Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me

Midnight Special is one of those rare songs that becomes a standard in more than one genre. It crops up regularly in Bluegrass/Country jam sessions, and has been recorded by artists as diverse as Leadbelly, Merle Travis, and Eric Clapton. My own favourite is the recording by Big Joe Turner.  At one point in the song he laments, “My baby left me on the Santa Fe”, cunningly rhyming the line with “me” which delights me every time I hear it. The reference is, of course, to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway which, in its heyday, transported millions of Americans across the continent, including Big Joe’s lady love if the song is to be believed.

On Friday, we were travelling between two former AT&SF rail depots – Dodge City to Santa Fe. Our route took us South-West out of Kansas through the Oklahoma Panhandle, passing close to Texas and into New Mexico. Since picking up the car in Baltimore, Maryland, we’ve visited or passed through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri. Before that, we’ve been through Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. It seemed a shame not to hit Texas – so we did. By about ten feet.

Childish, I know, but we did it anyway. On our lengthy drives we tend to limit our driving stints to two hours each. On this particular leg of the journey, time expired as we approached a little town called Clayton, New Mexico.

We decided to have a coffee here as, by the standards of some of the places we had driven through this was a thriving metropolis. Google Maps indicated it was home to not one, but TWO cafes. We parked in the centre of town with no difficulty whatsoever on this Saturday lunchtime and approached the first of the cafes. “Closed due to Graduation” read the sign affixed to the door. The second cafe repeated this legend word for word. Luckily, there was a hotel in town.

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We were delighted graduation had thwarted our attempts to patronise the cafes since this place was magnificent. The Hotel Eklund was first built in 1892 as a saloon and gambling hall with operations expanding over the following ten or so years to include hotel accommodation. Whatever modernisation has occurred since has been done incredibly sympathetically and as soon as you cross its threshold you feel as if you have stepped into the old West. Accidental finds like this are always a joy for us, and it seems like the author James Lee Burke feels the same way. The hotel lobby features a small extract from his novel Bitterroot in which he writes about the hero entering the hotel. Ishbel now has Bitterroot on her Kindle app.

After some excellent cofffee, and being tempted into chili cheese toasties, we were back on the road. We arrived in Santa Fe in late afternoon with little time to do much in town so we decided to play a poker tournament at a local casino called Buffalo Thunder. We went out there and signed up but, unfortunately, there were only enough entrants for a single table. We never enjoy being on the same table and it was made even worse by us ending up in a big hand confrontation in the second hand of the tournament. Eventually, my AK suited lost to Ishbel’s pocket Kings but it went to showdown and we both showed our hands which I think reassured the rest of the tournament entrants that we wouldn’t be soft-playing each other. Eventually, I was lucky enough to chop the first place prize money with one other guy so we walked away with double what we had spent on entry fees which was nice.

On Sunday morning, we were up and on the go quite early. After breakfast at the hotel, we drove into town and  found a nice parking spot. We wanted to visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.


We had visited and enjoyed the exhibition of her work at Tate Modern a couple of years ago so were eager to see her works here in New Mexico. O’Keeffe was both a remarkable woman and a remarkable artist, embracing modern trends in art earlier than many of her contemporaries and building a body of work that has stood the test of time.


After the museum, we had a walk around the historic Plaza. The city is constructed in what seems to be a very traditional fashion in a style known as Pueblo Revival.  Almost every building maintains that style, even the multi-storey car parks…


From town we walked up to the historic site of Fort Marcy. This fort was established in 1846 to cement and demonstrate US control over the New Mexico Territory shortly after the declaration of war on Mexico by President James K. Polk.


Few visible signs of the fort’s existence remain, but a series of plaques on the walkway up to the summit provide a glimpse of Santa Fe’s colourful history. Walking back through town, we couldn’t help but notice that there were chili peppers hanging everywhere.


These are called Chile Ristras (I’m not going to touch the debate over whether it should end in an ‘i’ or an ‘e’) and are said to bring three things: good health, good luck, and dried chilis.

After our walk, we returned to the hotel to freshen up before dinner. We ate in Dr. Field Goods Kitchen where we enjoyed an excellent Christmas enchilada. Why Christmas? Because it comes with both red and green chili. We also enjoyed a pint of El Jugo Hazy IPA from Albuquerque’s La Cumbre Brewery. I’ve had hazy beers before, but this one had the colour – and clarity – of fudge. Nevertheless, it was delicious.

Monday was Memorial Day, a national holiday here. We had decided to enjoy some of the New Mexico hills today and setted on the Chamisa Trail.


I don’t think we had really appreciated that Santa Fe lay at an altitude of 7,200 feet. And we were driving another 800 feet up into the mountains. Then walking another 500 feet up from there. Taking all that into account, we coped remarkably well with the physical exertion in the thinner air. The whole walk was only around 5 miles, so it wasn’t a huge distance but I was feeling pretty tired by the time we finished. We were lucky because the weather was sunny but cool and there was a lovely breeze blowing . It really was a quite idyllic day.


