SteveAJones Posted November 27, 2007 Share Posted November 27, 2007 1998 Pilgrims in the birthplace of blues By Panny Flautt Mayfield Special to The Clarion-Ledger Led Zeppelin stars Jimmy Page and Robert Plant took a journey to the Delta to visit the tombstone of bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson. CLARKSDALE When a long Lincoln Town Car pulls up outside Smitty's Red Top Lounge on Yazoo and Fourth Street, James Alford decides to take a closer look at two long-haired strangers. "My name's Robert," says one of the visitors now inside Clarksdale's oldest juke joint. Turning on a light above the pool table, Alford extends a welcoming handshake. Another man comments, "I know who you are." But the strangers are quiet; they check out the raised bandstand where the Wesley Jefferson Band performs on Saturdays, the long counter where beer and catfish are served, and the jukebox filled with favorites of the 'Chitlin Circuit': Little Milton, Bobby Rush, Johnny Taylor and Marvin Sease. On a pilgrimage to their music roots and seeking inspiration for their recent CD, Walking into Clarksdale, Led Zeppelin superstars Robert Plant and Jimmy Page spend a day in the Mississippi Delta walking around Clarksdale, Tutwiler and Friars Point. Although an entourage trails the famous duo, their demeanor is low-key. The Plant/Page visit sandwiched between tour stops is a journey paying homage to the bluesmen who forged a path to their world of electric music. "I became interested years ago when I discovered the lyrics Elvis Presley was singing originated with blues musicians," said Plant. Although the two skirt Clarksdale's Blues Alley development including the restored freight and passenger depots where Muddy Waters put plantation life behind him and bought a train ticket for Chicago, the celebrities visit historic blues sites. They want to know more about the Riverside Hotel where Bessie Smith died. In 1937 the structure was the G.T. Thomas African-American Hospital where the Empress of Blues was taken following a near-fatal accident on U.S. 61. Reports say the late-night tragedy occurred when Smith's manager crashed into a stopped truck. The singer's arm was almost severed. She lost a great deal of blood before a Memphis doctor pulled her from the wreck and took her to Clarksdale. Charging that Smith was turned away from the better-equipped white hospital because she was black, playwright Edward Albee wrote his play about the incident, The Death of Bessie Smith. Today the former hospital operating room is the most requested room reservation in the hotel/boarding house. John F. Kennedy Jr. spent a weekend in the hotel, and blues musicians from Sonny Boy Williamson to Ike Turner made it their home. Plant and Page visit Clarksdale's historic blues district around Issaquena Avenue. Old timers describe Saturday nights on Issaquena, with its cafes partitioned for white and black customers and sidewalks so crowded with the clothing racks of Italian and Jewish merchants and street musicians that you had to turn sideways to walk down the street. The stars quietly tour the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. It's Robert Plant's third trip here. Undisturbed, the two meander around display cases and exhibits publicizing Mississippi's contributions to the roots of music: blues, urban blues, gospel, R&B, country and rock. They want to pay their respects to harmonica great Sonny Boy Williamson and visit his grave in Tutwiler. Although the small Delta town is only 15 miles south down U.S. 49, the burial site is in a remote location off Dogwalk Road in the Whitfield Chapel Cemetery. Arriving first in Tutwiler, Plant and Page walk across the railroad tracks to scrutinize murals on the downtown buildings. "This is where W.C. Handy first heard the blues," Robert Plant told his band members. The depot is gone now, but its foundation remains. Later, in the quiet cemetery near rows of cotton, the pilgrims view Sonny Boy's granite tombstone where music fans frequently leave harmonicas, whiskey bottles and money. Plant and Page take U.S. 61, the blues route to Memphis. From the stage in the Pyramid on their tour finale, they pay tribute to the musicians of the Mississippi Delta. Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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