The November 3, 2006 edition of The Island Sand Paper contained this beach traveler’s article entitled, “Traveling America’s Blues Highway,” which chronicled a music-oriented journey from Memphis, Tennessee southward through the Mississippi Delta. A recent return trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi—located in the heart of the Delta—provided not only a musical and culinary treat, but also a deeper understanding and perspective into the roots and character of the region.
The Mississippi Delta is not to be confused with the Mississippi River Delta—some 300 miles to the south — which encompasses New Orleans and southward. The Mississippi Delta is the distinctive northwestern section of the state and is comprised of some 7,000 square miles. It contains some of the most fertile soil in the world.
Over eons of time, the powerful southbound movement of the meandering Mississippi River has carried abundant sediment for well over a thousand miles from the river’s headwaters in Minnesota. This long-term, unrestricted current continually flooded the flat, low-lying Delta, depositing nutrient-rich silt over a large geographic area. The topsoil across the expanse has a depth of as much as thirty to forty feet in some locations.
In an effort to control the fickle flow of the river and to prevent flooding of the surrounding farmland, artificial levees were constructed. These earthen dikes are similar to the one that surrounds Lake Okeechobee here in Florida.
The Mississippi River levee system, begun in the late 1700s and continuously built thereafter, represents one of the largest such systems found anywhere in the world. Although the overall average height is roughly 25 feet, some Mississippi levees are as high as 50 feet.
Birthplace of the Blues
A 13-mile northbound drive from Clarksdale to the small, rural village of Friars Point allows the traveler a close-up look at the levee system on the river. Many years past, Friars Point was an active port for shipping cotton both north and south. The town was also home to country singer Conway Twitty and early bluesman Robert Nighthawk. It is said that the only time area-native Muddy Waters ever saw the legendary Robert Johnson perform was on a front porch in Friars Point.
Corn and soybeans are commonly grown in the Delta but, without a doubt, cotton is king and always has been. Driving on rural roads in the flat region yields miles-long views over fields of abundant cotton. The enormity of the farming operation is overwhelming.
Prior to the Civil War, cotton was planted and picked by slaves. After the war, freed slaves became tenant farmers or sharecropped the fields. It was common for white plantation owners to take financial advantage of the black farmers, in most cases due to illiteracy and monetary naivety.
The onset of mechanization in cotton farming throughout the first half of the 20th century effectively eliminated the need for manual labor altogether. This led to decades of what is known as the Great Migration of blacks northward, primarily to Chicago and St. Louis. Even so, the current population of Coahoma County, of which Clarksdale is the county seat, is 75% black.
To gain greater knowledge of the evolution of blues in the region, the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale is a great resource. An informational panel in the museum states that, historically, blacks were continuously supervised or “overseen” by whites in all public situations. However, there was a complete separation of the races in private life. This arrangement allowed the origins of blues music to be self-contained and to flourish within the black populace.
It is widely accepted that the origins of American blues music hail from the Mississippi Delta. A quick glance at a partial roster of well-known blues musicians that called the area home confirms this point—from early bluesmen, Son House, and Robert Johnson, to B. B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, Charlie Musselwhite, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert King, R. L. Burnside, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Sonny Boy Williamson, Pinetop Perkins, and Big Jack Johnson—and the list goes on and on.
Blues & Food Entwined
A Friday evening at Clarksdale’s newest restaurant, Levon’s, provided the tasty treat, “Biscuit Brisket,” which was tender, slow-cooked beef brisket over fluffy biscuits. The entertainment was provided by the talented Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry on guitar and vocals, backed by his daughter, Shy, on keyboard. Howl-N-Madd, who was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2008, refers to himself as “the ‘coffee-est’ drinkin’ bluesman in the Delta.” There is an exhibit in the Delta Blues Museum featuring Perry, where he also teaches local kids as part of the Arts and Education Program.
Saturday breakfast at the small, non-chain House of Pancakes may offer a streamlined menu, but the traveler can enjoy a filling meal of bacon omelet, grits and pancakes. With butter posing as a major food group, customers do not leave hungry. It is not the sort of nourishment a health-conscious traveler would chose on a regular basis—but, hey, you’re on vacation.
Saturday night was spent at the eclectic Ground Zero Blues Club, which is co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman. The unassuming warehouse look of the exterior contradicts the contemporary yet homey restaurant within. The high-energy band, Kruise Kontrol, commanded the stage with Albert King, Jr. on bass. A mouthwatering blackened catfish sandwich along with a side order of black-eyed peas were appropriate for the bluesy atmosphere.
Although Sunday is a quiet day in the church-going town of Clarksdale, it just means the traveler must search a little harder for live entertainment. Breakfast at the Bluesberry Café, coupled with what turned out to be the highlight musical performance of the weekend, fit the bill.
