It travels 1400 miles… for the most part tracing the Mississippi River from Minnesota to New Orleans. And while it may not have carry the ‘pop’ nuance of Route 66, it carries more folklore and American cultural history than perhaps any other road in America. Known as The Blues Highway, Highway 61 is to blues music what Woodward Avenue is to cars. John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters all came from this part of the Delta, 75 miles south of Memphis. Bob Dylan titled his sixth studio album Highway 61 revisited. You could argue Mr. Zimmerman was paying tribute to his home state of Minnesota, where the highway begins. I’m betting it refers to that stretch of road that passes through Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Highway 61… The Blues Highway, runs through the Mississippi Delta country. Often noted as the “poorest place in the poorest state,” credit the region as the birth place of the Blues. The junction of Highway 61 and 49 is situated just outside Clarksdale and is famously known as “The Crossroads.” The Crossroads, as legend tells it, is where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his magical connection to his music. It’s where Bessie Smith died at what is now the historic Riverside Inn from injuries sustained in a car accident. It’s where you’ll learn first hand how the human endeavor to make music can survive and even surpass the deepest of troubles and the hardest life imaginable. Clapton sang about the Crossroads. The town, the region and the Crossroads are all sung about in the music of various artists. Many with roots throughout the Mississippi Delta.
I was able to spend a few days in Clarksdale. Unfortunately, that’s only enough time to have a cursory glance. It’s only enough time to whet you’re appetite for the history of Clarksdale and the Delta Blues. Though sadly, it’s just enough time to leave you fearful that this may one day all disappear.
What I found intriguing is the chronological misplacement I held of the blues. I had this sense that the blues were from a pre-war, even pre-depression era. And while I’m sure some of that might be the case, in reality, the real history of the blues appears to be more inline with the 50’s and 60’s and racial integration. From a personal perspective, while I was graduating high school and marveling at big finned and chrome wheeled Detroit chariots… those metal beasts with roots born to the Jetsons, the Mississippi Delta Blues were being played out in the cotton fields and juke joints of the south.
In addition to that revelation, most people my age actually got their first taste of the blues from British bands like the early Beatles and Rolling Stones. Somehow, the blues had permeated the hard core music scenes around the world… so much so that when the Rolling Stones recorded Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain” and “Stop Breakin’ Down,” it was assumed the two songs were part of the public domain. Though it took several years, ultimately the Stones were ordered to make settlement with the administrator’s of the Robert Johnson estate.
I was fortunate enough to meet some great people who were happy to talk about the history of the area, the music and the current state of affairs. There are folks working hard to preserve the history and keep the music alive. And while it’s obvious the blues as moved on finding audiences all around the world, time as not been as kind to Clarksdale.
If you go in the Greyhound bus station (don’t be fooled, it’s the town’s visitor information center… but it’s not a working bus station), you’ll meet Mack Ricker. He’ll happily share with you the vision for tourism in Clarksdale. His vision is one that is of a viral and steady way of growth. Though there are others whose interest seem to take a looser approach… playing fast and loose with the “authenticity” of recreating the past. You see, the challenge here is in defining the authenticity. Mack calls it “content sensitive design.” And he’s very much in tune with the challenge. After all, we’re talking about a romanticized vision of preserving decay. We’re talking about replicating a period in history that is about impoverished people making do with whatever they had in order to come together and dance, sing, party, get a little high and all in all, try and forget their troubles. How to you preserve impoverished decay? How do you keep it original?
The poverty is still as deep as the muddy Mississippi itself. For the most part, it’s hard to look at. It’s hard to imagine how Clarksdale will attract people to come and learn it’s history and continue to enjoy what it’s all about… the music. I’m not sure how they’ll keep the roots alive. One thing is clear… Clarksdale does not need to become another Dollywood. While there are differing opinions on “how” to preserve and present the past, I have no doubt the individual factions want what they feel is best for the area and it’s inhabitants. It’s obvious they don’t all agree. I guess only time will tell.
For now, you can browse around town. You can see for yourself what’s real… and what’s pretending to be real.
You can go to Red’s Blues Club. This is billed as the last real Juke Joint in operation. You can only buy beer. You can sit on a stool… or a box… or next to the bass player, or even on Red’s chaise lounge. Just be sure and tighten up because it’s going to get pretty crowded. The music? Well… the music can be hit or miss. I saw Big A one night… Big A knew how to let loose and for the most part was thrashing through some traditional blues melodies quite nicely. He’d hit a few rough patches here and there, but his energy and playing was the real deal. He was a lot of fun. The following night we saw, Lucidus Spiller. Ouch. Not good. Not good at all.
