Gretsch Events

The Road To The 2015 Delta Crossroads Roundup

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Part 1. Sometimes you can't go home again.

When negotiations with the folks at Hachland Hills fell through, I think most of us had mixed feelings. Many of us had been waiting for the shoe to drop, and when it did there was a sense of relief - we could move on. I knew even if we found a killer new venue, it could never measure up to Phila’s house in many ways. “The Barn” was and always will be synonymous with “GDP Roundup”. We didn’t even get to say goodbye properly and I felt pretty crappy. I almost didn’t want to even look for another venue. That wasn't an option of course, so we got busy looking.

We found some interesting venues. After some discussion, some were eliminated due to cost, some because the dates were unavailable, and some places weren't interested in hosting a bunch of guitar players who have no intention of going to bed early. Fortunately, the folks at the ShackUp Inn were very interested in hosting us. The place had actually been on my radar for a few years, not for event hosting, but just a cool place to stay while doing a deep dive in the Delta blues. Guy Malvezzi, my contact and Shackup Inn part owner, invited me down to check the place out. Deb and I decided to go for it, and we would pay a visit to work out some remaining details - cross the t and dot the i.

photo credit: Curt Wilson

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Part 2 - What Crossroads ?

We got there Friday at Noon, and Megan, the charming girl working the front desk said Guy would not be in for a few hours and recommended we get lunch at the Yazoo Pass restaurant. Mrs Fieldhdj took her suggestion and were happy to find a nice salad bar (they don't speak salad in the South - this place does) and great sandwiches. Kind of an upscale place with business types, a student or two, and the genteel "ladies who lunch" crowd. On the way, we passed "The Crossroads", where Robert Johnson supposedly made his infamous deal. It is a busy intersection of Highway 61 and 49, made worse by tourists stopping and snapping pictures. While looking at a map, I was surprised that "Old Highway 49" passed right by the Shackup Inn and turned into E. Tallahatchie Street. Ignoring my sandwich, I also noticed "Old Highway 61" turned into MLK Blvd. It dawned on me that the marked Crossroads were at roads that probably didn't even exist when Robert Johnson was alive. We decided to check it out and sure enough, no marker, no indication that E. Tallahatchie St. and MLK Blvd was the crossroads of 61 and 49 in Robert Johnson's day. Then things got fun - an internet check proves there are a bunch of Crossroads. Like in every town from Rosedale to Tunica. This really got my blood up - Mrs. Fieldhdj was looking at the candidate sites - too many to visit in a weekend, but the game was afoot and we were off. We decided to go first to where the great Son House claimed the deal went down. Son was a contemporary and rival of Johnson and I figured he would know. House said it was in Rosedale, at the intersection of Highways 1 and 8. When we arrived, I was excited to see a marker, covered with ivy, at the intersection. I was disappointed though - it was a memorial to a Mississippi senator. After some thought, I decided that may be supporting evidence that Hell may be involved at this location after all. I didn’t get to ponder very long. Mrs. Fieldhdj also found references to Dockery Farms, just up the road, where Johnson, House, Howling Wolf, and Charlie Patton played. Local legend said it was here that Johnson showed up with his newly aquired skills - slide playing like he never had before. The kicker - a cemetery and crossroads nearby. We drove to Cleveland, a very nice college town and on to Dockery Farms. Dockery Farms is now on the National Register of Historic Places and they are restoring a service station that was a local landmark in the 20s, 30s and 40s. Roseanne Cash was performing there and her roadies were setting up the stage and getting the catering ready. We crossed the road to a dirt road and found the cemetery a hundred yards or so in the woods. There were old graves there, including WW I veterans who were sharecroppers at Dockery and volunteered for the war. Most returned to Dockery and sharecropping, but were so proud of their service they put it on their gravestones. The earliest graves I found were turn of the century, 1915 or so, but the grave-sites extended deep into the woods, and I wasn't walking back there. I kept my camera in my pocket too - it didn’t seem right to take pictures here. We went further on down the dirt road until we came to an intersection - another crossroads. It had "the" look and feel and I took some pictures and we left, feeling a bit uneasy. I didn't like the place during the day and sure didn't want to be there after sundown. You know, snakes and stuff.
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The intersection of Old Highway 49 and Old Highway 61.

