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Deep South Early Blues Tour 2008 - Clarksdale

MONDAY - 12th May 2008 (Continued)

Down Highway 61 from the Welcome Center near Lula to Clarksdale is a driver's treat - very few cars and a highway that winds through the Delta for miles, cotton fields to the left and cotton fields to the right seemingly never ending until suddenly we were approaching Clarksdale. Fortunately I remembered the complex road system to get to the Shack Up Inn at Hopson Plantation - turn left off Highway 61 and its first right - and would you believe we missed the turning and had to do a Uee (embarrassing!).

Christine was a bit shocked when we arrived at the apparently 'dilapidated dump' we had booked (Christine's words).  Alan thought it was very atmospheric! Checked into the lobby which was like walking into a very antique antique shop but had the warmest of greetings from Bill Talbot who was plainly checking us out by telling us that he can suss people out straight away and anybody wearing pressed linen trousers was likely to be a pain in the ass by complaining about everything.  We think we passed the scruffy test because he gave use the keys and was very friendly.  Told us that Robert Plant and Elvis Costello had stayed here and was effusive about how nice Robert Plant was when he’d stayed during the mixing of his album with Alison Krauss.   Tragically for Alan, we had missed by two days the unveiling ceremony for the latest Mississippi blues marker at Hopson which was attended by Pinetop Perkins,  Hubert Sumlin and sundry other greats and goods of the blues world. 

Arrived at the 'FulliLove' Shack, not really knowing what to expect, but found a surprisingly spacious and reasonably clean room with microwave, air con heating tin shower and sufficient room for a dining area.  However the mod cons were secondary to the extraordinary mixture of furnishings and fittings from every possible era and lovingly adorned by gifts from previous residents.  The curtains were yards of fabric, the crockery was a mixture of plates and dishes with 2 cups.  As for cutlery  - forget it.  We had 2 teaspoons, two forks and a bread knife between us.  But it didn’t matter as you can spread marmalade with the end of a teaspoon and don’t need knives if you eat food the American way with only a fork.  However there was a welcome supply of hot water with a pressure that United Utilities should heed (note for non-UK readers: United Utilities is a UK electricity company that also supply water and gas).  Old dolls, boxes, number plates, coins adorned every nook and cranny.   Outside on the porch were two garden chairs and the most fantastic old wooden gramophone from, we think, the 60s, with the original turntable rusted almost beyond recognition. 

On the first night, Alan’s unerring instinct led us to the bar which hadn’t been mentioned on the website or when we arrived.  Apparently it only opens when the owner’s day job allows him to get here so they choose not to advertise it to avoid disappointing people.  The bar is the most amazing eclectic collection of junk and possibly antiques from the last century whether it be barber’s shop chairs, posters, farm machinery and equipment, carts, statues, etc etc. 

The shacks are all original sharecropper shacks, but not native to Hopson Plantation. They were imported from within a 50 mile radius of Clarksdale.  Wait a minute.. why don't we let Bill at the Shack up Inn tell you all about it....

We have lots of photos of the Shack Up Inn which I'll be posting here soon - give you a better feel for the incredible atmosphere there. Wonderful!

Went to Walmart in Clarksdale for essentials (alcohol and food - in that order) which the lady at the Visitor Center had warned us was only small.  Damn site bigger than Tesco in Carnforth, UK.  They even sell funeral wreathes.  But they don’t sell newspapers and when we wanted raingear (which as true Brits you can't do without - even if we didn't wear it for the next 4 weeks) we were directed to the sports department. Bought a nifty plug-in speaker for my iPod to blast the Shack-up Inn, only to find you could just about hear it on full volume (hmmm).

TUESDAY - 13th May 2008

Thunder and lightening to start with; delayed us slightly – very impressive but not for driving in. 

Went north up Highway 61 to Lula – to show Christine how you can step back in time! Lula is a wonderful small 1930s town where time has stood still - a treasure. We had heard about an old mural on a wall in the old Washbucket Launderette. When we got there we found (like many of the buildings in Lula) the launderette had closed down - all the windows and door were boarded up, but kindly Irene, who owns the building and the general store next door, opened it up for us.  Irene's nephew, introduced to us as 'Nephew', was agog that we’d come 'all the ways' from England to see murals on a wall in an old battered launderette - and he didn’t even know they existed!

