Last bus to Clarksdale

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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.

Blues country

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The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta is a vast, inland delta or floodplain stretching from Memphis in the north to Vicksburg in the south, and miles deep in rich, alluvial soil. Rocks, such as this rip-rap along the bayou in downtown Cleveland, Mississippi, are a valuable commodity.

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“As for surrealism, I think there’s more of it in the blues [than in jazz]. The early stuff, especially. Most people know Bessie Smith and perhaps Robert Johnson, but there are many others. Incredible verbal invention. What one would call ‘jive,’ but also eroticism, the tragic sense of life. If the blues were French, we’d be studying it at Yale.”
Charles Simic (interview with Sherod Santos)

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“Some of my blues is kinda sad blues ’cause sometimes I be feeling down and out. And I know some other womens do too. I play them so it will hit somebody. The songs are for anybody that listen to it – so I can tell ’em. … Shotgun, everywhere I play it, everybody like it. It’s just kinda of you’ve been mistreated and you want to blow somebody away. [laughs]. The other one is about nosy neighbors. They talk about you all the time. See, I got a lot of neighbors talking, lie, go on about me. They all the time lying and going on. And I just sat out in the yard and made a record about them. Turned the amplifier up as loud as I could get it so they could get the message.”
Jessie Mae Hemphill (1991 interview)

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Nearly 400 families lived on the Dockery plantation in the 1920s, when the style of guitar blues later associated with Clarksdale (and still later with the South Side of Chicago) first took shape. Blues researcher and native Mississippian Gayle Dean Wardlow: “It may at first seem fantastic that three of the very best bluesmen – [Charley] Patton, Son House, and Willie Brown – should have been on the same plantation at the same time. However, once we accept [Patton’s sister] Viola’s statement that Patton taught them all, it no longer seems so remarkable…. Brown was Patton’s closest disciple. Son House, with his dark brooding singing and strange chording, started a following of his own.”

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Parchman Farm, still one of the most brutal prisons in the United States. David Oshinsky:

The most common offenses – fighting, stealing, “disrespect” to an officer, and failure to meet work quotas – were punishable by five to fifteen lashes. Escape attempts carried an unspeakable penalty: a whipping without limits. One superintendent recalled a mass breakout in the 1930s in which a trusty-shooter was killed. “To get confessions,” he said, “I had whippings given to the eight we caught who weren’t wounded. Before the young ringleader confessed, I had him lashed on the buttocks, calves, and palms, then gave him fifteen lashes on the soles of his feet. This cleared his mind.”The number and severity of whippings depended on the sergeant in charge. “Book rules” meant little in the field camps, which were fiefdoms unto themselves. The sergeants worked in relative isolation. Some of them were alcoholics; a few were sadists. “They beat hell out of you for any reason or no reason,” an inmate remarked. “It’s the greatest pleasure of their lives.” Above all, the sergeants were under pressure to make a good crop, and that meant pushing the men. “What can you expect in the way of judgment at fifty dollars a month?” asked one prison official. “What kind of foreman on the outside [is] employed at fifty dollars a month? They usually pay foremen more than anybody else, the man who works the men, but that’s what they pay here – fifty dollars a month!”

Oh listen you men, I don’t mean no harm
Oh listen you men, I don’t mean no harm
If you wanna do good, you better stay off old Parchman Farm

-Booker T. Washington “Bukka” White, “Parchman Farm Blues”

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Amber waves of foam on the Mississippi River at Rosedale

Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gon’ take my rider by my side
Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gon’ take my rider by my side
We can still barrelhouse baby, on the riverside

– Robert Johnson, “Traveling Riverside Blues”

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Eatery in Rosedale

“Blues taught me a number of things. How to tell a story quickly, economically. The value of gaps, ellipses, and most importantly, the value of simplicity and accessibility.”
– Charles Simic

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Crossroads at sunset, Bolivar County, Mississippi

“The world’s still standing like it was a million years ago. Sun still comes up and goes down, wind still blow from the four corners of the earth, the stars still shine. It’s the peoples that live in the world that’s got it so messed up.”
– Big Jack Johnson (1991 interview)