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The crossroads at Highway 8 and Highway 1. Son House, Robert Johnson's contemporary and rival, claimed this was "the crossroads". It's in Rosedale.

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Dockery Farms. Quite a few folks call this the birthplace of the Delta Blues. Henry Sloan, Charlie Patton, Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, Son House, Pops Staples, Howlin' Wolf and Robert Johnson all played here. It is worth your time to drive out here, so don't miss your chance.

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Dockery Crossroads. I'm sure the corkscrew sensation that curled around my backbone was because I was sitting all day. And snakes.

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Part 3 - A Quick Ride, A Great Supper And The Goat People

Mrs. Fieldhdj and I had brought our road bikes and decided to ride from the Shackup to Clarksdale before sunset. It was a short, unpleasant ride northbound on Old Highway 49. It was all industrial and run down neighborhoods, burnt out buildings and abandoned businesses. When we saw a what looked like a water moccasin slither across the road and because traffic started getting bad, we retreated back to the Shackup Inn for some supper and our meeting with Guy. Guy had his hands full - he asked if we could meet in the morning. We were good with that and he told the waitress to seat us and make sure we were taken care of. Rust is the name of the Shackup's restaurant, and the food is excellent. I had Andouille sausage, mushrooms with spinach, swimming in Brie cheese on toasted French bread. Fancy and tasty. Deb had catfish tacos, and they were great too, as was the dessert and coffee. The conversation turned back to Robert Johnson, and the other Johnson, Tommy, who actually made the claim that he was the one who made the deal with the devil. We decided after visiting 4 crossroads, we along with everyone else would never know which was the real crossroads, if there even was such a place, except for one or both of the Johnson men, and they weren't saying anything anymore. There was an event in progress at the Shackup, which explained Guy's distraction. Seems that a year ago, about 10 - 15 folks from Texas decided to weekend at the Shackup. They decided to make it an annual event and brought more of their friends. Around 60 of them were running all around the place. They seemed to have a goat as their mascot/avatar/totem. I didn’t ask. Their ad poster was Robert Johnson with a goat head. One guy had "HEAD GOAT" printed on his tee shirt. These goat people had hired 4 bands, paid a $100 cork fee and had the Shackup barkeeps dispensing their liquor (there was a lot of it), and seemed to be having a good time, generally. They invited us to hang out (if we paid for a $15 wristband), but we declined the invite, opting for a quick stop at Reds for some juke joint jumpin' instead. We were drained, so it was back to our our shack, Fullilove, for an early bed. Our shack, by the way, was clean, comfortable and air conditioned. I should have slept well, but I didn't.
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Part 4 - My Morning Short Pants

Maybe because it wasn't my bed, maybe too much Robert Johnson, maybe I was just too excited to sleep much. I ended up getting very early and after making an ice run and looking at some maps, decided to go for a bike ride. The sun came up and I headed out southbound, down Old Highway 49 in the other direction, just to see what I could see. It had rained early that morning, but it had stopped and the morning was still cool. The only people up when I started my ride were farmers, tending the old plantation fields that now were cultivated with corn and soybeans, not cotton. A cropduster worked the fields on my left, doing his wide banked turns then flying low, seemingly strafing the fields a dozen yards below him, looking and sounding like a WWII era Mustang - it was very entertaining. Frogs hopped across the road, going from water-filled ditch to water-filled ditch. An occasional lizard scurried out of my way, but no other reptiles, I'm glad to say. There were granarys and depots, with farmers loading up fertilizer, giving way to occasional stretches of woods, populated with huge, stately cypress trees. These trees provided wood for the mansions and slave quarters alike, and later for the sharecropper shacks as well. Huge mansions and well tended grounds, old and new, shared the road with double-wide trailers and decaying homes. There were 4 churches in a 7 mile span, ranging from nearly abandoned with sunken grave-sites to the exquisitely maintained family chapel, crypt and graveyard. The ride was a fascinating study in contradictions. One little town near the end of the ride seemed to be made up of dog kennels, but I saw no dogs. Or people for that matter. After a bit the road turned to dirt, then disappeared at a defunct railroad junction. Google maps showed it resumed after about a quarter mile, but my ride was done and I turned back and started the 7 miles back to my shack. It was getting warm already, steam rising from the road. It was going to get hot, "Africa hot!" I suddenly got an urge to go find a greasy breakfast somewhere, so I picked up the pace on the way back. As I pedaled down the flat road, the dust wetted down, I thought about blues guys when they were young, traveling up and down this road, hitching rides to the next plantation commissary or juke joint, looking for a gig. For a few minutes I felt like I was a part of the fabric, the history. It was a few minutes I'll remember for a long time.
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Part 5 - Get To The Good Part

After breakfast at the Rest Haven Restaurant (America - Italian - Lebanese Cuisine), we returned to the Shackup, where the goat people were outside nursing their hangovers. It was time to meet with Guy Malvezzi and talk Roundup. Guy is a lean , serious looking man, very polite but quite cordial. We sat down in the restaurant and after he asked, we assured him we enjoyed our dinner and were well taken care of. We covered things quickly, and firmed up details on the number of rooms and shacks available, pricing structure, our Saturday BBQ dinner, and what to do with the civilians (restaurant patrons) after 9:00 PM. We were shown two rooms upstairs where we could have the BBQ supper (buffet style). One of the rooms could be used to store our guitars and instruments, like the loft we used at Hachland. Both could accommodate 60+ people with ease. We are free to use the BBQ grills in the courtyard whenever we like. We can BOOBooze (they only serve beer) for a $5 per individual per night cork fee, or a $100 per night blanket cork fee. We can get started as early as Thursday night, and we made provisions for late night arrivals (let me know guys) since the Front Desk closes at 8:00 PM. We concluded, went over the payment details and Guy told us a funny story about his John Prine ball cap. Guy went on to talk about the "Shack Experience" and how people who want to know about things like the thread count in the sheets and room service aren’t going to “get it”. He made sure to point out that the Bin rooms are very much like a regular hotel room, with TVs and such. I told him he didn’t have to worry about the GDP guys. No one ever asked me about thread counts.
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Part 6 - Culture Time

After our meeting we went to the Delta Blues Museum. Its a great place and we learned quite a bit and were very entertained. No photography, so I couldn't take pictures of instruments or Muddy Waters cabin. If you can - go, do it. Highly recommended. We visited the Riverview Hotel, a very historic place that was home to Ike Turner and Duke Ellington. Poor Bessie Smith died there when it was a hospital. We saw Ground Zero, Morgan Freeman's Blues Bar, and then went over to Cat Head Records, a cool record store where I was able to fill some gaps in my Delta Blues collection. The clerk, whose name I did not get, was helpful, knowledgeable and an all around cool guy. We talked for almost a half hour about the blues, the men and women who sang and played them, and how the music was evolving. As we were leaving, we were stopped outside the door by an old man in front of the old WROX studios.
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Part 7 - Razorblade Stewart

