This article was
published in the UK Weekend Telegraph newspaper (Travel Section) in 2004. Michael has kindly
agreed for me to publish it on the website. Thanks Michael. Readers
I’m travelling by train through
Mississippi, accompanied by the ghosts of those who sang the blues here before I
was born: those who migrated north to Chicago and elsewhere on these trains and
those who stayed behind, in the little towns where the trains still stop.
These railroads are entwined with
music. It was at a station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, around 1903, that W.C.
Handy first heard a blues holler - and the words were about the railroads:
‘I’m goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog…’
The great migration began about
1915, when wartime northern business needed workers and southern cotton was
decimated by the boll weevil and floods. The flooding of the Mississippi River,
as of the Nile, had always replenished the land, but with the wilderness cleared
and plantations pushing to the banks, floods became disasters. In 1927 the river
overran an area the size of Scotland.
Desperate people move from
countryside to city. A black wage in 1940s Chicago was four times Mississippi’s.
A quarter of the black population left. Trains, more than muddy highways, were
the means of that escape. In one year, the Southern Pacific threw nearly 700,000
people off its freight trains.
Amtrak’s daily City of New
Orleans still makes that big migratory journey, 926 miles from New Orleans
to Chicago, as it has for over a century - and as it crosses Mississippi it
stops at Jackson and Greenwood, and at tiny McComb, Brookhaven, Hazlehurst and
Yazoo City. The Crescent too runs daily, New Orleans to New York, 1,377
miles, stopping in small-town Mississippi at Picayune, Laurel and Meridian.
I’m taking one train south, from
Atlanta to New Orleans, and then a second, north from there, all the way to
Chicago, and I’m breaking both journeys in Mississippi towns.
Eleven coaches long, silver and
huge, 20 hours out of New York, the Crescent pulls into Atlanta soaked in
its own romance. I’m shown my sleeping compartment by Mr. Turk, a smart,
ebullient man much given to shaking hands: fold-down basin, lavatory, movies,
recliner, fold-down table with chessboard top, air-conditioning, call button to
summon free drinks. It’s not quite the style of my travelling bluesmen, but I’m
riding the rails they once knew.
We roll southwest through woodland,
brown kuzu draped over winter trees, and alongside roads lined with trailer
homes, tattoo parlours and petshops. Mostly it’s a patchwork of piney woods and
bungalows where old cars litter the grass.
Alabama looks like Georgia. At
Birmingham Mr. Turk takes delivery of fat paper bags of hot boiled peanuts. On
through immense woodlands, crossing swamps and vast fields where cattle stand
knee-high in juiceless grass. Mississippi brings green valleys, gentle hills and
lakes. We cross a time zone. It’s an epic ride. I hear that lonesome whistle
At Meridian, built on a rise, the
track crosses a wide street that climbs to tall, elderly buildings. Birthplace
of ‘the father of country music’, Jimmie Rodgers, the tubercular white singer
who invented the Blue Yodel, Meridian is also where, on a tip from H.C. Speir, the pre-war Sam
Phillips, producer W.R. Calaway brought Charley Patton after springing him from Belzoni Jail. They
caught this train to New York so that Patton, ‘the leadingest musicianer in
Mississippi,’ could record. A woman on the concourse would sing out the trains’
destinations. Speir wanted her to make records too. She refused. The station,
like the culture, has changed since then.
The train rattles on to Laurel, the
world’s yellow-pine capital, chosen for my stopover because it’s small and
obscure. Few alight. The station is like a colonial bungalow with lawns. It’s a
January afternoon, the warm air soft. Peggy, the Laurel Inn landlady, has come
to meet me. ‘There used to be a taxi man,’ she says, ‘but I think he musta
I’m driven straight to oak-lined
Belle Epoque suburbs. ‘I hope you like dawgs,’ says Peggy, pulling into her
driveway. ‘They’re Great Danes,’ she adds, opening the door. Elvis and Hazel
It’s Friday night. I intend walking
into town. ‘Oh no!’ says Peggy, ‘You cain’t walk around after dark!’ She insists
on driving me again. We find closed buildings on featureless, empty streets.
Peggy sticks close as a dawg. The
café is shut, the downtown bar hopelessly redneck. A man says ‘Hi Peggy,’ and I
ask if whites and blacks mix anywhere in town. He answers, with mild manners and
crazed eyes: ‘No: and I hope they never will.’ Peggy mentions a new black club
near the station. Shocked, he whispers that they’re already having problems with
druhhhgs and the police. Peggy decides we’ll try the motel bar out on the strip
instead. It’s closed. We return to the Inn. Elvis and Hazel are thrilled.
No blues singers exalt Laurel’s
history, but there’s much to be blue about. Below-average wages even for
Mississippi, above-average crime, and the usual lack of public funding for
health and education that makes so much of the USA a third-world country.
Laurel’s only colleges are the Southeastern Baptist and the Mississippi College
of Beauty Culture.
Next morning at a black
neighbourhood store with self-improvement booklets amid the groceries, a young
woman approaches Peggy: ‘Ma’am, excuse me but you look like someone who owns
property. D’you have anywhere for my baby and me?’ Meanwhile I’m reading: ‘When
you encounter a black male child, ask him how is he doing in school? What
college he plans to attend? What are his career interests? The odds are against
him but you can make it easier by asking these questions… begin his thought
Back at the station, I’m humming
Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘Waiting For A Train’. It’s running six hours late (atrocious
weather up north) and arrives at 10pm. Police cars, lights flashing, are parked
all round that new black club.
