Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Shake Rag Tales in Mississippi

The people, the place, and the purpose for the existence of Shake Rag, Mississippi...

This commemorative plaque is all that is left of an
all-African-American community of Shakerag in Tupelo, MS.
The term "shake rag" (or shakerag as it is often spelled) comes from several sources, but the most recognizable source was the small unincorporated community of Shakerag in Tupelo, Mississippi. Notwithstanding, there was also a Shakerag in Monroe County, Missouri. Both communities were populated by African Americans who wanted to forge their own lives. Both communities are now gone and live on only in the memories of either those who lived there or those who know about them.

Shakerag/Tupelo is significant not only for its vibrant but short existence, where businesses, cafes, churches, and the people prospered but also for its influence on Tupelo's most famous and beloved native son, Elvis Presley. He lived in "The Hill" area of Tupelo, which was adjacent to Shakerag, and he often went down to Shakerag to listen to the seminal blues and gospel music and was influenced by the music and the musicians.

This is one of the rare known photos of 13-year-old
Elvis Presley, outside the still existing hardware store
where his mother bought him his first guitar. There is a
woman standing in the shade (to the left) that is
thought to be Elvis's mother.
According to the Mississippi Blues Trail web site, "A local explanation for the origin of Shake Rag’s name refers to people 'shakin’ their rags' while fleeing a fight. The term was also used to describe African American musical gatherings in the 1800s and early 1900s and may be related to Shake Rag’s location next to the railway tracks; prior to regular timetables, passengers would signal for the engineer to stop a train by shaking a rag. Gambling and bootlegging were commonplace in Shake Rag and although outsiders often regarded the area as dangerous, former residents proudly recalled its churches, prosperous businesses, and strong sense of community, a quality highlighted in Charles 'Wsir' Johnson’s 2004 documentary about Shake Rag, Blue Suede Shoes in the Hood. Blues guitarists such as Willie C. Jones, Charlie Reese, 'Tee-Toc,' and Lonnie Williams played at Shake Rag house parties, on street corners, on a stage near the fairgrounds, and at the Robins Farm south of downtown, according to musicians who have stated that Elvis may have been especially swayed by the music of 'Tee-Toc' or Williams."

There's more to be said about Shake Rag/Tupelo and its influence on Elvis, but I will let local Tupelo folks tell it. Following the first video below, enjoy the music of Jack Rabbit Slim, who sings Shakerag and other songs...

Video: Shakerag mix with Jack Rabbit Slim...

Sunday, November 19, 2017

On the Road Again

A Return to Tupelo...

This Plaque outside of Johnnie's Drive-in
is about Elvis. As I've said, Tupelo is
proud of its native son
This time, I took my Mazda to Tupelo for recall-work, but that didn't mean Cliff and I would just sit at the dealership (which we did) all day. We're finally discovering that Tupelo, Mississippi, has a lot to offer, and it is a little over 35,000 people. Again, friendly, a bit more urbane than Columbus, Mississippi—at least one gets that feeling when in the larger downtown area of Tupelo. For one thing there's not that historic feel that you get in Columbus. In Tupelo the buildings have been modernized in the downtown more than they have been in downtown Columbus. Further, about that "urbane" feel, it's two things: the cafes along Main Street are numerous and funky, while others are classy, all within easy walking distance.

Tupelo is easy to navigate, in comparison to other towns of similar size, with three major freeway exchanges running north-south through the middle of town, and Main Street runs east-west and is easy to get to from the freeway. With our day divided into taking my car to the Mazda dealership and later walking the downtown, we had a busy day and evening.

Interior of Johnnie's
Drive-in—Cliff across the
room, regarding me as
I snapped his picture...
In fact, we ate lunch at Tupelo's oldest cafe, Johnnie's Drive-in. In the past, it is obvious that it was a drive-in, but it's also a diner, where we ate indoors. The cafe was established post-Great-Depression. One of the features of the cafe is its doughburger, which the waitress explained was developed during the depression and saved on beef by adding other ingredients to the meat to make it go further. It's served on a conventional hamburger bun. Nope, neither Cliff nor I tried it. Instead, we had a great old-fashioned hamburger and fries and soft drink. As with the vast majority of locally-run cafes we've visited, the staff at Johnnie's was southern friendly, talkative, and curious, and we were introduced to the owner, and he came to our table to talk awhile. He's an early Viet Nam veteran ('67-'68), and dedicates space to wounded warriors.

At dinner that night we ate at Kermit's Outlaw Kitchen, where the food is farm-to-table fresh, a fact the restaurant touts. Desserts are either made in-house or come from a local bakery; the meat is bought locally, never frozen (and...ahem...the prices show it). We had a delicious tuna steak, along with a plate of vegetables from local farmers, done up with a nice sauce of some sort. The made-fresh in-house bread pudding was delectable with whiskey and a peanut-butter sauce, topped with vanilla ice cream, which we enjoyed with freshly-brewed coffee, strong enough to get us through the night-time drive back to Columbus.

