The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tenn. I indulged myself, and the group that was with me, by having Sunday brunch at the Peabody. Perhaps overindulged would be more correct.
Seldom will you encounter more overt opulence than at the Peabody. There is polished marble and gleaming glass everywhere. There is a magnificent fountain in the middle of the lobby that plays host to five ducks, all day, every day.
These ducks don’t simply appear in the fountain each morning. These ducks are housed in a penthouse suite on top of the Peabody and, at precisely 11 am every day, they march from their penthouse pond onto an elevator. They ride down a dozen stories and march across a red carpet fit for a Hollywood premier and into their fountain, led by their very own Duckmaster, whose full-time job it is to train and care for the ducks.
I ain’t making this up y’all. They do that in Memphis, Tenn., every day — to the tune of John Phillips Sosa’s King Cotton March — while a huge crowd gathers to watch. At 5 p.m. they reverse the entire process. We were there. We saw it.
And then we ate the Sunday brunch. If gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, all I can say is forgive me Lord. Oh, please forgive me. If you can think of it, you could probably have eaten it last Sunday. There were 42 desserts. Between my lovely wife, Lisa, myself, and our cousin Peyton, who goes to school in Memphis and was nice enough to join us for lunch, I am pretty sure we sampled them all.
There is upscale shopping in the lobby of the Peabody as well. I am talking really upscale. They think a lot of their stuff. I bought a bow tie that cost more than my entire wardrobe for 1958 — 1962 inclusive. World’s greatest bus driver, Shane Clayton, and I bought matching blue suede shoes. Laugh if you will, but wait ‘til you see them!
After our food fest and shopping spree we got in our bus and rode down into the Delta to a town called Clarksdale. It is in Mississippi. When you leave Georgia and venture into Alabama, custom calls for you to turn your clock back one hour. When you go to Clarksdale you need to set your calendar back 50 years, for you are traveling into a time warp that one must see in order to believe.
Two dozen people traveling with me saw and yet didn’t believe.
Out of the poverty that was — and is — Clarksdale, grew the Delta Blues, a genre of music that can’t just be heard to be understood; it has to be felt, or, better yet, lived.
We went to the Blues Museum in Clarksdale. It is usually closed on Sunday but Maie Smith is so accommodating that she brought in her entire staff and opened the museum on Sunday afternoon, just for us. Her only stipulation was that we give her time to go to church before we got there.
At the museum we learned about Robert Johnson, who waited at the crossroads of U.S. Highway 61 and U.S. Highway 49 at midnight, waiting to encounter the devil so he could sell his soul to become the best blues musician in the world. He claimed he did.
We learned about Muddy Waters and B.B. King and Ike Turner and a slew of others who were born into hard times and shared the pain of those hard times with the world in a form of music that hails from deep within the soul.
After our visit to the museum we made our way out to the old Hopson Plantation and, to the mortification of many and the delight of others, spent the night in reclaimed sharecropper cabins similar to the ones that Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson and unnamed legions of dirt poor Americans had one day called home.
We didn’t just see Clarksdale and the Delta — we lived it — and none of us will ever be any worse off for having been reminded that there are many, many pieces to this tapestry — or quilt — if you will — that makes up the land we know as America. Sure, some of the pieces of fabric are of the finest silks — but others are scraps of cotton, coaxed out of red and black earth by millions of men and women of all races who were never certain from where their next meal might come.
Twenty-four hours after the startling experience of driving up to the shacks where we would spend our Sunday night, we were back in our comfort zone, settling into rooms with 14-foot ceilings and private balconies overlooking the New Orleans French Quarter.
Lesson learned? Who knows. An experience never to be forgotten?
You can count on it. I do love the American South.