Near Coahoma to Lurand. 20.2 miles/848.1
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Here I am again at the intersection of Highway 61/49 and Mississippi Route 316, not far from Coahoma. I’m walking through Clarksdale today, and my destination is the town of Lurand, several miles south of Clarksdale.
For you weather hounds out there, the temperature is in the low 40s, and the sun is trying to shine through some very high clouds. It will be cloudy all day, with no rain, and probably won’t get much over 50. Yesterday it was sunny and in the low 50s.
I’ll be walking down this road, forbidden to pedestrians up in DeSoto County but evidently okay to walk on here in Coahoma County, for several miles before heading back over to Old Highway 61 for a few last miles. Although the shoulder of this road is wide, it’s not too friendly for pedestrians. The reddish brown earth is packed hard, but strewn with stones of about two or three inches in diameter, which must be stepped over and around. Nevertheless the stones are interesting—the type that split easily and must have been used for arrowheads and cutting tools.
I see a dead white animal in the median between the two directions of the highway and go to take a look. From a distance it looked like an albino deer, but when I get close I see that it’s a large dog, with a small streak of tan on its back, lying on its side, belly distended. So many dead dogs down here.
When I get to Eagle’s Nest Road I turn right, to head diagonally down toward Old Highway 61. This road got its name from the plantation of James L. Alcorn, which is about three miles to the east of this intersection. There’s a historical marker about him at the crossroads. James Alcorn, 1816-1894, was a general, U.S. senator, and governor of the state of Mississippi. He was the founder of the state levee system, which opened the Delta for cultivation. Also, there’s an institution of higher learning, Alcorn State University, which I think is named after him.
At just under eight miles I reach Old Highway 61. I head south toward Clarksdale. On the iPod Muddy Waters is singing “She’s Only Nineteen Years Old.”
Three miles later I enter Lyon, a town of about 400. It's an upper middle class suburb of Clarksdale. For you Frenchies out there, it was named for the French city of Lyon. But I'll bet it's not pronounced like Lyon in France. This village is impressive, its few small streets lined with generous-sized ranch houses with impeccable lawns and gardens. At the center, near the new town hall and the post office, is a suite of law offices. I’m out of the town in a matter of two or three minutes, going past several dozen acres of black ash trees. The ash grove, how graceful.
I’m on Lee Road now, going past a large field planted in winter wheat that looks like a magnificent green carpet. Lee is a wonderfully quiet tree-lined road, within the city limits of Clarksdale, but still out in the country. Pin oaks and Spanish oaks still have their leaves, brown and copper-colored. (I have my tree book with me, in case you're wondering.)
I arrive at Friars Point Road, which I take south toward downtown Clarksdale. Friars Point lies several miles to the north, but is worth mentioning because it was the birthplace of bluesman Robert Nighthawk, and also of Conway Twitty (born Harold Jenkins). Muddy Waters said he first saw Robert Johnson playing at a place in Friars Point. Friars Point also was the Coahoma county seat during the 19th century.
One of the first things I see on Friars Point Road as I turn south is, of all things, a Jewish cemetery, Beth Israel. Jake and Molly Krieger, Louis and Goldie Raines, the Bernsteins, the Kantors. I go in to commune with the Jewish dead of Coahoma County. I sit on the Binder tombstone and eat my apple, looking at a photo of Sadie Engelberg, who lived only 32 years. The photo is pressed into the stone. This is a very neat and well-maintained place, filled with aspens, their reddish leaves fluttering on the branches.
The northern part of downtown Clarksdale is where the upper crust resides, or used to, anyway. Clarksdale, a city of about 20,000, was named after a guy named Clark, who was the brother-in-law of James Alcorn, general, governor, senator, and bossman. It has been the birthplace of several famous figures in music, including Ike Turner and Sam Cooke. John Lee Hooker was born on a plantation south of town. Muddy Waters lived on a plantation a few miles away, in Stovall. Son House was born here.
