Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tupelo and the King

We moved on from Clarksdale to Tupelo to visit the birthplace of the King, Elvis, and collect another park service stamp.  A heads up to RVers.  Even though route 278 is a US highway there are several bridges with low weight limits.  We crossed them as we were to the point of no return, but I would not travel this road again.  It may be time to get a trucker's atlas.
Tupelo has made its native son the centerpiece of its local tourism.  One of many artistic guitars in Tupelo that honor Elvis.
Tupelo Hardware Co. is where Elvis' mother bought him his first guitar for his 10th birthday.  He wanted a gun, but settled for the guitar.  The rest is history.
Statue of 13 year old Elvis with his guitar.
The home where he was born is on its original site that is now Elvis Presley Park.  It is a small, two room "shotgun" house. You could shoot a shotgun through the front door and it would go straight out the back door without hitting anything.
The front room was the bed - living room and the back room was the kitchen with a wood stove, an ice box and wash tub.  Very humble beginnings.  The guide had wonderful stories from people who grew up with Elvis.
Yes, Elvis went here.
The Assembly of God church that Elvis attended as a child.  He loved the music here and took guitar lessons from the minister.  The church, that had been a home for several years, was just recently restored and moved to the park.
WOW, in the gift shop you can even buy Elvis PJs.  This was a very interesting stop and gave just another perspective of a great musician whose life ended way too soon.
We like to collect National Park Service stamps so we went to the Tupelo National Battlefield, the site of an 1864 Civil War battle.  This is a picture of the entire site, there was no stamp.  Still an interesting stop for Civil War buffs.
When we left Tupelo it was back on the Natchez Trace Parkway heading north to spend some time with friends in Tennessee.  These are Indian burial mounds along the trace.
The trace is a two lane road from Natchez to Nashville.  There is very little traffic and  no commercial traffic is allowed so it is a great relaxing drive.
 With the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma we did not like the look of the sky.  Fortunately, it was behind us and we made it to Tennessee with a tailwind and only a few sprinkles. WHEW!!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

We have the Blues

We love music, especially the blues, so driving a bit of the Mississippi Blues Trail has been on our to do list for a while.  The trail has many stops in the state including a couple we saw in Natchez and Vicksburg.  The birthplace of the blues is the Mississippi Delta, really a huge alluvial plain, in the Northwest corner of the state.  The land is very flat and fertile so the land was the home of many huge plantations growing rice, sugar cane and cotton.  Because of the threat of flooding, 90% of the land was not developed until after the Civil War.  This area was inundated during the great 1927 flood and suffered some damage in 2011. The slaves and farmhands working the fields originated the music that became the Delta Blues and laid the ground for rock and roll. 
The intersection of 61 & 49 in Clarksdale is the place where legend has it that blues great Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his ability to play.
A few of the signs along the trail from Natchez to Clarksdale.  One story of the area is that a young John John Kennedy used to come to Clarksdale to listen to the music and would stay at the Riverside Hotel.  The hotel is a long, long way from Hyannis Port.
The Delta Blues Museum is a must see stop.  It has a great collection of blues memorabilia including the log cabin where the legendary musician Muddy Waters was born.  No pictures were allowed so check out the web site. 
You can't do a trip about music without hearing some, so for three nights in a row we bit the bullet and stayed up late.  The first night we did Ground Zero Blues Club that is partly owned by actor Morgan Freeman.  While the music and food were great it turned out to by more of a tourist destination than the real old time jook joint we were looking.  That said, it was still very cool.
Bill "Howl-N-Madd" Perry and the band were very good.  Here is a link to a short video I shot.
In Cleveland we stopped at Delta State University to see the life casting sculptures of local blues artists by Sharon McConnell.  Here is a link that shows her work along with photographs of  the musicians.  Make sure you read Sharon's bio on the link.  She became an artist after she suddenly went blind at the age of 27.
Near Cleveland is Dockery Farm, one of a couple of places that is considered the Birthplace of the Blues.  The farm was not established until 1895 and is still owned by the Dockerys, though none of them live there. 
An old gas station at Dockery Farms.  The blues have become such a big tourist business that protesters convinced the highway department to change their plans for a new road just to safe  this historic site.
For our next music experience we wanted to do a real jook joint so we went to Poor Monkey Lounge in Merigold. The word jook was indigenous to the Negro culture and was a place to dance, drink and gamble.  It is now often spelled juke. The old joints were out in the fields so the workers, who usually did not have cars, could get there. We drove out during the day so we could find it the next night.  The directions were turn off highway 61 where the 18 wheelers are parked,  go to the Y and take the dirt road, you can't miss it.
We returned the next night, it is only open on Thursdays from 8  to 2, and found an authentic jook joint experience.  It was not blues, but the DJ had the place rockin.  You can not imagine how many people they got inside that little place.  Here we are with the man himself, Willie "Po Monkey" Seaberry, who has been doing this for 58 years.  He lives in two little rooms in the lounge.
There were many more locals than tourists here, but it has just been added as a stop on the Blues Trail so that may change things a bit.  We have been to several neat bars on our travels, but this place is at the top of real experiences.  Here is a link to a short video I shot that shows what the place is like without a flash picture.
The Hopson Plantation near Clarksdale is another neat blues site.  The motel, Shack Up Inn, consists of old farm shacks that were moved from the fields and modernized enough to rent out as rooms.  They also have music in the afternoon, but we needed a nap so we could go out that night.
On Friday night went to Red's Lounge in Clarksdale for an urban juke joint experience.  Red's is right up there with Po Monkey's but with live blues rather than a DJ.  Once again the place was rockin.
The band was Space Cowboy & Blues Posse w/ Kingfish, the 14 year old guitar player and Hollywood, the 13 year old drummer.  I did not get the name of the bass player.  I do believe we have seen the future of the blues.  Kingfish played everything from Robert Johnson's Sweet Home Chicago to a Woodstock like Jimi Hendrix version of the Star Spangled Banner.  Videos were not allowed, but here is a link to a YouTube video I found.  These kids were fantastic. 
Three other locals, whose names I did not get, did a few songs with the band.  If you want a real juke joint experience Red's Lounge and the Mississippi Blues Trail is the place to go.
I just found this story in the New York Times about the Blues Trail and Juke Joints.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


