Our destination was the Madison Hotel in downtown Memphis, which was the Tennessee Trust Bank at the turn of the century. The Madison is a few short blocks from the Mississippi with a view of Mud Island. Driving into Memphis to the strains of the Mystery Train soundtrack helped set the mood. Our first order of business was the Sun Studios Tour. Yep, Morse threw out the tour book and we're off to do one of the most touristy things in Memphis. The birthplace of rock and roll, where 18-year-old Elvis Presley first sang "That's all Right." Since the tour book was gone, we weren't tourists. Yeah, right. First things first and not to be outdone, that means a photo of the Audi in front of Sun Studios. A certain someone parked a MINI Cooper there for the same shot. OK, so we were there too. Sun Studios is usually jammed and they run a tour every few minutes.
Graceland wasn't on the itinerary... too touristy. We still had the Stax Museum on our agenda however, the jewel of Memphis in so many critical and cultural ways. It's on the "other" side of town, right across from the home of Memphis Slim, which is in the process of restoration. The sign says so. The Stax Museum is on the original site of the recording studio. What was once a tiny record store in the old Capitol Theater at the corner of McLemore Avenue and College Street, became Stax records in 1959 and launched so many careers; Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, too many others to name. Since it is a self-guided tour, the proper blues traveler must be prepared to spend some time there.
Meanwhile, the Q7 TDI inspired confidence in a subtle manner, the 3.0-liter V6 has mountains of torque in a platform that displays good-almost sporting-road manners, with brakes that would stop a DTM S4. Through gales of wind and horizontal sheets of rain, our security was never in question.
Next stop Clarksdale, at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49. We'd agreed before the trip began, no CDs, mostly local radio. Heading out of Memphis we discovered a gem, WEVL 89.9. Bashful Bob and his "Sho Nuff Country" show are the real deal, a DJ with a deep southern accent playing such icons as Ralph Stanley, Porter Wagoner, Buck Owens. He also streams live on the Internet. Ahead, the infamous sign posts and then the crossroads. It was raining as we drove in. The Delta. The real blues.
The Clarksdale we drove into was a far cry from Lomax's description of the New World. The streets were deserted, the wide green lawns he wrote of were mostly crabgrass. It felt like a ghost town. But it's not. Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art is just a few blocks from where the Dipsie Doodle once jived and boogied. A few blocks in the other direction are the Ground Zero Blues Club and The Delta Blues Museum. The Clarksdale train station, where Muddy Waters may have begun his journey to Chi-Town, is near Ground Zero. Clarksdale is also home to the King Biscuit Blues Festival, The Juke Joint Festival, and The Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival. It had a famous resident or two besides Tennessee Williams' father. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, Son House, and Sam Cooke to name a few of the more familiar. Morgan Freeman is a partner in Ground Zero. Bessie Smith died in Clarksdale in 1937, after being refused admission to three hospitals for treatment of injuries resulting from a car accident. She bled to death while her friends sought hospital admission for her.
If Clarksdale seemed depressed, it's positively thriving compared to Helena. The Delta Cultural Center is here, home to "King Biscuit Time," the KFFA radio show begun in 1941. "Sunshine" Sonny Payne broadcasts Monday through Friday from the Cultural Center. Helena hosts several music festivals during the year including Mother's Best Music Fest and the Wild Hog Music Festival and Bike Rally.