The Duck Master at the Peabody Hotel, Memphis is not an accolade given out lightly, in fact there have only ever been five (except for a brief guest spot by Stephen Fry). And what does the Duck Master do, I hear you say? It’s their job to herd the Peabody Ducks down from the penthouse coop on the roof down to the lobby, where they spend the day in the hotel’s fountain. Promptly at 5.30pm the Ducks are marched back up the lift for the night. This peculiar custom attracts quite a following as people line the short red carpet to witness the March of the Ducks.
The Lorraine Motel several blocks down the road, where Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated, is now the national museum to civil rights. I’ll leave it to the Museum to describe the important role Memphis has played in the history of the Civil Rights movement…
‘Memphis, once known as ‘boss-run’ town, has a long history of exploiting blacks for cheap labour. By the 1950s the city was flooded with out-of-work black cotton labourers. Desperate for work, they took whatever jobs were available. Sanitation jobs, low paying and dangerous, were among the worst.
‘Two sanitation worker, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were killed in the rear of a garbage truck on February 1,1968. Less than two weeks later, sanitation workers went on strike, determined to stay off the job until they received a decent living wage and safer working conditions. They also wanted their dignity and humanity recognised, their ‘I Am a Man’ placards made their goal clear. ‘
King made his first visit in March 1968 to support the sanitation strike, yet just one month later, his visit would end tragically.
The Mississippi delta is as the lonely planet says ‘where American music took root’. It arrived from Africa as the lifeblood of slaves evolving into the field songs of sharecroppers. Then on Highway 61, which leads from Memphis through the delta, Robert Johnson made his pack with the devil and America’s first blues guitar demigod arose. No place could more optimise the down and dirty nature of the delta, than Clarksdale and the ‘Bed & Beer’ Shack Up Inn.
Based on the Hopson Plantation, Tom and I rocked up to find our comfortable ‘office shack’ with covered porch, rocking chairs, old typewriter and broken shard of glass for a mirror. Each shack is cleverly ‘restored’ (I use this term loosely) sharecropper hut – or shotgun shack with some convenient mod cons. I’d describe it as glamping, with a hill billy twist. Sharecroppers were tied to the land they farmed, trapped in debt, and did not receive the spoils they laboured for.
We stayed out of season and mid week the Shack’s deserted bar in the cotton gin added an eerie tone to the set. Instead we were persuaded next door by another overly keen guest to Hopson Commissary for free tacos and their Live Acoustic set.
Venturing into Clarksdale, the tone of Memphis continues – streets are littered with empty buildings in a post-apocalyptic scene. But nestled amongst the decaying buildings and juke joints, sits Yazoo Pass, an oddly, out of place chic coffee shop serving delicious bowls of fresh fruit granola yoghurt. With full bellies, we set off on our 6 hour trip to New Orleans.