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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Zooey's Tale

One of the most amazing and wonderful memories of childhood was watching a cat have kittens.  It's a learning opportunity no child should miss, and ranks right up there with memories of sending notes to Santa up the chimney on cold, winter nights or chasing the fogging machine on sultry summer days when white noise drowned out all other sounds except for our childish squeals and laughter.

So when my daughter was in the third grade, I decided it was time for her to experience the excitement of seeing kittens being born.  Only one problem:  both my cats had been spayed.  I had worked at an animal shelter in high school, and remembered that unless I took the pregnant mother cats home, they were put to sleep as a matter of course.  I think at one time I had more than 16 cats at home.  I would bring them all back to the shelter to be put up for adoption when the kittens reached about six weeks of age.

With that in mind, I called the shelter in California where we were living and told them that if they would call me the next time someone brought in a pregnant cat, I'd see to it that all the kittens would find homes and that I would keep the mother cat.

The very next day they called.  I went down to the shelter and found the most beautiful, long-haired, polydactyl-pawed, pastel calico kitty I've ever seen.  They said she was probably about two years old.  She was sweet as could be, and her feet were so huge they looked like snow shoes.

"Wow!  She's gorgeous," I remember saying.  "Who brought her in?  Where'd she come from?"

"A man from Castaic," the attendant said.  "He didn't say anything else."

They were so glad someone was taking a pregnant cat, they didn't even charge me the usual fee for adopting her.  We named her Zooey and brought her home.  Three weeks later, we all watched as she gave birth to five little polydactyl kittens, one of which we kept and named Oreo.

Zooey was a love of the first order.  Except for those feet and a bony little bump halfway down her tail, she was perfect.

After the kittens were weaned and adopted out, we had her spayed.  She was fat and fine and happy with us.

That was...gosh....15 years ago?  We lost Oreo last summer, but Zooey's still with us.  That would make her about 17 years old now.  Lately she's gotten painfully thin and her coat seems to have lost its luster.  A couple of weeks ago, I found bloody diarrhea in the litter pan and took her in.  Irritable bowel syndrome, the vet informed me, and gave me some medicine for it.  She's also got a pretty severe case of arthritis in her hips, which -- like mine -- seems to flare up in rainy weather.

Then I felt a suspcious bump on her back, not encapsulated like a cyst but with fingers that shot off in different directions.  So back to the vet we went.  She had surgery to remove the lump yesterday.

"Oh, yeah," I told the vet, remembering the little bony protruberance on her tail.  "She's got this bump about halfway down her tail.  Been there forever.  As long as you've got her sedated, why don't you check and see what it is."

I figured it was a birth defect.  Any cat with that many toes could easily have a defect someplace else.  But it seemed like maybe it was a bit bigger lately.

So yesterday the vet called to tell me Zooey was out of surgery and doing fine.  Turns out it was just some kind of fatty tumor that I shouldn't be too concerned about.

"But you know that bump on her tail?" he added.

"Yeah?"

"It was a BB."

A BB!!! As in BB gun.  Someone had shot that beautiful cat back in California all those many years ago.  Although she's been fine all this time and with no apparent pain from it, I was furious.  I just don't understand people.  I wondered anew at the man from Castaic who brought her in and had had her for two years, only to give her away when she got pregnant.

The only photo I can lay my hands on at the moment is a photo of Zooey after she'd been clipped for the first time.  It doesn't do her justice.  She was a magnificent-looking feline.  I'm so glad she's okay.  And so sad she had such a rough start in life.

Please remember your local, state and national shelters and humane societies this holiday season.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Journey



I spent the day enfolded
in the car, searching for reasons
not to go back to the house,
yearning for something
I couldn't name.


I left the inland desert,
traversed the valley and listened to
the songs of my youth.

A young Neil Young sang

to the old man I'd become
and I was struck with such
a sudden sadness it shocked
me from my reverie.

I looked around at other drivers,

their faces expressionless, 

resigned.

No one saw the difference.

The car rode the crest

of the Sepulveda Pass and eased
into its descent like rolling off
a bed mid-dream. Before you know it
you've hit the floor, slightly hurt
and wondering how you'd not
seen it coming.

The Getty loomed like Mount Zion

in the sky, all angles and white.
The trolley sidled up the canyon wall
like a magician delivering
the sinners to Saint Peter.

