Chasing Ghosts: The Search For Answers On The Mississippi Blues Trail

map

I was in the middle of nowhere. I drove an hour south of Memphis, down a maze of directions I had to hunt for online. I didn’t know if they were correct, but I had a mission in mind. It didn’t make any sense, but I just kept driving. I passed confederate flags waving proudly in front of ramshackle houses. I went up and down rolling hills that reminded me of southern Indiana by my alma mater. I crept by a sea of green on both sides of the road, with foliage covering every inch of the ground and creeping up the trunks of the trees. Then I turned on Kimbrough Chapel drive and felt a rush of excitement. It was like I found my place on a treasure map and the trunk full of gold was just ahead.

hill country

It wasn’t a trunk of gold, it was an unassuming church, Kimbrough Chapel to be exact, and I pulled into the empty parking lot. My journey started at seven in the morning, so by now the sun was just creeping over the trees. I stumbled on the uneven ground of the tiny cemetery next to the church, hoping I would find what I was looking for. Two dogs from the house next to the cemetery sat down to watch me and bask in the newly risen sun.

Then I saw it. A gravestone with four Budweiser beer bottles, the labels faded from years of sunlight. It said David “Junior” Kimbrough and there I stood over the grave of a man who made the most incredibly hypnotic Blues ever to be heard. Next to him were other Kimbrough family members in the cemetery of their local church. And there I was. A 29 year-old system admin from Denver, Colorado who had traveled thousands of miles to stare at a gravestone. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had visited gravestones of my own family members. What the Hell was I doing? What was I hoping to find by coming out here? I wanted answers, but answers to what exactly, I didn’t know.

junior 1

I walked back to my rental car in the empty church parking lot and looked at my watch. There were still a couple of places I wanted to check out in Memphis, only 45 minutes away. Instead, I got my phone out and mapped Greenwood, Mississippi, way on the other side of the state, two and a half hours away. I paid my respects to Junior, now it was time to pay my respects to Robert Johnson. I started up the car and flipped on some Howlin’ Wolf. It was going to be a long journey.

~

It all started a couple months earlier when my sister called me proposing an inaugural sibling trip. It sounded like fun and we debated places to go for a quick weekend. When she suggested Memphis, a light bulb went off in my head. I could finally cross off the Mississippi Blues Trail from my bucket list. Nothing more than a vast collection of markers covering the entire state, it had always been something I felt I had to do. It wouldn’t be like anything I had ever done, because this was going to be a pilgrimage. A holy journey to where it all began on the Mississippi Delta.

After a couple of fun days in Memphis, we did get some music history in. The home of both Stax Studios and Sun Records, Memphis holds its place high in the echelon of music history. Yet after two nights of hanging on Beale Street and listening to “Blues” bands just play popular covers like any other bar band, I was ready for some real Blues.

stax

Driving from Sun Records early on a Sunday afternoon, I turned off on the legendary Highway 61, passing signs designating it as “The Blues Highway.” We pulled off on the first marker, which was in front of a museum and information center that said “Gateway to the Blues.” I didn’t know what to look for or what to ask, I just wanted to hit the trail.

We cruised down 61 maybe another hour or so and rolled into the town of Clarksdale, which seemed to be the central hub of the highway. With the Delta Blues museum, a large collection of music venues, and a ton of historical markers, it seemed like the best place to start.

The road took us right to the heart of downtown, and it was eerily quiet. Turning into the museum, it was obvious they weren’t open on Sundays. Then we tried a few of their great Blues clubs. Closed. A couple tamale places. Closed. Frustrated, I headed South, en route to more markers, disappointed that the heart of the Blues highway would take a day off.

While heading out of town, I’ll be damned, the “crossroads” sign caught our eye. We had to park a block away in a decrepit gas station, and then in walking up to it, you can only see it from the side of the road. The crossroads memorial, if you will, was just a sign erected over a bush squished between multiple roads. We took a couple pictures and moved on, what else was there to do?