It’s 3am as we reach New Orleans. I
see giant waterside girders, heavy metal bridges, sluicegates, iron bollards -
the Big Easy is a serious port. It’s also seething with backstreet ghosts, like
One-Legged Duffy, whose lover stove her head in with her own wooden leg, and
Buddy Bolden, the first jazz cornet player, who went mad at 31 and lived in the
asylum for 24 more years.
I miss a rarity this afternoon: a
real New Orleans funeral parade, for long-serving jazzman Tuba Fats. Its
three-hour march around the French Quarter begins as my City of New Orleans
Immediately north lies immense Lake
Pontchartrain. The train stops midway across to let another pass, and the
upper-level Observation Car, with its swivelling armchairs, looms over swampland
grandeur: a vast, thrilling wilderness of grasses, glowing chlorophyllic weed
and strange grey tree stumps rising from black water. Teflon-coloured turtles
clamber, herons stalk, hawks and cranes swoop; I spot coots and gillymots. It’s
like sitting in a tree-top gamelodge - a luxury bubble above a primeval
Roosevelt Sykes, an important blues
pianist up north in the 1930s, who played with patches in his pants, came
fishing with his wife on this lake when he retired. Rabbit Brown, who wrote and
recorded 1927’s immortal ‘James Alley Blues’, worked as a singing boatman here.
‘Seen better days but I’m puttin’ up with these…’ he sang, in his voice of
The train moved on, passing
strawberry fields and neat Louisiana towns, reaching Mississippi at teatime and
stopping briefly in McComb and Brookhaven. This was farm country again - old
houses, brown fields, brown cows. No-one wanted Hazlehurst, Robert Johnson’s
birthplace, so we thundered through and all I glimpsed was that magic placename
on a decaying signboard, two huge trees and old wooden buildings.
I stopped overnight in Jackson, a
city of 185,000 rich in blues history. Its station is so renovated it looks new
- unlike the huge, derelict King Edward Hotel across the cold, windy street.
Records were made within it: by
Uncle Dave Macon, the Mississippi Sheiks and many more. Jimmie Rodgers, hearing
marvellous Tommy Johnson and Ishman Bracey on the street, brought them up to the
hotel roof to perform for his own audience. What a moment! Small distinction,
then, between recording artist and busker. Sidekick Ishman and tall, thin Tommy,
who cut ‘Cool Drink of Water Blues’ but whose career would die from his drinking Canned Heat,
whose influence was huge but whose records were so few, whose falsetto was half
angel’s, half ghost’s - a black ragamuffin act plucked off the street,
bemusing a supper-club crowd.
They couldn’t have stayed as
guests, even if they’d had money. Louis Armstrong had to stay across town at the
poky redbrick Summers Hotel, which I found while riding wasteland streets in old
Bill’s taxi. A flapping sign nearby still insisted ‘No Trespassing, No Cigars’.
Punks scowled from the sidewalks. ‘These kids like to look very threatening,’ I
said. ‘They gonna need a lotta firepower to git us,’ said Bill. He had a gun
under his seat. He shouldn’t, but all the drivers do, he said. ‘They do if they
got common sense.’
All my heroes’ houses have gone. A
bungalow primps where supreme slide-guitarist Elmore James once roomed, and they
are gentrifying Farish Street, where Lillian McMurry ran Trumpet Records and H.C.
Speir owned his store. Within this bulldozed shrine, the spry genius Skip James
auditioned! Here the youthful Robert Johnson, posthumously the white world’s
most revered bluesman, made a test record!
Intact, in a neat black suburb, is
the bungalow home of young Medgar Evers, NACCP activist, slain on his front lawn
by a racist in 1963. ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’, Bob Dylan sang about it.
Strange to stand there now. By chance, it was Martin Luther King Day, a national
holiday for another assassinated African American. Where better to pay homage
Back on the train, we passed in
darkness through Greenwood, where Robert Johnson was poisoned and died. We
pushed north, escaping the Delta. Many a ghost kept me awake overnight as the
train pressed on to Chicago.
Amtrak no longer has a UK office
but its website is www.amtrak.com. Multi-day passes are not always the best
choice: individual journey tickets can be better value. Sleeping compartments
are extra, but a bargain, particularly since they include all dining-car meals.
Staying en route:
The Laurel Inn B&B, 803 North 2nd
Ave., Laurel MS 39440, tel 001-601-428-8773. In
downtown Jackson try the nice old Edison Walthall, 225 E. Capitol St., MS 39201,
What to read:
‘Where I Was Born And Raised’,
David Cohn, 1948, has the famous opening sentence, ‘The Mississippi Delta begins
in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in
Check out Michael's book:
HAND ME MY TRAVELIN' SHOES: In
Search of Blind Willie McTell
Check out a very special
Blind Willie McTell event
Check out Michael's
Website © Copyright 2000-2012 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.
Essay © Copyright 2004 Michael
Gray. All rights reserved.
For further information please email: