Buoyed by the blues
The Delta vibe is upbeat as big names return and little Clarksdale experiences a comeback
Samantha Miller and Arthur (left) and Willie Pritchard of Memphis dance to bluesman Robert Belford at Red's Lounge in Clarksdale, where visitors can stay in "shacks" at Hopson Plantation. (Essdras M. Suarez/Globe Staff)
It's after midnight and my brother, Jim, and I are strolling down a desolate stretch of Sunflower Avenue. We can hear the music blaring from the sidewalk, but I am apprehensive as we walk into a dimly lighted juke joint the size of a beach cottage. Red's Lounge smells of sweat and cheap bourbon and is jammed with a mix of locals and Europeans, drinks in hand, all staring in admiration at a big dude hunched over his guitar. Man, can he belt out the blues, crooning about lost love and slim wages as his eyes open and shut under heavy lids. Jim and I smile, knowing we are witnessing a pure art form, real and raw.
We've listened to soul-stirring old school R&B on Beale Street in Memphis and tapped our feet to the gypsy jazz sound of Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. But most of those musical venues were far too cozy, as if they were built for tourists. Red's felt so genuine that you half-expected a young Muddy Waters to stroll on in and start picking at the guitar after his long, hot day in the cotton fields. We had arrived at the birthplace of the blues: the Mississippi Delta.
"To play the blues, you have to understand pain," B.B. King once said. Working the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta and living in squalid conditions in the Jim Crow South, early blues musicians had more than their fair share of misfortune. Their pain was America's gain as these sharecroppers combined work chants, gospel music, and African tribal songs into a unique blend of music that started on the front porches of their cabins and soon stretched to the street corners and juke joints of towns like Clarksdale. Farmers and their families came every Saturday to Issaquena Avenue to listen to the blues and forget about their woes.
The number of musical talents who began their careers in this small town of 21,000 is remarkable. Waters was raised on Stovall's Plantation outside of town. Soul man Sam Cooke was born here, along with electric blues master John Lee Hooker, W.C. Handy, and Ike Turner, whose green house still stands on Washington Street. The crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 is where bluesman Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for becoming a great player.
Waters's cabin is one of the highlights of the Delta Blues Museum, housed in a renovated freight depot. Waters taught himself harmonica at age 9 and guitar at 17, singing, he said, "deep down South blues, straight out of the bottom." A sculpture of Waters playing his guitar sits next to a television showing a video of rock stars like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck, all sharing stories of how they were inspired by the Mississippian. Other memorabilia in the museum collection include King's guitar "Lucille" and Sonny Boy Williamson's harmonica.
To get a feel of what it was like to live on a plantation, Jim and I spent the night at one of the most unique accommodations in the country, the Shack Up Inn. Set on the Hopson Plantation, where the mechanical cotton picker made its debut in 1941, six former sharecropper shacks have been converted by owner Bill Talbot into his own version of a B&B (bed and beer). Each rambling shack pays tribute to a blues legend; ours was dedicated to boogie-woogie pianist Pinetop Perkins, who once worked at this same plantation.
As you would expect, this is no sybaritic retreat. Yet, thin mattresses in the two bedrooms and rusted sinks in the bathroom more than make it up with personality. There's a large mural of Perkins at the piano, blues playing on the TV, a fridge stocked with beer, and beaten sofas on the front porch that overlooks the cotton gin. The place has a loyal following of blues aficionados from around the globe, as evidenced by this quote in the guest book, "Pinetop, thank you for keeping me company on our long drives together. I love and admire you."
Talbot recently spent $1.6 million to create 10 rooms in the cotton gin and plans to acquire more shacks. He bought the "Robert Cray" shack from a tractor driver, who raised his two sons in it. "When I brought it back to the property, I found his homemade whiskey still in the attic," Talbot says with a chuckle.
Facing a long life of adversity, many of the early musicians like Johnson and Waters took Highway 61 north to Memphis and said good riddance to the Delta. But it seems like the tide along the Mississippi River has turned as celebrities are returning to their childhood homes. In summer 1996, actor Morgan Freeman bought a ranch in Charleston, 39 miles southeast of Clarksdale. He was having trouble with an architect hired to design his home and called lawyer Bill Luckett. The two became friends and in 2001 they opened a restaurant in Clarksdale, Madidi, and a blues club, Ground Zero, that have helped the resurgence of interest in the sleepy town.
With paintings by local artists hanging from the brick walls and the lights turned low, Madidi is much more cosmopolitan than the two other favorite eateries in town, Hick's Variety Foods, known for its hot tamales, creamy cornmeal mash, and spicy beef, and the pork sandwiches at Abe's Bar-B-Q. We start with sweet cornmeal fried oysters in a brandy cream sauce and a dish of rich catfish cakes. Then it's on to a large tender filet that would happily satiate any blues musician the size of B.B. King.
Unlike the cramped quarters of Red's Lounge, Ground Zero is big enough to attract the better known names in blues. The former cotton warehouse is alive tonight as sounds of Super Chikan's sweet guitar bounce off the graffiti-littered walls. An older guy named Puttin is hustling the room, working his three-card Monte and other sleight of hand card tricks, as Jim and I talk to Luckett, 69, about musicians like Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame who made the pilgrimage to Clarksdale, Elvis Costello, who recently recorded in town, and Willie Nelson, whom Luckett somehow persuaded to perform at Ground Zero.
"It's an exciting time," Luckett says. "Clarksdale is at a new crossroads, so to speak."
Stephen Jermanok can be reached at email@example.com.