Many towns debate where the real crossroads location is, but most agree on the one in Clarksdale with the crossing of Highway 61 and 49. This of course is the mysterious location where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. Son House claimed that Johnson was a horrible guitarist, left for about a year, and when he came back, was a complete virtuoso. A legend, or rather, a mystery was born. Do I believe it? Absolutely not, Johnson was a genius, one of the greatest musicians of all time, plain and simple. Though the legend has attracted many fans to Delta Blues and raised a lot of questions from a very mysterious man.

Just three miles south of Clarksdale is a marker on the trail for the Hopson Plantation, which still exists in authentic form today. As the Shack Up Inn, rooms are rented out in the old sharecropper shacks and cotton gin. Walking around the grounds gives a unique look at what life was like on a plantation for many of the classic Delta bluesmen.

hopson

Continuing south and turning off on Highway 3 leads to another marker for Parchman Farm, which was an old chain-gang penitentiary. Many bluesmen were imprisoned here under harsh conditions, including the legendary Bukka White. Good luck getting a taste of history, as it still is a prison, now the Mississippi State Penitentiary. To see the marker, you have to ignore the signs all over the highway that advise no stopping.

parchman

Farther south and then heading west from Ruleville is one of the locations I wanted to see most. It was Dockery Farms, the plantation where Charley Patton learned to play this new form of music known as the Blues. It was the home base for many Delta bluesman and is a mecca for music as we know it. Unfortunately, when we pulled up, a wedding or some sort of event had just ended on the grounds, so the lure was lost among the crowd of locals. Like Hopson, many of the buildings remain, though some appeared to be in a near ramshackle state. By the marker was an open building that had just housed a local band. The marker overlooks a field of green, but nothing more exists. On these grounds roamed Charley Patton, where he supposedly learned from the very mysterious Henry Sloan. Now they were just ghosts, lingering among the old buildings, lost after so many years.

dockery

Heading back north, I wanted to hit one more stop before we made it back to Memphis. We turned off just by the town of Merigold, and headed down a dusty road, past cypress trees, still ponds, and lonely houses. Then on our left was a tiny shack that couldn’t be anything other than Po’ Monkey’s Lounge, maybe the last true juke joint. This was once a hub for the Blues. Locals gathered to dance to the rhythmic music, sip on the beer Po’ Monkey picked up from the store that day, and forget about their troubles. Now Po’ Monkey’s is only open on Thursday nights and has a DJ playing music instead of a band, so it was eerily quiet on a Sunday evening. He supposedly lives in the RV behind the bar, but there was no sign of life that night. No Blues, just the wind howling while the sun slowly dropped down on the horizon behind the cypress trees.

po monkeys

I’d spent the day chasing these Blues ghosts, and found nothing but a haunted and quiet landscape. I was determined to keep searching the next day. Where I’d go and what I’d find would depend on where the trail would lead me.

~

I was up early the next day to drop my sister off at the airport. Being that it was on the south end of Memphis, I just kept on going, back into Mississippi. This time I was heading for Hill Country, the land conquered by Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside. As I made my way down Highway 78, I passed a mass of commuters on their way into work. It was a Monday after all. I had a lot of work to do too. Hundreds of Blues markers lay in front of me, but where I’d go, I still wasn’t sure.

As the sun rose around me, Charley Patton sounded chilling on the car stereo. His lonesome songs filling the air around me, rising with the intensity of the sun. When I finally rolled into Holly Springs, it was much more abuzz than Clarksdale the night before. I parked on the town square amidst road construction and busy workers to find the Hill Country Blues trail marker. I read it and snapped a picture, but that’s about all I could do. Since the legendary Junior’s Place had burned down years ago, really the only thing for me to do was pay my respects to Junior Kimbrough himself.