One thing I’ve noticed is that, at home, we go for walks on footpaths. Here, you hike a trail which sounds like an altogether more robust form of activity. I’m always going to say that from now on.

In the evening, charmed by the beer from the previous evening, we had dinner in one of Santa Fe’s own brewery taprooms: the Second Street Brewery.


I ordered a burger here and it was delicious. And I finished less than half of it. I’m blaming the altitude. I managed all of my beer, though.

We really enjoyed our brief time in Santa Fe. Everything about it feels relaxed, laid back. Nice.


Kansas City, Cedar City, Dodge City, what a pity

So many people have sung “I’ve Been Everywhere“, it should be difficult to pick a performance to link to, but it isn’t. Johnny Cash owns this song.

We haven’t yet managed to get to all the places he name checks in this song but, on Friday, we travelled between two in the lyric quoted above. The original road trip plan had been to drive from Kansas City to Denver then start heading south through Utah to Las Vegas. We hadn’t booked any accommodation for that route by Tuesday and, when we started looking, discovered that it was snowing in Denver. This is the Tuesday before the Memorial Day weekend, which marks the official start of summer in the USA. We decided to look at a more southerly route which would hopefully enjoy milder weather.

We settled on a three-stop strategy between KC and Vegas. The first leg to Dodge City, then on to Santa Fe and finally a stop at the Petrified Forest National Park before getting to Las Vegas on Thursday. Accommodation for that route was easy to find and thus it was that we set off on Friday morning to travel almost all the way across the great state of Kansas.

Dodge City was something of an impulse stop but its association with the cowboy genre has been a constant  in our lives, thanks largely to the TV series Gunsmoke. And it was the right distance away for a day’s drive. We hit a couple of major storms as we traversed the Great Plains but despite this being slap bang in the middle of Tornado Alley, we encountered nothing worse than some torrential rain that the wipers struggled to clear.

We arrived in Dodge in the early evening, crossing the railway tracks that were a large factor in Dodge City becoming a lawless boom town in the 1870s and 1880s. Texas Ranchers would employ cowboys to drive their cattle along the Chisholm Trail to the Western Trail and then into the railhead stockyards in Dodge City.

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Those cowboys would be paid at the successful conclusion of the cattle drive, which could have taken up to two months. So, a bunch of young cowboys have been given more money than they have ever seen after two months of isolation and gruelling labour. What could possibly go wrong?


I guess that’s why one of the most prominent statues in the city is of the lawman Wyatt Earp.

It was evening by the time we arrived so the attractions such as the Boot Hill Museum were closed so we were obliged to make our own entertainment. Ishbel played cards with Doc Holliday…


…and I went off and drove a train.


We walked around the town for a little while and, while it was perfectly pleasant, there was nothing that tempted us to dally longer. The next day was Saturday and we knew what we had to do. Get the hell out of Dodge.

I’m gonna be standing on the corner, 12th Street and Vine

So Wilbert Harrison sang in his 1959 version of the Lieber and Stoller song, Kansas City. And since Wednesday was such a lovely day in Kansas City, we set off in search of that very corner. Except, it’s not really a corner anymore. The song was written in 1952, when 12th and Vine was still home to a number of music clubs. But the heyday of that stretch of 12th Street was in the 1920s and 1930s. It was at the edge of a predominantly black neighbourhood and the clubs there permitted integrated audiences – not always the case back then. The Reno Club on 12th is the place where Count Basie formed his first orchestra, and where Charlie Parker first earned the moniker Yardbird, later shortened to Bird. Jazz legends were made there, and the address still echoed down the years when the song was written.

What is there now is a park, and a signpost commemorating where the corner used to be at “Goin’ to Kansas City Plaza”, an unwieldy name but at least it helps music geeks like us locate it on Google Maps.


Just down from here is another great Kansas City musical address: 18th and Vine. This was our next stop as we knew it to be home to two museums we wanted to visit: the Negro League Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum. Conveniently, they are housed in the same building.


We visited the baseball museum first. Readers unfamiliar with the history of baseball may be unaware that the sport was rigidly, if unofficially, segregated from 1889 until 1947. African-Americans who wanted to play baseball did so within a variety of league structures entirely separate from Major League Baseball. Ultimately, many of the teams playing in the Negro Leagues, as they were known, attracted large and enthusiastic crowds, producing a number of players who could easily have thrived in the majors. Ultimately, some of them did. The first, and most famous, black baseball player of the modern era was Jackie Robinson, signed for the Brooklyn Dodgers by their owner Branch Rickey in 1947. That signing was not universally welcomed in the Dodgers clubhouse and some players threatened to sit out rather than play alongside him. That player insurrection came to naught when management made their stance clear: the manager at the time was Lee Durocher who informed the team “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.

