Any road trip through the Deep South inevitably crosses the state line from Memphis and winds through the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, birthplace of the blues and one of the most deeply historic places in America. Historian David Cohn stated in 1935 that the Mississippi Delta “begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel (in Memphis) and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” He was right – and things haven’t changed a lick since he said that.
“Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues In the middle of the pouring rain.” Marc Cohn, Walking in Memphis
What he didn’t know in 1935 was that journeying down Highway 61, where famous bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the Crossroads, is now a tromp through all kinds of history. From Civil War to civil rights and all that came between, the stories of the Delta are carved into dirt roads, highways, byways, ditches and fertile fields of what author James Cobb calls the “most Southern place on earth.”
Storied Deep South hotels follow the Mighty Mississippi River from Memphis to Vicksburg and down into the French Quarter of New Orleans, harboring stories that cling to the past like haunting melodies in a perpetual circle of unbroken time. A thunderstorm rumbled as I turned my wheels toward Memphis under darkening skies.
The Living Room of Memphis
Reigning over downtown Memphis near the riverbanks, the Peabody Hotel certainly deserves its title of the “South’s Grand Hotel,” carefully cultivated since its debut in 1869. Crossing the threshold of its current incarnation is like stepping into a scene from Gone With the Wind. Southern charm and cheeky elegance drip from glittering chandeliers and intricately carved stained-glass ceilings holding court over Italian marble travertine floors.
A graceful tea room, ornate ballroom and oak-paneled lounge tuck gracefully into the intimate cubbyholes of the Peabody, serving everything from high tea to sweet tea, sazerac cocktails from New Orleans and sweet-tea vodka from South Carolina. In the Lobby Bar, known as “the living room of Memphis,” patrons sip and savor the hotel’s signature Jack Daniels Peach Sour made from Tennessee whiskey, which apparently had a role in the original Peabody Ducks ending up in that fancy lobby fountain nearby.
Ducks motifs are everywhere at the Peabody: embroidered into robes, pillows, and towels and lurking in every nook and cranny. Two times a day, that mystery reveals itself in the parade (literally) of five mallards waddling through the lobby to the tune of John Philip Sousa’s King Cotton March.
From their $200,000 penthouse palace on the Deep South hotel roof, dubbed the Royal Duck Palace, the ducks march off the elevator onto a red carpet, circle the central lobby fountain, and then splish-splash the day away until the reverse evening journey back to their luxurious abode. The tradition started in 1933 and takes place every single day.
The current Duckmaster, Jimmy Ogle, explains that they’ve marched through decades of Memphis history – which has been anything but benign. Within a few blocks of the Peabody, Sun Studios (which is open for tours) recorded Elvis Presley’s first hit, and the infamous Beale Street cranks out live blues, jazz, zydeco and barbeque all day and into the wee hours of the morning. Elvis’s Graceland mansion where he lived, died and is buried draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year to walk through his eerily preserved home.
But the most poignant and nation-changing event in Memphis happened just half a mile from the Peabody. Looting, gunfire and firebombs broke out in the streets surrounding the Peabody on the night of April 4, 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at a small motel that now looms larger than life in Memphis history.
Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march in downtown Memphis on behalf of striking sanitation workers. He was a guest of the Lorraine Motel on Mulberry Street, one of the only lodging places that allowed blacks to register as guests in the days of the Southern Jim Crow laws of the 1960s. He gave his now-famous “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech on April 3rd and was assassinated the next day by James Earl Ray as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine.
The motel is now the host to the National Civil Rights Museum. I walk through re-created scenes from Dr. King’s legacy, including the Birmingham jail and the bus where Rosa Parks sat boldly in the “white” section. The motel room where MLK was staying is preserved as it was that fateful day, and I could almost feel his presence permeating the room – and the entire city. This Deep South hotell is, and will always be, an unfinished part of the story of Memphis.
For some unexplainable reason, Memphis is hard to leave. Perhaps it’s because the air grows noticeably thicker as I cross the state line and descend into the Mississippi Delta. It’s late summer, and the sound of chirping cicadas make a cacophonous choir as they hop between swampy cypress trees along Highway 61. Bolls of white cotton drape the fields as far as the eye can see, hanging heavily in the humid air like wet blankets after a summer storm.
In less than an hour, I turn directly into the cotton fields and weave my way toward garish flashing neon signs lining the riverbank casinos of Tunica. The entire county was deemed “America’s Ethiopia” in the 1980s for its unwanted designation as one of the poorest counties in America.