The City of the Angels crouched like a cat

below, and the air suddenly changed.

I exited on Santa Monica Boulevard,

and waited at the light. 

The bums are back.
It's like it was in the '80s, 

and everything new is old again. 

The blush of dusk hung
like a dirty persimmon 

on the horizon.

Numb with anonymity, 

I followed the stream
of lights that curled 

back into the valley.

This is all there is. 

No rhyme. No reason.
Just this. 


And more of this.

I stopped at Circle K for milk,

and when I turned the corner
onto Copperhill, I braked.

A coyote.


In the sweep

of the headlights, he was
beautiful and lithe and seemed
right at home, even here.


I wanted to tell him so.

He trotted easily and crossed the street.

Unafraid. 

He stopped at the edge
of the brush and turned to watch me, 

as if to tell me something.

Go home.


And I cried because home is

so very far away.

 
~~ Elodie Pritchartt


Photo by Jeff Ackerman

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Big Pink Guesthouse Featured in Blog

Travel photographer and writer Gayle Harper is presently working on a project about life along the Mississippi Great River Road, the national scenic byway that accompanies the Mississippi River from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.

Ms. Harper's collection of photographs along the Great River Road was nominated for the Santa Fe Prize for Photography in 2009.   Upon completion of her trip down the river, Ms. Harper plans to publish a coffee-table book with the images and stories she gathers along the way.

Her decision to make a 90-day trip down the Great River Road is the result of a little factoid put out by the National Park Service that states  that it takes a drop of water about 90 days to make its journey from the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota to its destination at the mouth of the river in the Gulf of Mexico.  To read her blog about this trip, called Surrendering to Serendipity, and Ms. Harper, go to http://gayleharper.wordpress.com.

Last week found Ms. Harper at Shantybellum's sister guesthouse -- The Big Pink Guesthouse in Clarksdale, Mississippi.  You can read all about Clarksdale, its local color and the characters and sights she discovered there at http://gayleharper.wordpress.com/2010/11/04/in-the-presence-of-greatness/.

We look forward to hosting Gayle at Shantybellum next week, and trust that Natchez will enchant her as much as Clarksdale, albeit in its own unique style.


Photo by Elodie Pritchartt

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween 2010 An Old Lost Camera; a New Found Friend

Who knew that losing a camera could turn into such a feelgood moment?

Tommy and I went down to St. Francisville last night for the Faux Blood Music Festival with True Blood soundtrackers Jace Everett, et al, and Chuck Prophet and his band from San Francisco, who played at Magnolia Cafe.



The music was awesome, and I was awestruck at meeting the guy who wrote that song for the opening credits of True Blood.  To meet the person and be able to tell him how much you love it is something special.



(Apologies for the image that video shows up with.)

If you're not familiar with it, Magnolia Cafe was the winner of Country Roads Magazine's Favorite Small Town Dining Destination" and Favorite Venue for a Live Performance.

Knowing we'd be having cocktails, Tommy and I did the responsible thang and took a taxi to the restaurant, asking the driver if he'd be so kind as to return and pick us up later that night.  The driver's name is Mark Armstrong, a 70-something-year-old man with his own taxi and tour service.  He promised he would come back, but said he had to get up this morning to go see his wife, who is in a nursing home with cancer.

After we got out of the cab, I realized I'd left my camera in the back, and called.  Told Mark just to hang onto it and bring it when he came back.  Alas, we were having such a fine time, I didn't hear my cell phone when he called at 11 p.m. to say he just couldn't stay awake any longer and he'd bring it by the hotel in the morning.

The noise was so loud I couldn't quite make out what he was saying, though, and thought he'd said he would bring it by last night and leave it at the desk.  So when we got to the hotel and discovered it wasn't there, and tried to call, I must admit I suspected I'd seen the last of my camera.  Now, you can get these cameras for a lot less today than you could ten years ago, but when I bought it, it was a pretty pricey item.  And I make my living with my camera and my 'puter, both of which I hope to never lose.

I was having murderous thoughts:  "I wanna do bad things to you."

When he showed up at the hotel this morning, he emerged from the taxi with his little dog -- same kind of dog as Toto in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  The two came up to the room to deliver the camera in person, and I felt downright ashamed.  We talked about Muffin, his dog, and he said he was taking her to see his wife, whom he informed me, he still adores 25 years after he married her.  Muffin, he said, really cheers her up.

