Hey, sleepy head, get up!It's Elvis Day! Here in the town of the King's birth, I had a full morning ahead of me. First, I headed for his birthplace, a small shotgun shack that Elvis' father, Vernon, built with his own hands. A shotgun shack is a house in which all the rooms are in a line so that, theoretically, you could fire a shotgun through the front door and the pellets would exit through the back door without doing any damage. In the case of Elvis' birthplace, this hypothetical shot would not have far to travel. This is one tiny house. None of the furnishings currently found in the residence are original; like so many historic birthplaces, we're told they are of the type one would have found in the home, had one been there that fateful night Elvis first gyrated into the room.
I suppose it's difficult for an impoverished young couple to foresee that their offspring is going to have such an impact on the world that people will later want to see the magazine rack that was in the next room the night he was born. I'm certain it never occurred to Vernon and Gladys to save those peach jar glasses they were drinking out of that night. So all you expectant or prospective parents out there, take heed: don't throw away a thing!
After walking through the birthplace (that took literally 30 seconds!), I strolled across the grounds to the Elvis Presley Memorial Chapel. I don't quite get this angle on things, frankly. Elvis may, for all I know, have been quite devout but a chapel at his birthplace? He hasn't yet been awarded sainthood, has he? Inside the chapel, you can see a Bible he actually owned and the pulpit from the Assembly of God church he and his family used to attend (now I'm sorry but that's stretching it a bit). There's also an Elvis Presley Memorial Softball Field on the grounds, in addition to an Elvis Presley Cheap and Tacky Souvenir and Gift Shop. All this for only a dollar. One could avoid even that expense by not walking through the birthplace; as I said, the furniture didn't even belong to the family and one can view nearly the entire house from the front and back doors. I know it's only a buck but, hey, take it from me. Those dollars add up! My next stop was the aforementioned Assembly of God church the Presleys attended in Elvis's youth. It's a different denomination now but the singularly unattractive building still exists. This was followed by a quick stop at the King's elementary school.
Next, I headed for downtown Tupelo. I caught Tupelo Hardware, where he bought his first guitar; the Lyric theatre, where he used to go to the movies and the junior high school he attended until the family up and moved to Memphis when Elvis was in the eighth grade. By now, I was almost breathless from the excitement. That didn't stop me from heading for the local McDonald's, though. It's decorated with Elvis memorabilia throughout, including etched-glass room dividers portraying Elvis in various stages of his life. They tastefully declined to include a portrait from his bloated later years; I suppose they feared it would cut into their Big Mac sales and they were probably right.
Awestruck and glassy-eyed, I made my way from Tupelo to Oxford, Mississippi. This is where William Faulkner made his home the last 30-some years of his life. The house he lived in was a hundred years old when Faulkner purchased it in the early '30s. Faulkner named his estate, a beautiful old mansion on several acres of wooded land, Rowan Oak. Here, all the furniture is original and authentic. In fact, written on the walls of Faulkner's writing room, one can plainly see the outline for his award-winning novel, The Fable. Rowan Oak is a lovely spot, well worth a visit for anyone who is literary-minded.
While in Oxford, I ate a great lunch at a spot called Smitty's. It's apparently a long-standing Oxford institution, this little eatery, and deservedly so. I had a barbeque pork sandwich and a side of beans with hamhock. Mmm-mmm.
Departing Oxford, I hied myself back south and west to Indianola, stopping on the way to spend a few moments in Morgan City at the grave of the late, great bluesman, Robert Johnson. We still don't know how he died; it's generally accepted that he was poisoned, but some say he was knifed. Eyewitnesses say he died on his hands and knees, barking like a dog. Was it a woman that did him in? A cuckolded husband? An angry and protective father? We don't know for sure, but the story I heard most often was that he was poisoned by a father who didn't like the attention Johnson was paying his daughter. (One man even told me the father was paying indecent attention to his own daughter and it was jealousy that spurred him to murder. Ugh.)
I left Mr. Johnson and his mysteries and headed for the music. Three dollars bought me the Crackerjacks, a local R&B cover band; Little Jimmy King, a young blues guitar turk down from Memphis and an hour or two of B.B. King. This is an annual event in Indianola, one that is eagerly awaited by the locals. On my first stop in town yesterday, there was a TV camera crew doing a story on the ongoing preparations for the event. When they found out I was from New York, they asked permission to interview me on camera (it may have also had something to do with my oh-so-photographable blue eyes). I agreed, and I found out that it had indeed aired when someone recognized me at the concert (Hey, didn't I see you on TV last night? )
It's a tradition that, after the outdoor concert, B.B. plays a very late show at a local spot called Club Ebony. Supposedly, this is when he really wails. I was tempted to attend but, in the end, decided to drive on up to Clarksdale.
Continue on the American Odyssey.
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