Jackie was given uniform number 42 which, on April 15, 1997, was the first number to be retired by every major league team. That day is also celebrated as Jackie Robinson Day across baseball.  If you are unaware of his story, I strongly encourage you to read about him.

After Jackie was signed to the majors, the floodgates didn’t exactly open but a steady stream of black players followed. Notably, a superstar pitcher of the Negro Leagues became the oldest ever rookie in Major Leage Baseball. At the age of 42, Leroy “Satchel” Paige was signed by the Cleveland Indians.


From baseball to music as we walked across the hall and entered the jazz museum. There are displays dedicated to the life and music of some of the greats of this music: Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Charlie Parker among others. You can also select pieces of music from across their individual careers and listen to how their styles developed. It was a fascinating museum and included a little neon homage to some of the Kansas City clubs that helped spawn some of the greatest jazz ever produced.


In the afternoon, we took advantage of Kansas City’s free tram system and went to visit Union Station, a Beaux-Arts style rail depot opened in 1921 at the height of KC’s dominant position on transcontinental communication routes. Sadly, with the decline of rail travel the building fell into disrepair and had ceased to operate as a train station by the early 1990s. In 1996, residents of the surrounding counties in both Missouri and Kansas voted to approve a special sales tax of 0.125% to fund its renovation, which means we are now able to enjoy the building restored to its former glory.


A quiet evening followed and, on Thursday, we just spent the day strolling in the city, although I did make time for an overdue barber visit.


In the evening, we went out for dinner to a place called Chaz on the Plaza. We chose it because it had live music.  Both the food and the music were excellent. What we hadn’t realised was that it was based in an interesting part of town: Country Club Plaza. It’s a shopping centre. In fact, it’s the first shopping centre in the world designed specifically to accommodate shoppers arriving by car. It was built in 1922 and the buildings are designed architecturally after Seville in Andalucia.


After dinner, we decided to enjoy some more music so took an Uber to the Green Lady Lounge on Grand Boulevard,  an archetypal jazz lounge where we were able to relax in a booth and listen to some cool jazz.

After that, it was time to walk back to our AirBnB one last time before departing Kansas City the next day. On our way, we passed the old offices of the daily newspaper, the Kansas City Star, where Hemingway worked as a police and hospital correspondent in 1917, and described the Star’s stylebook as “the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing.”


“From Memphis to Mobile, from Natchez to St. Joe…

…wherever the four winds blow.” The lyrics from the song Blues in the Night are not entirely appropriate as we didn’t get to either Mobile or Natchez. But after arriving in Kansas City, Missouri on Monday afternoon we unpacked at our AirBnB and had a relaxing evening in preparation for the next day’s side trip to the St. Joe referenced in the song: St. Joseph, Missouri.

One of my former London work colleagues, Jeannine, actually hails from St. Joe and her mother still lives there. It turns out that she was visiting and her stay in the area and ours overlapped by one day, so we arranged to meet up and let her show us the touristic high spots of her home town. It transpires that there are more of them than a cynical foreigner (namely me) might imagine.

Our first stop was the Patee House Museum, a former hotel and headquarters of the Pony Express.


Launched in April 1860, the Pony Express offered the most rapid means of communication with America’s West. For about eighteen months. In October 1861, the transcontinental telegraph was established and the Pony Express became the Betamax of speedy messaging.


This spectacularly short life led to the Pony Express being romanticized as a service that attracted free-spirited adventurers, willing daily to risk their lives in service of the mail. I’ve known a romantic version of the Pony Express since I was a kid, and I suspect that’s true of subsequent generations as well. It didn’t last long but it had great PR.

Just out the back of the Patee House is another legendary location, which I had no idea was in St. Joe: the house where Jesse James was shot and killed.


This story is, of course, the basis of a fine Bluegrass song famously sung by Nick Cave in the movie, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The wall in the house where Jesse was hanging the picture when he was shot has a huge hole which, allegedly, started out as a bullet hole but was expanded over time as trophy hunters gouged out fragments to keep as souvenirs.


As Jeannine proudly said, her home town was quite the happenin’ place, 150 years ago.

The Patee House Museum contains what I would describe as an eclectic exhibition of pieces. You get the impression that any St Joseph resident could present the museum with anything and, so long as it was old, it would go on display. For example,

a giant ball of twine is…a giant ball of twine. At least the movie poster had the merit of a Jesse James connection, albeit a tenuous one.


There was only so much St. Joe based excitement we could stand, so we met up with Jeannine’s mother, Beverly, and the four of us had lunch together at The Belle Epoque Cafe. The food here was delicious, but the decor had a bit of a surprise in store for us. We did not expect to encounter in Missouri a wall covered in wallpaper from Glasgow’s cutting edge design firm, Timorous Beasties.


After lunch, we said farewell to Jeannine and Beverly and headed back to Kansas City, with one brief stop at the River Bluff Brewery. We wanted to try a local beer so took away some of their Bluff Session IPA for later enjoyment.