On my way to the cemetery outside of Hudsonville, I just so happened to pass Junior’s Juke Joint #2, the new club recently started by one of his sons. If it didn’t have a painted name on the side of the building, I would have mistaken it for another abandoned building. It sat just north of Rust College, yet was across the highway from a large set of large buildings, long forgotten and covered in weeds and decay. The signs of poverty were all over Holly Springs with half the town working and the other half left behind.

juke joint

After my visit to Junior I was Hell bent on making good time across the state. I had to skip trail markers and towns as I barreled down the highway to Greenwood. Pulling into Greenwood was much like Holly Springs, with decrepit buildings nearly reaching the town square. Across the bridge of the Yalobusha River then puts you in a beautiful tree-lined street before opening up to an empty expanse of farmland. With nothing around, you’d hardly believe you were by a town.

Looking out I saw a small patch of trees far in the distance, jutting out against the flat farmland. As I approached the trees I saw a small and unassuming structure, Little Zion Church. I pulled into the empty gravel parking lot and walked up the trail marker labelled Robert Johnson.

rj 1

His death was just as mysterious as every other aspect of his life, so this was one of three places presumed to be his final resting place. The cause of his death is unknown, though it is speculated that he was poisoned by the husband of a woman he was running around with. He was the first member of the 27 Club, rediscovered in the 60’s thanks to Eric Clapton plus many others, and the legend around his mysterious life has been around ever since.

I walked through the small cemetery, searching for a headstone that had Robert Johnson inscribed on it. I tried to tread lightly, but stumbled excitedly through the grass. Then I saw beer bottles in the distance and knew I’d found the right grave. Whether it was his final resting place or not didn’t really matter. It was a memorial, perched under a beautiful pecan tree. Like Junior’s grave, it was covered with strange artifacts from past visitors, from coins to business cards to beads and broken liquor bottles.

rj 2

After reading the memorial, I looked up. Not a sign of life in the church or another person for miles around. I watched the sun sneak through the pecan tree and listened to the cicadas on the distance. The sun was high in the sky and being nearly noon, it was a hot day in Mississippi. Robert Johnson died in 1938, living a mysterious life as a vagabond wandering musician in the Delta. He only recorded during two sessions and most of what is known about his life is hotly debated among Blues scholars. Thousands have heard his music from all around the world and still pay homage to the King of the Delta Blues. All these years later, his legend lives on. His sound haunted the farmland in the distance. The tiny towns dotting the landscape, once abundant with thriving cotton plantations. His ghost was still very much alive.

~

After paying my respects to the legend himself, it was off to see one more. I had to breeze through the BB King land of Indianola and Itta Bena because I had a plane to catch. I saw a sign for Heathman Plantation on the side of Highway 82, where I turned off for Holly Ridge. I wasn’t able to see any historic buildings from the crossroads, all I saw were miles of cotton fields with massive cotton gins. As I drove into Holly Ridge, the sides of the highway were dotted with white cotton like snow, with tufts blowing across the road. A constant reminder of the economy in the Delta that once was, and still is.

Holly Ridge wasn’t much more than some boarded up buildings and a few houses. I’m not sure if you could even call it a town. I passed a massive cotton gin and spotted a Blues marker on the edge of the parking lot. I parked the rental car while a set of workers watched me wander out to read the marker. It said Charley Patton, and this was the first marker erected for the Blues trail. Rightfully so, because while Robert Johnson is the King of the Delta Blues, Charley Patton is the Father of the Delta Blues. The man hailing from all around the Delta and getting his education at Dockery Farms could be considered one of the most important musicians of all time. I’d certainly agree with that, so I guess that’s my reason for driving hours and hours through Mississippi to stare at his gravesite.

charley 1

I wondered if the workers were used to tourists like me rolling up in their rental cars and staring at the gravesite. Or maybe they had no idea what a guy like me, that certainly looked out of place, was doing in the absolute middle of nowhere. Then I got my answer as I bumbled across the cemetery. One of the workers stepped out and pointed me in the direction of the grave, and of course I spotted it when I saw a headstone littered with bottles and coins.

