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Charlie Patton painting © Copyright 2004 Loz Arkle
Painting © 2004 Loz Arkle

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Hero. Legend. Good Bloke.
John Peel OBE, 1939 - 2004

Red Lick Records



Ghost Trains of Mississippi
Michael Gray

This article was published in the UK Weekend Telegraph newspaper (Travel Section) in 2004. Michael has kindly agreed for me to publish it on the website. Thanks Michael.  Readers Enjoy!!

I’m travelling by train through Mississippi, accompanied by the ghosts of those who sang the blues here before I was born: those who migrated north to Chicago and elsewhere on these trains and those who stayed behind, in the little towns where the trains still stop. 

These railroads are entwined with music. It was at a station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, around 1903, that W.C. Handy first heard a blues holler  -  and the words were about the railroads: ‘I’m goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog…’ 

The great migration began about 1915, when wartime northern business needed workers and southern cotton was decimated by the boll weevil and floods. The flooding of the Mississippi River, as of the Nile, had always replenished the land, but with the wilderness cleared and plantations pushing to the banks, floods became disasters. In 1927 the river overran an area the size of Scotland. 

Desperate people move from countryside to city. A black wage in 1940s Chicago was four times Mississippi’s. A quarter of the black population left. Trains, more than muddy highways, were the means of that escape. In one year, the Southern Pacific threw nearly 700,000 people off its freight trains. 

Amtrak’s daily City of New Orleans still makes that big migratory journey, 926 miles from New Orleans to Chicago, as it has for over a century  -  and as it crosses Mississippi it stops at Jackson and Greenwood, and at tiny McComb, Brookhaven, Hazlehurst and Yazoo City. The Crescent too runs daily, New Orleans to New York, 1,377 miles, stopping in small-town Mississippi at Picayune, Laurel and Meridian. 

I’m taking one train south, from Atlanta to New Orleans, and then a second, north from there, all the way to Chicago, and I’m breaking both journeys in Mississippi towns. 

Eleven coaches long, silver and huge, 20 hours out of New York, the Crescent pulls into Atlanta soaked in its own romance. I’m shown my sleeping compartment by Mr. Turk, a smart, ebullient man much given to shaking hands: fold-down basin, lavatory, movies, recliner, fold-down table with chessboard top, air-conditioning, call button to summon free drinks. It’s not quite the style of my travelling bluesmen, but I’m riding the rails they once knew. 

We roll southwest through woodland, brown kuzu draped over winter trees, and alongside roads lined with trailer homes, tattoo parlours and petshops. Mostly it’s a patchwork of piney woods and bungalows where old cars litter the grass. 

Alabama looks like Georgia. At Birmingham Mr. Turk takes delivery of fat paper bags of hot boiled peanuts. On through immense woodlands, crossing swamps and vast fields where cattle stand knee-high in juiceless grass. Mississippi brings green valleys, gentle hills and lakes. We cross a time zone. It’s an epic ride. I hear that lonesome whistle blow. 

At Meridian, built on a rise, the track crosses a wide street that climbs to tall, elderly buildings. Birthplace of ‘the father of country music’, Jimmie Rodgers, the tubercular white singer who invented the Blue Yodel, Meridian is also where, on a tip from H.C. Speir, the pre-war Sam Phillips, producer W.R. Calaway brought Charley Patton after springing him from Belzoni Jail. They caught this train to New York so that Patton, ‘the leadingest musicianer in Mississippi,’ could record. A woman on the concourse would sing out the trains’ destinations. Speir wanted her to make records too. She refused. The station, like the culture, has changed since then. 

The train rattles on to Laurel, the world’s yellow-pine capital, chosen for my stopover because it’s small and obscure. Few alight. The station is like a colonial bungalow with lawns. It’s a January afternoon, the warm air soft. Peggy, the Laurel Inn landlady, has come to meet me. ‘There used to be a taxi man,’ she says, ‘but I think he musta died.’ 

I’m driven straight to oak-lined Belle Epoque suburbs. ‘I hope you like dawgs,’ says Peggy, pulling into her driveway. ‘They’re Great Danes,’ she adds, opening the door. Elvis and Hazel frisk me. 

It’s Friday night. I intend walking into town. ‘Oh no!’ says Peggy, ‘You cain’t walk around after dark!’ She insists on driving me again. We find closed buildings on featureless, empty streets. 

Peggy sticks close as a dawg. The café is shut, the downtown bar hopelessly redneck. A man says ‘Hi Peggy,’ and I ask if whites and blacks mix anywhere in town. He answers, with mild manners and crazed eyes: ‘No: and I hope they never will.’ Peggy mentions a new black club near the station. Shocked, he whispers that they’re already having problems with druhhhgs and the police. Peggy decides we’ll try the motel bar out on the strip instead. It’s closed. We return to the Inn. Elvis and Hazel are thrilled. 

No blues singers exalt Laurel’s history, but there’s much to be blue about. Below-average wages even for Mississippi, above-average crime, and the usual lack of public funding for health and education that makes so much of the USA a third-world country. Laurel’s only colleges are the Southeastern Baptist and the Mississippi College of Beauty Culture. 