"I hope she gets better," I sympathized.

"Oh, honey, she's not gonna get any better.  This is it."

"I'm so sorry," I said, quite honestly.

"We've been together 25 years," he said, and it's been really hard being at the house alone.  If it weren't for Muffin here, and my little cat," he continued, "I don't know what I'd do."

He told us about his place in the woods, and the deer he feeds daily -- just like my own father -- corn that he pours out dutifully every evening.

And he started getting choked up.  Before you knew it, the three of us were crying, and Mark and I were hugging each other.

"You know," he said later as he was about to leave, "I gave three sisters a drive up to Natchez a few years back.  They were taking a cruise.  They were staying at the Eola.  That's just about the prettiest hotel I've ever seen.  And Natchez is pretty, too," he said.  "I think of St. Francisville as a little Natchez."

I quickly agreed.  St. Francisville is a jewel.

"Well, next time you want a vacation, drive on up.  We've got a little B&B you can stay in."

"Why, that sounds just fine," he said, and we parted ways.

We drove through Centreville on our way back to Natchez, and had lunch.  On our way out of town, I noticed I had several missed calls on my phone.  It was Mark.

"Can I get your names, please?" he asked.  "I really enjoyed meeting y'all.  You're nice folks."

Guilt about the camera sticking in my craw.

"Next time y'all come down, I want you to call me," he said.  "I give tours, and I'd be proud to take you on a tour.  I told my wife about you, and it was just real nice talking to someone.  I don't have any family.  No children.  Just my wife and my pets.  I haven't talked to anyone like that in a long time."

I felt that old familiar lump in my throat.

Then he told me to Google him.

"I've driven everybody from George Clooney and Bob Hope to The Rolling Stones and AC/DC.  Just a whole bunch of people.  Look it up.  You'll see."

So I did.  And you know, he wasn't kidding.

So for all my readers, please call Mark Armstrong at Tiger Taxi and Tours the next time you're in the St. Francisville/Zachary/Baton Rouge area.  You'll get a ride with a real character -- one who knows all the haunts and stories and the heart to tell them.

Maybe I should lose my camera more often.

Tiger Taxi and Tours

"Always on the Prowl"

Mark Armstrong, owner
Cell Phone:  225-921-9199                 Home Phone:  225-635-4641

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Howard's Revenge

Pictured from left, back row:   Howard Pritchartt, Jr.; Devereux Marshall; Elizabeth Patterson; Bubba Patterson; Sophie Junkin; Mimi Brown; Neville Marshall
Seated, from left, front row: Alma Kellogg, Andree Benoist, Sally Junkin 
The identity of the woman in the photo is unknown.  I do wish I knew who she was.  She's got the sweetest expression on her face, and should be recognized for playing the role so well.  She's a good sport, to boot.


Utter the name "Katherine Miller" in Natchez, and the reactions you get vary wildly. She's either the patron saint of Natchez or evil incarnate. Sometimes both. But you have to give the old girl credit, for it was Katherine Miller who spearheaded the formation of the Natchez Pilgrimage, which saved this town from certain doom.

During the 1930s, Katherine traveled the country with a projector slideshow of antebellum homes, inviting prospective visitors to see how the Old South used to live. Because of the success of her campaign and the cooperation and efforts of the other ladies in town, people who were barely eking by during the Great Depression were able to hang onto their homes in Natchez.

For over sixty years, she ruled Natchez society engendering fear, admiration, adoration and loathing in equal measures. Under her direction, grown men were persuaded to dress up like Southern planters and dance the Soiree for strangers. They even allowed their wives to smear rouge and lipstick on their sons, and dress them in lace and knickers and ballet shoes to dance around a Maypole with little girls in hoopskirts.

Sure, for the rest of the year they wore camouflage, slapped each other on the back, broke wind, hunted wild game, played football and talked about the price of oil. But March belonged to the women. No disgrace was too demeaning to keep them from following the orders of the matriarchs of Natchez.

When General Douglas MacArthur visited Natchez after World War II, a photographer captured a photo of him being told to look at the camera by The Mighty Katherine Miller. She was scared of nobody, and her legacy lives on even now as every year March comes in like the lion....or lioness, and goes out like the lamb.

