When we travel, we rarely have a “theme” in our trips. Usually, we just show up in a country or a region and explore everything it has to offer. However, in the summer of 2008, we drove through three southern U.S. states (Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana) exploring sites associated with rock-n-roll, blues, and jazz music. The U.S. South, known for its warm hospitality, hearty food, and complicated history, has undeniably influenced and defined global music. And we were excited to discover it all.
“Sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll!” screamed Julia from the top of her lungs while sticking her head out of the window as our car rental pulled up to the Graceland gates. We kicked off our southern musical sojourn in Memphis, at the residence and the resting place of the king of rock-n-roll. Neither of us is a big fan of Elvis. But we wanted to learn more about his life, music, and legacy and joined scores of other tourists who roamed Graceland that day. Unlike us, most of the visitors were fervent fans of Elvis and walked around the mansion excitedly pointing at various pieces of displayed memorabilia and Presley’s private jet and limousine. Julia and I maintained a healthy dose of curiosity but certainly didn’t lose our minds there. At some point, we even had a brief debate about who had more popularity, fame, and imprint on global music: Elvis or Michael Jackson. Not much of a debate as we both agreed that Jackson was a clear winner. We also wondered out loud whether Elvis even deserves all the credit as music historians, again and again, point out that he either borrowed or outright stole his style from black musicians. I am glad that we were not overheard by Presley’s rabid fans roaming Graceland that day.
Walking through the mansion and looking at all the photos, concert outfits, and golden and platinum records on the walls was informational, but I could not get rid of the feeling of vanity about human life. The mansion was lifeless and nearly a mausoleum, albeit without the body of the star on display. The house of Bob Marley that we visited years later in Kingston, Jamaica, despite its austerity and simplicity, had more life than this cold museum of a deceased idol.
The strangest part of the visit was saved for the end when we saw Presley’s grave ... in the backyard of his mansion. It was not Presley’s desire or weird fantasy to be buried in his backyard the same way Vietnamese farmers in the Mekong River Delta bury their dead. As we learned, after Presley was laid to rest in a cemetery in Memphis, grieving fans constantly vandalized his grave trying to score a souvenir, and the decision was made to move his remains to Graceland. Also, it is simply convenient for the fans visiting Memphis to pay their tribute here, at Graceland, and not aimlessly search for Presley’s grave at some cemetery. I am looking at you, Jim Morrison (whose grave we could not locate even after hours spent at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris).
We finished our day in Memphis by visiting the legendary Beale Street. Back in the day, Beale Street was what Broadway Street in Nashville, on the other side of Tennessee, is now - a place where aspiring musicians would come to start their careers. B.B. King performed here, as well as Elvis Presley, Robert Johnson, and many, many others. Memphis, located at the northern tip of the Mississippi Delta, was naturally a jumping point for a lot of Delta musicians traveling up north to Chicago, St. Louis, or Kansas City during the Great Migration. Getting success on Beale Street for a musician meant commercial success, including also potentially getting a foot in the door of the Sun Records Studio, located just blocks from here. These days, Beale Street is a collection of blues clubs and BBQ restaurants with bright neon signs. Some blues clubs still retain the atmosphere of gritty Southern juke joints where blues songs are frequently interrupted by “tip, tip the band” chants from the musicians collecting tips. We spent the evening bouncing between the clubs, listening to blues music, and eating Memphis-style BBQ.
The next day we drove through one of the most enigmatic places in all United States - the Mississippi Delta. The diamond shape region with its natural boundaries in the Mississippi River in the west and Yazoo River in the east, and with Memphis as the northernmost point and Vicksburg as the southernmost point, is a fascinating place with distinctive racial and cultural history. Before the Civil War, this fertile region was all cotton fields, the same way cornfields now dominate the infinite horizons of the Midwestern states. Here, slaves worked from sunrise to sunset doing backbreaking labor and sang a mix of black spirituals, hymns, and country, humming and moaning their sadness away. This sad music of cotton fields, later transformed and performed mainly with a guitar and harmonica, became known as Delta blues, one of the earlier forms of blues.
