“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. Once, in 1989, Kay and I set out to come here from New York. Unfortunately, our van’s AC malfunctioned and our vacation time ran out too soon.
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.
With more time and especially more energy at our disposal, Kay and I could have spent much more time in both of these museums. Their collections are so rich and varied. However, hunger and the need to rest drove us on.
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.
The main point I want to make about these musicians is that they are all local and they are really, really good. One man, a character named Watermelon Slim, thin as a rail and dressed in shabby clothes, wandered around the room talking to others and us. From time to time he would pull a blues harp from his pocket and without any preliminaries begin to wail in company with the guitarists on stage, whom he knew well. He would blow his harp so powerfully and so well that the music would stop with applause for his virtuosity.
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.