On Easter morning, I regrettably left Carol at the Bill and Hillary Clinton Airport in Little Rock, and headed east out of the Ozarks. From Little Rock, the highway transects flat farmland, occasionally taking a wide turn around more flat farmland, maybe to recognize property lines or county borders or someone’s sense of whimsy. I’ve driven this road before, about a dozen years ago. Even though I don’t remember much about it, I notice one way it’s changed. Low-end corporate franchises now dominate highway stops and the perimeters of small towns — mostly junk food, Walmarts, and Dollar Stores.
After a couple of hours, I stop in the little town of Helena, just before the bridge over the river into Mississippi. That last time I was on this road, I attended a Baptist church service to hear its gospel choir. I see Helena is changed too. The church with the gospel choir is gone and the historic downtown is abandoned. So many small American towns that planned to rely on tourism to boost their economies won’t recover from this pandemic. The Walmart stores, on the other hand, are busy.
On the other side of the inexplicably high bridge over the Mississippi, I arrive in Clarksdale, famous in the American roots music world. It’s here that Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil, selling his soul in exchange for the ability to play great blues music. That was the beginning of Delta Blues. Ninety years later, Clarksdale promises music every night of the week, regular music festivals, and friendly people. It seems to be keeping its promises. And it has a lot of amazing murals!
After settling in to my boutique-y hotel next to two abandoned parking lots and a bank, I get out for a walk. In the alley next to the Bluesberry Cafe, I chat with a group of immigrants from New York and California. One of them came to reroof a cafe twelve years ago and just never left. Another stayed after falling in love with a “local gal.” I ask why the cafes are closed on a Sunday night and why I can’t find Morgan Freeman’s white table cloth restaurant. I learn that Morgan Freeman sold his restaurant a few years ago, and that Clarksdale “goes to bed on Sunday night and sleeps in until Wednesday.” I hadn’t eaten since morning oatmeal, so I left my new friends and drove to Walmart to buy a bagged salad and some yogurt. I guess it wouldn’t be an American road trip without bumping into Walmart every which way. But I was ok with it because I knew I’d hear music after Walmart. And yep, when I returned, Red was riffing from his guitar repair shop. Later that evening, I stood on a street corner with some locals to hear a talented young woman playing blues guitar inside the local hostel.
This morning, Clarksdale slept in and I wanted a real meal, so I drove to Oxford, 60 miles east. Oxford is the hometown of “Ole Miss” (the University of Mississippi) and is known for its charm. It’s also known for an historic civil rights event. Maybe you remember Bob Dylan’s song called “Oxford Town,” about the riots that took place here in 1962. State authorities refused to follow a Supreme Court order that Ole Miss enroll a black student named James Meredith, so people died in a riot. After the riot, Meredith was allowed to attend classes with the help of federal marshals. He ultimately declared that he wasn’t one of those liberal nonviolent types and supported Ku Klux Klan member, David Duke, when he ran for governor of Louisiana. Gawd, humans are complicated.
Driving into downtown Oxford, I knew I was going to be lunching with Mississippi’s elite. The leafy neighborhoods near the center are picture perfect, and the town square is gorgeous. Store windows feature pastel sun dresses, yellow golf shirts, and the kind of sweaters you only wear tied around your neck. Not my thing but I did have a really good vegie burger on a lovely patio near the square.
It was fun being a lady who lunches until I considered what was staring me in the face. The 1962 Supreme Court decision notwithstanding, the only black people I saw in Oxford Square were waiting on white people. That reminded me that laws can change, but people who don’t like the laws can, and do, work around them. For example, the pundits who say Georgia’s new law restricting voting rights isn’t so bad are missing the point. Georgia power brokers know they have empowered some to deprive others of their rights, no matter what the law says. The law is a powerful reminder of who’s in charge.
In that context, I was glad to get back to Clarksdale, where things appear to be a little less unequal…Music brings people together, and it probably helps that 70% of voters here are democrats.
I’ve been trying to look at the positive aspects of the places I’ve visited, sometimes in spite of what I see and what I know. And there is plenty that’s good everywhere I go. But mostly, the south can be exhausting for me. Y’all.
“I went down to the crossroads. I fell down on my knees. I asked the Lord above for mercy. He said, poor Bob, if you please,” — Robert Johnson