"As soon as you passed the Mason-Dixon line, things got dirty..."
I just got back from a road trip with two co-workers. We work at a music museum and decided to tour other museums like ours to see what kind of programs, memberships. community outreach services, and special events they do at their venues. For me, this trip was nothing but exciting. When I was a kid my parents took me and my sister to the deep south on family vacations. I'm not sure why we went to Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, and the Carolinas. Perhaps it was because we didn't have a lot of money and couldn't afford to go to places like Disney Land or...New York City. Whatever the reason, these childhood experiences of riding through a part of the country that was still segregated in areas and poverty is a way of life, led me to feeling very comfortable in the region as an adult. Now, that may sound strange. Let me explain. When my parents took us on these trips we stopped and toured several plantations. The history of these places struck my heart and caused me to be interested in what happened in early American history. I became fascinated with the culture, black and white, of the South. And I developed a taste for American roots music. Everything from slave chants and the dirty blues, to tend revival shout songs and and early folk. The music told the story of the South. And most of the music I gravitated toward was from the poor. Slaves and descendants of slaves, poor share croppers, and hillbillies in the Appalachian Mountains. In that music you heard the struggle and the pain, but you also caught a glimpse of times when cultures came together and learned from one another. And to this day, I still listen to the music of the South and find myself with the same awe and wander of my 10 year old self.
This tour we did took us to Memphis, TN first. Home of Stax Records, Sun Records, Beale Street, and Elvis Presley's Graceland. Memphis is holy ground to me. On the many trips I have made to the city, there has never been a time when I didn't find myself completely humbled by the magic that took place when artists, black and white, could record together and merge to make a new sound. One that the world hadn't heard yet. Each time I visit, I always get emotional. It is like going to church for me. So, here I am in Memphis taking in the city and imaging what it was like in the 30's, 50's, and 1960's. When music got real and artists were feeling and new energy. And, like always, I left with the sens of my own culture and personal history. I am Memphis, TN. It is in my blood and part of my soul. And I am so, so very grateful for that.
We made our way out of Memphis and headed for Clarksdale, MA. Birthplace of Sam Cooke and the location of the Crossroads. Where highways 61 and 49 intersect and where bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil so that he may sing and play the blues. The folklore in these parts is heavy. It hangs in the air like a fog and any person you ask will give his or her account of what happened there. The ghosts of singers like Pinetop Perkins and Jessie Mae Hemphill are as real as the folks walking down the street. The cotton still grows on the old Hopson Plantation and late at night, if you're really still, you can almost hear the chants of slaves working the fields. This town is as magical as it is frightening. Everyone has a story and everyone wants to share it with you. Well, all the locals anyway. Transplants are a different story in these parts. They don't know the land or the history. It wasn't passed down through generations of freed slaves, Plantation owners, or poor farmers. But if you meet a local, ask them some questions. Their tales won't disappoint you.
Our final stop was in Indianola, MS to visit the B.B. King Museum. What a beautiful tribute to a living legend. I learned a lot about B.B. and his earliest years working in a cotton gin that is now part of the museum, to his success as an international ambassador of American roots music. I was moved, inspired, and motivated. After the tour we met with the Director of the center. I learned from him two striking bits of information. 1. The town of Indianola, B.B. King's home town, was segregated until 2001. Wow. What? And the state of Mississippi has the most Grammy awards, per capita, than any other state of the union. And it has the most Lifetime Achievement awards than any other state. So, arguably one of most racially divided parts of the region of the U.S. has the most music awards despite the left over thinking of an early America. Well, ain't that something...
Before leaving town we ate at a local hot spot called The Crown Cafe. We were greeted by the owner with a thick deep Southern accent a plate of fresh bread. We had down home favorites that included "Right There" hot sauce and followed with Plantation Pie. Oh. My. God.
I got home late last night and my brain was spinning. It seems the South, despite the shock and horror I feel when I think of its history, has a grip on me. I feel connected down there. And sometimes, being a white woman I feel weird saying that. When I say it, I feel that people get the wrong connotation. What I mean is, the history and the racial, and the music created a culture like none other in the U.S. And when you get an opportunity to hear someone's story, it takes your breath away.
Personally I can trace my appreciation for this part of the country to those family vacations. When my parents took an opportunity to show us history and to teach us what happened here. So, when I opened a history book, I had seen this place. I walked those floors and witnessed the residual of a definitive period. I'm grateful for those trips and for the education. It helped me develop my taste and appreciation and tolerance.
"You gonna leave here smellin' like the Delta"