The advertised performer was Lucious Spiller, who earned the 2nd Place Solo/Duo Title at the 2014 International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis. He was scheduled to play at 10:00 a.m.—an unheard of hour for musicians—but was running late. He had performed the night before in Tupelo, Mississippi (birthplace of Elvis Presley) and had not returned to Clarksdale until 4:00 a.m. The proprietor assured the patrons (who, unfortunately, were very few) that Lucious had called and would be making the gig.
Boy, the 45-minute wait was sure worth it. Armed with a can of Red Bull at his side, Spiller proceeded to drift through a series of varying styles of music, seemingly oblivious to his sleep-deprived state. The guy has amazing talent. Accompanied only by his electric guitar, there was a fullness in his playing and singing that came across much larger.
Although most of the tunes were clearly blues, Lucious excelled at, and personalized, songs of differing genres such as Al Green’s “Tired of Being Alone,” George Benson’s “Masquerade,” and Spiller’s own version of his signature song, “Rainy Night in Georgia.” Drawing a contemporary comparison to the state of life in our country today, Lucious performed a heartfelt rendition of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” The verse, “They come, they come to build a wall between us/We know they won’t win,” was poignant. The whole show was a listening delight. If this performance was done while fatigued on a Sunday morning, and playing only for breakfast and tips, it’s hard to imagine how much better it could be.
A visit to the famous Crossroads in Clarksdale places the traveler at the historic intersection of Highways 61 & 49. It is the spot, as legend has it, where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to become the greatest blues guitarist. Adjacent to the Crossroads monument, which consists of the route numbers and multiple guitars, is Abe’s Bar-B-Q.
Abe’s has been a family-owned business since 1924. Although tour buses of sightseers regularly frequent the establishment on other days, the limited hours of 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays must be reserved for locals. It seems to be where everyone goes for lunch after attending church services. The parking lot and restaurant were mobbed. Pulled pork sandwiches from Abe’s, with coleslaw and the famous “Come Back Sauce” inside are delicious—even when heated up later in the day.
Sunday evening at Red’s Lounge provides the traveler with an original-style juke joint experience. This is a place where you come to hear music in about as barebones a club as you can imagine. Red’s serves no food, and is small and musty. The terms “dingy and in disrepair” aptly describe the physical conditions both inside and out. But red Christmas lights adorning the walls, which were arranged in the shape of musical notes, made for just the spot to take in the blues.
Guitarist Mark “Mule Man” Massey, backed by Billy Earhart III on keyboard were the entertainers. Massey arrived a bit late, as he had made the long drive from a weekend blues festival in St. Louis. Earhart was a founding member of the band, The Amazing Rhythm Aces, who had a 1975 hit with “Third Rate Romance.” The size of the crowd was again disappointing but, after all, it was Sunday evening. The fact that Clarksdale had hosted a large blues festival the previous weekend also contributed to lesser numbers of patrons at all locations.
The epicenter of information on the blues scene in Clarksdale is the Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, Inc. music and book store. Owner and blues aficionado, Roger Stolle, recently celebrated the store’s 15th anniversary on Delta Avenue. He is considered the driving force in promotion of the blues scene in Clarksdale. For more info go to www.cathead.biz. Another useful link is the local blues radio station that plays continuous commercial-free music available online at: www.internet-radio.com/station/xrds.
All of the establishments mentioned here are located within a short radius of each other, and all are in the Town of Clarksdale.
It would be disingenuous to not note and emphasize that Clarksdale is not a glamorous municipality by any stretch. Actually, quite the opposite. It has been a town in economic decline for decades. For its 16,000 residents, work is hard to come by. Music-oriented tourism is the biggest form of commerce by far. Australian and British tourists lead the list of international visitors. But it is saddening to see numerous older buildings, once stylish in their design, fallen into shabby conditions.
At the same time, there remains an undeniable friendliness among the citizens of Clarksdale and the Delta in general. Cordial greetings are frequently offered to all. It was refreshing to be part of what at one time was considered common courtesy between strangers. And it all certainly seemed genuine.
A trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi is therefore bittersweet. The vast majority of the residents live in poverty. “Rundown” is the best way to describe most buildings and residences. And the public education system is apparently a backburner afterthought. Wealth in the Delta is concentrated in a modest number of family-owned, as well as corporate, companies that control the area’s economy by way of agriculture.
But for travelers who appreciate authentic, quality blues music, in addition to classic Southern food, Clarksdale is a hidden gem. Plus, the widespread, friendly and personal exchanges that are found at every turn only help to put a positive exclamation point on the whole experience.