It was under the shadow of this matriarchal monopoly that my father, Howard Pritchartt, spent his childhood. His mother, Bessie Rose, was Katherine's sister, and boy, was she disappointed when her only child wasn’t the girl she’d always wanted. She'd had visions of playing dress-up with a beautiful little girl. Not to worry. Bessie Rose decided she'd dress him any way she darned well pleased, and that's exactly what she did.


Every morning she'd send young Master Howard off to school in a sailor suit or Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, where he'd get beaten up for wearing sissy clothes. When he got home, she would rage at him because he'd ruined his outfit. He remembers one incident, in particular, when she ripped off his jacket and started jumping up and down on it in a fit of fury as he backed away, awed and terror stricken.

Like my great aunt Katherine, Bessie Rose worshiped at the altar of high society, and for her, every night was a party. Nearly every evening, they’d leave Howard at home with his elderly grandmother. He and the old lady took care of each other. He would bring her milk toast and they would keep each other company in the silent house. It was a lonely time.

One night, he begged, "Please don't go, Mubba. Stay home, please?"

"You ought to be ashamed,” his mother replied. “You ought to be happy so many people want us to join them.”

So he grew to hate social events and all that they entailed. As he grew older, my grandmother and her sister tried teaching my father the importance of the social graces. The harder they tried, the more he rebelled. He wanted nothing more than to be a man’s man, happiest when he was out on the river with his friends, hunting and exploring the muddy banks and back bayous of the Mississippi.

Handsome though he was, he always felt at odds when dressed for a party. And though he did his part by participating in the springtime madness that is the Natchez pilgrimage, he never tired of thumbing his nose at it all.

He still laughs when he remembers that when he was still in the army, his aunt Katherine sent a letter to his commander asking him in all earnestness if they could let him come home for the month of March so that he could be king in the pageant.

“They’d never heard of Natchez,” Daddy laughs. “Those women thought Natchez was the center of the universe and that, of course, I should be excused to be king. God, I was embarrassed.”

One of his fondest memories is of his best friend, Johnny Ogden, sneaking into the City Auditorium the afternoon before the pageant with a dead fox he'd found beside the road. Dragging the fox by the tail, Johnny made his way up and down the aisles, over and under the seats of the room, laying down a scent and then slipping back outside.

They roared with laughter that evening when during the tableau for The Hunt, the beagles and hounds used for the scene broke their leads and climbed across horrified tourists' laps, baying loudly, drooling and peeing with excitement, as they tracked the scent of the long-departed fox.

And now at eighty-five years old he, like Katherine, is one of Natchez’s most colorful characters. And although he lives in the country in a house with ancestral portraits on the wall, more often than not you’ll find him wearing a wife-beater t-shirt with a do-rag on his head, driving his tractor all over the property, happily pushing things around, stopping to eat a can of sardines, an onion, and a slice of bread. He spends his days feeding the deer, dogs, cats, birds, squirrels and other assorted animals that call his place home.

From left:  Howard Pritchartt and Joe Remondet, circa 1979


And like his aunt Katherine, he's loved (and loathed) in fairly equal measure, but no one laughs louder or longer at Howard Pritchartt than Howard, himself.

And so, at last, with all that being said, I now offer you his original poem about Natchez, making no excuses for the portions of it that are politically and socially incorrect.


Natchez
If you doubts your social fame, 

git an old house and give it a name. 

If you still lacks social position,
git it put in the Pink Edition. 


If your position is still not clear,
git it decorated by a Natchez queer.

But, really, the mostest important of all
Is finagle your brat into the Pilgrimage Ball.
But really the mostest, most ultimate thing
Is finagle the brat into Queen or King.

We're all aware of the social mystique
that sticks to the gal with the finest antique.
So, ladies, ladies, let’s hold a quorum,
to see who’ll rule the Antiques Forum. 

To us this is now our holiest cause, 

since we’s all well into menopause.

So you give a luncheon and I’ll give a tea. 

And I’ll snub you and you snub me.
And when it’s all over, we’ll make our amends,
pretending to be the closest of friends.

What makes it all so goddamned funny
Is all it takes is a little money.
And when it’s all over, we’ll have to admit
The whole damned thing is a big pile of…
old furniture.

