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Crashing Symbols

The American Dream Safari stalks the blues.

by Chris Davis

eet the American Dreamer, a soft-spoken cryptographer with the ability to read road maps like prison tattoos. Tad Pierson has a '55 Cadillac, creamy pink, copper-topped, built to roll, featuring leather-and-chrome accents and fuzzy rust-colored seats you can lose your ass in. Combine this piece of rolling real estate with its owner's love of the road, its people and stories, and what you get is the American Dream Safari, a guided tour that begs a single question: Why read Kerouac when you can live it? There are still plenty of kicks to be had if you know where to look.

"Well gypsies, are we ready to roll?" our guide asks. Before I can answer he cranks the ignition and 350 (Chevy) horses roar, pulling us forward with all due speed.

Traveling south through ruins of stately homes and century-old storefronts, past flea markets and pickup trucks weighted down with tomatoes and watermelons, Third Street turns into Highway 61. Dylan sang about it, and legends like Son House and Charlie Patton wandered out of the Mississippi cotton fields, down its lonesome stretches to Memphis, their livelihoods slung across their shoulders.

A remote-controlled sound system turns the tour into a multimedia experience. Memphis Minnie moans across the decades even as the Caddy rolls off the beaten path toward Minnie's final resting place just outside Robinsonville.

"Things are changing," Pierson notes, as casinos and hotels begin to appear, hovering above grain silos and broken-down shacks. People wave from their porches, pointing at the antique car, sometimes clapping like spectators at Mardi Gras. "I guess if you are a photographer, these old shacks have a lot of poetry in them," Pierson adds, waving back. "But living there means a lot of hardship. Lot of new houses being built. Hard to say which is better."

We drive past a "country house" listing on its stilts toward a new subdivision where freshly broken earth is topped by squat brick houses with signs in the front yard reading "For Sale, $102,000." It seems doubtful that the folks in the old house will be moving next door any time soon.

The pistol she used to drill a low-down man full of holes sits on the shelf right next to Big Mama Thornton's tooth-mutilated harmonicas. The juxtaposition makes for a powerful exhibit at Bluesville Casino where hollow-bodied guitars and primitive banjos rest silently beside photographs, bits of sheet music, album covers, and other preferred side arms. Tina Turner (Private Dancer era) sings "Proud Mary" on a video monitor, and Courtney Love's guitar hangs inexplicably on a wall near the Leadbelly display.

"Well, Gypsies?" Tad asks, and the Caddy rolls on through Friars Point (birthplace of Conway Twitty) climbing the levee and turning down a narrow gravel path to a secluded spot on the Mississippi where a giant barge, tipped on its side, rusts in the sun. There we stand in the sand and silt, watching a lone fisherman reel in the big ones.

On to Helena, Arkansas -- home of Sonny Boy Williamson and the King Biscuit Flour Time. Once a bustling city that rivaled Memphis, the sleepy Delta town is all but motionless on this Saturday afternoon. The three balls hanging over a pawnshop door have become distorted by countless paint jobs. Doubtless they were once gold and shiny; now they are dull and black. A billboard advertises James Brown at Lady Luck.

In Clarksdale we stop at the Rest Haven for Lebanese kibi, hummus, and homemade pastas -- unusual, but delicious offerings from an old-style diner that looks like it hasn't changed a bit since the '40s. After lunch, we drive by a vacant lot where Muddy Waters' cabin once stood, then turn in the direction of the Hopson Plantation (now the Hopson Preservation Company) to have a drink and unload our bags. The commissary there has been converted into a watering hole/music venue, and tourists can rent out two authentic sharecropper shacks (with air-conditioning, indoor plumbing, and other modern amenities added). Broken mirrors are nailed to the exterior walls to scare away evil spirits and a bottle tree has been erected. Here in the comfortable, if confusing, swirl of hyperreality, it becomes impossible to imagine the people who struggled so hard to get out of these charming little cabins. A piano once played by Muddy Waters sideman Pinetop Perkins sits in a corner. There is a photograph of a parade float on the wall. The float is shaped like a watermelon, and the faces of dark-skinned children peep out from strategically carved holes like seeds.

Our quest for live music at the local juke joints proves fruitless. "Nothing here but a deejay," one fellow tells us outside of Smitty's, a bar where Little Milton used to do his thing. "But I think they got something going on up at the casino."

We drive 17 miles out of Clarksdale to the Do Drop In, known to feature a regular schedule of live music. No dice. We press on another two miles to CW's, a roadside joint connected to an hourly rate motel, recently damaged by an out-of-control eighteen-wheeler. They, too, have only a deejay, but recognizing some friends we choose to go inside. Revelers, magnificently overdressed given the tiny club's scarred masonite walls and harsh fluorescent lighting, dance with an abandon at odds with their deeply creased faces. We drink beer from bottles shaped like bowling pins and chow down on the finest tamales I have ever eaten. They keep setting 'em up; we keep knocking 'em down.

Oceans of cotton flank the dusty gravel road, a shortcut Pierson navigates back to Clarksdale. After we pass a secluded crossroads, the conversation turns to Robert Johnson, the fabled bluesman who sold his soul to Satan for what must have been one hell of a guitar lesson. I've always thought the tall-tale was just a modern twist on an ancient myth. After all, men have been meeting their destiny at such intersections since before old Oedipus killed his papa down at "the place where three roads meet." But, lost amid rows of ghostly cotton, with only our high beams and the distant lights of Parchman Penitentiary to guide the way -- with dead Bobby Johnson himself singing through the speakers loud as life -- all manner of strange things suddenly seem possible.

Though church services don't start until 11 a.m., we are still puffy- and sleepy-eyed as, dressed in our best, we drive to church, hoping to hear some down-home gospel. "The Reverend Morganfield is very sincere, and I doubt if he would be into the idea of people attending his church strictly as an entertainment," Pierson cautions, making sure that we all have a little bit of cash to drop when the basket gets passed around. The Reverend Willie Morganfield, pastor of Bell Grove Baptist and a gospel-legend in his own right, is the first cousin, contemporary, and friend of Clarksdale's favorite son McKinley Morganfield, known to the world as Muddy Waters. When the Reverend raises his powerful voice in song, the resemblance to his more famous cousin transcends the mere physical. Call and response hymns and heartfelt prayers meld with spontaneous shouts and bluesy a cappella invocations from the congregation. There is little to distinguish the raw sounds that fill Morganfield's church from the joyful gospel noise the famed ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax captured on tape earlier in the century. At Bell Grove the true spirit of the blues is preserved in the voices of the faithful, who reap the hardships that grow wild in this scorched land, separated from the god they love and the heaven they seek, transforming a bitter harvest into great jubilation.

The American Dream Safari's Delta Day-Trip was indeed a journey to the crossroads. The cotton fields remain, spanned by skeletal irrigation systems sprawling like the remains of colossal serpents, in a land where one would be hard-pressed to prove that the earth is not flat. Guitar-shaped street signs serve as constant reminders of the region's musical heritage, and though the music remains, it is becoming harder to find. For better or worse (perhaps even both), tremendous faith has been placed in the shiny silver coins disappearing down slot-machines everywhere, and the words of the Reverend Morganfield echo in my ears all the way back to Memphis. "How is it," he asked plainly, "that the prodigal son could see his home from the pig-sty, but he could not see the pig-sty from his home?"


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