Highway 61 Revisited

Alex waits

Waiting in vain.

Ken/Highway 61 sign

We had come in to Clarksdale on Highway 61 (with a detour through Friar's Point); we left on Highway 49.

Highway 49 takes you through Tutwiler, where W.C. Handy ran across the blues (see Moorhead page for further details), and it runs past Parchman Farms, the state penitentiary whose field hollers contributed much to blues. Plenty of bluesmen spent time there--Son House and Sonny Boy Williamson, for example. Bukka White was recorded there in 1939 by the Library of Congress and was paroled as a result. Elvis Presley's father did time in Parchman for a bad-check rap in 1946. (Rock & Roll Traveler USA, p. 120)

Forced field work in Parchman had to be a notch below field work on any of the surrounding cotton farms, which was none too pleasant in the first place. The "Midnight Special," made famous in the Creedence Clearwater Revival version of the old Leadbelly classic , was the train that brought weekend visitors up from New Orleans. (Deep South, p. 323) We listened to it as we shot down the flat, arrow-straight Delta bottom highway, along with Alan Lomax's haunting recordings of Parchman prisoners singing in the fields as they worked, in 1947-48.

We drove through Parchman (big signs on the highway warn you not to stop anywhere near the prison), and on through Drew to Ruleville, where we turned west again on Highway 8 to reconnect with Highway 61. The idea of taking Highway 8 was to go past Dockery Farms.

Parchman, Drew and Dockery Farms are all near the core of the Delta blues. They’re all within a few miles of each other, separated mainly by the cotton fields that are the source of the area's staple crop. It's easy to imagine workers shifting from one to the other to the other, trading stories and songs. Many of the bluesmen who polished their craft around here originally came from further south in Mississippi, then settled in the Delta.

One can trace a genealogy from Henry Sloan, a worker at Dockery, to Charley Patton, also at Dockery, who shared blues licks and tunes with Willie Brown, a frequent visitor. Howlin' Wolf's aunt lived at Dockery, and he probably picked up some ideas from Patton as well. Patton also was a friend of John Lee Hooker's stepfather, Will Moore, and used to visit the family at their home in Clarksdale when John Lee was a boy (so did Blind Lemon Jefferson and others). Tommy Johnson, whose story about getting his talent from Legba turned into the Robert Johnson legend about meeting the Devil at the crossroads, was yet another old bluesman from the area.

Son House and Willie Brown were both major influences on Robert Johnson. Just as important, they influenced a whole generation of Delta blues players. From here, in towns up and down the river like Clarksdale, Helena, Friar’s Point, Rosedale, Memphis and others, the Delta blues mingled with styles from other parts of the South, then they migrated up through St. Louis to Chicago. You can hear blues players today from South Africa, from Japan, in London and in San Francisco. But this is where the characteristic rhythms and chording were first welded together.

So if Clarksdale is one home of the Delta blues--home of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, W.C. Handy and later Ike Turner and Sam Cooke, along with innumerable other bluesmen, as well as being a regular stop on the traveling blues circuit, with a lively street and jook blues scene, where Memphis Minnie ("Queen of the Blues") and Bessie Smith ("Empress of the Blues") would come to play--you could in some ways point to the Dockery-Drew-Parchman area as the birthplace of what came to be called the blues.

Worth noting too, it was at the train depot in Tutwiler, just up the road, that W.C.Handy first heard the blues--another area pointing back to this little nest of cotton plantations. And picking up a somewhat later trail, Pops Staples (of the Staples Singers) grew up in Upper Dockery; Drew named Staples Park for him.

Roebuck "Pops" Staples writes:

I was raised on the Will Dockery place from the time I was eight till I got to be 20 years old. Charley Patton stayed on what we called the Lower Dockery place, and we stayed on the Upper Dockery.

He was one of my great persons that inspired me to try to play guitar. He was really a great man.

At first I was too small to go hear him on a Saturday night. But on Saturday afternoons, everybody would go into town, and those fellows like Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf would be playin' on the streets, standin' by the railroad tracks, people pitchin' 'em nickels and dimes, white and black people both.

The train came through town maybe once that afternoon, and when it was time, everybody would gather around, just to see that train pull up. They'd play around there, before and after the train came, and announce where they'd be that night, and that's where the crowd would go.

They'd have a plank nailed across the door to the kitchen, and be selling fish and chitlins, with dancin' in the front room, gamblin' in the side room, and maybe two or three gas or coal-oil lamps on the mantelpiece in front of the mirror, powerful lights.

It was different people's houses--no clubs or nothin'. And I finally grew up to play.

(as quoted on the album
Jas. Mathus and His Knock-Down Society Play Songs for Rosetta,
an album by Jim Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, recorded in Clarksdale as a benefit for Rosetta Patton, daughter of Charley Patton)

It was tremendously exciting to drive through here.

We didn't stop much, though--just whizzed through, and soon we were back on 61, where we did stop to take a few pictures with the highway signs.

Highway 61 is famous to blues aficionados, but not much anywhere else. Bob Dylan, though, wrote the famous "Highway 61 Revisited" (on the album of the same name), which actually has very little to do with this particular Highway 61 or the blues. But we wanted pictures of ourselves with the highway signs anyhow.

Alex relief

We got out of the car to take pictures of the sign, then I turned around and had to bust out laughing as I saw Alex struggling to wrestle her suitcase out of the trunk and stomp past us with it, finally fed up with the whole adventure, to go sit and wait for a ride.

Bob Dylan, by the way, is well acquainted with the music of the area, as you can hear in any number of places in his own music. As recently as 1998 he wrote a tune called "Mississippi," recorded by Sheryl Crow, with the refrain

There's only one thing
That I did wrong
I stayed in Mississippi
A day too long

That particular proverb about Mississippi is an age-old explanation among prisoners of how they ended up in Parchman. On the second of the two Rounder Records albums of songs recorded in the fields at Parchman in '47-48, two separate tracks start

Ain't but the one thing that I done wrong
Stayed in Mississippi, just a day too long

For another rich taste of what it was like to be working cotton fields in the Delta in the early part of the 20th century, you can turn to Blues in the Mississippi Night, a recorded conversation among Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson, released in 1990 by Rykodisc (this was another Alan Lomax recording). They take you back to the levee camp, where the economics made a mule's life worth more than a man's ("Kill a nigger, hire another one. Kill a mule, have to buy another one.") and where to get chewing tobacco that happened to be named after a white man, someone who was black had to ask for "Mister Prince Albert in the can."

Great River Road junction

We were on the Great River Road on and off from Memphis to Greenville. It switches back and forth between Highway 61 and the older Highway 1, running right along the river. This historic road--or rather collection of federal, state and local roads--became an established route in 1938. It stretches across 10 states, from the headwaters of the Mississippi all the way to its outlet down by New Orleans. We were on it for less than 150 miles of that distance.

Clarksdale . . . Highway 61 . . . Greenville . . . Moorhead . . . Yellow Dog Cafe . . . Greenwood

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