January 1, 2021

by Rosalin Moss

The Mississippi Club

 

 

Chilly Billy Howell

 

Delta Bohemian

 

Billy Howell

Photograph courtesy of Billy and Madge Howell.  All rights reserved.

 

Billy Howell did a lot of moving around and exploring before he made his way back to the place he loves most, the Mississippi delta.  Although he is a native-Mississippian, he has lived in New Mexico, Idaho, Colorado, Texas, Tennessee, and Arkansas.  Billy Howell doesn't regret any of his previous experiences, but he is thrilled to be back where he started.  He puts it this way, "Found out where I'm supposed to be, but I'm still glad that I went and toured the world for a while."

 

Judging from TripAdvisor reviews and customer satisfaction, Howell is definitely where he is supposed to be and doing what he is supposed to be doing.  His successful tour business, Delta Bohemian Tours, has gotten nothing but rave reviews. What I wanted to know was how and why did Howell get started in the tour guide business.

 

After returning to Clarksdale, he wrote for the local newspaper and taught school for a while.  He later decided to change careers and became the manager for the Clark House, where the touring business first began to evolve.  Many of the Clark House guests were interested in knowing more about the area, so he began showing folks around the town and the surrounding areas.  He started out with a pedi-cab, touring mostly within the city limits, then later he used an old jeep to transport folks around town and the surrounding areas.  He didn't know half as much about the delta as he does now, especially the blues history, but since he grew up in Clarksdale, he knew enough to get him started.  "When I moved back I didnít really know much about the delta as far as the bluescentric end of it at all.  I hung out in the delta a lot so I was familiar with it, but I didnít know the crossroads was here in Clarksdale when I moved back.And because most of the people visiting Clarksdale were there because of the blues culture and the deep blues history, Howell's interest and knowledge of the blues evolved along with the touring business. 

 

Billy and Madge Howell

Photograph courtesy of Billy and Madge Howell.  All rights reserved.

 

 

Another thing Billy Howell had done after returning to Clarksdale was marry the love of his life, Madge Marley, who managed Morgan Freeman's Madidi Restaurant, where he was also a part-time bartender.  Madge played an integral part in setting up and managing the administrative end of the Delta Bohemian Tours, such as brochures, booking engine, website, and such.  Although the tours started out with informal tours around town in a pedi-cab, it has now evolved into an information-packed, fun-filled cruise in an air-conditioned jeep.  "Our prime driver for the tourism is the blues, but now that Clarksdale has popped up on people's radar all across the world, it's just  a cool, unique place to visit.  People are wanting to understand more of why the blues was birthed here.  So we came up with the idea of a regional identity tour, which gives them a holistic look at the tapestry and why so much music and art was birthed out of this unique place," Howell explains.  He mentioned that he would be expanding his current tour routes to include Oxford, Delta to Oxford and Oxford to Delta tours.

 

When I asked Howell if he ever got bored with doing tours of the same area, he assured me that it was not possible because the tourist was the actual driver behind the tour.  His aim is to connect with the tourist and base his tour narrative on that connection.  The tours start from where ever the tourist is staying, so he rearranges the narrative as needed.  "I pick up people where they're staying, so it changes my narrative depending on where I start."  His wife Madge describes his connection skills this way, "Billy has a gift with words, his thoughts and being able to put them down in writing.  He has a really great sense of humor.  His tours are successful because it's him, his perspective, given who's in the car with him, how he shares it.  He caters to them individually and meets them where they are.  He's a special person and that is as much the tour as what he shows them.  He has a way of connecting with people.  He plays it by hear for them." 

It is that special connection that has resulted in some tourists who booked with Delta Bohemian Tours becoming good, personal friends with the Howells.  "I think the ones that I really enjoy the most are the ones who took extended tours and I really got to know more intimately.  Several have taken the tour and stayed with Madge, and became good friends and they don't even live in this country.  That's the beauty of how God brings people together and that's what we really relish in this business.  Although we are under water now and we really don't make any money when we're rolling, we really love it.  The whole world comes to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and we get to break bread with them."

One of the things that stand out to me about Billy Howell is his love of people and his desire to have a meaningful relationship with those who are willing to do the same. When I asked him what, if anything, did he learn from people around the world coming to Clarksdale, this is what he said, "One of the neatest things is they come here -- young, old, black, white, liberal, conservative, rich, poor, we get a conglomeration of different people coming here for a myriad of reasons --  and part of the beauty of the whole world coming here is because we live in somewhat of a provincial, pseudo-isolated area, that it's so easy for any group of people to get singular-focused or myopic in our views.  To have the whole world come here and to be able to constantly see ourselves through the eyes of others who are different and diversified is a real blessing and I think it helps keep things fresh."

 

Delta Bohemian Tours Jeep

Photograph courtesy of Billy and Madge Howell.  All rights reserved.

 

Howell's tour guide business is the icing on a cake built with layers of experience and knowledge in many areas.  The foundation layer is his birth and upbringing in the Mississippi delta.  From there he went to Ole Miss, the U.S. Army, then back to Ole Miss to finish up a business degree.  After that he worked at several jobs, including on the Cotton Board in Memphis where he traveled around the southern states visiting cotton gins.  Then on to Dallas, Texas, where he got a theology degree, entered into his first marriage, and managed a book store.  Later he moved to Idaho and sold insurance, moved to New Mexico and worked in a disabilities rehab business, moved to Arkansas and worked in a uniform company.  Before moving back to Clarksdale, he moved back to New Mexico and began teaching.  When he did finally move back to his hometown, he was teaching school, but later decided that he was ready to do something different -- managing the Clark House, which ultimately led to his Delta Bohemian Tours business.

