In 2005 I decided I wanted to take a class in becoming a certified barbecue judge. So off I went to Memphis for a day in the classroom of the Memphis Barbecue Association. Afterwards I headed south into Mississippi on what may have been my first field trip into the heart of blues history. I spent several days in and around Clarksdale which literally is ground zero for the blues. The following is an article I wrote for one of the local newspapers and a couple of years ago Ron Coffey asked about it. There was something I said that he liked and I was unable, till now, to find the article.
Anyway, I found it and decided to republish it as my offering for this day. Hope you enjoy.
Originally published in August, 2005.
For many years I’ve been interested in Southern culture and food. About fifteen years ago this interest evolved into a love of blues music and blues history. The blues that most people are familiar with is probably that performed by such greats as Stevie Ray Vaughn and B.B. King. The blues that I’m most interested in is far more raw and basic. It’s the blues that was born in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta and came out of hard times and hard living.
This blues is called country blues or Delta blues. It is acoustic music played on cheap instruments by people with no formal musical training and only the most basic vocabularies. It is rough, and crude, and unrefined, but the lyrics tell great stories of life, be it hard times or good, love gone wrong or love at its best. It’s the music that reinforced how tough life could be and it is also the music that swept away reality on Saturday night when a few dollars could buy you some beer at a local juke joint.
There are lots of places that lay claim to being the birthplace of something. Memphis claims to be the home of rock and roll and Jackson, Tennessee, claims rockabilly. But, if any town has a valid claim, it’s Clarksdale, Mississippi. The proof is in drawing a fifty-mile wide circle on a map with Clarksdale at its center. Then create a list of bluesmen that were born, raised or spent much of their adult lives inside that circle. The list will include such names as Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, Charlie Patton, Bukka White, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Johnson, Son House, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Besides these who became famous, there are dozens more who achieved little or no fame. The musicologist Alex Lomax once said that Clarksdale was responsible for more bluesmen than any place on earth.
The Clarksdale area is filled with historical icons of Delta blues history. The nearby town of Tutwiler is where W.C. Handy (considered the father of the blues) first observed a black itinerant musician singing about a place where two railroad lines cross and accompanying himself on a cheap guitar using a pocketknife as a slide. According to Handy, “It was the weirdest music I’d ever heard.” Because of this historical occasion, Tutwiler also lays claim to being the birthplace of the blues and proclaims such high on its water tower.
Tutwiler is also the final resting place of Sonny Boy Williamson II. Williamson, also known as Rice Miller, is considered to have been the greatest blues harp player in history. His style set the standard for all who followed.
In the rural areas around Clarksdale were huge cotton plantations such as Stovall and Hopson. It was on these plantations that many of the greats were born, grew up, worked, learned the hardships of being poor, and later fled. Several plantations still exist and one, Hopson, is trying to preserve its place in blues history by offering tours and converting its field hand housing into sleeping quarters for tourists.
In Clarksdale itself, you’ll find the Riverside Hotel on Sunflower Ave. Once a Negro hospital, it is the site where Bessie Smith died following an automobile crash in 1937. After World War II the hospital was converted into a hotel, catering to black travelers it became a haven for black musicians performing in the area. You name the artist and he or she has spent time at the Riverside Hotel. The hotel is still open and caters to blues fans from all over the world. The room in which Smith died is filled with mementos about her and open to the public.
Depending on which music historian you want to believe, the Riverside can also lay claim to being the birthplace of rock and roll. In 1951, in the hotel’s basement, Ike Turner cut a demo tape of Rocket 88, a number that many to consider to be the first rock and roll tune. The tape was later sent to Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis and turned into a hit for Turner.
Further down Sunflower, and across from the cemetery, sits Red’s Lounge. Red’s is probably the last true juke joint in Clarksdale. It’s only open when Red is in the mood and I was fortunate enough to be there when he was. Greenwood, MS’s T-Model Ford was the attraction that night. T-Model is nearing 80 but still plays a strong guitar. Testifying to the international popularity of the blues there were at least four Germans, an Englishman and a young man from Japan in the crowd that evening. The Germans and the Brit even picked up instruments and took a turn at the microphone between sets.
Doing much to keep alive the blues tradition of the Clarksdale area is the Delta Blues Museum. Located in the old railway station and adjoining warehouse, the museum is a major repository of blues history and memorabilia. It is the place where you’ll want to begin your visit to Mississippi’s Delta.
Located next door to the museum, in an old commercial building, is the Ground Zero Blues Club. It was founded in 2001 by Clarksdale homeboy and actor, Morgan Freeman. The attempt was to recreate the look and feel of a traditional juke joint and breathe new life into the area’s native music. Guessing from the Saturday evening I spent there, it is working. The place was packed with people from many backgrounds, races and nationalities; all sharing in the emotion of this thing called the blues.
A few miles out of Clarksdale I stopped along the roadside and walked a few feet into a cotton field. Standing there in the 105-degree temperature I reflected on what it must have been like to spend endless twelve-hour days chopping cotton in these fields, countless years of backbreaking toil for little money and even less chance of attaining a better way of life. It’s easy to see why Mississippi’s Delta became the birthplace of the blues.