Songs of the South

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I’m lying in God’s bedroom, replaying my travels through blues country. I’m in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the tough little town where so many of the US’s iconic blues musicians hung out – and I’ve stumbled on this improbable berth. I’d heard that veteran Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman, who played God in a couple of films, had opened a club in the town of his birth. At first sight, the Ground Zero Blues Club looks scary: collapsing sofas huddle on the stoop of a graffiti-daubed cotton warehouse on the rough edge of town. But I’m offered a room over the club – Freeman’s own apartment, it seems – so I plod up a wooden staircase to check it out.

And God’s bedroom is – well, heavenly. A huge, New York-style loft with polished wood floors, retro furniture and a vast bed, it’s a perfect place to ponder the refashioning of the Mississippi delta.

Welded to the eastern fringe of the Mississippi River, the delta seems to have been pressed flat and featureless by its terrible history. Exploiting the richest soil on earth, cotton plantation owners drove generations of slaves to supply the mills of Britain. And Mississippi is still the poorest state in the union, with more than a fifth of people living below the poverty line. Big commercial farms own most of the land, and jobs are scarce. But the blues, born out of the slaves’ work calls, have survived and flourished, shaping every area of popular music from the “great American songbook” to rock and rap – and of course the jazz on the car’s CD player, which is the soundtrack for my drive.

In a blinding rainstorm, I head north from New Orleans on Route 61, made epic by Bob Dylan 40 years ago with his album Highway 61 Revisited. As I reach the Mississippi River at the exquisite town of Natchez I make contact with the rich stew of delta history.

Driving past pre-civil war mansions as perfect as icing sugar, I recall that this was once the site of a major slave auction. Before the civil war, more than half of the US’s millionaires lived in Natchez.

I pull up for the night at Monmouth Plantation, and feel like I’ve slipped through a timewarp. It’s a gracious Greek revival mansion built in 1818 by Gen John Quitman as the centre of his cotton empire, where he ruled over 400 slaves. Today, Monmouth is a “Historic Inn of America”, set in 26 landscaped acres. Its gift shop offers a selection of Gone with the Wind figurines, complete with black servants.

North on Highway 61, the theme park fades and I’m in delta heartland. White cotton on black soil stretches to the horizon, the houses are often wooden shacks or trailers. This is the other America, abandoned to poverty.

The city of Vicksburg’s slogan is “History, and much, much more”; it is a civil war time-capsule. The vast National Military Park restages the harrowing story of the town’s 47-day siege under bombardment by the Union army in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln called the town “the key” to the control of Mississippi. From its main street, I catch sight of the river, as wide as an inland lake. But the town has a hard-times feel, with a soup kitchen, a big pawn shop on Main Street, and a poster urging “Support Gun Ownership”. I get a sense that Vicksburg is still fighting the civil war. At the Cedar Grove, the biggest B&B in Mississippi, they proudly display a cannonball fired through the front door during the siege and embedded ever since in the wall.

On up Route 61, Rolling Fork is the birthplace of Muddy Waters; a few miles east is Indianola, where BB King first began to wail. The blues museums seem to be as inevitable as cotton fields. I bump down a dirt road into the hamlet of Tutwiler, a scattering of shacks and caravans calling itself the town “where the blues was born”. Colourful murals at the long-abandoned railway station record the moment when the seminal composer WC Handy first heard a man with a guitar singing the blues.

Clarksdale stands at the mythic intersection of Highway 61, where blues legend Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his genius. The town is not immediately seductive, and seems hard and bruised; half the local children live in poverty.

One sign of revival is Madidi, a restaurant part-owned by Morgan Freeman. Local businessman Kevin O’Keefe tells me of his plans to revive Clarksdale, talking about the tourism potential of the roll-call of local celebrities – Tennessee Williams, Ike Turner, and, of course, Robert Johnson.

Just outside Clarksdale, I come across the ultimate fusion of the old and new delta. At Hopson Plantation, half a dozen authentic sharecroppers’ shacks have been converted into The Shackup Inn. Its cabins look convincingly dilapidated, but inside they’re well-appointed: each has a 40-year-old TV – tuned, of course, to receive only a blues channel.

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