"Did you buy any of MY records in there? No, you didn't because they don't have them. But I do." These were Razorblades first words to me and it did not prepare us for the deluge to come. "Gotta smartphone? Let me see it." We were soon treated to the crooning of a Clarksdale sensation, Razorblade Stewart. Razorblade, who mentioned several times that he was only one of 4 real blues men left (I didn't ask), is well known locally and enjoys the attention he gets from visitors. He likes to go to open mic nights at Ground Zero and sing his songs to anyone who will listen. He got a CD from a small stack in his car and asked me how much I thought it was worth. I told him I was sure it was worth more than the 7 dollars I had in my wallet, but he was welcome to it. He took it, then sat me down to explain the secret to happiness. He drew a dollar sign on the CD and told me the S was a snake. When we are born, we start at the tail of the snake. I won't go on, it was long and complicated, but pretty engaging. When he finished, he asked me if I thought he was retarded. I said no, I didn't think that. He says "Morgan Freeman told me I'm retarded. I told him the secret and he laughed at me. He's an atheist you know. I heard he played God in a movie. Hes an atheist who plays God in a movie? That ain't right - " and on and on. I assured him I didn't think that and I thought he was a wise man. He laughed, patted me on the shoulder. As I started to go, he asked me if I had gotten what I came for. I laughed and said yes, I did. He says, "You came to see the old blues guys. There are only 4 of us you know. You came to see us." I said yes, and that I was also here to find a venue for an event in September. He made sure I wasn't going to Morgan's Ground Zero and started to let me go. I said "There is one thing - yesterday I went to 4 crossroads here in Clarksdale, Rosedale and Dockery - which is the real one? Is there a real one?" Razorblade got deadly serious. "You lookin' for Robert Johnson". You come here looking for Robert Johnson" - he shook his head and I said "No, Robert Johnson is dead. I was just curious about the crossroads thing" - he kept shaking his head and said "Don't look for no crossroads. You don't want that." I said “Ok, Razorblade, I won't look, I promise -" He says "Besides, you ain't even close. Its up near Tunica and they ain't even real roads. Just farm roads for cotton fields. Its by a graveyard and thats where the deal got done - but don't you go lookin'. Just don't do it" I told I would not, that I believed him. He smiled and told me to come back and see him in September. I’m planning on it too.

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Part 8 - Dreamboat And Dreaming

The next stop was supposed to be the Rock And Blues Museum, but it was getting late - just an hour before they closed. I decided that talking with Razorblades was hard work and needed some food, so we went down for some BBQ at Dreamboat. Dreamboat is just one of many good places to eat in Clarksdale, but its a really good one. I discovered Delta tamales here - very different than any others I've ever had. I got a rib-tamale combo that was great. The ribs are the dry variety and very good. Green stuff? Just cole slaw. You want rabbit food you won't find it here. We spent the remainder of Saturday night on the porch of Fullilove, listening to the goat people’s bands as the sun went down and soaking it all in. Since we were off early, we went to bed early, and I made up for no sleep the night before. Not to mention that I think my bartender mixed strong, trying to get me drunk. I dreamed about music, a rare thing for me.
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Part Nine - Eat Before You Leave

I woke up and took one more ride on Old 49 North, back into Clarksdale. It was another reflective kind of ride, far too short, but it got me thinking about the city. I got back, took a shower, packed up and we left. We drove around looking for a restaurant, but could find nothing open. We should have looked harder. We ended up eating at a Sonic in Helena, AR. I regretted it all day.
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Epilogue

On my ride, I was thinking Clarksdale is struggling with the problems most big towns do, in addition to trying to figure out if it has a part in how the Blues is evolving. I learned more about the Blues this weekend than I had in years of of listening and reading about it. The blues are not just a genre that has sad songs born from oppression. There are happy, affirmative blues, sexy blues, and spiritual blues. It has power and it has heart. It was a parent of rock, the music I’ve played and listened to most of my life. And it is very much alive - a living thing that is going to go on as long as people sing and play. I’m very ready to go back to Clarksdale.
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Seriously, You didn't strap on a guitar and have Deb take your pic at THE Crossroads?

Thanks for the recon mission.

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Seriously, You didn't strap on a guitar and have Deb take your pic at THE Crossroads?

Thanks for the recon mission.

– Suprdave

that's bad juju, man.

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What kind of snakes are we talking about? Are they hanging out in the tall grass?

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The snakey kind. They are everywhere.

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Great stories. I feel like I've been there, thanks to you.

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Thank you Deed! Writing it was almost reliving it, and that was pretty enjoyable. Credit my wife, Mrs. Fieldhdj, who is my capable editor, research assistant and the best traveling companion.

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The snakey kind. All you need to know.


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