Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Sam Cooke, and Ike Turner all grew up or lived here. Bessie Smith died here after an auto accident. When actor Morgan Freeman opened a nightclub here in 2001, he named it Ground Zero—the starting point for the blues. This is Clarksdale, Mississippi, a town that still celebrates its sharecropper and blues heritage.
“I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees…” The infamous words sung by Robert Johnson, one of the fathers of the blues, refer to the legendary crossroads, an intersection of the two great blues highways, 61 and 49, which now greets travelers on the outskirts of Clarksdale. Famous landmarks Abe’s Bar-B-Q and the Delta Donut Shop, flank the intersection.
Walking the main streets of Clarksdale is like turning back the hands of time. Miss Del’s Feed Shop (“Feed, Seed And Stuff You Need”), Lou’s Barber Shop, and the Centennial Bank are wonderful architectural gems scattered throughout this laidback and easygoing town.
If you want to get a bit of an education on the area’s heritage and history, there’s no better place to start than the Delta Blues Museum, featuring a wax statue of Muddy Waters—and his original cabin. The museum is in the old freight depot on Edwards Street, and its collection includes one of B.B. King’s “Lucille” guitars. Waters’ cabin originally laid outside of Clarksdale at the corner of Stovall and Burnt Cane road. In 1987, ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons purchased the decrepit structure, creating a guitar from one of its roof beams (he dubbed the instrument “Muddywood”) and selling it to benefit the museum.
The Rock ’n’ Roll Blues Heritage Museum (113 East 2nd Street), springing from Dutch founder Theo Dasbach’s extensive collection of ’50s, ’60s and ’70s vinyl, honors the blues as the roots of rock ’n’ roll and features arcane items such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s provocative line drawings, walls and walls of old vinyl records, and an original Wurlitzer record player.
The Cathead Blues Music Folk Art shop (252 Delta Avenue) is one of the newer cultural centers of Clarksdale, hosting the popular Juke Joint Festival, and providing the visitor with a sterling music and art collection to peruse and purchase. Run by blues aficionado Roger Stolle, it also functions as a treasure trove of information on blues and roots events in Clarksdale and the surrounding area.
For a bit of non-musical history, visit famous playwright Tennessee Willliams’ house, or the old Hopson Plantation, site of sharecroppers’ labors in the past century. For Civil War buffs, there’s a fantastic museum in Friars Point, where you can learn about Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who coined the famous phrase “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” in 1964.
The town has a few eclectic places to stay, including the Riverside Hotel (615 Sunflower Avenue), the funky Big Pink Guest House, and the Shack Up Inn (8141 Old Highway 49), billed as “Mississippi’s Only Beer ’n’ Breakfast.” The Riverside, run by well-known local character “The Rat,” used to be an old hospital—it’s where Bessie Smith died in 1937—and is known today as a traditional stopping point for a veritable who’s who of Delta Blues legends. Muddy Waters, Etta James, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and even John F. Kennedy, Jr. stayed there.
Ultimately, the feeling you get when visiting Clarksdale and experiencing some of the living heritage of the blues is one of authenticity and small-town charm. You also get to see another side of the blues, shown when juke joint owner Jimmy “Duck” Holmes regaled onlookers with his wisdom: “Dem blues not only about the hard times or fighting with the Devil—it’s about the good times too!”
| Travel notes|
Popular during the days of the sharecropper, juke joints that offered cheap liquor, blues and dancing were a regular source of entertainment and escape. Juke joints still live on in Clarksdale and surrounding towns like Hibernia, MS. The juke joints are in focus during the Juke Joint Festival, held every April. (For more info, visit http://www.cathead.biz.)
One of the more happening juke joints in Clarksdale, with wood paneling, a great old bar, and country style barbeque on offer, this place exudes authenticity. Roger Stolle, owner of CatHead, exclaims: “Sure it looks closed and/or scary, but it is actually just a big ol’ wonderful house party.”
The biggest blues bar in Clarksdale is partially owned by local boy made good Morgan Freeman. It evokes the roadhouse feel of the House of Blues in New Orleans, except the bar only books “real deal” blues acts like Big George Brock (The address: 0 Blues Alley of course— next to the Delta Blues Museum). “The guy who books Ground Zero is a total purist,” co-owner Bill Luckett states. “He won’t even read any fiction or see any faked movies about the blues—and he books our club exclusively!” Walls and doors covered with scrawled writing and initials attest to the love of the patrons for their music hall, and comfy overstuffed couches outside provide a haven for smokers and anyone wanting to hang out and take a break from the thumping music.
THE BLUE FRONT CAFÉ
Home of Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, this juke joint has been operating for 59 years. It’s been in his family for more than three generations, and he runs regular sessions on Saturday nights. Hibernia is about an hour’s drive from Clarksdale, towards Jackson, MS.