The Musical Motherland Tour - Pt. 1
By John Lee
I recently traveled with my better half, Nancy Rapp, to Memphis, TN, the Mississippi Delta, and to Helena, AR. Our goals: attend The Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival and personally taste all the best BBQ joints. What follows is my daily log of our trip.
Day 1 - September 28th, 2006
We took the airport shuttle at 6:30 am to the SeaTac airport and then flew to Minneapolis, MN. The connecting flight to Memphis was delayed due to plugged up toilets. We arrived in Memphis, TN, grabbed our rental car and headed to our digs in West Memphis, AR, just six miles across the Mississippi River from Memphis. In the '40s and '50s West Memphis was a hot bed of the blues. B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson and others played the club scene, and Howlin’ Wolf lived there. It was late and we were tired, so we choose to have dinner close to the motel. We had some Mexican right across the highway at a place called Margaritas. I know, Mexican in the land of great BBQ? Hey, it was very good Mexican and tomorrow was another day!
Day 2 - September 29th 2006
We enjoyed a nice breakfast buffet in the Hampton Inn lobby that included grits and biscuits. Then we left early to visit Soulville USA in Memphis, home of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and the Stax Music Academy. Stax Records was home to (in their prime) Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the MG’s, Eddie Floyd, and Rufus Thomas to name a few. Oh yeah, and don't forget the super star Isaac Hayes! This place is a shrine. With 2,000 pieces of memorabilia, it is a moving and heart-felt experience. The museum also has a section that honors the Hi and Goldwax Memphis soul record labels. I could have visited there all day long! Across from the museum is the rundown former home of Memphis Slim. The museum is in the process of restoring the late, great piano man’s house.
Memphis Slim's House
Next stop, Sun Studios. On the way, we had lunch at Interstate BBQ. I had the chicken; Nancy had a pulled pork sandwich. They piled some slaw on the pork and it was good to go. The BBQ beans were mighty good. This was very good, serious food.
With our hunger in check we arrived at another American music shrine, the legendary Sun Studio. The place is a gas. A great tour ended right in the middle of the recording studio, complete with a piano used by Jerry Lee Lewis. Before Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee, Sun founder Sam Phillips recorded Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Ike Turner, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Little Milton to name some. Stax and Sun are two of the most important record labels in the history of American music. These two places are must sees if you visit Memphis.
Sun Studio Office
Sun Studio Store
Then we checked out Beale Street, W.C. Handy Park, the Rufus Thomas monument, B.B. King's club, and a voodoo store called Tater Red’s. There’s a funky CD store called Memphis Music on Beale that has a huge selection of blues music. There are a dozen or more blues and roots music clubs along Beale and they all seem to have good food that includes to my surprise, BBQ! That’s a joke! This great city is full of good BBQ.
Day 3 - September 30th 2006
We drove in to Tennessee once more and checked out the Memphis Saturday Market, similar to the ones we have here in Seattle, but smaller! Then we headed back to Beale Street and to the Rock and Soul Museum, another great museum celebrating the great music of America. This is another must see Memphis spot. The Gibson guitar factory is right next door.
Then we had lunch at The King's Palace Café on Beale. This is the building where the famous photograph of Robert Johnson in a suit and holding a guitar was taken at the Robert Hooks Photography studio in 1935. After a short walk to The Center for Southern Folklore store, we asked where the main part of the center was located. It was closed at the time, but a gentleman said he had to clean some things there and that we were welcome to tag along and look around. We checked out photos of southern musicians like Rufus Thomas, Gus Cannon and Isaac Hayes. We looked at numerous pieces of folk and delta art and our good man ran a DVD for us produced at the Center, of B.B. King and Rufus Thomas reminiscing about the heyday of Beale Street and them jamming with a handful of old timers including “Gatemouth” Moore.
Rufus Thomas Blvd
Rufus Thomas Monument
After sightseeing the core of downtown, that evening, we went back to The Center for Southern Folklore store for a show with a singer from New Orleans named John Bouteé. Mr. Bouteé is mostly a jazz singer, but the cat can sing anything. Nothing but a good time so far!
