Off the Beaten Path: Of RVing, Blues, Black Cows and Red-Eye Gravy

Robert Frost was confused, you know. That business about “the road not taken.” You remember it from high school, the lines most quoted perhaps being these final words:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find those words engraved on decorative cedar planks in many a class B van – that sentiment is what class B living is all about. The poem’s logic is a bit cattywampus, though, and this is where I take issue with the great man, because before those memorable and inspiring lines he had slipped this admission in:

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

“About the same?” Hmmpf.

Well Mr. Frost, were they, then, different, or were they not? Literature! It won’t stand still (as I recall Mr. Dickens had some issues with making up his mind as well.).

I have been recruited by our host, Mr. Wendland, to be a Roadtreking Reporter. My beat will be “Off the Beaten Path” and I hope, in the company of class B folk I meet along the road, to find the places and paths that make this endeavor we share, camping by B van, “different”, truly different. In a B, you stop (not “by woods on a snowy evening,” let’s not take this literature thing too far!). But it is the stopping that’s the B trick, that’s so easy, so rewarding. Not the going. And in my blog posts and podcasts I will bring my own reading of the roadside runes, the chalk marks and trail sign, that point the way to roads truly less traveled.

My style will be informed by a few key principles – I travel by air a good bit and have had my fill of the airline travel magazine style. This means I will not refer to “locals”, and especially not to “locals raving”. Whoever the poor dears are, they seem to be raving whenever they appear. And I will most especially not “tuck into” anything I plan to eat. I will just eat it. This is a promise.

My real interests are the intersection of geography and culture, social history and folkways, folkways and popular culture, and the collision of the all of the above and language in all its wonderful mirroring of everything we rave about (or tuck into, for that matter).

Take music, for example, as something shaped by geography and language that is also a path you can follow in a B van. Say, Blues. And more specifically the Blues shaped by the social and geographic region of the Mississippi Delta, so treasured by music aficionados worldwide.

I want to begin with this story about the place I call home and like to explore in my RV, introducing you to some of very special people who have shaped me. Towards the end of my story, I’ll tell you how you can do a Roadtreking trip to check out this region yourself.

I like stories, always have, and to me the best stories center around old friends, hard times, and new times. This leaves out the category of new friends, but then, there are blog posts to come yet. Let me start just north and west of Jackson in the ten full (and two half) counties that constitute the Mississippi Delta…

FriarsPointSignFriar’s Point, Mississippi, is a community on the river, a settlement, really, tucked back behind the North Delta’s commercial center, Clarksdale. “On the river” these days means near the river, behind a network of flood control levees. McKinley Morganfield, b. 1915, was raised in a cabin near Friar’s Point by his grandmother. Muddy Waters, she called him, and the name stayed with him even when he joined the great out-migration, moved to Chicago, and electrified the blues in the 1940's.

muddy

The great Muddy Waters

I lived in Friar's Point for a while myself, sleeping on friends' floors, looking for light and solace during some complex personal changes, part of my own migratory path. To pay for the space I was taking up I was riding shotgun (literally) in a '63 Caddy stretch limo that a buddy had bought from the widow of a local undertaker.

My compadre was a bail-bondsman and that limo, with its opposing center doors, made a big impression on his clients when we sprang them. We were cruising with a client late one night, pitchin' beer cans out the power windows (it was another time), and just outside town I glimpsed a sign that read “Caution at Night: Black Cows on Levee.” I should have been able to read that as an allegory of my own situation, but that’s the problem with navigating strange times: the dark is not one piece, there are shapes in the shadows, and “caution” isn’t much instruction. You feel your way.

One of the several floors I lived on, then, was Jim O’Neal’s. Jim is an old hippie (actually the New York Times called him an “aging hippie” a few years back). Another description is “old friend I haven’t seen in a while”, but the name he’s taken on the road with him is “blues expert.” Jim’s life work has been to do more basic research in the living tradition of black American blues than anybody since Alan Lomax recorded Muddy in Friar’s Point back in the early 40’s.