 The afternoon in downtown Tupelo was very pleasant that day. We had hit rain on our drive to Tupelo, but by just past noon, the sun was out, the breeze was gentle and we soon shed our jackets. Cliff is recovering from knee surgery, but he did well walking in the downtown area. Before dinner we also stopped in at The Crave coffee shop and bakery. That was a bit much to indulge in before dinner, but as usual it was worth it.

As I said up and down Main Street, right downtown, are lots of eateries and coffee shops, and as I indicated some of them are funky and the customers urbane. Customers seem mostly comprised of college-age students (though the closest university is 18 miles away) and young professionals and married couples. But overlaying it all is, of course, that southern accent. I've traveled in the deep south enough over the past two years to know that there's not one "southern" accent working, here. But that's another topic for another post.
We arrived at the restaurant early enough to get a table by the window and during the two-hours we spent there, the restaurant filled up quickly. They have both an upstairs and downstairs eating area, but upstairs that night were two separate parties of local businesses having a night out, so the seating quickly became an issue downstairs with even those with reservations having to wait until tables opened up.

The trip home to Columbus was an easy 70 miles on a good highway, though it turned this way and that and road construction slowed traffic for a few miles. The highway known as the Upper Natchez Trace runs near to Tupelo. The Natchez Trace Parkways in fact crosses all of Mississippi at an angle from Northeast Mississippi to Southwest Mississippi, and around Tupelo, just as it is near Columbus, the Trace is a beautiful highway, the traffic is light in most places and you're held to a steady 50 mph, which discourages heavy, high-speed travelers; and the Trace forbids commercial trucks. Here is a short video about the upper Trace. Again, the beauty of this highway astounds me.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Tennessee Williams' Home

And Columbus, MS, Welcome Center

The is the back of Tennessee Williams'
When you come into Columbus, Mississippi, from the west after crossing the Tennessee-Tom Bigbee River and pass the Columbus, Mississippi, welcome sign, you enter a small city with so much to offer that after more than a year, here, I've barely begun to visit all the places that make this city a special place. The places almost within walking distance of the downtown include the Mississippi University for Women (or the "W") (and on that campus is the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, one of the top-rated high schools in the United States, recently written up in The Atlantic), Friendship Cemetery, which is home to what is now considered to be the first Memorial Day celebration, the Rosenzweig Arts building (which has numerous events year-round, including this year a chance to see the Vienna Boys Choir in concert), not to mention the 77-year historic homes tour, and farther out of town, Waverly Mansion. But recently Cliff and I visited Tennessee Williams' Home and Welcome Center.

It is one of the first things you see as you enter the downtown.

The front of the Columbus Welcome Center
We entered from the back, because just inside the entrance are a collection of brochures on Columbus, including free maps of Mississippi and the close neighbor Alabama. Columbus is only 7 miles from the Alabama border and an easy drive to both Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. In a small room off the back entrance is the Welcome Center gift shop. But of course, since this is also Tennessee Williams' childhood home, the welcome center downstairs has several rooms devoted to replicating how the home looked when Tennessee Williams was a child, but the real delight is upstairs, where a memorial room devotes what might have been Williams' life in a play, including Acts and Scenes depicted by photos from throughout his life and short biographical sketches in each Act of his life. It moves in chronological order from his birth to his death. Columbus is quite right to devote much of its admiration to Tennessee Williams who is arguably one of America's most important playwrights.

The Tennessee Williams Home and Welcome Center is the first home of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tennessee Williams. The author made history with well-known plays such as "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," and "The Glass Menagerie."

Williams, the man said to be America's most important playwright, was born in Columbus, Mississippi, on Sunday, March 26, 1911. He spent his early years in an old Victorian home that served as the rectory for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Williams’ grandfather, the Reverend Walker Dakin, served as minister for the church from 1905 through 1913.

Prominent in Friendship Cemetery is the Weeping Angel
monument, dedicated to one of Columbus' most beloved
citizens, the Rev. Thomas Teasdale
One morning Cliff and I joined others for a series of porch plays, which began at the Welcome Center, then en masse the group moved on to the next porch play at a home on Columbus' south side, home of some of the finest historic homes in Columbus. As I've said in other posts, I've visited Friendship Cemetery and enjoyed the MSMS student presentations of "Tales from the Crypt", an annual event, and I took Cliff there one summer afternoon and we spent a long while wandering through the cemetery, noting especially the area where Union and Confederate soldiers were buried. Even today both Union and Confederate war dead are honored each year. These days, it's important to note that while many Confederate statues are coming down across the south, Columbus, Mississippi, takes pride in honoring both Confederate and Union soldiers, without judgment, other than the lives lost on both sides. This tradition has been the order of things now for well over 150 years. Columbus is a place where diversity finds a home and all points of view are respected. It is what drew me to Columbus in the first place.

Columbus even has an annual "Stella Shouting Contest" and what better way to illustrate that contest than to view the seminal scene from Tennessee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire."