Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Oxford – Clarksdale, MS
“I had the blues so bad, they put my face in a permanent frown.
Now I’m feeling so much better I could cakewalk into town.”
A visit to Clarksdale, Mississippi, center of the region known as the Mississippi Delta, has been on my bucket list for a long time because for blues lovers the Delta is like Mecca.
Clarksdale is an anomaly. Once, decades ago its downtown must have been bustling. Today, seventy percent of its shops stand empty. Its broad streets are nearly devoid of traffic, and parking is certainly not a problem.
This part of the state along the Mississippi River has always been something of a rural backwater. The flat, rich Delta soil is ideal for growing cotton, and before the advent of mechanized cotton farming in the 1940s, the large plantations that surround Clarksdale needed hundreds of field hands. The African Americans who worked these fields lived on the plantations and, outside of working hours, were left pretty much to themselves. It was in this environment that the music known as the Delta Blues was born.
For anyone interested in the fascinating history and culture of the country blues, Clarksdale is ground zero. People from all over the world come to this poor region to visit the land where Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and many other legendary bluesmen began their lives and learned to play the blues in such distinctive ways. That most later migrated north to Memphis, Chicago, Kansas City and Detroit, where in the 1960s they finally began to get world-wide attention, is why we know their music and the reason we and so many others make the pilgrimage to the Delta.
Clarksdale is not Nashville. There is no huge blues industry here. Things, at least outside of festival season, here have a casual, half-improvised quality. There are two museums.
The Delta Blues Museum is the oldest and contains a large trove of artifacts and memorabilia relating to the music and the musicians. Cases are filled with guitars, costumes, photographs and other personal items along with thumbnail biographies identifying the various musicians they belonged to. The museum’s walls contain more photographs along with posters and other ephemera of long-ago performances. Although some of the musicians and the music showcased have long been familiar to us, many names were new. These were men and women with local reputations who didn’t seek or find wider fame outside the region.
The second museum in town was similar but different. The Rock and Blues Museum houses the fabulous collection of a single man. Theo Dasbach is Dutch, and though he lives in the U.S. now, he began collecting while he was quite young and living in Holland. (It’s interesting that many of the greatest and most knowledgeable blues aficionados are from other countries.)
Theo’s is a serious and extensive collection. Along with the same kind of memorabilia and ephemera as in the Delta Blues Museum, he has methodically amassed dozens of original 78-rpm blues recordings on obscure labels from the 1920s and 1930s. His collection is also more methodically arranged than that of the Delta Blues Museum.
In addition to the earlier blues genres, this collection leads visitors through their evolution into early rock and roll. There are wonderful copies of early Sun Label recordings and even an amateur video of a tour of Sam Phillip’s studio in Memphis.
It was some of the early rock material that evoked for Kay and I memories of our own past. For her, it was seeing material relating to little-known British Invasion groups she had encountered as a teenager. It’s rare to find someone who was a fan of the Swinging Blue Jeans or the Honeycombs, as an example. For me, it was seeing photos of Bill Haley and the Comets, young Little Richard and Carl Perkins, and other early performers from the 1950s that provided my own rock-and-roll introduction.
One of the greatest surprises in Clarksdale is Yazoo Pass. Open for only a year, this fine restaurant serves a quality of cuisine that would succeed in New York or any cosmopolitan city. Our subtly flavored She Crab soup was simply divine. We ate salads of the freshest ingredients for lunch and other delectable items at dinner.
The evening ended in an unheated storefront space called the Bluesberry Café, run by a man who had once worked in recording studios with some of the famous names of the 60s. Adorned with blues and rock posters, it had a $5 per person cover charge and served only the King of Beers, Budweiser. The modest drink and surroundings didn’t matter because Kay and I were there to hear the music provided by Clarksdale native, guitarist and singer Daddy Rich, along with friends, all white, who would accompany him from time to time. An irony is that the blues, once a strictly African-American idiom, now finds its expression more and more by white musicians.
Everything about the evening’s sequence was intimate and informal. There were only a few of us in the audience, all regulars except Kay and I and a young man from England.
Kay and I closed the Bluesberry after 10:30 P.M. Daddy Rich’s final number began with the lines, “It’s too damn late. Now, it’s time to say goodbye. The rooster’s drunk, and the hens are high.” We’re now big fans.
Thursday, November 29, 2012
Clarksdale – Tutwiler, MS – Indianola – Clarksdale
It was mid-morning when we set out in the Beast to make a grand circuit around a part of the region known for the Blues.
Heading south on Highway 49 we came to the town of Tutwiler whose water tower grandiosely proclaimed it to be the town where the Blues was born.
Tutwiler’s claim rests on the fact that in 1903 W.C. Handy stepped off a train onto the platform and heard a man playing a guitar using a knife as a slide. Handy had discovered a new kind of music and being educated in musical notation, he wrote down what he heard. Apparently he continued to do so with Blues tunes and lyrics until he gained a false reputation as the creator of the Blues.
Also in Tutwiler, we visited Sonny Boy Williamson’s grave marker in a tiny cemetery outside of town. The marker is of polished granite with a photo of the young Sonny Boy incorporated into its face. At the base of the stone was an assortment of guitar picks and a couple of blues harps left as tributes by fans to their hero. Sonny Boy’s instrument was the harp, aka the harmonica.
We stopped for lunch at a rural grocery store with a sign that advertised hot lunches.
