2. Cleveland, MS
The Mississippi Delta, as the Southern essayist David L. Cohn famously put it, “begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” The land is pancake flat, some of it below sea level, all soldierly fields of cotton, rice and soybeans, cut lengthwise by a railroad and later by Highway 61. Outlanders seeking the prettified Old South of Tara come away disappointed, but other visitors find culture as deep and rich as the soil, especially those who’ve heard the “Pea Vine Blues” sung by early bluesman Charley Patton.
American music would not be what it is today without the blues. It welled up in the Delta—arguably at Dockery Farms plantation, five miles east of Cleveland—for myriad reasons. But ultimately, said Tricia Walker, director of the Delta Music Institute at Cleveland’s Delta State University, “There was nothing to do at the end of the day but sit on the porch and play.”
There’s more to do now in Cleveland. New blood has washed through town, restoring the Historic Crosstie business district with its beguiling Railroad Heritage Museum, bringing an arts alliance to a vintage movie theater, filling rehabbed warehouses with galleries and restaurants. Creative young locals surprise even themselves by coming home to stay after college, though their art group’s wry motto—“Keep Cleveland Boring”—confounds elders. And here’s something for the front page: In early 2015 a $12 million Grammy Museum will open on the DSU campus.
The university, which opened in 1925 as a teacher’s college, kept Cleveland alive and draws audiences for concerts, dance, theater and film to its stylish Bologna Performing Arts Center. The Delta Center for Culture and Learning offers tours, lectures and workshops. The university’s Dave “Boo” Ferriss Museum celebrates a Delta-born Boston Red Sox pitcher and longtime DSU coach. The Delta Music Institute prepares students for careers in the industry and sends new talent to local clubs like Hey Joe’s, On the Rocks and the Pickled Okra.
No matter how hard Cleveland pulls toward the New South, it persists as an authentic Delta town where historic markers are about as common as stop signs. Chiefly shaped by white Methodists and black Baptists, it benefited from surprising infusions of Chinese and Italian immigrants enticed to Delta cotton fields, traveling Jewish salesmen, Irish mule traders and Mexicans who gave Cleveland its taste for tamales. The region’s literary bent produced Eudora Welty and Willie Morris, their work underscoring the Delta’s loquacity.
The talk these days is likely to be about football at Country Platter, favored by graduates of predominantly black East Side High School, several of whom went on to play for the NFL. Co-owner Jimmy Williams can tell you about Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy attending civil rights meetings on the premises and the health benefits of fried chicken, yams and peach cobbler cooked without too much oil. “The trouble is people are lazy,” he says. “They got to burn it off.”
The countryside east of town yields more history. Dockery Farms Foundation (a former plantation) vividly describes the sharecropping system that kept blacks in poverty or sent them into the Northern diaspora. Freedom Riders were held at nearby Parchman Prison. The 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till by two white men, likely in the hamlet of Drew, helped wake up a nation to the plight of Southern African-Americans. And then there’s the town of Mound Bayou, founded in 1887 by former slaves—the first haven of its kind in the United States—once with its own bank, train depot, swimming pool and hospital. The village, alas, now molders along Highway 61, but Peter’s Pottery thrives. It was started in 1998 by the Woods brothers, who learned the art of working native clay at McCarty Pottery, a celebrated ceramics gallery and garden down the road in Merigold.
It’s just a few winding, washboard miles to Po’ Monkey’s, set in open farmland crisscrossed by hickory breaks and bayous. A dilapidated collection of add-ons and lean-tos, it’s like all the other rural juke joints that once lit up the night sky, beckoning folks to dance, drink and listen to guitar slides. Fans kept stealing the historic marker out front so proprietor Willie Seaberry put a fence around it. Po’ Monkey’s is all about the blues—“No rap, period,” says Seaberry. Standing outside with the sun sinking and the lights of Cleveland blinking on, you can just about hear James “Son” Thomas, whose uncle taught him to play the blues by marking three chords on the neck of a guitar:
I ain’t gonna pick no cotton.
I ain’t gonna drag no sack.
I ain’t gonna do nothing ’til my baby get back.
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