Photos by Elodie Pritchartt
The transformative power of a music genre, and the road that leads to it.
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.
“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 décor.
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.
“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.
In the midst of Nashville success, Tommy yearned for a retreat where he could hear himself think.
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.”
Next stop: The Delta Music Institute at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi.
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.
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.
Exhausted from our whirlwind tour of Highway 61, we buckle up for the drive home. I ask Tommy what’s next on his agenda.
It’s one shack. The beginning.