John Boutee (left)
Day 4 - October 1, 2006
We were late to rise and after breakfast we lounged in our crib reading The Memphis Flyer (a lot like our own Seattle Weekly) and the Memphis daily newspaper, The Commercial Appeal. Then we headed back across the Mississippi river into Memphis to visit The National Civil Rights Museum, which is housed in The Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down. This museum is a moving testament of the African-American people and their brave fight, from the days of the slave trade to the civil and human rights struggles of the '50s and '60s.
In reality, the fight is still being fought today on some levels. Anger swelled up inside me many times as I worked my way through the movement’s history and what I saw and read made me wonder what kind of nation I was born and grew up in. “Land of the free” seems to be somewhat of a misnomer. Slavery, segregation and prejudice toward people of color are a large stain on the soul of America. The Civil Rights Museum is a great history lesson that everyone should experience. Thoughtful people will forever be changed by a visit to this incredible space!
A short ride to a section of Memphis called “Midtown” brought us to a neighborhood joint called Huey’s. We had refreshment and dug some very fine music from a group called, DiAnne Price and Her Boyfriends. DiAnne Price is one hell of a blues piano player and singer. I first heard her on the radio show “Beale Street Caravan.” We departed Huey’s musically satisfied, then headed to Beale Street and The Blues City Café. Nancy had ribs. I had tamales. We shared. It was mighty good.
Day 5 - October 2, 2006
This was the first day of our road trip into the Mississippi Delta. We made a stop in Como, MS, a small town that has changed very little in 100 years. There is a newer library. That, I think is a good thing. Next stop: Greenwood. We passed Avalon, home to the late Mississippi John Hurt and arrive in Greenwood and park on Howard Street. We are looking for The Greenwood Blues Heritage Museum owned by Steve LaVere, the man who was the force behind the Robert Johnson boxed set. He also wrote the liner notes. The place was closed. Damn!
We were told to check out the Alluvian Hotel by a mighty fine lady at a local bank. Everyone we ran into down South were so nice and friendly. I know the South has its share of rednecks and rejects, but we never ran into any of them. We checked out the hotel and the man at the desk asked where were from, we told him Seattle and he asks if we would like to look around. Sure -so he gives us a guided tour of the hotel, cooking school, and the health spa across the street. He also offered us peach sweet tea for our tour. The sweet tea was one of the tastiest drinks I have ever had. I had been drinking sweet tea our whole trip, but this tea was incredible! The Alluvian Hotel is beautiful and rebuilt by Fred Carl, founder of the Viking Range Corp. which is located in Greenwood and employs 1,300 people. The Alluvian - a cosmopolitan boutique hotel deep in the Delta.
We were very hungry, and we found a funky soul food joint two blocks from the hotel called Mattie’s with fried chicken, candied yams, and corn bread to die for. With our hunger in check, we went in search of Robert Johnson. The King of Delta Blues has three graves in the delta, but I’ve read that long time Johnson researcher, Steve LaVere, is very sure the one we found just north of Greenwood in the Little Zion Mount Baptist Church cemetery is the correct one. We were visiting the grave and taking pictures when suddenly swirling winds came up and dozens of bugs descended upon us. Quickly saying our goodbyes to Mr. Johnson, we hit the highway to Tutwiler in search of the great blues harp master Sonny Boy Williamson’s (Rice Miller) grave.
Robert Johnson's Grave
On the way to Tutwiler, we drove thru hundreds of acres of cotton fields in 90 degree heat and I’m reminded of the reasons the blues was born. Tutwiler looks to be an area that lives in abject poverty. In the richest country in the world this seems to be totally out of context! As we got out of our vehicle at least ten children panhandled for change. We got directions to Sonny Boy’s grave site from the police station and still had a little trouble finding the spot, a small wooded area surrounded by cotton fields in the middle of nowhere and no signs. While we were there someone was tilling the nearby fields. Sonny Boy is buried a mile or two out of town with a large tombstone and dates of birth and death that would have made him only 58 years old.