Just to be in my home back in ol’ St Lou

Thus did Chuck Berry pay homage to St. Louis in the classic Back in the USA, later parodied by The Beatles with their Back in the USSR. Our plan was to spend the weekend in Chuck’s home town, the Gateway to the West.

We left Mountain View on a bright and sunny Friday morning and set an indirect course towards St. Louis, via Piggott Arkansas. The reason for the trip to this small town off the beaten track was its association with Ernest Hemingway. Paul Pfeiffer had accrued a fortune in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics working alongside his two brothers, Henry and Gus, creating the companies that would later become Pfizer and Revlon. He grew tired of industry and longed to become a gentleman farmer. He had his brothers buy out his share of the companies, for over $200 million in 1913. That’s when $200 million was real money.

He acquired 63,000 acres of fertile Arkansas farmland and moved to Piggott. The key part of farming was the gentleman part. He didn’t see himself actually as a ploughman, so hired workers to actually work the land. He also instituted a program of allocating 40 or 80 acre holdings to tenant farmers, with a rent-to-buy program. He even waived interest on their loans during the depression to ensure they continued to thrive. The Pfeiffers lived in a nice, but far from ostentatious, house. He very much wanted his family to be part of the community.


While this was all well and good for Paul and his wife Mary, their daughter Pauline, having grown up in St Louis, was less enamoured of spending her life in Piggott. She stayed in Missouri and completed her tertiary education at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. After graduation, she worked for newspapers in Cleveland and New York before being recruited to work for Vanity Fair and, later, Vogue.

While working for Vogue, she moved to Paris where she met and became friendly with Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley. By this time, Hemingway already had Pauline’s rich uncle Gus as a patron, supporting his career. When Hemingway met the attractive, wealthy heiress Pauline, it was clear Hadley’s married days were numbered. Hemingway and Pauline started an affair and, eventually, were married after Hemingway managed to have his first marriage annulled by an amenable Parisian archbishop.

During the marriage, Hemingway often visited the house in Piggott and wrote there in a barn-come-studio that the Pfeiffers fitted out for him. As you would expect with Hemingway, the marriage eventually ended acrimoniously, but Hemingway produced some of his finest writing while married to Pauline. The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum was well worth the detour, if you have any interest in Hemingway at all. The tour guide, Buddy, was excellent and knowledgable. He greatly enriched our experience of the tour.

So, on we went to St Louis, where the Missouri and Mississippi rivers meet. We had booked a room at the Hyatt Regency, right next door to the famous Gateway Arch, and were allocated a room with a view of the arch upon check-in. We took a walk across the arch park to stretch our legs and blow away the cobwebs after our drive. We walked along the park but couldn’t take the riverside walkway as the Missisissippi was so high it had flooded the walkways. That also meant that the pontoon piers weren’t useable so there were no Mississippi paddleboats running during our stay.

We decided to treat ourselves for dinner tonight, and had excellent steak and a nice bottle of wine at Mortons Steakhouse. They have locations scattered across the US, but the quality is consistent and high. We certainly weren’t disappointed with the food here.

On Saturday, we headed up to 2658 Delmar Boulevard.

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This is the location of the house in which Scott Joplin lived while in St. Louis and is now a Missouri State Park. This is the place where what is probably the world’s most famous piece of ragtime music, The Entertainer, was written. We were lucky, once again, to receive a guided tour from an enthusiastic and knowledgable fan of Joplin’s music who was also able to provide some social history context on turn of the century St. Louis. As an added treat, the tour ended with us being permitted to make a couple of selections to hear from a huge library of player piano music.


This is the 1900s equivalent of a jukebox. It was fun to see and hear a working example.

The rest of the day, we allocated to playing a little bit of poker. Neither of us won, so there’s no excitement to report.

For Sunday, we had a couple of things planned. First, we had booked a 9:50am ride up into the arch.


While I’ve been aware of the Arch’s existence for a long time, I had no idea it was possible to get to the top. It transpires that there are little – seriously little – tram cars that ride up the legs to a viewing gallery at its peak. Each tram has eight carriages, each of which seats five people, so it’s important to book if you want to ascend.

The tram takes you up to a low ceilinged viewing gallery at the crest of the arch with small rectangular windows that allow a restricted but interesting perspective on the city.

There is also an interesting museum in the visitor centre where we whiled away a couple of hours educating ourselves on the economic and social history of St. Louis and points west.

We had decided that we would eat at a place called BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups.  Nothing to do with BB King, but a bar and restaurant that featured live music. We went along for the early session where, as luck would have it, the lead singer of the featured band was celebrating his 40th birthday so we enjoyed an excellent gig in a celebratory atmosphere.


This was a great way to end the St. Louis portion of the road trip.


They call it that good ol’ Mountain View

We left Memphis on Monday, bound for our next stop which was a little further off the beaten track than most of the places we had so far visited. I had asked a question on the Trip Advisor Road Trips forum on whether people had any suggestions on where I should stop on a musical tour. In addition to all of the usual responses, someone suggested Mountain View, Arkansas. This is a small town in the Ozarks, home to the Ozark Folk Center and, according to my Trip Advisor correspondent, a hub for Bluegrass and Old Time jamming. I decided to include it on the trip on that basis.

We drove out of Memphis, crossing the Mississippi river as we went. We couldn’t help but notice that the river had encroached on flood plains, as had most of the rivers we crossed on our journey westward. The high rainfall had been taking its toll.

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Our journey to Mountain View was largely uneventful, although we continue to see armadillo roadkill at regular intervals. Apparently, the native US armadillo reacts to surprise by leaping into the air, thus colliding with vehicles that might otherwise have avoided it.

We were booked to stay at the Inn at Mountain View which neighbours a small park, officially designated the Washington Street Park but known locally as the Pickin’ Park.


As we rolled into town, we could see why. We arrived at about 2:00pm, and there was a group of four musicians jamming together at one of the three gazebos in the park. It looks like they weren’t kidding about the jamming being a constant here. We checked in to our room and took a stroll around to see the town. We walked all the way along Main Street and back, which didn’t take long. This is a town of fewer than 3,000 people but, as we were to learn over our short stay, it punches well above its weight in musical terms.

We stopped at the Pickin’ Park to listen to the people playing there. This particular group were playing more of a country/gospel repertoire than we usually choose to listen to, but the standard of musicianship was impressively high. We were going to have to seriously consider whether we wanted to join any of the jams here.

We grabbed a meal at the local Mexican restaurant and Ishbel ordered a water to drink while I asked for a beer. And that’s when I found out. Mountain View sits in Stone County. A dry county. No beer for me for the next few days!

The following day we went up to the Ozark Folk Center to take a look around. They have a range of different craftsmen and women making and selling traditional items made in a traditional fashion. There’s a blacksmith, a print shop using treadle printers and old-school typesetting, leather working, stained glass, pottery and much more, all being made on the premises. We had an interesting conversation with the lady in the stained glass workshop after we admired the geometric patterns on some examples of her work. The patterns were based on quilt patterns that were used as signalling devices on the underground railroad. This was the name given to the route travelled by runaway slaves as they attempted to escape their servitude in the South and reach Canada, where slavery was prohibited. Certain patterns would signal that food was available for runaways, or warn that there were runaway hunters in the area. Also in the Folk Center, there were regular music presentations. We stopped by to watch a husband and wife team perform. They were excellent.

After the Folk Center, we headed back to town and stopped by the local music store, Mountain View Music. We had a chat with the owner, Scott, and his daughter, Rebecca. They are both accomplished musicians and, in fact, Rebecca is part of a band called Twang who are nominated for an Arkansas state Country Music Award this year. We were already aware of Twang as they were scheduled to play a concert that evening that we had already decided we would attend.

As we walked towards the concert that evening we passed by the music shop again and saw yet another jam in progress.


According to the list of music events chalked daily on the blackboard at our inn, this was the fast jam and the slow jam was scheduled for the following evening, Wednesday. We were seriously considering trying to join the slow jam, but would wait to see if we had the courage.

Needless to say, the girls from Twang put on an excellent show. Three of them are sixteen years old, and a fourth is almost sixteen. They are amazing. We discovered this evening that, in local schools, there is a folk music program. In fourth grade – so around ten years old – kids in the region start receiving musical education about the folk tradition of the Ozarks, and they get the loan of an instrument to start learning. During our stay in Mountain View, we witnessed a number of youngsters playing, singing, or dancing in the traditional style and each of them clearly enjoyed what they were doing. Shockingly, it seems that exposure to stimuli and skills at an early age can make a difference to the performance of those skills in later life. Who knew? If only the Scottish Football Association could do something similar for young footballers.

On Wednesday, we visited the Blanchard Springs Caverns, a massive complex of limestone caverns that, conveniently, is accessed by a lift. It is near the splendidly named Arkansas town of Fifty Six.


Various rock formations in the caverns have been named by the workers, based on a perceived resemblance to certain objects. This is the Battleship:


After the caverns, we headed back to the Inn and bravely took up our instruments. With steely resolve, we got ready to head to the jam at the music store. We were about to step out when the heavens opened, and the rain fell in huge drops. Well, we thought, there won’t be a jam in this weather so there’s little point in us dragging ourselves along there. And then, just as suddenly as it had started, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Looks like we’re jamming, then.

We went along and sat in, doing our best to keep up with what was largely an Old Time repertoire. It was actually great fun and the jam regulars were lovely and welcoming to us. We were concentrating quite hard on hitting the right chords and keeping up, so didn’t really notice just how large an audience the jam had acquired until it was over, two and three quarter hours after it had started. We were delighted that we had come along and sat in, and the regulars invited us to join them for a meal in a nearby restaurant, so we had a long chat. One of them used a great phrase when asking us what brought us here. “Mountain View is a to, not a via. If you’re here, you weren’t passing through.” And that was, of course true.

Thursday was our last full day in Mountain View, so we decided to see some more of the natural beauty of this area and headed up to Gunner Pool in the Ozark National Forest for a hike along Sylamore Creek Trail. It was stunning, passing along a beautifully clear river at the foot of high limestone bluffs.

For the evening, we went back to the Folk Center and bought tickets for the concert in the auditorium. Once again, we heard the cream of this little town’s talented young musicians perform. Possum Juice, Backwoods Arkansas, The Wiede Family, and Grace Stormont were all amazing. The headliners, Mary Parker and the White River Ramblers, were brilliant. All of this and we had to stand up to be applauded for coming all this way to see them. Ishbel had been talking to the MC during the interval and it turns out he loves Scotland and Scottish music.

IMG_4197 These shows are recorded for broadcast on Ozark Highlands Radio, which is available online and which we’ll be checking out in the future.

Amazed by the talent on show and eager to keep playing music, we headed back to our little inn. There was jamming action at two of the three gazebos in the picking park and I decided to bite the bullet, pick up my mandolin, and head out there to sit in. Well, I took the mandolin out then couldn’t pluck up the courage to take it out of the case so we just listened to the musicians play for a while before calling it a night. Before we went, Ishbel got a photo of something that you would never see in the UK: a dobro-themed park bench!


We probably should have jammed more than we did but even so we had a great time in Mountain View. I’m grateful to the Trip Advisor respondent who brought it to my attention and, who knows, we might even make it back up into the Ozarks one day.

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack

Sunday was our last full day in Memphis before moving on yet again. Having been thwarted in my aim of seeing a baseball game in Baltimore by tornado warnings, I had a notion to see a minor league game here. So far this week, the terrible weather had prevented me from even considering it but Sunday was more promising. If the weather held fair, the Memphis Redbirds (AAA Farm team for the St Louis Cardinals) were scheduled to play the Nashville Sounds (Texas Rangers farm team) at 2:05pm. We pencilled this in for the afternoon.

For the morning, we had our by now traditional visit to the local Botanic Gardens to undertake. A $10 entry fee seemed a little steep, but it was Mothers’ Day in the US (it occurs in March in the UK) and mothers were admitted free today. Excellent! We took a leisurely stroll around the gardens and, as we walked, something strange happened. The sun emerged from behind a looming bank of cloud and stayed out. The day warmed up, and it looked like baseball was definitely on the agenda.

We exited the gardens and made our way into the city. The Redbirds play at a beautiful little stadium called AutoZone Park, right in the centre of Memphis. We parked just opposite the stadium and had time to make a stop at a place we’d been meaning to visit since we got here, but hadn’t quite yet got around to: The Peabody Hotel. This is where the great and the good (and the wealthy) were accommodated when visiting the city.


But that’s not why the Peabody is really famous. It’s the ducks. They have ducks that live on the roof of the hotel and every day, at 11:00am and 5:00pm the Duckmaster (real job at the Peabody) leads the duck parade down the stairs and into the fountain in the lobby.


We missed the parade but were able to see the ducks happily swimming in the water feature. The Peabody even has its own duck-themed walk of fame on the pavement outside.


We walked across the road from the hotel to the ballpark and settled into our $20 seats for an excellent afternoon of baseball. We did, in fact, root, root, root for the home team and saw the Redbirds win 7 – 2.


We had declined the option of ballpark food and, instead, walked over to Beale St once the game was over. It was our last evening here, so we wanted to hear some blues on Beale one last time before we left. We decided BB King’s place was a good option and we ate some great Southern barbecue and heard some great blues music in there.


After dinner, we headed back home and started the packing process again. We’re becoming quite expert in this. Tomorrow, we’re headed away from the big cities for a few days for a stop in rural Arkansas.

We ain’t fakin’, Whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on

As Jerry Lee Lewis sang on his 1957 release, catalogue no, Sun 267. Saturday morning dawned dreary and overcast. I thought the South was supposed to be hot by the middle of May but I’m still waiting for that to happen.

The big musical pilgrimage not yet completed here in Memphis was a visit to Sun Studios. Today we would put that right. It was here, in a nondescript brick building at 706 Union Avenue, that rock and roll music was born.

Sam Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service in January 1950, and from day 1, struggled to keep the business afloat. To make ends meet, he would record anything and everything: speeches, weddings, funerals, literally anything. In June of that year he launched his own label, called Phillips Records, which folded after one failed release.


He did, however, continue with his quest to find the sound he was looking for – a sound that would take the blues music he loved and somehow change it for a mass appeal – and specifically white – audience. Without his own label, he partnered with Chess Records in Chicago and sent them recordings for release.