~~ Howard Pritchartt, Jr.
circa 1985

Story by Elodie Pritchartt



Monday, October 25, 2010

3rd-Annual Ferriday Songwriters' Songfest a Success

Aspiring songwriters from California, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida attended Ferriday's third songwriters' workshop on October 22.

The workshop saw a couple of new faces in this year's panelists:  three-time Grammy winner Ashley Cleveland and  husband/co-writer/premier guitarist Kenny Greenberg from Nashville.

Songwriting instructor Odie Blackmon, also a Grammy-nominated songwriter returned for the third time this year with a sampling of the curriculum he teaches at Vanderbilt University's music program.  Armed with song formats and samples, he laid out for attendees the formats used in songwriting.

video 

  video


Our own local hit songwriter, Tommy Polk, discussed topics ranging from copyright law to the changing nature of the music industry due to the rise of the Internet.

Director of the Alexandria, LA, Chapter of the Nashville Songwriter's Association International and the Alexandria, LA, branch of Tipitina's Music Co-Op, Aaron Sibley, discussed the advantages offered to songwriters in both organizations.

Aspiring songwriters learned that as members of these organizations, they have access to low-cost utilization of their facilities and programs including Pro Tools, Photoshop, etc. instruction, weekly jam sessions, monthly songwriting workshops, and networking opportunities.

This year's group of attendees included a higher-than-usual number of Christian songwriters, noted Odie Blackmon, who credited Ashley Cleveland and her soulful Christian music with the increase.

Ashley discussed ways to incorporate scripture and liturgy into personal experience to create an intimate, unique style of your own in faith-based songwriting.

To illustrate her points, she included performances of some of her own faith-based pieces into her lecture, accompanied by her husband, guitarist/songwriter Kenny Greenberg.

video 



"I've paid hundreds of dollars to go to songwriters' workshops like this," said Steve Miller, an attendee from Denton, Texas.  "But this was better by far.  For $20, it can't be beat."

Every attendee at the workshop received a personalized critique of a song they'd brought for analysis.  The workshop ended at Bowie's Tavern in Natchez with  an open mic performance by both attendees and panelists.  Needless to say it was an impressive performance on all counts.

Sponsors of this year's Songfest include the Delta Music Museum, the Friends of the Delta Music Museum, Mayor McGlothin and the Town of Ferriday,  Representative Andy Anders, Stan’s Strings, WalMart, Budweiser, Phat River Studio, FOX 48, Solid Gold Saturday Night, 95Country.com, Natchez Grand, Bowie’s Tavern, Louisiana Economic Development, Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, BASF and Tipitina’s Music Co-ops.  Along with immense help and support from Guylyn Boles, Cyndie Dillon, Aaron Sibley and the Ferriday Town Council.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mississippi Artists - Jane Rule Burdine

Jane Rule Burdine is an artist and photographer in Taylor, Mississippi.  Her photographs of the people and places in our fair state are wonderful windows on the soul of the South.  Jane Rule's book, Delta Deep Down, is an amazing collection of many of her photographs with a personal introduction by Indianola, Mississippi- born novelist Steve Yarbrough.  I found the following clip on You Tube from Mississippi Public Broadcasting's Southern Expressions with host Ron Brown.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Delta Blues Epiphany by Courtney Taylor

The following article appeared in Country Roads Magazine in May, 2009.  

Photos by Elodie Pritchartt


The transformative power of a music genre, and the road that leads to it.

Quick, think of a small delta town, hot as hell in the summer and within walking distance of cotton fields with juke joints, river traffic, gambling, drinking, dancing—a place where the music of its poor became the music of the world.   If that sounds like Clarksdale, home of the blues in the Mississippi Delta, it also describes Ferriday in southeast Louisiana.

Like Clarksdale, Ferriday is not a very big place, just about four thousand people. Like Clarksdale, Ferriday is a river town, full of fun-loving characters—a few who like to take a walk on the wild side; the birthplace of entertainers Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley, and evangelist, Jimmy Swaggart. Like Clarksdale, Mississippi; Ferriday, Louisiana had a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.

No wonder, my friend Tommy Polk, decided to start our tour of Highway 61 at the Delta Music Museum in Ferriday. Rosemary, a petite African-American lady, greeted us inside the museum and led us through a maze of displays of cousins Lewis, Gilley and Swaggart and memorabilia from dozens of other area musicians. She told of the infamous juke joint, Haney’s Big House and trombonist, Leon “Pee Wee” Whittaker.