Next morning at a black neighbourhood store with self-improvement booklets amid the groceries, a young woman approaches Peggy: ‘Ma’am, excuse me but you look like someone who owns property. D’you have anywhere for my baby and me?’ Meanwhile I’m reading: ‘When you encounter a black male child, ask him how is he doing in school? What college he plans to attend? What are his career interests? The odds are against him but you can make it easier by asking these questions… begin his thought process operating.’ 

Back at the station, I’m humming Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘Waiting For A Train’. It’s running six hours late (atrocious weather up north) and arrives at 10pm. Police cars, lights flashing, are parked all round that new black club. 

It’s 3am as we reach New Orleans. I see giant waterside girders, heavy metal bridges, sluicegates, iron bollards  -  the Big Easy is a serious port. It’s also seething with backstreet ghosts, like One-Legged Duffy, whose lover stove her head in with her own wooden leg, and Buddy Bolden, the first jazz cornet player, who went mad at 31 and lived in the asylum for 24 more years. 

I miss a rarity this afternoon: a real New Orleans funeral parade, for long-serving jazzman Tuba Fats. Its three-hour march around the French Quarter begins as my City of New Orleans pulls out. 

Immediately north lies immense Lake Pontchartrain. The train stops midway across to let another pass, and the upper-level Observation Car, with its swivelling armchairs, looms over swampland grandeur: a vast, thrilling wilderness of grasses, glowing chlorophyllic weed and strange grey tree stumps rising from black water. Teflon-coloured turtles clamber, herons stalk, hawks and cranes swoop; I spot coots and gillymots. It’s like sitting in a tree-top gamelodge  -  a luxury bubble above a primeval scene. 

Roosevelt Sykes, an important blues pianist up north in the 1930s, who played with patches in his pants, came fishing with his wife on this lake when he retired. Rabbit Brown, who wrote and recorded 1927’s immortal ‘James Alley Blues’, worked as a singing boatman here. ‘Seen better days but I’m puttin’ up with these…’ he sang, in his voice of molten chocolate. 

The train moved on, passing strawberry fields and neat Louisiana towns, reaching Mississippi at teatime and stopping briefly in McComb and Brookhaven. This was farm country again  -  old houses, brown fields, brown cows. No-one wanted Hazlehurst, Robert Johnson’s birthplace, so we thundered through and all I glimpsed was that magic placename on a decaying signboard, two huge trees and old wooden buildings. 

I stopped overnight in Jackson, a city of 185,000 rich in blues history. Its station is so renovated it looks new  -  unlike the huge, derelict King Edward Hotel across the cold, windy street. 

Records were made within it: by Uncle Dave Macon, the Mississippi Sheiks and many more. Jimmie Rodgers, hearing marvellous Tommy Johnson and Ishman Bracey on the street, brought them up to the hotel roof to perform for his own audience. What a moment! Small distinction, then, between recording artist and busker. Sidekick Ishman and tall, thin Tommy, who cut ‘Cool Drink of Water Blues’ but whose career would die from his drinking Canned Heat, whose influence was huge but whose records were so few, whose falsetto was half angel’s, half ghost’s  -  a black ragamuffin act plucked off the street, bemusing a supper-club crowd. 

They couldn’t have stayed as guests, even if they’d had money. Louis Armstrong had to stay across town at the poky redbrick Summers Hotel, which I found while riding wasteland streets in old Bill’s taxi. A flapping sign nearby still insisted ‘No Trespassing, No Cigars’. Punks scowled from the sidewalks. ‘These kids like to look very threatening,’ I said. ‘They gonna need a lotta firepower to git us,’ said Bill. He had a gun under his seat. He shouldn’t, but all the drivers do, he said. ‘They do if they got common sense.’ 

All my heroes’ houses have gone. A bungalow primps where supreme slide-guitarist Elmore James once roomed, and they are gentrifying Farish Street, where Lillian McMurry ran Trumpet Records and H.C. Speir owned his store. Within this bulldozed shrine, the spry genius Skip James auditioned! Here the youthful Robert Johnson, posthumously the white world’s most revered bluesman, made a test record! 

Intact, in a neat black suburb, is the bungalow home of young Medgar Evers, NACCP activist, slain on his front lawn by a racist in 1963. ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’, Bob Dylan sang about it. Strange to stand there now. By chance, it was Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday for another assassinated African American. Where better to pay homage than here? 

Back on the train, we passed in darkness through Greenwood, where Robert Johnson was poisoned and died. We pushed north, escaping the Delta. Many a ghost kept me awake overnight as the train pressed on to Chicago. 



Getting around: Amtrak no longer has a UK office but its website is www.amtrak.com. Multi-day passes are not always the best choice: individual journey tickets can be better value. Sleeping compartments are extra, but a bargain, particularly since they include all dining-car meals.

Staying en route: The Laurel Inn B&B, 803 North 2nd Ave., Laurel MS 39440, tel 001-601-428-8773. In downtown Jackson try the nice old Edison Walthall, 225 E. Capitol St., MS 39201, tel 001-601-948-6161. 

What to read: ‘Where I Was Born And Raised’, David Cohn, 1948, has the famous opening sentence, ‘The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.’


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