The bus pulls up beside the gas station/convenience store that serves for a bus stop in Cleveland, Mississippi. It’s 8:30 in the evening; the last hint of daylight is just draining from the sky. A small line forms behind me at the side of the bus, waiting for the door to open. It purrs quietly, lit up inside like an empty theater. The driver has disappeared, presumably into the restroom at the rear of the coach, as bus drivers always put it in their welcome-aboard announcements.
“Tell me that this bus didn’t just drive itself here,” says the guy behind me with a bit of a tremor in his voice.
When at length the driver does emerge, he turns out to be the most taciturn bus driver I’ve ever met. There are no announcements, just lights-out and go. And I think I prefer it this way, to be leaving Mississippi on the fabled Highway 61 in quiet and in darkness.
You’d never know if you hadn’t heard the Bob Dylan song – or read a little history – that this arrow-straight stretch of road was once such a fabled route, one of the main arteries for the great African-American exodus out of the South. There’s a historical marker in the middle of Clarksdale, but the main highway now bypasses the town, which must frustrate blues pilgrims looking for “the” crossroads of 61 and 49, and finding themselves directed to the intersection of Routes 49 and 161 instead.
But even though this is a four-lane, divided highway now, it’s not limited-access. Numerous small roads still intersect with it, and even the major exits are, strangely, almost all unlit. I was struck by this the previous night, when I rode up to Clarksdale with my sister-in-law Luz to see a blues band there. As familiar as she was with the road, she had trouble finding the exit, and on the way back, with the car buffeted by high winds on a night with tornadoes in the forecast, the road felt lonely indeed.
The flat enormity of the Delta is best experienced after dark, when distant lights can keep pace with you for miles, almost as faithful as the evening star. Halfway to Clarksdale, the lights in the bus come on for no apparent reason, and I wait tensely for some explanation from the driver about a mechanical dysfunction or some other urgent need to pull over. But there’s no announcement, and after about five minutes the lights go out again. Maybe the bus is haunted. I remember Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues”:
You may bury my body
down by the highway side.
[spoken] Baby, I don’t care where you bury my body when I’m dead and gone.
You may bury my body, oo,
down by the highway side,
so my old evil spirit
can catch the Greyhound bus and ride.
Except that this isn’t Greyhound, it’s a regional outfit called Delta Bus Lines. Greyhound doesn’t stop here anymore, although the historic preservation people in Clarksdale have kept up the old Greyhound station downtown, probably for the benefit of tourists searching for the ghost of Robert Johnson, as so many like to do. Me, I’m more interested in Bessie Smith, who, though hardly a Deltan, did die in a hospital in Clarksdale after her car rear-ended a parked truck along a dark stretch of Route 61 somewhere north of Cleveland, back in 1937. Try to imagine how her driver must’ve felt, having just killed his lover, the Empress of the Blues. Really, any number of unquiet spirits could be haunting this stretch of highway.
Judging from its schedule – one run south out of Memphis beginning in the early morning, and one run north back to Memphis beginning in the early evening – I suspect that Delta Bus Lines might consist of just this one bus, and maybe one other plying a different route. This looks very much like the same bus I rode down on, though the driver then was short, female, and very aggressive toward her passengers. In the little town of Shelby, the transmission suddenly failed and she spent ten minutes vainly trying to get the bus into gear. This apparently involved pushing a few buttons and muttering a few words over and over. She called for help on her cellphone, then tried pushing the buttons in a different way, or something, but nothing worked. Everyone sat very still; you could tell we weren’t in the northeast. At last, the hundredth time she tried it, the bus suddenly lurched into gear.
“That was Jesus!” a black woman across the aisle called out. “Yes it was!” answered the elderly white woman in the seat next to me. I bit my tongue.
There’s always an extra bit of pathos to rural bus routes, I think. Maybe it’s because country people tend to approach travel with more ceremony and trepidation, given what the Big City represents. The young white couple a few seats ahead of me, who were so giggly and affectionate at the bus station, have grown quiet, staring out at the night. The older black man whose entire extended family assembled at the side of the bus to see him off puts on a headset and listens to music for less than twenty minutes. Now he, too, has surrendered to the pull of the darkened landscape.
Our bus swings off the highway at Mound Bayou – the oldest incorporated African-American town in the South, named for one of the tells from the Mississippian civilization that dot the Delta – but no one is waiting there, so it doesn’t stop. We pull into Clarksdale without further incident.
The new bus station is out on the strip, and looks as if it might once have been a fast-food restaurant. Some of the older buildings out here would probably already qualify for historic preservation, I think, if only they had had the good fortune to have witnessed something certifiably historic. But history is often dangerous, as all too many people found out back in the heyday of the civil rights movement. Most of the time it’s probably better to remain anonymous. Plus, towns that have reinvented themselves as Historic Quaintsville annoy the hell out of me, like the blues band we’d driven up to see the night before: still playing the same, tired songs in the same generic way. Funny how the attempt to be completely authentic often results in just the opposite. We left after two beers.
The driver gets off the bus, then climbs back on as if suddenly remembering the passengers. “We’ll be here about five minutes if you need to get a smoke,” he says in a quiet voice that surely must have been inaudible to the folks in the back. “This is Clarksdale. Clarksdale.”
For my poem about the death of Bessie Smith, see here.