“He used to hold Jerry Lee up to the window so that he could see the performers like Fats Domino at Haney’s—and they had a thing worked out where Pee Wee would leave the back door open there for little Jerry Lee.”

That, as legend has it, was where “The Killer” developed his taste for boogie woogie and rhythm and blues. Throughout the rest of the tour, Rosemary gave sordid and lofty details of various artists’ lives like a gossipy but loving auntie, once again proving that the best guides are true locals.

On a Jerry Lee kick, we rushed around the block to see another tribute to The Killer, the Lewis Family Museum. Forewarned with words like bizarre, freaky, surreal, too real, I thought I was prepared. But nothing could have prepared me for the mind of Frankie Jean, Jerry Lee’s sister. I say the mind, because the museum is her temple to her family—a packrat’s unapologetic display of the family’s demons and accomplishments with a disturbed sense of d├ęcor.

Utilizing every surface for expression or collection, there are broken-mirror abstracts on doors, Chagall-like paintings of graves and ghosts on the kitchen carpet and bedroom lamp shades, a long brick planter stuffed with Easter grass and badly painted oil lanterns, a collection of whiskey bottles on the piano, a shellacked loaf of bread on the kitchen counter. It is both painful and hilarious. It is a must see.   After the tour, you might find yourself hankering for a drink—unfortunately the drive-through liquor store attached to the house was closed.

Still reeling from Graceland-Gone-Twilight Zone, Tommy; his sweetheart Elodie, a poet and photographer; and I stopped at a fast-food restaurant before leaving the Louisiana Delta for the Mississippi Delta. My traveling companions swing easily in my life from old high-school friends to professional colleagues, and without revealing too much of our shared histories, I knew I was in for a good time. Writers all, we settled in for a three-hour ride and an opportunity for uninterrupted storytelling.

About the time we crested the bridge over the Yazoo River, the entrance into the Mississippi Delta, Elodie and I decided it was Tommy’s turn to talk. He told of the day when he was just a boy and he accompanied his father, the Parish coroner, to a shack on the edge of the levee road in Vidalia, Louisiana. They climbed the weathered front steps, crossed the porch, and entered a small dark room where an old man lay dying as his family crowded around him.

The stifling death scene drove Tommy back out onto the porch. Facing the road, he exhaled, listened to the undulating hum of insects match his own steady breathing, and waited for his father’s voice, an official pronouncement of the dying man’s last breath.

“Out of the shack came a long wail,” he recalled.

As he stood there looking down the front porch steps, a couple of neighbors stopped in front of the house.

“They both let out wails. Then more people gathered and they all started this wailing—mourning the old man.”

Like the call and response of a church service the wails from inside led the wails outside.

“It was like they were all looking up at me and wailing,” he explained. “I was frightened, until gradually, the wailing turned to singing. Then they were swaying and I could hear harmony, then they’d start wailing again, and then it would become singing again.”

That, award-winning songwriter Tommy Polk says, was his first real music moment, a heartfelt eyewitness account of how music transforms and transcends.

Tommy grew up a few minutes’ ride from that levee and from Ferriday. Poor eyes but excellent ears, led him to pursue the guitar instead of sports. Later, he found that a song garnered as much attention from girls as a touchdown. With both deep and shallow reasons for loving music, Tommy took his talent for guitar, piano and poetry to Nashville and during a long climb to the top has won ASCAP and BMI citations for chart-topping, internationally popular songs recorded by artists such as Martina McBride, Crystal Gayle, Irma Thomas and many others.

In the midst of Nashville success, Tommy yearned for a retreat where he could hear himself think.

“Cousins in Clarkdale offered a spot on the edge of a Delta cotton field where I could put a shack. I fixed it up and called it the Cadillac Shack.”

Soon other shacks were added, a commissary became a nightclub/dayclub/jam-session venue and a new style of overnight accommodation that puts the “fun” in funky was born. Nowadays, you’ll find similarly funky guesthouses throughout the Mississippi Delta.

“Look, a dust devil.”

“No, don’t stop and take a picture.”

“Look at that barn.”

“Girlfriend, I said no more pictures.”

