Monday, September 5, 2016

Adventures in the South - Clarksdale to Vicksburg

If you haven’t read any of the ‘Adventures in the South’ series before, it’s a travelogue from a trip me and my better half took down the Mississippi Delta back in 2013.  So if you want to go back to the beginning, here’s the Prologue.
Or if you want to remind yourself where we’d got to, here’s where we left off, with Clarksdale Part 2.

Sculpture, hoodoo style
Up in the morning to head further south to Vicksburg, but first we wanted to check out the Shack Up Inn, a couple of miles outside town.  The Inn is a rather clever business venture, turning a plantation into a niche motel by offering actual shotgun shacks – somewhat modernised - as chalets for visitors to stay in.
The inn had been our original choice of accommodation for Clarksdale, but we’d given up on the idea when their website indicated that it wasn’t possible to make one night bookings at the weekends.  Too late, we were informed by local guru Roger Stolle that this was a measure designed to dissuade locals from renting shacks for parties, and that international visitors are generally welcome for one night.
But despite missing out, we decided to give it a look anyway.  On one level, it’s a bit of a dubious proposition, selling the experience of plantation life as a tourist attraction.  But it still offers some insights.
There’s a spookiness about the disused railway running past the place, once upon a time presumably a vital link for shipping supplies in and cotton out.  The shacks themselves underline the spartan nature of plantation experience for African American slaves. And then there’s the bottle tree – an interesting piece of hoodoo, voodoo, or what you will, in which coloured bottles are hung on the branches of a bush or tree in order to attract and catch evil spirits.
As we’re wandering around, a couple emerge from one of the shacks, and right away we recognise each other as fellow customers from Red’s Blues Club the night before.  It turns out they’re an Anglo-American couple on honeymoon, making their way down to New Orleans like ourselves.  But whereas we’d headed off from Red’s around midnight, they’d stuck around for Anthony “Big A” Sherrod’s next set.  According to the groom, Big A’s brother - a guy rather bigger than Big A himself - had turned up to sit in on guitar.  “And then it turned into a crunking party”, he said.  They were sitting by the door, and when Red decided to nick out and take the air for a minute he actually turned to the English lad and asked him to pick up the admission from any new arrivals.
Your modern day, all mod cons shotgun shack
Damn.  Party night in Clarksdale, and we’d only given it half measures.  Our new friends let us have a squint at their shack, which had evidently been modernised by someone with a sense of irony.  The place is what an English estate agent (a realtor, US readers) would call “compact and bijou”, with an especially snug shower cubicle resplendent with a rough concrete floor.  And while the shack has a colour TV, they tell us that it only shows a blues music channel.
And so off we go, down Highway 61.  Our next stop is a little place called Rolling Fork.  This is actually the birthplace of Muddy Waters, but to be honest I’m not one for going and looking at birthplace markers.  We do pop in to the little town museum though, a one room affair overseen by two little old lady volunteers so delighted to have visitors that we’re scared they might lock us in.
The museum celebrates Muddy, of course, but also recounts the story about President Teddy Roosevelt that gave rise to the ‘Teddy Bear’.  Back in the early years of the 20th century Roosevelt, who had cultivated a reputation for being an outdoorsman, went on a hunting trip in the vicinity of Rolling Fork.  Apparently he had a notion to shoot a bear, so his guide obliged by catching one – and how you do that is an interesting question – and tying it to a tree for Roosevelt to shoot.  Roosevelt, to his credit, found the idea of shooting a trapped bear appalling, and ordered its release.  A political cartoon drawing on the incident attracted the attention of an enterprising manufacturer of toy bears, who asked Roosevelt if he could name his bears “Teddy Bears” in recognition of the incident – thereby launching one of the most successful marketing wheezes of all time.
Tipped off by the museum biddies, we drive a few miles down the road and stop for lunch on a porch by the bayou at the Onward Store, where we get catfish and fries washed down with real lemonade.
Then it really is off down the road to Vicksburg, where our plan is to stop off at the National Military Park on the way into town, a significant memorial to the Civil War, with cemeteries for the dead of both the Union and the Confederacy.  Situated at the foot of the Mississippi Delta, with high bluffs overlooking the river, Vicksburg was a crucial area during the Civil War.  As Lincoln himself put it, “Vicksburg is the key.  The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket.”  But as we drive in on Highway 61, it appears we’re on the wrong side of the very large park to gain access.  The afternoon is wearing on, so we cruise around the pretty-looking town centre, and then head to our accommodation.
We’re staying at a B&B called Anchuca, just up the hill from the town centre.  For the benefit of British readers, for whom a Bed & Breakfast is at the lower end of the accommodation spectrum, I should explain that in the States B&B’s are more upmarket, boutique propositions.  So boutique that in this case we have a suite of rooms, the Jackson Suite, that is named after Andrew Jackson, the Confederate President who stayed in it following his release from prison after the end of the war, and gave a speech to friends from the balcony.
Heading out again on foot in the late afternoon heat, we go for a wander round town.  This must be a thoroughly alien notion to locals, as a fella walking along the other side of the street looks over at us, smiles, and calls out, “Hi folks.  Enjoying your vacation?”  Mad dogs and Scots people, it seems, go out in the midsummer sunshine.
And it has to be said they’ve got a point.  It’s not just the heat, it’s the humidity, which seems to have been ratcheted up a notch or few since we left Clarksdale.  So we potter around town picking up bits and pieces of history, and abandon plans to head back to Anchuca and freshen up before coming out again for the evening.  What would be the point when we’d be melting again within ten minutes?
Monsour's - Southern hospitality comes with the drinks
Instead we camp out in 'Monsour’s at the Biscuit Company', a bar-cum-eatery where we get ourselves well fed and watered for the remainder of the evening.  We make friends with the bar staff and the owner, and chat about the South, and I have enough to drink to get up and do a bad karaoke version of Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring It On Home To Me’.  At the end of the night the owner insists on one of the bar staff giving us a lift up the road, because apparently us Brits are being naïve to think it would be safe to walk home in the dark - but it's incredibly hospitable of them.
So we don’t encounter any live music in Vicksburg.  But since then it’s become apparent to me that the centre of town isn’t where you’ll find that action in a lot of towns like Vicksburg.  Instead the key venue for musicians like the local hero and internationally successful Mr Sipp is the Ameristar Casino a little way south of town.  That’s where the money is, but unfortunately it doesn’t really fit the romantic preconceptions of blues pilgrims from afar, does it?

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