Jazz, blues and gumbo in the Deep South

The French Quarter in New Orleans is brimming with antique buildings and music
The French Quarter in New Orleans is brimming with antique buildings and music   GETTY IMAGES

‘So can we go upstairs?” An overworked guide gives me a weary look. “Nobody goes upstairs, nobody but family.” My grown-up daughter and I are on the porch of Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, at the end of a road trip through the Deep South that has brought us to the second most visited house in America.

I know from the books that above us is the “death bathroom” where a heart attack felled Elvis Presley, supposedly as he read A Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus on the loo. With no chance of inappropriate selfies, we settled into our basic $43.75 tour.

The first striking fact is that, unlike everything else in America, Graceland is smaller than you expect: a solid suburban home gussied up by a portico with four Corinthian columns. The second surprise is that for all the green shag carpeting on ceilings, the white settees, the faux fur upholstery and the indoor waterfall, the interior is really rather intimate and homely. You can see why Elvis loved the place.

Visitors to Graceland are forbidden from seeing the bathroom where Elvis died
Visitors to Graceland are forbidden from seeing the bathroom where Elvis died   MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

Long before reaching Presley’s doorstep, music and food had become the twin Corinthian pillars of our trip from Louisiana up Highway 61, the old “blues highway” through Mississippi. The adventure had begun, as many do, in New Orleans, specifically on that garish slash of neon, Bourbon Street, which cuts through the picturesque and otherwise charming French Quarter. Just off the plane, we went to the Desire Oyster Bar for our Welcome to Louisiana meal. Its no-nonsense menu was not for the weak-stomached: firecracker oysters, fried alligator (like chicken but saltier) and gumbo (southern stew). When a towering plate of shrimp and grits (similar to polenta) and a case of over-ambitious ordering defeated me, Kentrell, the oyster man, told me about the diner who downed nine orders of a dozen oysters. Yes, but that probably wasn’t at 3am UK time.

The next day we ventured farther into the French Quarter. In the balmy sun, surrounded by colourful, flower-bedecked antique buildings, you would have to try hard not to have a good time. Music was, of course, everywhere — a funky brass band, country blues buskers. Yes, this is tourist land but the standard was high, save for a lone trumpeter in Woldenberg Park by the Mississippi who seemed to slip into Baa, Baa, Black Sheep every time inspiration flagged. Even the living statues were a cut above, though the one we admired most, an eccentric figure in Canal Street, turned out, in fact, to be just a statue.

The restaurants too have their surprises. At ancient Napoleon House they showed us the upstairs chambers supposedly prepared for Bonaparte’s exile (never used after he died in St Helena). Above Arnaud’s Jazz Bistro there is a museum showing the costumes worn by the founder’s daughter at Mardi Gras balls. We inspected rows of ghostly mannequins clad as a mix of Disney princesses and Marie Antoinette.

John Bungey takes a break from Highway 61
John Bungey takes a break from Highway 61

By now, however, the road was calling — Highway 61, the legendary road as revisited by Bob Dylan. At first, however, the journey was dull unless you are a fan of swamp and low-budget ribbon development. However, excitement grew as it began to rain — and rain. By the time we reached picturesque Natchez, tornado warnings were gusting all over cable TV. Our hotel, the Grand, sat on a bluff high over the Mississippi, which was not, as in the Paul Simon song, “shining like a National guitar”. Instead Ol’ Man River brooded grey and ominous.

Natchez is known for the glories of its plantation houses — not so glorious if you were one of the four million slaves in the South labouring amid the cotton and sugar cane. The most spectacular residence we saw was Longwood, a six-storey mansion designed in Moorish style that comes with a poignant backstory. Only the basement was fitted out internally when the Civil War broke out and the northern builders fled. Its owner then died and his wife, reduced to penury, lived on with the children in the basement — as did their descendants for 100 years — never having the money to complete the interiors. The grand and ghostly upper floors are now a favourite for vampire movie-makers.

On we drove, the road taking us past more swamp and shacks and what looked in places like picturesque poverty, but real poverty nonetheless. We stopped at little Greenwood where the Alluvian was a fine boutique hotel, much-loved by weekending Americans. However, the rest of this little cotton city was a puzzle. For all its period buildings, the centre has been “hollowed out” by suburban growth. Trying to walk to a shop where you could buy, say, a banana or even (mad idea) a newspaper proved impossible. Instead we took the car to the Museum of the Mississippi Delta where they had the skeleton of a local mastodon, a re-creation of a swamp, and made a game attempt at explaining the convulsions of the Civil War and the bitter civil rights struggle in these parts.

Next came blues day. We drove out of town to the rustic little Zion Missionary Church to pay our respects at what may be the grave of the commercially insignificant but hugely influential bluesman Robert Johnson. There are two other alleged burial sites to choose from. Our route then took us past the crossroads where Johnson is said to have met the Devil to sell his soul in return for supernatural musical powers. Today Beelzebub would be crushed by the 18-wheelers trundling past before he could make the deal.

Halfway to Memphis we stopped at Clarksdale, touted as the birthplace of blues music. At the Delta Museum they were handing out fairy cakes to mark the birthday of Muddy Waters. The Ground Zero club is one part tourist trap, one part blues cliché and one part a very good time. We sipped root beer and listened to some righteous guitaring.

In Memphis we arrived at the new Napoleon Hotel, which pulls off the trick of being homely and hip. We told the valet we wanted to visit Sun Studio, cradle of early rock’n’roll. He pointed down the street. But it was one of those American urban forays via crumbling or non-existent sidewalks and past wandering lost souls that proved impossible for us. So we retreated and caught a bus. Sun Studio is small and airless, bedecked with pictures of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and sundry lost legends. At one end is a drum kit left behind when U2 rattled and hummed here in 1987; at the other end our guide, Nina, unveiled an ancient Shure 55 mike that Elvis may or may not have sung into. “Do not kiss it or lick it,” she implored, as the holy relic was passed round.

Downtown Memphis was smart and shiny, the rest was not. We ate a decent plate of gumbo in Beale Street, the music quarter, which is heavily touristy. But the National Civil Rights Museum, built around the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot in 1968, is hugely moving. King’s bedroom is preserved as on the day of his death. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, celebrating the mighty local label, was also $13 well spent.

After our Graceland foray, it was a six-hour straight drive down the Interstate 55 for another brief taste of New Orleans. At a final brunch at Commander’s Palace, I drank a potent local Sazerac cocktail, then another, and not surprisingly fell asleep on the plane home. I had a dream that I was back in Graceland and the reincarnated Elvis himself was showing me round upstairs. Yet as we reached his inner sanctum he morphed into an air stewardess who was telling me to buckle up for landing. Some things in the Deep South will for ever remain a deep mystery.

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