Here for the first time on public view (probably) are photos of sections of the mural:

The only information I have about the mural is that it depicts Bennie Jones, Sam Carr and Lonnie Shields and was painted by Gwendolyn Cannon in 1990 (many thanks to Johan Spin, Dronden, The Netherlands for the info).

We spent some time in Lula, soaking up the quiet and the atmosphere - a truly unique place. Let's hope it doesn't get spoilt with tourist trappings.

Mississippi Blues Commission Blues Marker

Irene and 'Nephew'

Beware of ghost trains!

Lula's very own 'Crossroads'

Downtown Lula at midday

Derelict Lula Lumber Co.

From Lula we headed west on Highway 49, over the mighty Mississippi to Helena, Arkansas.  Just after crossing over the impressive river bridge you come to a fork in the road. Turn left and you go to West Helena, a thriving sprawling boring town, but turn right (the only way to go) and you are soon in the suburbs of old Helena, a mecca for any bluesman. Having been to Helena before I took a shortcut downtown to the not so thriving Cherry Street. One of the landmarks on Cherry Street is of course the Delta Cultural Centre visitor center, home of 'King Biscuit Time', the world's longest running daily blues radio show, hosted by the legendary "Sunshine" Sonny Payne, broadcast each weekday at 12.15pm on 1360 KFFA radio.  

We deliberately arrived at noon in order to meet Sonny Payne who asked us to be guests on his radio show.  I met Sonny and appeared on his show some two years previously (with my good friends Max and Rex Haymes)  and he said he remembered the session (although I doubt it!). We had a good time on the show and of course I plugged the website!!  Sonny played a record for "Alan’s lovely wife who is 73 and still playing with the boys" (??).  Christine is forty something!  We kept a transcript of the show for our memories.


Alan and Sonny

Went to lunch at Granny D’s, the only open restaurant in Helena with delicious home cooking – yummy, it was really good for my tummy! 

After a grand feast at Granny D's we waddled up the road to the railway deport museum (actually it's part of the Delta Cultural Center) to take a look at the exhibit “A Heritage of Determination” which details the history of the Delta from its earliest inhabitants, into early settlement, through great Mississippi River floods. Then on the upper floor of the Depot, we had a look at “Civil War in the Delta” an insight into Union occupation and the Battle of Helena. All very fascinating for Christine - Alan was getting tired! We then climbed up the levee to take a peek at the grand old Mississippi.  For the first time there was a tiny bit of information about the Indian population in the Delta on a visitor plaque.  We were amazed at how much the river had changed its course in the last 100 years. 

Popped into the liquor store which was full of hard liquor but no beer and limited wine.  Again like something out of the 30s with dusty wooden shelves.   We inadvertently bought a larger bottle of Maker's Mark Tennessee whiskey than we’d intended, due to the (selective?) deafness of the owner. Anyway Alan thought this was a bargain. Christine wasn’t to be outdone and ordered a large bottle of Southern Comfort. 

Drove down Highway 1 to Friars Point, past the church demolished by Saturday’s tornado (more of this later) and onwards looking for Stovall.  Ended up too far south and had to backtrack to Clarksdale.  We later discovered that the Stovell road sign on Highway 1 (which was definitely there last time I visited two year’s previously) had mysteriously disappeared (tornado? - unlikely as there was no other damage in the vicinity -  souvenir hunter? - unfortunately most probably). We returned to Stovell and on to Moon Lake (which was badly damaged by the tornado) the next day - again, more of this later.

ClarksdaleIn Clarksdale we visited our favourite Walmart’s again for fuel and to gawp at the huge size of everything. 

In the evening we went to Ramones Restaurant, Clarksdale to meet my good friend Liza and her Mom.  As  we didn't know the locality very well we arrived early but Ramones closed for the evening!  Liza arrived without her mother, who was attending a convention somewhere in the US, and suggested a Lebanese restaurant instead.  We followed Liza in her car (a little bit battered as usual) around Clarksdale until we stumbled upon the restaurant. A family concern with no liquor licence. Mmm, not recommended. Liza brought us up to date with her work at the Cleveland Railroad Museum and her plans to go to Boston. We planned a day out together on Thursday.

Back to the shack and tested the Makers Mark and Southern Comfort. Alan had a smile on his face for the rest of the evening. Christine just got merry. 


To be continued

COMING SOON: ........ Vicksburg, where the 4th July has a different meaning

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