I wanted to have a quiet moment with this ghost, the best for last on my long journey through the Delta. Yet the cotton gin just a parking lot away was so loud you couldn’t hear someone yelling 20 feet from you. The grave overlooked the gin, right on the edge of the parking lot, with a railway right next to it. Out the other way was a desolate field, the expanse of the cemetery was nothing more than abandoned land on the edge of a cotton gin. It was the least peaceful and saddest place I could imagine one of the greatest musicians of all time to be laid to rest.

charley 2

It was a harsh reminder of their lives in the Jim Crow South. These were not Rock stars, but men and women that struggled to survive. Many would pass away before their importance was recognized. Others were “discovered” with the Blues revival of the 60’s, all when they were too old to enjoy many years of fame. Quite a few were local stars that had a good amount of work traveling all around the Delta. Yet that didn’t change the fact that they lived among poverty and racism. They lived through hardships we would never know, and only through the pain and honesty of their music can we feel that. Maybe that’s the power of the Delta Blues.

I drove out of the parking lot, cemetery in my rearview, sad that my journey was over. That was the last marker I could see, and I had so much I wanted to discover. I didn’t know what I was searching for when I came to Mississippi, but I knew I didn’t have anything answered. This music was even more mysterious to me. These ghosts were still haunting me and not going away.

I made my way back via Clarksale to get my hands on some tamales, strangely a local delicacy in the Delta. I drove through more crumbling buildings in Clarksdale before reconnecting with Highway 61. It felt like home once the wheels hit the familiar highway. I pulled off on a lonely dirt road bordering a cotton field. I sat on the trunk with the tamales, basked in the afternoon sun, and watched as cotton blew across the road in the steady wind. It was like these musicians were haunting the far reaches of the highway. Their lonesome guitars were whistling through the trees next to me. The sad moan of their songs hidden in the cotton field.

field

Once I reached Memphis, it was back to reality. I left the Delta Blues behind and determined I hadn’t found any answers, but I’ll be damned, I could at least cross it off my bucket list.

Then something strange happened. I had the sounds of busy commuters all around me, yet in all of that commotion, there was Charley Patton. It was “Pony Blues” and then “A Spoonful Blues.” He was haunting the security line and baggage claim. An announcement came on the loudspeaker and all I heard was Skip James singing “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.”

It didn’t end there. I was back to the grind on Tuesday. I had Robert Johnson in a meeting, Muddy Waters on my commute, and Junior Kimbrough at the gym. Any other music sounded different and silence was always haunted by the sounds of the Delta.

junior 2

I had chased these ghost through hundreds of miles in the Mississippi Delta, hoping to find some answers. They were still a mystery, and now they haunted me more than ever. I finally understood why the entire 60’s Blues revival happened. I understood that the Delta really is the beginning and end of all music, just as inscribed on Junior Kimbrough’s grave. I realized that what I was doing wasn’t that crazy after all.

It all goes back to the Delta. No matter what genre you’re talking about, from Hip Hop to Rock. These ghosts haunt everything and everywhere, from a lonely cypress tree, past a cotton field, down a lonely dirt road, behind a ramshackle shack, their legends live on. They will forever haunt me, and now I understand why.

My only hope is that these ghosts of the Delta haunt you too. Get the collection of music from Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, and Skip James. Play it while while the sun is coming up, let their lonely songs fill the air around you. Let the honesty of the music heal your pain and touch your soul. Let the ghosts of the Delta haunt you so their blue graves live on forever.

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4 Comments

  1. Steve Thompson

     /  November 4, 2015

    Wow Dude, It was like I was along for the ride. Well done!!

    Reply
  2. Quite a trip, huh? Very well-written, one of the best blog posts I’ve read this year.

    Reply

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