You leave todays newspaper unread on the table next to your front door. A dozen flies buzz around the hole in your window screen next to the formica table in your kitchen. They get in despite the wad of toilet paper you use to plug the hole.
You walk home from a bar. You weren’t the last to leave, but the guy behind you locked the door. The drizzle doesn’t bother you. Who needs an umbrella anyway? The pavement is uneven. Pools of rainwater reflect the image that’s been buzzing in your brain all day.
Face it, she left you.
But you don’t really care. You don’t care because you have the blues. You haven’t been dealt with a royal flush in the Poker Game of Life. You only get jokers and they aren’t even the wild cards.
You got the blues. And, where do you go when you got the blues? You head to the birthplace of music in America. You catch the Shortline out of Port Authority for that slice of real estate that runs from Memphis to Natchez.
You head for the Delta Blues Country of Mississippi. Gospel, R & B, Rock & Roll and the Blues were born here and that is where you belong.
Cause you got the blues, man…
This is Elvis country. This is Hank Williams country. Somewhere in this mystic triangle, two roads intersected. A poor black kid who couldn’t play the guitar went off one night and met someone at the Crossroads, probably around midnight. There he traded his holy and immortal soul for the gift to play the guitar…not just any guitar…but the best Delta Blues guitar in the country.
Robert Johnson, legend has it, came back from the Crossroads and could out play any man or woman who cared to challenge him. He paid his dues, though. After sneaking out the back door of his house, he promptly went into the back door of another girls house. His wife found out about his midnight rambling and put poison in his liquor. He died after crawling across the floor, barking like a dog and foaming at the mouth.
That’s the way the Legend goes. Maybe it happened. Maybe it didn’t. But, that’s what I heard and that’s what I chose to believe.
This is the Blues Highway. On a map, it’s labelled Route 61. But, magic happened here. For some unexplained reason, the poverty and despair of the poor blacks gave rise to a form of music listened to all over the world. It rose up from the wasted cotton fields and dried-out soy bean fields of Mississippi and Louisiana, filled with hate, prejudice, injustice, hopelessness and violence. It rose up and became the songs of the chain-gangs, the cotton pickers, the old men on the rocking chairs of back porches who sang and hummed as they swatted at the flies and gnats and sipped cheap gin.
Sorrowful music that somehow gave hope to those who were tied to the soil. The white rock and roll singers co-opted this music and made it safe for white teenage girls to listen to.
The Great Migration of poor blacks and jobless whites from the rural North, took generations of the folks north, north to the industrial midwest…usually Chicago.
Bob Dylan anointed this road by naming his album Highway 61 Revisited.
I’m on the Blues Highway. I’m driving Route 61 North. It’s a 4-lane divided highway for a few dozen miles. They must have torn down all the juke joints and gin mills to widen the road. A ghost sign of a long gone motel is here. An abandoned car wash is there. I’ll only be driving the section that is noted in my Rand McNally as the Natchez Trace Parkway, but the Trace seems to follow a zig-zag pattern, crossing Highway 61, at different points. The town welcome sign for Port Gibson is unique. It has a quote from the great enemy of the Confederacy: “Too beautiful to burn”–U.S.Grant. Vicksburg is our next stop. The clay bluffs rise on the eastern shore of the Mississippi just a they do in Natchez. I had been to this town several times when I attended college in Monroe, Louisiana in the mid-1960’s. I wonder how much it has changed. I read somewhere that people of Vicksburg say that the parks, lawns and sidewalks are really graveyards. The Confederate dead are said to lay in the dirt…the ones that weren’t collected after the Union siege ended on July 4, 1863, when the city surrendered and the dead of both sides were buried in mass graves in the National Cemetery.
Highway 61 has had a dismal past. But, from all the blood, death, slavery, poverty and cotton…came the music of the saddest kind.
So sad, it can’t help but lift your spirits. If you got the blues, you got to listen to the blues. It’s the only cure.
We’re leaving Vidalia, Louisiana just a week or so before an expected flood. They can’t say exactly how high the crest will be, but the cement pad that our little RV sits on will almost surely be under water.
I just walked over to the levee. It was dry. I didn’t see the good old boys drinking whiskey and rye…and this will not be the day that I die.
[The Mississippi River Bridge from Natchez looking toward Louisiana]