Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series by Cuenca expat John Keeble about his recent visit to the U.S. deep south and presents a British traveller’s view of the music and civil rights sites of the region. To read yesterday’s installment, click here.Tomorrow, Keeble recounts his experiences at the new lynching memorial at Montgomery, Alabama.
By John Keeble
Towns and cities in the deep south of the U.S. are rooted in slavery, the post-slavery years and the businesses that grew out of those times. Two that make striking contrasts today are Savannah, Georgia, and the historic blues town of Clarksdale, Mississippi.
I came by chance upon Savannah, conceived as a social reformer’s dream and turned into a centre for importing and trading in slaves. Today it is a beautiful, historic city of green squares and thoroughfares, charming people and easy-going life styles.
To quote the Mississippi writer and Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That is true of Savannah, from its weatherboard houses to its monuments that remember its Southern heritage.
“This is hallowed ground for us,” said a new friend and fellow writer, Darrell Gartrell, who returned to his slavery era roots 10 years ago. “It would be blasphemous to put a Union monument here.”
I guess he was right. I asked around, out of curiosity, but no one – including the tourist offices – knew of one.
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Savannah is a place that honours its own, some defeated but never abandoned: its British founders and shapers; the Revolutionary War heroes who sent colonial rule on its way; and, more controversial today, the memories of Confederate stars who fell to Union guns in the Civil War. These are all laid out in a series of squares and green spaces along Bull Street, a delightful, shady stretch from the outskirts of the historic area to the Savannah River.
The British soldier and parliamentarian James Oglethorpe, who founded the Georgia colony in 1732, designed Savannah as a town of elegant squares. His social design for the town focused on equality and the rejection of slavery – something that did not last after Oglethorpe returned to England in 1743.
When Union forces took Georgia in 1864, they destroyed everything in their path – until, on December 21, they captured Savannah. General Sherman apparently considered it too beautiful to burn and “gave” it to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift.
Today, the shape of the city’s historic quarter lives on with its squares filled with huge trees and monuments, and its streets lined with beautiful houses that, in some cases, saw the fall of confederacy hopes of saving the South’s way of life.
The river frontage teems with tourists while parallel streets further into the city carry on a dignified lifestyle of shops and restaurants.
All through the city, historic markers tell its story – and museums, tours and free transport make knowing Savannah easy. Falling in love with it is even easier.
You can pay several hundred dollars a night for accommodation if that appeals but I stayed in Darrell Gartrell’s charming old Airbnb house for $42 a night. It matches the man with books and interesting pictures – including a genuine B. B. King photo signed by the blues icon himself. When I arrived, I was lucky enough to join two friendly guests, an American filmmaker and writer, and a Japanese IT specialist visiting the US on business.
Clarksdale, Mississippi, is part of the music and mythology of the blues. The official Visit USA website suggests maybe the blues started there with the calls and answers in the cotton and vegetable fields during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Its blues links are legendary – from local lore that says seminal blues artist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for his music ability, to iconic musicians like Muddy Waters and Sam Cooke calling it home.
I was drawn to Clarksdale by live performances at actor Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club. It was a fitting location for music telling of pain and suffering.
In daylight, the club looked as ailing as the rest of the area, a monument to suffering, but the night before had been fabulous – everything I had been looking for and more. The dilapidated, atmospheric decor with graffiti-covered walls… the blues leaking from absorbed trancelike musicians… veganised Southern food washed down by a local beer. Does life get any better?
A few metres from the club was the ultra-smart, encompassing Delta Blues Museum that led me through blues history note by note: artefacts, pictures, even Muddy Waters’s house.
Outside, on the weekend I visited, Clarksdale looked like it had seen better times, with an old elegance crumbling in the face of time and adversity. All around the town were agricultural fields but now machinery does work once done by slaves, freed slaves and sharecroppers.
There was a Hookers Hotel and a Hopeless Case Bar, empty shops and broken windows. Local men were breakfasting outside a cafe bar, beer and cannabis to hand. On the broad street, an occasional car crept by and it was hard to imagine it was once new, once the joy of a proud owner. Maybe weekdays breathes fresh life into Clarksdale.
Photos by John Keeble
John Keeble is British-born photo-journalist living in Cuenca. He “retired” after 25 years with The Guardian in London and has spent the past 11 years giving media services to NGOs as well as writing about and illustrating social issues. He has had wide coverage for his articles and photographs since moving to Cuenca in February 2016.