“Look, I love that old house.”

“You can take a picture on the way back.”

The miles slid by and then we were in Leland, Mississippi; population about five thousand, which bears a striking resemblance to, you guessed it, Ferriday.

“We’re here to visit Eric Fowler at his brand-new recording studio, Studio 61,” says Tommy, as we park in front of a row of downtown stores. If you’re thinking, “What’s to see, three padded walls and a big pane of glass,” think again.

“The thing we’re most proud of is our live-venue recording abilities—five cameras can capture a live performance either in the studio or in front of a live audience in the studio.”

That explains the room large enough for an audience behind the console. A quick Coke in a nearby coffeeshop and we were on that flat stretch of asphalt again.

Next stop: The Delta Music Institute at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi.

“Oh my God!” Tommy yelled—an octave higher than usual, as we entered the multimillion dollar facility. “I want to go back to college!” he screamed as we entered the gymnasium-size recording studio on the same par as the famed Abbey Road in London.

A tour by the executive director of the program, Grammy Award-winning songwriter Tricia Walker and world-class bass player Barry Bays, confirmed that we all three wanted to go back to college.  For anyone with any interest in music, DMI is a fascinating place to visit. For someone with a kid interested in the musical arts or music business, this is the place to send them.

We arrive at last in Clarksdale, and are greeted like favorite cousins.

A quick beer and tour of the Cadillac shack and the shack complex now known as the Shack-Up Inn, reveals that Clarksdale knows how to make the most of its funky blues-based tourism. Tommy was instrumental in the development of the concept and with characteristic creative energy has moved on to open three new guesthouses. Two are smack dab in the middle of downtown Clarksdale—Big Pink and Mississippi Music Hall. Honey Hill is quiet, elegant retreat on the Sunflower River.

Big Pink and Mississippi Music Hall are conveniently across the street from the Delta Blues Museum and the main music stage used for blues festivals. Big Pink, an ice-cream parlor turned New Orleans-style townhouse (by ambitious owners in 1960s) is the pretty side of funk, with large guestrooms, a graceful downstairs foyer, dining room, parlor, and a fake indoor courtyard in the back (the courtyard alone is worth the drive to Clarksdale).

Mississippi Music Hall is a turn-of-the-century plantation commissary that Tommy moved in and placed next to Big Pink. A central room with blue windowpanes, comfy stuffed chairs, old rugs and a big screen offers guests a retreat and gathering place during music festivals. The hall also has two guestrooms, one of which we settled into, before walking across the street to Ground Zero blues club for an evening of cold beer and a killer jam session. Believe it or not we behaved ourselves well enough to rise early the next morning and explore Clarksdale.





It looks to me as if Clarksdale has become a Mecca for transplants who have tossed aside conventional lives for unique businesses either based on the blues or because of their love for the blues. A young man from New Jersey owns Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art; a retired trust lawyer from The Netherlands opened the Rock’n Roll Blues Heritage Museum, showcasing his vast collection of music memorabilia from the twenties through the seventies; a musician and painter from Florida opened Hambone Art Gallery where you can buy a painting as well as a ham sandwich, and an outdoorsman and artist from Colorado makes artful dugout canoes, paints watercolors and leads canoeing and kayaking expeditions from Cairo, Illinois, to the Gulf of Mexico—to name a few. And the renovation and migration continues. A day in Clarksdale will make you wish that you could spend a month there—or maybe the rest of your life.

After too short a time, we headed for Indianola, Mississippi to the B. B. King Museum, the polar opposite of the Lewis Family Museum. State-of-the-art exhibits housed in a gorgeous facility stimulate visitors through a totally interactive environment. It is a fitting tribute to the legend of guitar blues, and a shining example of modern museums. Elodie and I particularly enjoyed the digital guitars that allow you to play like B.B.—or at least feel like you are.

Exhausted from our whirlwind tour of Highway 61, we buckle up for the drive home. I ask Tommy what’s next on his agenda.

“I want to bring music back to Ferriday, and I’d love to see Ferriday become the next Clarksdale. I’d also like to take people on music and heritage tours from Nashville to New Orleans.”

I believe he can do just that. In Clarksdale, he started with one shack. Across the river from Ferriday in Natchez, Mississippi, he has now has Shanty Bellum, a five minute walk from the best view of the Mississippi River anywhere, a blend of old Natchez charm with Clarksdale fun.