Eating continental breakfast at our motel in Memphis, I closely examined the map of the Delta and every name screamed so much blues history: Indianola (birthplace of B.B. King), Tutwiler (birthplace of John Lee Hooker), Greenwood (where Robert Johnson tragically died of poisoning at the age of 27), among many others.
We then left Memphis and drove into Clarksdale, Mississippi. Those who love blues know the name associated with this little, dusty town in the northern part of the Mississippi Delta - McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters. Mr. Waters was born and spent his early years here. He later moved to Chicago, and in the concrete jungles of the Windy City, transformed Delta blues into electric blues, obtaining stardom and influencing musicians across the world, from Rolling Stones to Jimmy Hendrix. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the entrance of the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, we found it closed due to a national holiday. Even so, making a pilgrimage to this rarely visited hometown of the father of the Chicago blues was enough for us.
Clarksdale is also a place where one of the most mysterious transactions of all time took place. According to a legend, on a hot Mississippi night, at a crossroad near Dockery Plantation, a young man named Robert Johnson met the Devil. Johnson wanted to be a blues musician and the Devil gave him guitar lessons here at the crossroads that made Johnson one of the greatest blues musicians of his time. In return, the Devil only asked for Johnson’s soul. This deal is a variation of the legend of Faust as well as an interpretation of African fables that Mississippi slaves were passing from generation to generation. The exact location of the deal is disputed, but nowadays the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, right outside of Clarksdale, is known as the “Crossroads”. Leaving Clarksdale, we stopped at the Crossroads. The day was getting unbelievably hot with the temperature climbing closer to 100 degrees. We got out of the car but could barely breathe. The heat was so intense that it felt like we were already in hell and that the Devil would appear any minute to tell us in person about the deal he made with Johnson here. We quickly snapped a picture of the iconic intersection decorated with a column with intersecting guitars and continued driving down the Mississippi Delta. As we were driving toward Louisiana, Julia asked me if the transaction was even enforceable.
“Could Robert Johnson claim duress or unequal bargaining position to avoid giving up his soul?” Julia asked.
“I don’t know. Everything looks legit to me. Nobody forced Johnson to go to that intersection to make that deal. The transaction was also negotiated at arm’s length. Johnson wanted to be the best blues musician around, and the Devil lived up to his contractual promises. Also, …”
“You realize you are LITERALLY playing a Devil’s advocate right now!”
We soon left the Mississippi Delta behind and drove into Louisiana. The last stop on our itinerary was New Orleans. Although we were visiting it on the Fourth of July holiday, New Orleans is not quite your typical American city. The city, sitting atop swamps with the colonial architecture of its French Quarter, is hardly American. Yet, New Orleans gave the world the most American of all music genres - jazz. Jazz is a true embodiment of America. Unlike European classical music with its rigid canons and rules, jazz is all about freedom and improvisation.
Fueled by Hurricane cocktails (another creation of New Orleans), we spent the evening in the French Quarter joyously walking on Bourbon Street in a festive crowd of fellow Americans celebrating the nation’s independence. Instead of bar hopping, we did the most appropriate thing in New Orleans - jazz club hopping. With the holiday fireworks loudly exploding in the sky, we simply followed the sound of a trumpet from club to club, taking in the wild notes and atmosphere of every venue. I made a mental note to myself that I want to return to this city for its famous New Orleans Jazz Festival.
As much appreciation as we discovered for the music scene in the South, one interesting side effect of this trip was the admiration we gained for our home city of Chicago, the current U.S. hotspot for blues and jazz music. Many of the musicians and musical genres that started in the South migrated and flourished in Chicago and became part of our default weekend plans at home. We traveled a thousand miles to learn how special our own home was.