We moved up the river to Vicksburg to explore another little river town and the Civil War battlefield. The battle for Vicksburg with its location on the Mississippi was considered by Lincoln to be the key for winning the war.  Union control of the town and river would cut the Confederate states in half and restore the Union supply lines in the West.  The battle took place over three months and included battles in Port Gibson (last post) and the capture of Jackson.  In Vicksburg it became a 47 day siege with the town surrounded by Union troops to the East and the river to the West.
Vicksburg National Military Park with a driving route along the Union and Confederate lines has all the usual artillery and many memorials honoring those who fought here.
The Shirley House is the only war time building still standing in the park.  It was used as the headquarters by the 45th Illinois infantry.  You can still see the trenches that were dug to protect the soldiers.
The Illinois Memorial has 47 steps, one for each day of the siege, and lists the names of the more than 30,000 Illinoisans who fought here.  Look what Nanc found.  J. B. Tidball served here.  I wonder if he was related to me or Lanny from Grand Isle? 
A few of the memorials. Top left is a Wisconsin memorial. Center is one dedicated to the Black troops who served here, proving they would fight with valor.  By the end of the war over 200,000 where serving.  Top right is the Pennsylvania memorial.  Bottom right is a modern Kansas memorial, one of several that honors soldiers from the states who fought on sides.  Bottom left is a Confederate memorial.
Looking from the Union lines to the Confederate lines.  Grant used a siege because the South was so well dug in that frontal attacks proved to be hopeless.  The hilly terrain made movement very difficult.  The siege was successful in weakening the Confederates to the point that they surrendered on July 4, 1863, 150 years ago.  An interesting note is that in the 1880's the river changed course and no longer flows through the area where it did during the siege.
Nanc in one of the trenches.  The Union troops had access to supplies so their situation was much better than the Southern troops who were trapped in the city.  The fall of Vicksburg and the defeat of Lee at Gettysburg at the same time was the turning point of the war even though it lasted for almost two more years.
During the siege Orion P. Howe, a 14 year old Union musician, was wounded when he volunteered to deliver a message that troops needed more ammunition.  Despite his wounds he got the message to General Sherman, thus becoming the youngest soldier to ever win the Medal of Honor, our nations highest award.
One of the neatest things in the park is the USS Cairo, a Union ironclad that was sunk in the Yazoo River during the siege.  It was the first ship ever sunk by an electronic mine.  It was on the bottom of the river until it was raise in the 1950's.
The model shows how the ship originally looked.  Bottom is the device used to raise the anchor, middle are the steam boilers, right are the huge pistons that turned the paddle wheel.
Because the ship sank so quickly, with all men escaping safely, many artifact have been found at the site.  It is amazing to see this ship that was the most advanced ship during the war.  These ships played a major role in the siege by firing on the city from the river. 
One of the newer monuments is from Kentucky where both Presidents Lincoln and Davis were born.  Kentucky stayed in the Union and had many soldiers fighting on both sides.
Vicksburg is also the home of the Lower Mississippi River Museum with many displays of the Army Corps of Engineers' role in controlling the river.  Above is a model of 70 miles of the river and the levees that control it.  The M/V Mississippi IV, an old Corps boat, is also on display. 
The self guided tour of the ship is very cool..
Displays showing how the river has changed from the time of the Indians, to the flat boats and then the steamboats.  There is also a display on the devastating 1927 flood that covered over 27,000 square miles and took eight months to recede.  That flood lead to many changes along the river including higher levees and removing meanders from the river.  This shortened the river by over 100 miles.
Vicksburg is also the first place where Coca-Cola was bottled.  They have an interesting display of Coke memorabilia including the original bottling machines, many cans and bottles and an old soda fountain.  Top left is the original coke float.  Ice cream was put in the "float" and you drank the soda through the ice cream.
On the wall along the waterfront are murals of Vicksburg's history.  Top is the Teddy Roosevelt bear hunt where the idea for the Teddy Bear originated.  Bottom are the ironclad gun boats steaming down the river to deliver supplies to Grant.  Left is Nanc showing the height of the floods over the years.  Vicksburg is a neat little river town with an interesting history.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Natchez and the Trace

We stopped in Natchez for a few days to explore this neat little Mississippi River town.  Most of the town is on a high bluff well out of harms way of the big water.  The river is high and flooding in some areas, but it is not a problem here.
The river boat, Queen of the Mississippi, is in the foreground.  The permanently moored Isle of Capri casino is behind it.  The area down on the water front is called Under the Hill.  There are only a few buildings down there in the flood plain. 
Natchez has many beautiful old homes from the antebellum period. 
No doubt what this lady in one of the gardens did to get her beads.
The William Johnson House (left) and Melrose are part of the Natchez Historical Park.  Melrose is a classic example of the Greek Revival style that was so popular in the 1800's.  It was built by the McMurran family in 1849.  It is one of the best preserved antebellum estates with many original furnishings and several outbuildings.  It is neat seeing these old homes, but also sad when you realize they were built on the backs of a slave economy. 
This is the interior of the Johnson House.  Johnson was born a slave, the son of a slave and a white slave owner who freed him and his mother.  He became a prosperous businessman who owned three barber shops and property in Natchez.  The furnishings show a home of a middle class family.  As he gained wealth he bought his own slaves.  This sure shows how complex the issue of slavery was.  Johnson kept diaries that give a unique look at this period.      
Natchez is at the beginning of the Natchez Trace Parkway a 444 mile road that passes through three states and ends near Nashville. The trace follows a path that was used for hundreds of years by Indians and became the route used by river men who floated boats from Pittsburgh to Natchez.  The mileage chart shows the distances between towns on the 1013 mile trip to Pittsburg.  The last three are Washington, Canonsburgh and Pittsburgh. We did part of the parkway here and plan to do more near the north end. Pictured is Mount Locust, a plantation along the trace that became an inn for travelers.
The interior of the inn.
Not far off the trace is Emerald Mound.  Covering eight acres it is the second largest temple mound in the United States.  It was used for ceremonies and burials.  It is quit impressive when you realize it was built totally by hand with only the most primitive of tools.
Much of the land here is soft soil that has been left behind by the ice age and river flooding.  Over the years of travel the trace wore down to the point that the road was in a huge rut. 
A few homes in Port Gibson, a town that during the Civil War General Grant said was to beautiful to burn.  A battle was fought here as part of the fight to capture Vicksburg.  The gilded hand is on the top of the First Presbyterian Church. 
Just west of Port Gibson are the Ruins of Windsor. The house was built in 1860 and survived the Civil War only to burn to the ground in 1890.  The columns and a metal staircase, that is in a nearby college chapel, were the only things that were left.  It really does have a strange beauty.
On our last day in Natchez we saw the American Queen departing.  This is the same boat we saw in Marietta last spring.  Here is a short video where you can hear the boats calliope.  Natchez is a neat little river town that is a worthwhile stop.