Words and Photos by Ken Billett
April 16, 2021, 7:15 am—A crop-duster, probably no more than one hundred feet or so above, buzzes over our garden guest house. The whir and whine of the single-prop engine jolts us from a lazy comfortable sleep. Apparently in this part of the Mississippi Delta, there’s no need for an alarm clock.
Light seeps through curtains drawn on the bedroom’s French doors, which provide access to a covered front porch. On a nearby gravel road, a truck rumbles along, the only other sound of civilization this morning – at least civilization by suburban Memphis standards.
Deeply immersed in the Delta, it’s time to get up.
After the aerial alarm clock pulled us from bed we sit on the front porch, sipping coffee brewed from K-Cups, staring out over a vast expanse of flat farm land. The plowed earth comes within twenty yards of the backyard pool.
On the other side of the road, cypress trees surround a small lake. A great white egret launches itself into the air, gliding above calm waters, and lands on a partially submerged tree trunk. Just past the garden’s fountain sits the rusted remains of an ancient Plymouth sedan, choked in weeds, its old tires deflated and partially cracked.
The quiet here is peaceful, mellowing. The mid-April air crisp, dry. Relaxing doesn’t quite capture the feel of this place. Comforting or soothing might be better descriptors. Vicki calls our guest house “a beautiful oasis hidden within the Delta.”
The house and the surrounding gardens are just that—an oasis. In a way, they typify the contradictions that make up the Mississippi Delta, and Mississippi itself. The raw, natural beauty of the Delta — manicured gardens and cultivated fields — mixed with the reality and ugliness of poverty and despair in boarded-up storefronts and rusted run-down barns. Our road trip started as an exploration into blues music and its Delta history, but slowly became a voyage of conflicting emotions and opposing realities.
The journey into the heart of the Mississippi Delta began the previous day on Highway 61, known worldwide as The Blues Highway—the same biblical highway of Bob Dylan’s classic 1965 recording, Highway 61 Revisited. Like Dylan’s song, the highway’s history is both mythical and magical. Countless musicians and music lovers have paid homage to an otherwise nondescript piece of asphalt.
Highway 61 runs north from New Orleans, through the Mississippi Delta, pauses in Memphis, and then snakes its way along the Mississippi River all the way to Minnesota, which, coincidentally, is Dylan’s home state.
Born from poverty and despair, blues music moved north on Highway 61, from the Delta’s cotton fields to Beale Street in Memphis and, eventually, to big cities like Chicago and beyond. Clarksdale, Mississippi, hard along Highway 61, is known as the Birthplace of the Blues. On Clarksdale’s outskirts are the fabled crossroads of Highways 61 and 49, where a young Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to become a master blues guitarist.
We stop in Clarksdale for lunch at Abe’s Bar-B-Q, serving folks great food since 1924, which is a stone’s throw from the celebrated crossroads marker. Yes, Abe’s is a must-do when you’re visiting Clarksdale. The beans are fantastic.
After lunch, we head south on Highway 49 towards Tutwiler, another small Delta town famous in annals of blues folklore. Around 1903 at the Tutwiler train depot, W.C. Handy, originally from Florence Alabama — part of another Southern region with a fabled music history — watched and listened as a young African American man used a knife like a bottleneck slide on an acoustic guitar. Handy was fascinated by the young man’s abilities and by the song he sang.
Handy’s blues encounter was considered pivotal to the eventual documentation and commercialization of Delta blues. Handy would go on to become known as the Father of the Blues. His chance meeting was later celebrated in 2003 by the U.S. Senate as the centennial of blues music. Naturally, Tutwiler, Mississippi, touts itself as the Birthplace of the Blues.
An obvious pattern is developing here.
Along Highway 49 there’s nothing to look at for miles, upon miles. Like the area around Clarksdale and like much of the Delta, it’s flat. Just flat. We’re still miles away from our final destination — our rental house oasis. As we move deeper into the Delta, its contradictions become more and more apparent.
South of Tutwiler, we’re tooling down Highway 49E when we see a sign informing us that this stretch of road is the Emmett Till Memorial Highway. Farther along the highway is the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. Tightening my grip on the steering wheel, I am overcome by profound sadness that evil, pure evil, shaped the need to have these memorials.
A young African American teenager from Chicago died because of that evil — hate and ignorance. I’m saddened too with the hate and ignorance still prevalent in our society, today.
A complicated and complex place, the Mississippi Delta is full of wonder, mystery, triumph, tragedy, and sorrow. Mississippi, as embodied in the people of the Delta and their history, is as contradictory and conflicted today as it was many, many years ago. The state, in many respects, is a metaphor for the current climate of our country.
The Delta’s contradictions can be found everywhere. From Blues Trail markers, celebrating the legacy of Mississippians who helped shape popular music, to Civil Rights memorials, reminding us all that change and sacrifice are never easy and should never be forgotten, and to a world-renowned culinary school based in Greenwood, founded by a hometown entrepreneur who wanted to build a better kitchen range for upscale home buyers.
The Mississippi Delta, both harsh and beautiful, is exactly what it is — no pretense, no fluff. You get what you get, contradictions and all.
Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively.