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Driving through the Mississippi
Driving through the Mississippi
Stopping off along the way
Ben the cowboy

US drive part III

Thursday, May 13, 2004
Ben hooks up with the Cajun cowboys as he continues his road trip to Louisiana.

From Memphis, Ben hopped into his Buick Riviera and hit the highway for 112km into the state of Mississippi … Clarksdale in fact, the home of blues music, right in the heart of the Mississippi delta cotton country. The earthy music was created by black cotton workers in the early 1900s as an expression of their hopes and dreams. Many of the music's greats were born in Clarksdale or thereabouts.

The rich alluvial plain of the delta landscape provides wonderful backdrop for visitors and Clarksdale is particularly welcoming for those who love or want to learn about this marvellous music.

The Delta Blues Museum is a magnet for music lovers. All forms of popular music from the 1920s can be traced back to the blues. Country, rock, bluegrass, jazz, ragtime and rap are documented in the museum, in a 1918 brick building. Photographs, instruments, the written word and of course the sounds of music gently fill its rooms. Most visitors are interested to visit the crossroads on the street, where, it is said, the legendary Robert Johnson stood and sold his soul to the devil to improve his guitar playing.

Clarksdale might be a quiet country town by day, but at night it revs up, thanks to what locals call juke joints. Sarah's Kitchen is the most popular. Every night you are guaranteed to hear some toe-tapping music here. On Thursdays they hold open-mike night and everyone is welcome to strut their stuff. James "Super Chicken" Johnson is a regular and the crowds just love him, his music and his humour. He says he started out with nothing and still has most of it left!

The next leg of the drive was south to Louisiana. Apart from swamp critters and cowboys, Louisiana is swathed in the romance of pirates, Mardi Gras and voodoo. It has been influenced by French-speaking Cajuns descended from 18th-century French-Canadian refugees and haughty Creole aristocrats, famous for their mansions, masked balls, family feuds and duels.

Almost as soon as Ben crossed the border into Louisiana he met Earl Dake, who extended an invitation to join him on a swamp trip, just outside Baton Rouge, the state capital. The university town is a major industrial city and thriving port, with a rich history and traditions left by Spanish conquistadors, French Arcadians, the antebellum plantation era and the busy life provided by the river.

The swamps can be dangerous, but beautiful as well. The land is wet and soft, bog-like, with potential pockets of quicksand. Moss-covered cypress trees grow in shallow water and above water everything is covered with marsh grasses, vines, palmettos and irises. Grey-green Spanish moss hangs in wispy trails and animals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and all sorts of birds inhabit the swampy area.

If visiting the swamps, it's highly recommended to do so with someone who knows what to look out for. Snakes and alligators live there and the venom of the cotton mouth is highly toxic and can be fatal.

After a good look around and an unforgettable meal of jambalaya and fried crawfish, Ben's next stop was an outing with some more unusual locals, the Cajun Cowboys.

The group meets on the second Sunday of each month. There are usually enough people to form two posses. They find 100 rounds of pistol, 100 rounds of rifle and 25-to-50 rounds of shotgun ammunition sufficient for the outing. Their firearms, ammunition and garb are typical of the pre-1900 old west. They love having visitors and say "just show up, we'll be plum proud to meet ya".

Voodoo is alive and well in America's south. As you will discover from a visit to the temple, voodoo purports to give people better self balance in life and says it is sensitive to all the vibrations of the universe. The Voodoo Spiritual Temple says its purpose is to train and develop the spiritual and mental powers which lie dormant in each of us.

Priestess Miriam says she is without prejudice, seeing people not for race or colour but what is within their hearts. She travels the world lecturing, teaching and sharing her spiritual knowledge. She also gives consultations and African bone readings and conducts voodoo weddings.

The last leg of Ben's southern journey took him to New Orleans. No visit there is complete without going to the French Quarter. Its architecture is exquisite; it has loads of history, elegant shops, lacy ironwork, jazz clubs, the famous Bourbon Street with its blocks of jazz and Dixieland clubs.

The French Quarter covers 120 blocks and sits on a bend in the Mississippi River. It's a thriving neighbourhood, with many buildings dating to the 1700s, mostly Spanish rather than French. Thirty-five-thousand buildings here are on the National Register of Historic Places, more than anywhere else in the US.

The Louisiana Purchase was signed in the Cabildo. You can visit from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am and 5pm. The Cathedral of St Louis is the oldest continuously-active Roman Catholic Cathedral in the US.

Jackson Square has always been the heart of the French Quarter. Originally known as the Plaza d'Armas, it was a large open common, used at times as military parade grounds and later as a marketplace for fish, fowl and produce.

It faces the Mississippi River and is bounded by the St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo and the Presbytere on Chartres Street. Inside is a statue of its namesake Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans.

Surrounding Jackson Square is a pedestrian mall and an iron fence that has been used for decades by the artists, at times numbering 300 or more, who work and display there.

The Old Ursuline Convent is the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley. It was completed in 1750 and has beautiful rose and herb gardens, as well as a restaurant. It opens from 10am to 3pm Tuesday to Friday and 11.15am to 2pm on weekends.

The 10 blocks of Royal Street has some of the most elegant antique stores and homes in the country. Many have been owned, operated and lived in by the same families for generations.

New Orleans has had its share of literary luminaries. Truman Capote returned to his birthplace to write his first major work, Other Voices, Other Rooms. It also featured prominently in many of Tennessee Williams's works — one of the city's prominent cultural events is the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival.

Nobel Laureate William Faulkner lived in Pirate's Alley while writing Soldier's Pay. The Faulkner House has been declared a national literary landmark. F Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman all fell under the spell of the city. There are many literary tours available. There are also jazz tours, Mississippi Riverboat tours, mansion tours … something to interest just about everyone.


Mississippi and Louisiana in the US


Please note prices are valid at time of filming.

More information

Delta Blues Museum
1 Blues Alley
Clarksdale MS 38614
Ph: 662 627 6820 F: 662 627 7263

Sarah's Kitchen
208 Sunflower Avenue
Clarksdale MS 38614
Ph: 662 627 3239

Cajun Cowboys
Logan Sackett aka Sam Nixon
Ph: 225 756 3284

Vice President
Black Bart Smith aka Jim Martin
Ph: 225 755 6012

Voodoo Spiritual Temple
828 North Rampart
New Orleans LA 70116
Ph: 514 522 9627

The Cabildo
701 Chartres Street
New Orleans 70116
Ph: 504 568 6968

The Old Ursuline Convent
1112 Chartres Street
New Orleans 70116
Ph: 504 529 3040

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