I pass the Carnegie Public Library and the Levee Board. The downtown isn't bad looking, with a few elegant restaurants and not too many empty storefronts. The blues theme pervades the businesses along this street.
I'm in the Delta Blues Museum now, looking at the funeral program of Son House, who was born here in 1902 and died in Detroit. I spend an enjoyable hour in the museum, which is housed in the former Clarksdale train station, a pretty good-sized building. There are exhibits about Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Son House, B.B. King, Otis Spann, Pinetop Perkins, Sam Cooke, and many others. Muddy Waters’s house from Stovall is here, a rough-hewn log cabin about fifteen feet square. However, there’s nothing about Howlin’ Wolf. I ask the guy at the desk about that, and he says Howlin’ Wolf has his own museum down in Rolling Fork, and the family wouldn’t give them any memorabilia for this museum. So I’ll have to check out that museum when I’m down there. Yazoo City is as close as I’ll get on my walk, but I can drive over there.
I’m now on Issaquena Street, going under the railroad tracks and into a dumpier neighborhood. I pass a historical marker dedicated to Sam Cooke in front of a long-closed theater called the New Roxy. Cooke was born in Clarksdale in 1931, but moved with his family to Chicago when he was two years old.
I move down Martin Luther King Drive to DeSoto Street, which used to be Highway 49 before they rerouted it and combined it with Highway 61 over to the east. So Highway 61 doesn’t run through Clarksdale any more, either. The famous Crossroads, where Highway 61 and Highway 49 used to meet, is now the intersection of Mississippi Routes 322 and 161, DeSoto Street and State Street, for those who have been trying to find it.
At the Crossroads there’s a commemorative sculpture of three electric guitars and the highway signs for the two old roads. For this momentous moment I have my iPod playing “Crossroads.” But not (and this may disturb the purists among you) the original Robert Johnson version. I do have that on the iPod, along with other Johnson songs, and I listened to it earlier today. But I have to say that Johnson, while he wrote a number of immortal blues standards, does not sing or play the guitar much to my liking. Frankly, I think he has been hyped over the years to the point where people uncritically accept that he was fantastic, when he simply was not. He was very good, to be sure, but many who came after him were and are much better. The guy actually didn’t have a very good sense of rhythm, and his voice is whiny and indifferent.
It was Son House, as I understand it, who started the thing about how he sold his soul to the devil, here at the Crossroads, in exchange for guitar greatness. The reason I think House did it was that when young Johnson tried to sit in with House and others up in Robinsonville, they wouldn't let him, because he sang and played so poorly. Then he went away for awhile and came back an accomplished guitar player. It was the contrast that amazed them, and after that the story about the deal with the devil started. As far as I’m concerned, if Robert Johnson did sell his soul, he sold it rather cheaply.
So the rendition of “Crossroads” I play is the live version performed by Cream on Wheels of Fire, from 1968. It holds up well, even if it does get played a hundred times a day on a hundred classic rock stations. Eric Clapton’s guitar playing is better than Johnson’s, too. But my favorite part is at the very end, when Jack Bruce, in his well-mannered way, acknowledges his band mate: “Eric Clapton, please . . . . vocal.”
Down south of the crossroads Clarksdale tapers off. After the expressway bypass this road, Route 322, officially becomes Highway 49 again. Soon after that I come to the Hopson Plantation at Hopson-Pixley Road. There’s another historical marker. It says that in 1944, on this site, the Hopson Planting Company and International Harvester revolutionized modern cotton farming by introducing the first commercially-produced mechanical cotton picker. Now that was big. In its time as big as the invention of the cotton gin by old Eli Whitney back in the 1790s. Only this invention had the opposite effect, in terms of labor. Instead of increasing the need for warm bodies it decreased it drastically.
I come to my destination for the day, the town of Lurand. The motor home is parked out in front of a store that I hope isn't in business, next to a pink trailer that I hope is abandoned.