Cotton Belt Notebook

30 April 2016

9:00 AM

30 April 2016

9:00 AM

Clarksdale, Mississippi, where Highway 61 crosses 49 and Robert Johnson met the Devil, who taught him the secret of the blues. Out of the blues came Elvis, rock and roll, most of today’s popular music. My wife Linda was born here when Clarksdale was ‘the golden buckle of the Cotton Belt’. At the height of its prosperity the Delta was a magnet for both capital and labour. The labour had names like Muddy Waters, Son House, John Lee Hooker. They created the Delta blues and took it on the train up to Memphis and Chicago with the cotton. When I first came here, the picked cotton was so thick on roads and embankments it looked like snow in summertime.

Now we’re shocked to see it all gone. Clarksdale looks abandoned, like a city threatened by Isis, her shops boarded up, streets deserted, lovely old southern houses derelict, burned out, empty. Crime in Memphis is dropping but there’s still little to attract Clarksdale’s largely black, unskilled population. Morgan Freeman’s here sometimes. He owns a restaurant and a blues club. There’s a superb Blues Museum in the restored depot where Linda’s grandfather was stationmaster. Those and a couple of T-shirt shops are among the few viable enterprises we see.

We came on serious business. A family grave has vanished. Our photographs prove Linda’s grandfather was buried, as we remember, in a matching grave next to his wife. There is no trace of his headstone. What happened? There’s no sexton. It’s impossible to discover anything by phone. Well-trained androids give you the runaround. Clarksdale’s graveyards were recently privatised, sold to a corporation. Now no call is returned. A beloved relative has no memorial. City and church are no longer responsible. Nothing is sacred.

Our next stop is West Point, Mississippi, Howlin’ Wolf’s hometown, where they also have a blues festival. Sadly, we’re here to prepare my late mother-in-law’s house for sale. On the way we see a few spectacular signs for Trump.

Typically, our movers arrive two days late. One of them is Herman, who has dreads, a sweet, handsome face and beautiful manners. He admires the English. ‘So polite, so humble, man. James Bond is English, right?’ I agree. He runs through various fictional characters. He believes they are real. ‘English John, right? He’s English. Only kills Chinese guys. He’s gotta be good, right? Kills our enemies. BAM!! Trump’s a smart guy, right?’ It’s not so much the ignorance that’s depressing. It’s the lack of curiosity.

We are at last heading for Texas. I sometimes think if we stopped and bought a Mississippi map, it would show all roads curving back at the border. It’s a beautiful state but its ingrown poverty is saddening as we pass collapsing towns and smallholdings. We cross the Mississippi river into Louisiana and talk about Huey Long and how demagogues always emerge to fill a political vacuum. Trump is an embarrassment to the GOP. Are we witnessing the disintegration of the party?

Crossing from Louisiana into Texas, the change is tangible. Say what you like about the Lone Star State, it takes you as it finds you. The first settlers loved East Texas. It is green, rolling dairy country, rich farmland. Only as they moved west did the settlers realise the good land ran out and became mostly prairie scrub. Instead of dairy cattle, they had to raise longhorn beef cows, and lots of them. It didn’t take much in the way of erosion to set off the dustbowl effect, which sent an awful lot of Texans to California.

You can tell why the early gringo settlers took the Texas hill country for paradise. Green trees and sweet water everywhere. After 1848, idealistic Europeans arrived by ship in Galveston, taking their wagons up towards the hill country. Passing stunted juniper trees they mistook them for olive groves and rejoiced. This really was the promised land. The settlements in these parts reflect their origins. Some people still speak a form of German that most modern Germans can’t understand. The anarchist communes soon hit problems. Farmers and carpenters became resentful of philosophers and poets. A few modified settlements survived.

We’re almost home. Austin’s not quite the funky rock ’n’ roll town it was. Too many Californians discovered in Austin the funk LA had lost, the political liberalism they’d miss and a lot more green spaces. House prices were cheap compared with LA. For under half-a-million dollars you were in walking distance of great venues and restaurants. For a million you got a spectacular view over the lake. The result was that property taxes went sky high, and the working musicians, artists and writers who made Austin what she was could no longer afford to live there.

As we drive into town, I see something that is pure Dallas swagger, an accessory to go with those $10,000 cowboy hats and $30,000 pairs of boots. It’s a cream and silver Cadillac hybrid $75,000 pickup truck. Not something you see much in Mississippi.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • Jerry Cornelius

    We have just heard, thanks to the kind
    help of mortician Scotty Meredith of Clarksdale, that the grave, at least, has been found. He is now trying to discover what happened to the gravestone.

  • Claraver

    Your description of early American towns and their sadness today is very moving.

  • Trini’s dad

    Wha di Raas, dis di new Ebony magazine of di institushanally racist now?
    Anatha black man article but you is na wann black man reader. Take dis as a cussin, dis na fanny an mi na jokin.

  • Tommo

    The decline of blue-collar USA is a major story and needs to be told.

    • Jerry Cornelius


  • Skyeward

    Terrific article that captures the sad decline of the deep south. And if you think privatized graveyards are bad, you should see their privatized prisons. You’re so right about Texas – they have plenty of crazy politicians (and voters) but they’re a big, vibrant state with interesting history. I prefer San Antonio to Austin, though.

  • Reluctant Mlungu

    A pity about the completely gratuitous dig at Trump… a demagogue, really?

  • Monty Munford

    While this is a well-written and informative piece, the reported death of Clarksdale is premature. As an English guy on a road-trip last month after attending SXSW in ‘Californian-friendly’ Austin, I thought Clarksdale was amazing. Population is up to 20,000 from 18,000 over the past two years and white people are moving in, attracted by the musical legacy. Not only is is the home of the Crossroads, but it is also where Bessie Smith died after a car crash.

    Clarksdale is what New Orleans used to be. If you have a little bit of nerve and love blues music, you’ll find amazing local musicians and a band of brothers, both black and white, that are fighting to bring Clarksdale back. Presently, it is the best place in the US to see a band and have a conversation.

    • Jerry Cornelius

      That’s very good to hear. We, of course, were seeing a shocking decline from the Clarksdale we knew. What jobs are bringing people back ?