A hand-lettered sign on the door warned would-be entrants to pull up their pants or stay away. At a picnic table in the rear of the store Kay and I ate lightly battered fried fish and chicken accompanied by fresh biscuits. Kay usually drinks unsweetened ice tea at lunch while I’ve been drinking Dr. Pepper here in the South. Unsweetened tea wasn’t an option here. In fact, her request was greeted with a laugh.
While we ate, we conversed with locals both black and white. We’ve found the people in Mississippi to be very friendly and curious to know who we are. Their first question is always, “Where you’all from?” As accustomed as we are to understanding broken English, we have trouble at times understanding certain aspects of Deep South dialect.
Our principal visit of the day was to the B.B. King Museum in Indianola. Unlike the museums in Clarksdale, this one is in a large, purposely-built brick building that opened only four years ago in the town that King regards as his home. Inside, a series of short documentary segments along with illustrated wall panels and objects tell the life and times of the man we know as B.B. King. Though it’s devoted to a single artist, by putting him in the context of his times, the museum also gives a social history of B.B. King’s America. It is the story of how Riley B. King, orphaned at an early age in the Jim Crow South created himself as a master musician, a band leader, and probably the only bluesman to be honored by presidents and kings.
The most moving episode in his life story, both for him and for us, was the night at the Fillmore West in 1967 when B.B. walked on stage and in a moment of panic thought his manager had booked him into the wrong venue. Welcoming him with a standing ovation was an audience ninety-five percent white. This was a first for King and his band, which, in an already long career facing white hostility, had never played for a virtually all-white audience. It was a life-altering experience that brought B.B. to tears while he began his first song.
It was a long day of driving along straight-as-an-arrow roads crossing utterly flat Delta farmlands that brought us back to Clarksdale in the early evening. However, there was no time to rest.
We are staying in Bin # 3, a sleeping room created in a old truck barn on what was formerly the Hopson Plantation just south of town.
The Shack Up Inn happens to be the most sought-after lodging in Clarksdale. It consists of the plantation’s remnants and besides the bins.
It includes a number of former sharecroppers’ shacks converted into lodgings with running water, electricity, and even heat. When we arrived we had our choice of shack or bin, and we chose one of the latter, more commodious and with a more comfortable-looking bathroom.
The Shack Up’s enormous commons room is located in what was once the plantations’ cotton gin. Here, I quote a description of the room from the Shack Up Inn’s informal history: “The Juke Joint Chapel has seen weddings, blues and rock shows, karaoke costume parties, and plenty more. It is equipped with a state-of-the-art beer bar, all the necessary gear for live music, and a bunch of old stuff that doesn’t work.”
That last comment about “old stuff” applies not just to the Juke Joint Chapel but also to the compound as a whole. Everywhere around are large pieces of rusting farm machinery, old trucks, three vintage fire engines, and most of what was used on the Hopson Plantation until it closed in 1972. This place really provides its guests an atmosphere like no other.
Its management has an attitude that suits us, as well: “We discourage tour buses, obnoxious drunks, and extremely needy guests. We hope you enjoy yourself here at the Shack Up Inn, and if you don’t, it is probably your own fault.” Kay declared it her favorite hotel ever.
In town, after a false start in a crowded restaurant that shall remain nameless where we ate an expensive meal while being poorly serenaded by a kid with a high-pitched voice singing covers of country songs, we moved on to the Ground Zero Blues Club.
Entering the club, we were met by a deafening blast of sound coming from La-La Craig and her three-piece band at the far end of the room that had perhaps formerly been a garage or warehouse. The room is large but the sound was larger. It made me think of those Maxell print ads that show a guy in profile sitting in in front of a loud speaker with his hair blown straight back by the pressure from the speaker’s waves of sound.
The most riveting sight was La-La seated center stage belting a jump blues tune and pounding a large Yamaha keyboard in a manner its makers had surely not intended. The only other person I’ve seen doing remotely the same thing was Jerry Lee Lewis in a live performance during my college years, but he was abusing an acoustic piano! When we spoke to La-La during a break, she told us how the Yamaha wouldn’t last long. She prefers a German brand that is built more robustly but is more expensive.
Her music, a mix of blues and other R&B, was very much to our taste, and we really enjoyed ourselves, listening and sipping bottles of a mild Mississippi beer named Ghost Town.
In the course of the two sets we stayed for, La-La sang John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery, one of my all-time favorites.
We left Ground Zero after two sets, worn out and happy with the evening’s entertainment.
Friday, November 30, 2012
On good advice we decided to stay a third day in Clarksdale. We need a rest day to do laundry, feed the Beast and accomplish a few other things. We’ve also belatedly discovered another historical aspect to this town we were ignorant of.
Tom “Tennessee” Williams was raised in Clarksdale in a quiet neighborhood on the town’s north side. We walked those streets after lunch this afternoon and came upon a tiny park dedicated to Williams.
We also passed St George’s Episcopal Church and its adjacent rectory where Williams lived with his mother and grandparents.
Tennessee transformed Clarksdale settings and stories into material for several of his plays. This has led actors and directors to come to Clarksdale to do research and enhance their roles. Two of the most notable were Elia Kazan and Barbara Bel Geddes as they prepared the original Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Clarksdale celebrates Williams each year with a theater festival during which scenes from his plays are performed on porches of the homes in the neighborhood where he grew up. This town that didn’t even exist until 1848 is full of interesting history, some of it very sad. Bessie Smith died here after the car she was traveling in crashed on Highway 61 between Memphis and Clarksdale. At that time, she couldn’t be taken to the white hospital where they might have been able to save her life.
Kay and I feel very comfortable in this town and in greater Mississippi. We see ourselves returning one day for a longer stay.