You’ll inevitably end up at The Ground Zero Blues Cafe. Everybody does. This is the place where actor Morgan Freeman has become an investor. It’s here where that question of balance comes into play. To my mind, if America caught on to what the inside of a Juke Joint looked like, there would be a Ground Zero Blues Cafe in every mall across the country. It just doesn’t feel completely real. But…. it was ok… and could have been believable had the music been good. The music wasn’t good. The All Night Blues Band was on the stage… I’d love to be generous and give them a passing grade… but honestly, they just didn’t cut it. All flash, no substance… and the Saturday crowd of caucasian hipsters were none the wiser. After all, they’d filled up on their Jammin Burger and Friday’s like menu offerings… and the booze was flowing.
The Delta Blues Museum appears to be the definitive source of the Blues history in Clarksdale. But it’s not. Save your $7 and head over to the Rock and Blues Museum and spend an hour or so with Shelly Ricker. Well… ok, go through the Delta Blues Museum… there is certainly stuff to see. But you’ll learn far more from Shelly and you’ll be happy to fork over a measly $5 donation for the tour. Shelly is totally plugged-in to the area and you will feel much closer to the real reason you came.
The Greyhound Bus Station is another great stop. Shelly’s better half, Mack, is curator and another wealth of insider knowledge plus Mack is happy to share. The bus station is the free Clarksdale Visitor Information Center… and Mack is the perfect host. Ask him to describe the event of Clarksdale’s bus station becoming integrated.
For local nostalgia and artifacts you’ll want to check out Cat Head. It’s a great store and maintains a website where you can keep up with what’s happening in Clarksdale.
Two local restaurants providing original fare are Ramon’s and Rest Haven. At Ramon’s, a place run by Thomas and Barbara Ely, I had the jumbo butterflied fried shrimp and it was excellent. At Rest Haven, owned and operated by Chafik and Louise Chamoun, I had the chili cheese burger recommended as the favorite meal of Jerry Lee Lewis (aka The Killer) when he’s in town. We spent some time chatting with locals (Mack had warned us ahead of time) and as we went to leave we were informed out lunch had already been paid for.
Two other good places to eat, though not plugged into the history of the area, do a damn nice job feeding you and making you comfortable. Yazoo Pass (named after the Yazoo river and the street) is an independently owned restaurant, bakery, coffee shop and yogurt bar. This place is GREAT! Really done well and terrific coffee. For pizza and generally good bar fare, check out Stone Pony. Nice comfortable place and pretty good food.
While I didn’t stay at the ShackUp Inn, I did visit. It’s an ambitious project that is a hotel, restaurant/bar, gift shop and tourist attraction. Here you can stay in a genuine “shack” just like those found in the Mississippi Delta. Of course, they’ve been sparingly updated to include microwave, internet etc. but…. again, I felt there was a bit of a struggle keeping it genuine. I didn’t see the accommodations, but the restaurant left me feeling that the decor had been brought in and much of it’s authenticity and been given a passing grade of “that’ll do,” with respect to its authenticity. You may see it different.
I’ve left the Poor Monkey for last. Poor Monkey is reportedly the last Juke Joint left operating along the Blues Trail. There is music on Thursday nights… but it’s not from a Juke Box… it’s provided by DJ Doctor Tissue. Poor Monkey is the real deal. It’s in Shelby, 30 miles south of Clarksdale off Highway 61. It’s sits in the middle of a cotton field and you’ll need to find someone to take you out there. You won’t find it on your own. Unfortunately, we weren’t there on Thursday… but we made the hike and I got to photograph it. It. Is. Amazing.
Regarding my critique of the music, I have a hunch the best music is reserved for the many festivals in Clarksdale. It appears there are quite a few. Perhaps the festivals tend to drain the talent in-between the venue dates. I hear Clarksdale’s festivals are excellent and don’t get ridiculously overrun. Also, when I asked Mack about what the revitalization committee was doing to support the well being of the music and younger players, he informed me that the Berklee College of Music, the world’s largest college of contemporary music, collaborates with the Delta Blues Museum and the Robert Johnson Foundation to identify talented and deserving teens from the after-school music programs offered at each institution. So that’s a good thing.
I’m going to try and make a few trips back to Clarksdale. One of the comments Shelly made continues to trouble me… or at least leave me intrigued. While she was showing me photos of local older blues players, she kept commenting, “he died back in January… we lost him in March… unfortunately, he died last fall” etc. Most of these bluesmen were in there 80’s and 90’s. Of course, I wanted to know about their offspring. What about the lineage, I asked. I don’t know that I ever really got an answer…. but she did tell me, most the good blues players now are white. I’m hoping there are still some folks I need to photograph.