The B Side Label

The B Side Label

Jim told me a story once about a surprise he planned, a meeting between two old friends, bluesmen who hadn’t seen each other in forty years: Muddy Waters and Houston Stackhouse. The way I got it is the set-up was backstage at a club Muddy was playing, dressing room, card game going with Muddy and the band. Jim rose to the knock, Houston came in, Muddy looked up: “Hey, Stack.” “Hey, Muddy.” No surprise, none, and not because Muddy expected Stack, but because the road out of the Delta, the road out of wherever you are from, is like that. Switchbacks are common and not everyone experiences “time” as “loss”.

Here’s the B-side of the bluesman's notion that nothing's a surprise: the “common” can be so surprising as to leave you breathless, babbling, incoherent with joy. Some of our best stories come from that fact.

One January morning a couple seasons back I had spent hours in a treestand, “diving into the wreck” to quote Adrienne Rich’s poem of that name, suited up against an unusual cold snap, calculating my endurance and watching for whitetail on a trail at the edge of a lake. The lake was frozen over (rare for central Mississippi) and just when I’d tested myself against that cold right to the dive limit, an otter came up through the lake ice. He had a bream in his mouth, the fish's jade pale winterbelly almost transparent, heart beating slowly, rarely, its need for oxygen so low at that temperature. The otter was close enough and the air cold enough that I could hear the otter’s teeth scrape bone, snap bone, and chew. When it was over I came down, staggered at the magnitude of the relationship of lake to fish to otter to tree to cold-man-in-tree, so moved by the experience of watching a better hunter hunt that I think I frightened my wife trying to explain it.

It's taken me from my days in Friar's Point (and Memphis, and Merigold, and half a dozen other Delta towns) to learn that this is the way out of dark times: live as close to memory as an old man does to his old friends, but to be as open to the current moment as a half-mad hunter in the cold.

A younger Billy, with Johnny Shines

A younger Billy, with Johnny Shines

Thinking about Jim and our days together looking for old bluesmen and blueswomen in Chicago and Detroit, East St. Louis, Flint, Michigan, and Bentonia, Mississippi, reminds me of some great meals we shared, one of which I want to teach you to make. I remember the ribs and greens guitarist Little Milton Campbell cooked up for his own birthday party in 1988, the red-eye gravy at the Beacon Restaurant (Hwy. 7 outside of Oxford, Miss.) where we ate mornings as we puzzled through divorces we each had underway at the time, the tamales we ate on the street in West Helena, Arkansas, listening to Johnny Shines play (this picture shows me selling records out of the back of Jim's van on that trip). Then there was the Chinese food we had the night before my wife went into labor with Thaddeus, my oldest (she credits the food and the hippie-tribe’s visit with the timing of that development).

Billy selling records

Billy selling records

Because it’s a short recipe from my long list of memorable meals in bluesland, here’s how to make red-eye gravy yourself:

First cook a big skillet of breakfast sausage with a good fat content to it, whether beef or pork. Use a well-seasoned iron skillet for best flavor. Take out the meat, heat the juices left in the pan till they smoke and carefully add a little water and some good strong coffee to the hot fat (Some deer-camp cooks call for whiskey instead of coffee). Stir in a bit of brown sugar to taste, give it two or three minutes just below a boil, and pour over grits!

Here are some links to get your moving on your own trail across the levees and bayous of the Delta. The first two will lead you to many more links and resources – the last three are sites in Memphis that tie in to the broader picture of blues in the South. If you are feeling adventurous enter “Bobo” in the search frame on the Mississippi Blues Trail site and use the map to find your way there. Then find the Bobo store, a country grocery which doubles as a juke joint.

http://www.deltabluesmuseum.org/

http://www.msbluestrail.org/

http://staxmuseum.com/

http://civilrightsmuseum.org/

http://www.sunstudio.com/

I'll be back….




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  • Ross Broughton

    Welcome Billy! Look forward to your posts. Great pics, intro! I can almost hear the blues riffs in the background..