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Along his tour of Mississippi, writer Jamie Katz took a detour into Tunica's gambling emporia. (Hemis / Alamy)

Memphis Blues, Mississippi Delta Roots

A random jaunt through the hallowed region that flavors the culture of its urban cousin to the north

Finally I approached Clarksdale. Looking across the flat terrain, there were major storm clouds ahead and as I entered town, it was kicking up pretty good. I got lost trying to find the Delta Blues Museum, and there seemed to be no one around who could even give me directions. At last I stumbled upon the museum, which sat across an empty lot—not a good omen.

As I walked across the deserted space, I caught sight of the only other human who had ventured out in Clarksdale on this steamy Sunday afternoon—a barefoot, freckle-faced white boy splashing through the puddles like Gene Kelly. The kid eyed me from a safe distance.

“It’s closed,” he yelled.

“Looks like it,” I conceded, wondering about this little guy playing freely all by himself. He was small, but had the toughened air of a much older boy. “How old are you?” I asked.

“Nine.”

“Are you with your parents or somebody?”

At that, his eyes widened and he tore off across the lot, looking back warily every ten yards or so.

I think I just met Huckleberry Finn.

So now I’d missed both the gospel service in Memphis and the Delta Blues Museum, but I still had this growing feeling that there’s something powerfully different about this corner of the world. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it, and realized it might be a long time before it really sunk in. I decided to head east toward Oxford, the home of Faulkner, the University of Mississippi, John Grisham and the Oxford American. Must be a fairly civilized place, I thought, though it was also the site of violent white resistance in 1962 when James Meredith enrolled as the university’s first black student. President Kennedy had to dispatch 16,000 federal troops to restore peace.

Not five minutes out of Clarksdale, the torrential rains caught up with me again. Radio reception cut out, the road disappeared under water, and an 18-wheeler rumbled by at about 75 miles per hour in the opposite lane, sending a small tsunami my way. I barely saw it coming. I decided to play a stupid game: I’d count to 30, and if the visibility didn’t improve, I’d pull over and wait it out. At 23, it started to relent. I kept going.

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