Writing poetry is a side of Billy Howell that might not be expected.  I wanted to know when he started writing poetry.  "I had a grandmother who died at the age of 94, who had lived through the depression.  She was pragmatic and frugal but very literary.  She loved poetry and her mother wrote poetry.  I was always exposed to it but I never read a lot of poetry until I took a class at the University of California and was exposed to Walt Whitman and had to really delve into one singular poem and write about it.  It opened my eyes to the power of poetry.  And when I went into recovery --- I needed to quit smoking weed and drinking -- I started writing a little poetry when I was in treatment.  What I enjoy about poetry is that it makes me slow down.  If I slow down, there is such beauty in the rhythm and flow of poetry."

Billy Howell smoking a cigar in cigar lounge

Photograph courtesy of Billy and Madge Howell.  All rights reserved.

 

Smoking cigars is another avenue Howell uses to slow down.  He took up smoking cigars when he gave up some other habits.  "Just typical of any addict, we always get into something.  Now, that is my thing.  I don't inhale them, so they don't hurt my lungs.  It's just something that I pour myself into, looking at all the nuances, I buy them online pretty cheap.  And when I go to other towns, I love to visit a cigar lounge."  Howell can also keep up is connection with people in a cigar lounge. "One thing I love about going to cigar lounges, it doesn't matter where I go to one, even in the predominantly White areas, 60-80% of the people in there are Black.  It's just exciting to me.  It's really great.  Everyone in there is always respectful, playing dominoes, playing cards, etc.  It's just a neat group of people that I wouldn't get to rub shoulders with in everyday life."  Madge Howell added, "We went to a cigar lounge when we went on our cruise in January, in Nassau, and it was so cool.  And like Billy said, most of the people in there are Black people, it's just awesome, everyone is just so friendly and laid-back, and cool.  I don't smoke cigars, but I certainly see the attraction to it.  People are in there together, they're not arguing, they're all just enjoying life, some slow-down time -- because it takes some time to smoke a cigar - a good cigar can take an hour to hour and a half  to smoke.  And while they're sitting there smoking, they are in conversation with each other from time to time.  It's really a cool thing."

Billy Howell at Moon Lake

Photograph courtesy of Billy and Madge Howell.  All rights reserved.

 

The ultimate slow-down for Billy and Madge is their place on Moon Lake.  "It's about 20 miles from Clarksdale.  We live in a tiny house in a trailer park.  We just decided to downsize early while we still could.  This is our favorite place to live.  We have really nice neighbors.  We've got a nice walking path.  And the interesting thing was when we moved out here, we said, okay, we'll be 20 miles from town, that's a 40-mile trip every day.  It's a peaceful thing."  And although the lake has gotten as close as six inches from coming into the house, they have not been flooded yet.

After having done over 500 delta tours, I wanted to know if Howell could sum up the delta in a sentence or two or three.  He said, "I always start my tours with . . . 'There are no metaphysical certitudes in the Mississippi delta, meaning nothing is for certain, everything is subjective, including time.'  And if folks apply logic, they are behind the curve to begin with.  So, I tell them once that makes sense, then everything makes sense, which means nothing makes sense." 

Delta Bohemian Tours Jeep

Photograph courtesy of Billy and Madge Howell.  All rights reserved.

 

Howell went on to elaborate further about the delta.  "What I really hope I get across to people, regardless of any persuasion they have politically, religiously,  ideologically, in any form, that we are black and white, young and old, so much more diversified than most of the world realizes, that we break bread more than the world realizes, and that we really are a lot less segregated than most other places.  And that, as a rule, it doesn't mean that we didn't have institutional racism here, we did, it was awful, but as a rule we try to set aside our 'isms and 'ology's for the sake of relationship and thankfully, we don't have the luxury of segregation, so we have to figure out how to let iron sharpen iron and as a rule we love each other on a personal basis.  What we all share is a reverence for God whether black or white in the delta."

When I asked Howell what he would say if he could get the world to listen, this is what he said, "I guess I would say look around you at creation and realize that something or someone was at work.  Now, let's figure out who or what was at work."

My objective after each chat is to determine what I have learned about the person I am chatting with.  The first thing I can say about Billy Howell is that he is genuine, authentic.  In view of his travels and extensive work experience, I believe he has genuinely learned how to connect with all types of people on many levels.  Although he was away from Mississippi for many years, he is happy to be back where he started and loves telling those who want to know about the awesomeness of the Mississippi delta.  Howell is also a man of strength, willing to make changes in his life that he deems necessary, reinventing himself as he moves from one phase of his life's journey to the next.  The one thing that never changes is his belief and faith in God.

It is all about relationship with Billy Howell.  And you cannot have a genuine relationship if you do not connect in a genuine way.  I imagine that Howell has excellent observation and listening skills, which gives him the ability to make those personal connections that spark genuine relationships.  "The ones I remember most are the ones I really connected with," he says about those who book his tours.  The message I get loud and clear from Mr. Howell is that meeting each other on common ground is the key to good relationships, and our most common ground should always be loving God and loving fellowman.

 

--Rosalin Moss

The Mississippi Club

January 1, 2021