Heart of the Delta
Discovering the back pages of John Pritchard's world.
(page 5 of 6)
By five-thirty the sun sits low and bright in the west, and I stand squinting at the corner of State Street and Desoto Avenue in Clarksdale. Behind me, John fills the tank under the weather-stained metal awning of a worn but sturdy gas station.
Clarksdale is a town of 18,000 and feels just slightly European, if for no other reason than the compression of its houses and buildings into a small area. But here all similarities stop, and the elements of the small-town South become familiar — pick-up trucks, ancient storefronts featuring decades-old advertising, and the imposing green of foliage challenging every step of progress.
But progress is slow in Clarksdale today. The mansions lining the streets on the north end of town are a testimony to the wealth that once resided here. However, the streets that crisscross in downtown Clarksdale show empty and unkempt buildings and betray the realities of a world in change.
Earlier in the day, as we left Walls, John had taken me on the backroads of the farm country on our way to Tunica. As far as the eye could see, these fields exhibited the product of months of human labor. But the only sign of any other person here is a lone machine driving over the fields in the distance.
“If we were driving out on this road on a typical day when you were growing up,” I ask John, “how many people would we see?”
“Out in the fields? Hundreds: there were mules and men out there all over the place.” This was how it had been in the Delta since it was first settled by whites. African slaves were brought from Virginia and the Carolinas to work these plantations, and even after the Civil War and Reconstruction, African Americans occupied the same place in the Delta social structure that they always had.
“The black population was the labor force,” John explains. Even in the 1950s, an average Delta county would have been roughly 20,000 people and less than 10 percent would have been non-black.
And most of these people’s lives would revolve around the work they did for the white landowners.
“By the end of the ’60s, mules were going out the door,” John says. “There’s no more hand labor — there’s none. I mean, you don’t have people out there working the bean fields and the cotton fields, you have that big tractor back there.”
“It’s a phenomenon, and people look at it and understand that the old ways are gone and the new ways have come in.” John compares this phenomenon to the changes that have come over other regional industries, like steelmaking in the Northeast, and salmon fishing in the Pacific Northwest. The people who operate the heavy farm equipment, like the one I can see out the car window, “have a hard time,” John says, “because they don’t work all year.”
“The mechanical cotton-picker eventually took their place,” he says. “These things today take the place of about two thousand dadgum people — maybe more than that. Plus it’s much more efficient. I don’t even know how to make the comparison: These things do everything but make a T-shirt.” This is the reality of post-war Delta agriculture, and therefore its people.
“Junior Ray is about change,” John says, “from men and mules to mechanization. It’s not explicit, but it’s in there.
“The message is that the Delta’s changing.”
Despite these changes, however, Clarksdale still tries to make the most of its greatest natural resource — the blues. It is still the legendary site of the “crossroads,” where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil, and is known throughout the world as the official home of the blues. A mecca for musicians, the little town boasts the Ground Zero Blues Club, several blues museums, and the annual Juke Joint Festival every April.
With this has come an upsurge in tourism, and amid the blight of closed buildings are touches of recovery. New apartments and lofts have opened downtown, and John was particularly excited to see a new café, the Yazoo Pass. But destination tourism, as much pride as it might stir in the hearts of the locals, is a small consolation in a region the Economist recently referred to as “the poorest region of America’s poorest state.”
As we leave Clarksdale and turn north onto Highway 61, we’re greeted again by the Delta’s ubiquitous ocean of modern American agriculture, and by the bounty it produces. Fields owned by white planters and worked by African Americans — first as slaves, then as marginalized citizens — are now owned by corporations and run by machines. Mechanization is just another step in a long process that, despite the recent growth, has ignored the Delta’s largest community.
“White folks hear the blues,” Ma Rainey once said, “but they don’t know how it got there.”
We drive Highway 61 back to Memphis, following the same path taken by Robert Johnson, Memphis Minnie, Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright, and countless others who left their home in the Mississippi to find their fortune in Memphis.
John talks as he drives. He tells me about his adventures in college in the late 1950s, and how after his freshman year, he hitchhiked to Key West. He also took a DC-3 to Cuba to witness the Castro revolution and, as he put it, impress an ex-girlfriend. The next year he went to New Orleans, and, in defiance of his parents’ wishes, found work on a Scandinavian freighter, which was then caught up in a civil war in Venezuela.
Outside, in the direction of the river, the sun slips lower and lower towards the horizon. The sky, a deep blue in the east, becomes salmon, then copper, as it stretches to the oncoming dusk. The sunset casts all the objects around us in that flat country — a single giant oak, a telephone pole, an abandoned barn — into a burnished gold, august against the coming night.
The ancients believed that twilight was sacred. The boundaries between heaven and earth were loosened, and time itself ceased to operate on a single line.
Highway 61 runs pencil-straight north to Memphis. We pass signs for the casinos, and billboards for Graceland. In the distance dark beneath the sky above are the Loess Hills, which grow larger as we head north. To our left, the levee also creeps closer as we approach the city, until it curves to the east in the distance in front of us, the hills curve to the west, and the two meet, Highway 61 rising between them on its course into the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff and the lights of the city beyond.
“This is the beginning,” John says. “This is where the Delta begins.”
That night I ride my bike home through Cooper-Young, the neighborhood my father rode his bike through as a boy. The evening is still warm and humid, and the air is cool passing over me, over my face and through my shirt. I listen to the sound of voices and music coming from the bars and patios. As I turn west down Young, I catch the porch light of the Captain Harris House where I spent my nights one summer. I pass Peabody Elementary School where I played with my niece and nephew on the playground. To the south comes the blare of a train in the yard on Southern.
In the distance ahead of me, beyond all the houses and neighborhoods of Memphis, beyond my memories and the generations of my family before I was born, beyond all of this is the River, the Father of Waters. And as I lie in bed, my room feels like little more than a small box, my dreams ranging, over the bluff, and down the Mississippi, across the levee and through the fields and bayous, rivers, and woods of the Delta. So close to Memphis, yet so far away. And in the background of these flights over the star-strewn skyline, comes a voice singing:
I’m going down to Rosedale,
gonna take my rider by my side.
I’m going down to Rosedale,
gonna take my rider by my side.
We can still barrelhouse baby,
cause it’s on the riverside.
Michael Flanagan has been previously published in The Memphis Flyer and Memphis Business Quarterly. A graduate of the University of Memphis, he is the great-grandson of Clyde W. Parke (builder of the Memphis Pink Palace Museum’s miniature circus) and a fan of Ballet Memphis. He resides in Midtown and most days can be found locally riding MATA.