Civil Rights workers were visibly shaken at the sight of Sugar Ditch in Tunica, where destitute African Americans lived with no plumbing or electricity. Not anymore. Tax dollars from riverboat gambling have transformed Tunica, even though not a single one of the casinos is actually built on a riverboat. All it takes is a sliver of water bordering the casino, even if it’s a manmade pond far from the riverbanks. Nobody’s complaining.
Though it’s tempting to sleep in a posh casino suite and order room service, my destination is 30 miles down the highway at “the Crossroads” of Clarksdale where Robert Johnson made his Faustian deal with the devil. I’d be laying my head that night in a shotgun shack surrounded by – you guessed it – more cotton fields. As playwright Tennessee Williams put it, the Delta is so wide and level that the seasons could walk across it four abreast.
Land Where the Blues Began
“When I was born I was running
As my feet hit the ground
Before I could walk I was humming
An old railroad sound
Things didn’t get much better
When by the age of five
They found me walking into Clarksdale
Trying to keep my friends alive”
Clarksdale rests lazily on the banks of the Sunflower River, at the junction of Highways 61 and 49, known as “the Crossroads” and “the Land Where the Blues Began.” Railroad tracks slice through layers and layers of history in the town center. I join a handful of other sojourners pulling into the dusty parking lot of the old railway depot, which now houses the Mississippi Blues Museum. The lingering spirit of the forward movement is almost palpable here at the depot, compared to much of the small Delta towns where once-thriving Main Streets are boarded up and abandoned.
The railway depot once served as a significant departure point for early blues singers who arrived with battered suitcases, guitars slung over their shoulders, heading up north with heads full of hope for better lives. Now-legendary figures such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Son House, WC Handy and Ike Turner passed through this very spot, along with BB King, Robert Johnson, Albert King and Mississippi John Hurt.
The Ritz it Ain’t
I was on my way to the Shack Up Inn, a collection of cotton-field shacks once belonging to sharecropper families who toiled the surrounding fields. The shack where blues singer Muddy Waters lived his life, just a few miles from BB King’s home in Indianola, is now part of the museum inside the depot – but the ones at the Shack Up have a few things that were unheard of just a few decades ago: namely, indoor plumbing and actual floors.
Other than that, the “amenities” of this Deep South hotel are old Coca-Cola and cigar signs, manual typewriters, field plows and dozens of black-and-white photographs. I weave my way through a smattering of old tractors and cotton-picking implements on my way to
Shack Row. A “bottle tree” sprouting empty bottles from its branches is said to ward off evil spirits, which I’m more than happy to hear.
The shacks are built in the “shotgun” architectural style that was popular in the late 1800s as freed slaves shifted into the sharecropper system. The rustic cabins are narrow and rectangular, none more than 12 feet wide, clad in corrugated tin and weathered cypress from swampy bayou trees throughout the Delta.
Because of their long singular shapes, shotgun shacks are known for “pass-throughs” by ghosts and spirits (as well as bullets if need be). If you notice crooked or misaligned doorways at the Shack Up, it’s likely on purpose – to confuse the apparitions and send them elsewhere. Elvis Presley was born in a Mississippi shotgun house, and Robert Johnson died in one after being poisoned at age 27.
The motto of the Shack Up Inn says it all:
The Ritz We Ain’t. But authentic it is. There are no pretensions here, and no need for any. Owner Bill Talbot told me that if they keep expectations low, nobody’s disappointed. After hearing that I started my journey at the Peabody in Memphis, he laughed and surmised that they could plop a bunch of chickens in their lobby instead of ducks.
The Shack Up wasn’t born from a deep desire to preserve the cultural identity of the Delta (though it certainly does that). The idea came instead from something much more authentic, according to Bill.
“It was a case of too many beers, really,” he explained. “We needed a front porch to sit on, play music, listen to music, and drink – so we had to save a shack. They were disappearing at such a rapid rate, so we bought the little Cadillac shack over there, pulled it over, sat it down.”
Then the Europeans started showing up. When they got a call from a guy in the UK wanting to rent it, they didn’t believe him at first – “You’re not serious, are you?” But he was – and now people have been coming from all over the world for 20 years.
A big draw is the Juke Joint Chapel, an old cotton gin converted into a bar, music venue and hotel lobby. Bill informs me that it’s also known as the “Chapel of Hear No Weevil” because of the giant 3-foot boll weevil beetle sitting on top of a steeple that fell off the Baptist church about five years ago. The Chapel bar cranks out live blues “whenever there’s somebody around to play.” Which is often. They also host harmonica, guitar and songwriter workshops as well as the King Biscuit Blue Festival in October and the Blues and Greens Festival that mashes up a passel of blues tunes with a down-home greens-cooking contest.
