 on his farm and was about to tear them down, to see if he would sell them the shacks.  They struck up a deal with the farmer whereby if they moved one shack from the farmers farmy farmer farm into the woods he owned, so he had somewhere to do things to himself in private, they could have the other three shacks for bugger all.  And so they literally shunted their 3 onto the back of a shack-shifting truck, shackled them down and schlepped them back to their place.  And the shacks are pretty much as they were back in the day, save for a shower, a toilet and a microwave (booooo).  Check out these pics…

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We stayed in The Crossroads shack and watched some documentaries on the history of the blues and an old concert with Amos Milburn, Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Bill Broonzy.  And I don’t know whether it was the blues I was watching, the shack that we were in or that Mississippi was all around me but I felt a connection right there that I didn’t feel in many others places on this journey.  But I certainly also felt a sadness.  It’s unbelievable to think that 3 generations of families would have to live in this one shack that was just cosy enough for the two of us.  And it was almost inconceivable to me that under my feet were atoms from slaves that had stood on the exact spot years ago, suffering than whilst I was lounging in slave-luxury now.  Is it at least something that I contemplated this when others may have been ignorant of such thoughts?  Not to those spirits that had to endure that life, I bet.  It’s times like this that I say to myself ‘Man, the World is an insane place’…

The proprietors of the Shack Up Inn were two very cool guys, with the baddest southern drawls you could ask for.  Guy, who we met on our arrival, was such a friendly chap.  He was telling us tales of the peeps who stayed there, including Tom Waits, Robert Plant, Flea and loads of other popular musiciany types and how he has been inspired to build a big recording studio and jam area that looks exactly like this…

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Seriously cool guys with a great project. If you’re ever reading those lists of the World’s coolest hotels and this place isn’t on it, burn that damn list and chant a voodoo curse aimed at turning the head of the list maker into a delicious looking roast chicken and then hunt them down and nosh a massive hunk out of a succulent piece of head-breast. Just don’t choke on their ignorant bones!

After bidding a sad but glad farewell to the Shack Up Inn (sad to leave, glad to have experienced it), we headed south on the blues trail to look for the place where one McKinley Morganfield a.k.a Muddy Waters was born.  And even though the biblical blizzard seemed at the time to be affecting the entire planet, 36 hours and a few miles later, Nat King Cole’s Let It Snow had been replaced on the airwaves by more Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Skip James and Sonny Boy then you could shake an enormous blues stick at.  And as we ambled along (as one should in these pastures) and the sun started to do its thang, the countryside became flat and deep and alive with its own history and although these images may not show truly how one feels when looking at these old farmlands, to me, they were extremely pertinent.  But first, see how the slave owners used to lap it up in their Antebellum era mansions, compare with what the workers would have had to put up with and then think how you feel about that…

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Our destination was the house of the then 2-year-old…

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in Rolling Fork.  And oh man, check this out for a pad…

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I assume that he had more furniture back in the day and he probably didn’t have pictures and newspaper clippings of himself all over the walls as he does now…

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After a brief history lesson on how the man famed for creating Chicago Blues came to be the King he is today, (can I say that about someone who is no longer around physically but who’s legend lives on?), it was back on the road to hit the weirdest and most horror-film inspiring religious shrine you ever saw. This place is called Margaret’s Grocery Store and unfortunately it was closed but the story behind it is properly Deep South. Margaret, having been widowed for many years, married a local preacher, Reverend H.D. Dennis on the promise that if she did so, he would turn her grocery store into something people will never forget…

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I’d love to here from any readers as to what they think the end of the sign would have said.  I reckon iniquity but that’s pretty boring. Anyway, here is the full story of the place: http://www.arts.state.ms.us/folklife/artist.php?dirname=margarets_grocery

With the afternoon sun re-fuelling our Vitamin D levels and many miles still to travel, it was time for some necessary bush tucker and so it was to the historical town of Vicksburg we headed and specifically to Walnut Hills (www.walnuthills.net), a restaurant with the steepest entrance to a car park I have ever experienced.  Seriously, it was like the start of The Looping Star at The Bembom Brothers theme park in Margate!  But tucking into Turnip Greens, Candied Yams and proper ice tea in this beautiful old building made the mountaineering worthwhile, although the fact that all the servers are black while the proprietor is some big, fat white guy still makes me think that there are to be many lifetimes passed before any kind of racial equality reaches this part of the World.  Which I find kinda strange because there is such a rich history of black role models coming from this State, almost more than any other, that you would think it would give new generations something to graduate toward.  And couple that with the tremendous hardship suffered by these people in recent history that enabled black people today to be treated, by some at least, as equal citizens.  I felt a little sad that this inequality still occurs and maybe I didn’t have to because maybe these workers are happy with their lot and want for nothing more but as I would find out in the next state, I think my initial sadness was justified.

In two days, we had almost driven through the state of Mississippi.  A state with a stronger historical identity than any other I was to encounter.  A state where christianity is freely celebrated and yet a chasm-like racial divide is still tolerated. A state of the have’s and the have-nots, usually dependent on the colour of one’s skin, the cut of one’s jib.  A state that has a power hidden in its midsts, the power to break men, to keep them down and destroy any sense of self-esteem but also the power to make men strive to be something better, of role models, of people who started out with nothing and really became something.  And maybe because it was the middle of winter and thus there were few people going about their b’sness or because our time here was short due to us only being allowed 3 months in this wonderful country, but I just felt like i didn’t experience enough of Mississippi.  And maybe that’s a good thing because I didn’t see a huge amount of the poverty that makes this America’s poorest state, thus saving me from adding to the sadness of its history with the sadness of its present.  But deep down, in the deep south of my being, there is a pull on one of my hearts six-strings to see what this area is REALLY about, to REALLY explore its people and it’s connection with its past that this current journey didn’t satisfy.  And so I feel like I can say this with certainty and sincerity…
‘I ain’t yet finished with your Muddy Water’s, Mississippi…’

Muddy Waters – Mississippi Delta Blues

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4 thoughts on “EM-EYE-DOUBLE ESS-EYE-DOUBLE ESS-EYE-DOUBLE PEE-EYE

  1. Wonderful post! You really did capture the absolute fear of driving on 61 in that blizzard! I wholeheartedly agree that Mississippi is a state to be explored more!

    Thanks for sharing it with me, you and everyone we know.

    x

  2. Saul! This is such vivid description , it makes me want to pack my bags and haul off for Mississippi. Seriously. That shack you stayed in was just amazing and I want to stay there, too; but I know I would feel the ghosts of past tenants, just as you did.

    I can’t believe you experienced a blizzard in MS. Such storms are VERY unusual there. It makes your piece of writing fall into the category of magical realism, though, which is mightily cool.

    ye have made this a house of…crazy shit?

  3. I stumbled across your blog … inspired to take a similar journey in April 2012… you- England, me- Belize. Great insight to what lies ahead. Thank you kindly!

  4. I am humbled that someone has visited my blog and has decided to go on an adventure – the very best of travels and fun to you Joyce x

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