Mississippi Cotton Field
After paying our respects to the man who wrote "Help Me," "Too Young To Die" and many more, we hopped on Highway 49 heading towards Clarksdale, just to get ourselves acclimated to the area. We spent about an hour walking around the area of the Delta Blues Museum and Ground Zero, actor Morgan Freeman’s large juke joint. We got a great idea of what we would do when we stayed a night and a full day in the early hometown of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Ike Turner. We headed up Highway 61 toward Memphis and stopped at the Horseshoe Casino in Tunica. The casino was said to have an extensive blues museum in the basement. We were highly disappointed to find out the museum had been suspended. Damn!
We were very hungry and hadn’t eaten since Mattie’s in Greenwood, so we had dinner at the big buffet at The Horseshoe which includes a section called Delta Cookin’ - lots of great food for a small price. Filled up and tired, we headed north to our digs in West Memphis and got ready for our last day in Memphis.
Day 6 - October 3, 2006
We headed back to Beale Street and walked up the street and checked out the Walk of Fame. Brass notes with names on them are set into the sidewalks to honor those important to Memphis music and business scenes. Otis Redding, Donald “ Duck “ Dunn, Steve Cropper, Rufus Thomas, Johnny Cash, Elvis, Rosco Gordon, Carl Perkins, B.B. King, Bobby Bland and Jerry Lee Lewis are some of the names. Nancy went to Peabody Place to check out a photo exhibit and I checked out the W.C. Handy house on Beale Street. Handy lived in this house from 1905 until 1918 at a different location. I did not find out when the house was moved. The place is filled with a lot of great memorabilia and recordings of Mr. Handy talking about his music. It is well worth the $3.00 admission.
Nancy and I hooked back up and we went to the cotton museum located about four blocks from Beale Street in The Cotton Exchange building. We thought that since we had been driving thru cotton fields all day, the day before, we needed to know more about the cotton industry. It’s a great museum that lays out the history of cotton in a most interesting and informative way. There is also a blues exhibit that shows the link between cotton and the blues. It put into perspective what I had been thinking about the blues and cotton driving thru the Delta the day before.
We went to the downtown Huey’s for refreshments, watched playoff baseball and waited for the great BBQ joint, The Rendezvous, to open for dinner. We arrived at 4:40 pm shortly after they opened, and the place was already jumpin’. This is a world famous restaurant that has catered to many presidents, Elvis and The Rolling Stones to name a few. I had the chicken and Nancy had the ribs. As often is the case, we shared. The Rendezvous uses the dry-rub style. No sauce ever touches the meat. They have two great sauces to add on your own. This BBQ ranks with some of the finest food I’ve ever eaten. After dinner, I thought about another course, but better judgment took over and I just enjoyed.
The outstanding food was a great way to end our stay in Memphis - The Home of the Blues and the Birth Place of Rock and Roll. Part of my heart will always be in Memphis and our experience was as much fun you can have with your clothes on.
Next time I’ll lay on you what we did in Clarksdale, MS and Helena, AR. Hint: lots of music for one thing! Until then, Peace!
November Blues Birthdays
Bobby Rush - November 10, 1940
John Hammond Jr. - November 13, 1942
Rod Piazza - November 18, 1947
Sippie Wallace - November 1, 1898 (died 1986)
Bukka White - November 12, 1909 (died 1977)
Eddie Boyd - November 25, 1914 (died 1994)
Robert Nighthawk - November 30, 1909 (died 1967)
Brownie McGhee - November 30, 1915 (died 1996)
Carey Bell - November 14, 1936
Dr. John - November21,1940
Electric bassist John "Mr. Solid" Lee was born in Alaska and has been active in the Seattle blues scene for about 30 years. He currently plays with the Crossroads Band. Photo by Mike Coyote.
Note: All of the photographs in this article were created by Nancy Rapp.