Photos of the Mississippi Delta


Downtown Clarksdale. I love the colors. Most people–those not entirely blinded by the invented romance of “the Blues”–think of the Delta as barren and desolate, a cliched tragedy or a scene out of the most unforgiving Cormac McCarthy novel. (In fact, the area was a serious location contender for The Road before the producers settled on the outskirts of similarly notorious Braddock, Pennsylvania and post-Katrina New Orleans.)

I think of the Delta as vibrant, messy, friendly, noisy and astounding. It’s a place where you can still get moonshine in the bars, if you know how and who and where to ask. It’s a place where they have the best pies I’ve ever tasted (coconut or chocolate, Resthaven diner, Clarksdale),  a place where crop-dusters soar overhead and white boys sing the blues while black kids hone their raps and talk about that friend of a friend of an uncle who got a record deal up in Memphis. It’s a place with no faith and a lot of love, or maybe no love and a lot of faith, or sometimes plenty of both, a place where every road leads to a church and every church swells with the gospel–singing or preaching, one and the same, earnest and loud.

Someone once told me that the reason so many buildings are painted sky blue in tropical shanty-towns and heat-blanketed, soft-air places like Havana is because “bugs won’t land in the sky.” This picture was taken in February, but taken with summer in mind. Summer is when the Mississippi air feels like a caress, and yeah, the bugs come out. They come out but don’t land in the sky.

Downtown Tutwiler, where legend has it that W.C. Handy encountered the Blues, and the twenty-somethings tell me there’s no work, not even fast food restaurants–for that you gotta drive down to Clarksdale or up towards Memphis. Tutwiler’s where I hang around the concrete platform in the center of town, formerly a foundation of a building long gone, for hours, before curiosity gets the better of the kids’ distrust (“You ain’t a narc?” one guy especially seemed dumbfounded) and they let me take their pictures, they take my picture, they tell me stories and do a little freestylin’, then they pass around a spliff, keeping an eye peeled for the cops that cruise relentlessly. One of the guys has an open sore on his mouth. I want to tell them they shouldn’t smoke when someone has an open sore, but I don’t feel that I’ve earned the right to anything, even to be there. It’s my state, but Tutwiler’s their home and the glimpses they give me are an honor and a privilege. Still, I’m too wary to go to the party that night because I have no one I trust to go with me.

Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale. It’s around the corner from Ground Zero, the cheesy tourist “juke” that Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett run. Red’s is tucked away in plain view–not so much as some other places in town, but enough for it’s authenticity to clash with the steep covers and pay-per-view ambiance of Ground Zero. Weekends are for tourists, but most week nights Red’s is about half-full. There’s always some busty woman shimmying in tight leopard-print, always someone sitting at the bar drinking a forty in pajamas and hair rollers.

Downtown Clarksdale. Notice the guy on the picture is on fire. Kind of like a Clayton Brother’s piece, isn’t it?

Clarksdale again. I’m almost sure this place used to be a dance club. Wish I could’ve gone.

This man is from Memphis, the nephew of the  night’s entertainment. He drove his uncle down Hwy 61, because the old bluesman claims he can’t half-see anyway and particularly not when he’s drinking. This man is great. He had white patent leather shoes and a purple suit, and he danced like he was on Soul Train. The girl is Brazilian. She and her boyfriend came to the States, bought a cheap car and are living in it and driving cross-country.

More of my Delta photos are here.


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