In addition to the shacks, you can sleep in a genuine cotton gin “bin” next to the Juke Joint Chapel or a 600-square foot “Sky Shack” suite above the music stage That’s if you don’t mind a whole lot of guitar thumping and the ghost of Pinetop Perkins “radiating the 88s” on an old piano in the dead of night. I passed on that experience – I already had the spooks from a poster on the wall inviting me to “Let Elvis Rock You to Sleep.”
Rumor has it that if you dare ask for a wake-up call, what you get is a chainsaw outside your bedroom window. No need; by sun-up, I was back on Highway 61 heading toward Vicksburg and the Natchez Trace.
In case you didn’t know…
· Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman co-owns the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, across from the old railroad depot. If you’re lucky, you may find him “cuttin a rug” there on Saturday nights.
· Both Rolling Stone Magazine and the Rolling Stones band were named after a Muddy Waters song recorded in 1950. It features an early Mississippi blues style known as “catfish blues.”
Vicksburg: The Battle Cry of Freedom
If David Cohn is right that any Delta trip starts in the lobby of the Memphis Peabody, then the other half of his calculation is that it ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. The problem is that there actually isn’t such a place. It seems to be more of a concept that scoops up the culture, art, cuisine, and lifestyle of this small city perched between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. The name Catfish Row originated in the George Gershwin black folk opera Porgy and Bess, which starred Sidney Portier.
However, there are plenty of compelling reasons to make a stop in Vicksburg – 17,000 of them, to be exact. That’s the number of Civil War Union soldiers who lay beneath the rich Delta soil in Vicksburg National Cemetery. The Siege of Vicksburg was a major turning point in the war and was indeed the “end of the road’ for those who perished there fighting “brother against brother.” Most lie in unnamed graves, falling by the hundreds in battlefield waves over the span of 47 days.
The weight of history digs deep here, and there’s no avoiding the significance of this place. I pass other sojourners strolling the paths through endless rows of tombstones, but the silence is surreal. Nobody speaks a word. The once-passionate “battle cry of freedom” in Vicksburg is a mere echo trapped in unresolved time.
Mint Julips and Spanish Moss
Highway 61 eventually T-bones the Old Natchez Trace, a forest trail running for more than 400 miles along three rivers from Nashville to the genteel river town of Natchez. This is the Old South in all its glory. Dozens of restored historic properties fling open their doors for grand tours and overnight stays.
From antebellum mansions to country manor homes, plantation “big houses” and former slave quarters, it’s like literally walking through the pages of history. There’s no need to embellish or mimic the way things were – because they genuinely still are that way. Many date back to the pre-war 1800s and openly acknowledge their roles in the plantation economy, even offering glimpses into what life was really like for those who toiled in the sugar cane and cotton fields.
My destination is Monmouth Historic Inn, an early 1800s antebellum mansion spreading gracefully across 26 acres of cultivated gardens, ponds, gazebos, bridges and a signature collection of angel statuary. Live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, surrounded by magnolias, crepe myrtle, jasmine and draping tangles of wisteria. From pecan trees to cypress knees, dogwoods and camellias – if it’s Southern and it grows, you’ll find in the gardens of Monmouth.
Monmouth is literally a 200-year timeline of the Old South and New South, home to slaves, plantation owners, tenant farmers, members of Congress and business tycoons. Guests now sleep in Big House rooms filled with antebellum antiques and canopied beds, as well as an array of rooms in garden cottages, plantations suites, a carriage house and courtyard building. The grounds and structures are so expansive that owners Nancy and Warren Reuther offer guided history tours twice a day.
The Deep South hotel is also home to Restaurant 1818, nestled within the estate’s former men’s and ladies’ parlors. Authentic period crystal gasoliers are custom-made by Waterford Crystal in Ireland, and the chef routinely twists up down-home cooking with sassy Cajun sauces, creating something that goes like this: Fried green tomatoes topped with a remoulade sauce made from jumbo lump crab and herbs from Monmouth’s garden. And that’s just an appetizer.
Evenings end with mint juleps on the balcony – and why not? As Virginia Wolf said in A Room of One’s Own, written in 1921:
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
As I take a break before my next journey into the Cajun and Creole enclaves of Louisiana and the Big Easy, it strikes me that the Delta is more than just its dichotomous extremes: rich and poor … black and white … antebellum mansions and shotgun shacks … mint juleps and moonshine. It’s all part of the same Southern tapestry woven through time, stitched literally with blood, sweat and tears. It’s a land where passions run deep, music is born from bondage, and gospel choirs sing honkey-tonk hallelujahs on a Saturday night.