It’s one shack. The beginning.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Immersion


Like teabags poised
over the roiling water,
we dangled, by turns,
from a rope.
Pushed off the roof
of the boat,
swung out and dropped
into the muddy mug
of the Mississippi
only to emerge
laughing
surprised
at having survived
the fall.

Little mud mustaches
etched the sepia
memories of
that river
that day
that summer
that childhood
into our skin.

Now the sandbars
whose soft embrace
showed us the way
rarely surface --
the channel and our veins
silted
with the detritus
of forty years.

We have reunions,
make note
of those not there.
Search name tags
for faces
we no longer
recognize.


We bury
parents
friends
and fears
of the undertow
as the bank sloughs
each spring
rechannels
our expectations
and we emerge
laughing
surprised
at having survived
at all.

~~ Elodie Pritchartt
August 18, 2010 

Monday, July 19, 2010

Summertime

Lake St. John, Louisiana - July 18, 2010                                                   Photo by Elodie Pritchartt

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Music, Munchies, Merriment and Monkey Business

It was all music, munchies and monkey business at the first annual Soul Survivor's Festival in Ferriday this weekend. The festival celebrated the history of blues music and the contributions of African American musicians to the legacy of Ferriday, Louisiana.

The festival started out with the unveiling of a Mississippi Blues Marker on the lawn of the Delta Music Museum. The Mississippi Blues Trail markers tell stories through words and images of bluesmen and women and how the places where they lived and the times in which they existed–and continue to exist–influenced their music.

The Mississippi Blues Trail is an ongoing project of the Mississippi Blues Commission, and is funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Misssissippi Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, AT&T, and the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University plus additional support from the Mississippi Development Authority Tourism Division.

Ferriday's is one of only a handful of markers placed outside of Mississippi, and was included because of Haney's Big House, one of the many clubs on the old Chitlin' Circuit, which was frequented by great artists like B B King and Fats Domino. In addition, Haney's also played host to local musicians like Ferriday's Leon "Pee Wee" Whittaker and Natchez's Hezekiah Early and Y.Z. Ealey. Jerry Lee Lewis also frequented the club as a youngster, soaking up the sounds he heard there, and incorporating them into his own distinctive style when he started his own music career.

Gathered in the shade of Rockabilly Plaza, festivalgoers enjoyed barbeque, cold drinks and music by Hezekiah Early and Lil Poochie, Osgood and Blaque, and the YZ Ealey Band with Jimmy Anderson sitting in on harmonica.  We even had a guest visiting all the way from London, England -- Paromita Saha, a freelance writer with a special love for music, the blues, in particular.  She'll be doing a writeup soon.  We'll be sure to let you know about it.

"This is brilliant," said Paromita, who couldn't get over the fact that she was sitting in a little town in Louisiana listening to longtime, authentic blues legends playing the music they shaped in the place it was created.

The highlight of the afternoon for the kids, especially, was an appearance by Tim Lepard and Team Ghostriders. Tim travels the rodeo circuit with his team of border collies ridden by white-throated capuchin monkeys, who make quick work of corralling a group of goats and sending them on their way in the back -- wait; scratch that -- on the roof of a pickup truck.

Also a hit with the kids were the train rides given courtesy of the Concordia Parish Sheriff's Department.

For a sampling of some of the day's music and events, check out the three videos below.




video
video video

We're looking forward to many more Soul Survivors Festivals in years to come. For more info, go to: www.ferridaysongfest.com

A special thanks to Cristen Craven Barnard, who created the poster for this year's event, which is available for purchase for $25.  If you'd like to purchase a poster, please contact Tommy Polk at tommypolk@hotmail.com. All proceeds go to the Friends of the Delta Music Museum, a 501c3 nonprofit organization, and will go toward future live music events in Ferriday.

We would like to thank the following for sponsoring the Ferriday Soul Survivors Festival, without whom this event would not have been possible:


LouisianaTravel.com



Story, photos and videos by Elodie Pritchartt

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Calling All Soul Survivors




This weekend marks Ferriday's first Soul Survivors Blues Festival.  The Mississippi Blues Trail will be putting up a marker in Ferriday, too.

Read all about the Festival in this article in the News Star from Monroe, LA.