When Ike Turner (of Clarksdale, Mississippi) rolled into Memphis in March 1951 for a recording session with his Kings of Rhythm, Sam was there to capture it. The only problem was that the band’s guitar amp had fallen off the back of the car on the drive from Clarksdale. They had stopped to recover it but when they set up in the studio, they discovered that the speaker was cracked. There was no money for a replacement, so they did their best to repair the damage by stuffing newspaper into the gap. And then they recorded Rocket 88, widely acknowledged as the first rock and roll record, notable for its distinctive, fuzzy guitar sound, thanks to that damaged amp. Ike Turner was hugely upset to discover that, for reasons unknown, the recording that was released by Chess Records was credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. Brenston was, in fact, the sax player in Ike’s band and another Clarksdale native.

Sam was encouraged to have another try at running a label as well as a studio and, in 1952, started Sun Records. In the label’s first year, he recorded BB King, Rufus Thomas, and Howlin’ Wolf but the label still struggled to make money. When, in July 1954, he agreed to record a young unknown by the name of Elvis Presley, he was hoping for great things from his distinctive voice. Elvis, together with musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black, recorded ballads and gospel songs all through the session. This was not what Sam wanted to hear. As he was giving up on the session, Elvis picked up a guitar and started playing an obscure blues tune by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup that he had heard as a kid. That tune was That’s All Right released as Sun 209. On the B-Side was a Bill Monroe song, Blue Moon of Kentucky, although Elvis recorded it in 4/4 time as opposed to Bill’s waltz version. Bill later joked that he made more money from Elvis’ B-Side than any of his own recordings and subsequently started performing the song in 3/4 time at the start and changing to 4/4 halfway through. But with this single release, this little Memphis building changed the course of popular music. Enthusiastic youngsters beat a path to the door of Sun. The careers of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins were all launched from here.

And that’s why we simply had to visit here. Unlike the Stax Museum, much of the studio is original and the setup is largely the same as it was back in the fifties when these guys were laying down musical milestones. There are even genuine vintage microphones there.


Striking the pose was simply irresistible to me. You can still book sessions to record at Sun Studios. The tour around the building was excellent. The guides and staff there are all working musicians and they have some great stories to tell.


After finishing here, we had a considerably more sombre stop to make on our sightseeing trip.


On 4 April 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Downtown Memphis. The motel is now the National Civil Rights Museum and that was our next port of call.

The place is obviously popular, since there wasn’t a single space left in the car park when we got there. There was plenty of on-street parking, so we loaded the meter for three hours and went inside. This is an incredible place. The exhibits are set up really well, charting the history of human rights in the USA chronologically which, almost by definition, means the history of black human rights. From the drive to preserve the slave trade as an engine of economic growth, to the Civil War. From the rights acquired by freed slaves in the Reconstruction period, to the implementation of Jim Crow laws and the effective disenfranchisement of a huge percentage of Southern African Americans.

The implementation of a culture of non-violent protest to achieve change in the law created tensions all across America in the fifties and sixties. This was not just a Southern problem, which is how I always simplistically viewed it from my foreign viewpoint. Rosa Parks is one of the most famous icons of peaceful protest but there were so many people who sacrificed so much to make progress.


I also hadn’t realised the extent to which the television coverage of how these peaceful protests were being broken up by Southern law enforcement officers was being utilised as a tool of Cold War propaganda by the Soviets. It was this  Soviet agitation, and wider international condemnation, that was at least partly responsible for forcing the hands of JFK and, later, LBJ to enact civil rights legislation in the face of extreme opposition.

If you find yourself in Memphis, you owe it to yourself to visit this place.


In the land of the Delta Blues, in the middle of the pouring rain

Thursday dawned dreary and drizzly in the delta, hence the use of the line from Marc Cohn’s Walking in Memphis. We decided on an indoor activity for today. Poker! There is a town called Tunica in Mississippi which is home to a number of casinos, including the Horseshoe, part of the Caesars chain. It holds a daily poker tournament starting at noon and Thursday’s event has a $65 entry fee so we decided to take the hour-long drive down there to brush up our rusty poker minds. In the end, we both bust on the same hand so neither of us had to spend time hanging around waiting for the other.

On the way back, we stopped at a visitor information centre that also had a nice little museum attached to it. We stopped for a look around then headed back to Memphis. The weather just kept deteriorating all day, so we enjoyed a quiet evening in.

Friday, the weather wasn’t much better but we had set today aside for a look at one of the most famous locations in the history of the blues: the junction of highways 61 and 49. Also known as the Devil’s Crossroads.

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This is where, legend has it, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for the ability to play guitar in a masterly fashion. This legend is referenced in Walter Hill’s 1986 movie and, of course, in Johnson’s own song Cross Road Blues, which was subsequently covered by artists such as Eric ClaptonLynyrd Skynyrd, and Cyndi Lauper.

Robert Johnson died at the age of 27 in 1938, allegedly poisoned in a juke joint, and left behind a legacy of only 29 recorded songs. His work has been hugely influential on the subsequent development of blues and rock and roll music. If you’re unfamiliar with his music, I urge you to give it a listen.

This crossroads is in the town of Clarksdale, Mississippi which brands itself the birthplace of the blues, with good reason. Many great bluesmen, including Son House, came from the area. Sam Cooke was born there. Bessie Smith died there. Chicago Blues exists because of the migration of rural workers from the Mississippi delta to the north, seeking industrial work.

Also in Clarksdale is the Delta Blues Museum, which features a huge range of artefacts from blues greats across the decades.


Unfortunately, there are no photos allowed inside the building, so we’ll have to make do with our memories. We really enjoyed our Clarksdale visit, and our immersion in old school delta blues. If you’re in the area and you like music (and why would you be in the area if you didn’t), pay a visit.

Long distance information give me…

Memphis, Tennessee. As Chuck Berry immortally implored back in 1959. We rolled into town here on Tuesday, May 7th.

On our way out of Nashville, we had stopped off to see a typical Southern Antebellum mansion, Belle Meade Plantation. Although nominally described as a plantation, the building and land had gained wealth and fame not through cotton but as a result of its thoroughbred breeding program. In particular, a horse called Bonnie Scotland was imported from England and was the progenitor of a large number of successful horses, including Secretariat and Seabiscuit, both of whom have had movies made about their success. The building itself was fascinating and the guide did an excellent job of guiding us through the various rooms and describing what life was like for the different populations of Belle Meade: the wealthy owners and the slaves.

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The mansion is now owned and run by a charitable trust and they have an interesting initiative currently underway. There’s a recognition of the lack of information on the lives of the many African Americans who lived and worked on the farm, both as slaves and post-emancipation. They are trying to address this gap by engaging in archaeological, sociological and genetic research to derive a fuller picture. We wish them well in their efforts.

Belle Meade was only a minor diversion from our route. We were moving in the right direction for Memphis but joined the Interstate slightly later than we otherwise would have. So we arrived at our AirBnB by mid afternoon and checked ourselves in. We’re in a converted garage – as we have been previously in our travels – and have plenty of room to park the car and to spread out in our little abode.

After unpacking, we checked the location of the nearest supermarket and discovered it was an easy walk away. It turns out we’re quite near a gentrification border where we have nice little row houses all around us then two blocks away we’re among some decrepit commercial and industrial units by the main road. It was still an easy walk to the supermarket, but the difference was abrupt and quite jarring. Importantly, we were able to buy some milk so our tea consumption was safe here in Memphis. We had a relaxed meal in and saved further exploration for the next day.

We have a couple of major sites that we want to take in here, but we had to make decisions on what to do first. We decided that Stax Records was the place to go. On our second wedding anniversary (32 years ago), Ishbel’s parents lent us their car (we didn’t have one of our own) and we drove to Fort William for a couple of days. Since it wasn’t our car, it lacked any musical choices that we had made. We decided to stop at a petrol station and buy something for the long drive. Petrol stations, as you’d expect, do not have a wide range of music available and what they have is mostly compilations. We settled on a cassette (32 years ago, remember) of Atlantic Soul Classics. Most of the songs on that tape were recorded in the converted cinema at 926 E. McLemore Ave, Memphis, Tennessee that served as Stax’s studio.

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This place was a dream visit for us. The old building was torn down in 1989 but the Stax Museum is a replica of what was there before. The volume of quality music that poured out of this place is remarkable, as is the list of artists whose careers it kickstarted. Booker T. and the MGs, Isaac Hayes, Otis redding, Wilson Pickett – the list goes on and on.

After Stax, we moved on to look at Graceland. We’re not huge Elvis fans and were a little ambivalent about taking the tour, but it turned out to be really enjoyable. They provide iPads to all visitors to guide you through the mansion, but that’s also a clever way of keeping everyone moving along which, with the number of people taking the tour every day, is very necessary.


I realised I wasn’t that big an Elvis fan because in my musically formative years, I was familiar with Elvis the Vegas entertainer, rather than Elvis the rebel who changed popular music forever. It was good to be reminded of what he did, when he did it, and why he is revered by so many even today.

After Graceland, we went back to our little pied-à-terre to relax for a while before our next stop: Beale Street.


There aren’t many streets that boast their own app. Beale is about three blocks of music bars and restaurants. It’s a little bit like Broadway in Nashville, but with a grittier, less gentrified feel. We ate in Silky O’Sullivan’s, and managed to get a seat under cover there just before the heavens opened and the rain settled in for the night. We listened to the band there for a little while and chatted with a nice group who were visiting from St. Louis before moving on to our next stop, which was Tin Roof. Again, we had a drink and a listen to the band there before our third and final stop of the evening in the Rum Boogie Cafe. This was probably the best music of the evening, but it was also the latest so maybe bands get better as the evening draws on. Or maybe we become less discerning.

One note for Beale Street bouncers: if the sign says “We ID everyone – No exceptions”, then it just makes us old people feel bad when you casually wave us through. We don’t want to be exceptions!