Fantastic wall art
Authenticity is often hard to come by. We all seek it as it provides a feeling of both truth and originality. As travelers, this is one of the reasons we travel, to see things that are not necessarily contrived or otherwise. But when you visit the Mississippi Delta region and roll in to Clarksdale, you instantly discover that you’ve entered a place where something is real and true…..The Blues. Now the quote above is attributed to McKinley Morganfield....you may know him as Muddy Waters. Ask any rock 'n roll artist from the 1960's and they'll tell you the same......the blues begat rock 'n roll.
As a matter of lore, Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil at what is widely known as “The Crossroads.” This is where highway 49 and highway 61 intersect. Great story if you go in for that sort of thing, but it’s mythical proportions only heighten the overall experience. Loads of stories have been written about all this, and we admit to watching the movie “Crossroads” the night before our trip, but when one actually drives into Clarksdale, there is a feeling that you’ve arrived at a place that celebrates one of the true
Sell your soul to the devil
Be Careful on the Drive to Clarksdale
American forms of music. It feels raw and unfabricated. And on Friday night as we drove from Little Rock to our weekend adventure in Clarksdale we listened to the blues of Marshall Okell, sent to our from our dancing friends in Australia.
Unlike other attractions in the States, you will immediately notice the absence of upscale, “theme park” attractions, which is fantastically welcomed, given that this type of music was born of a people who were incredible poor and were telling wonderful stories about the hardships of life in a twelve-bar sequence. The essence of living and life itself is reflected in the lyrics of these wonderful tunes and the talented musicians who continue the tradition and allow us to hear and experience these sometimes-raw emotions. Historically this music was called “race music” but later the name changed to make it more acceptable to white people.
Clarksdale has embraced the moniker as one of the great blues towns and our short time there only enhanced that notion. Almost each and every person promotes the blues and the history of the blues in some fashion, interconnecting the business facets of this small community, moving the economic concept forward, but
Highway 61 & 49 in Clarksdale...did Robert Johnson sell his soul to the devil?
still striving to maintain the simplistic concept that it really is “all about the music and it’s history.”
We arrived shortly before sunset at Ground Zero, a club that hosts music acts several days a week and also provides accommodations for travelers. The rooms are upstairs and are fine as long you realize one important concept: if you have plans to sleep before 1 AM, this may not be possible as rooms are directly above the club and make one feel like they are sleeping upstairs whilst a blues band is playing downstairs in their living room….. we know this by experience as we were tired before the music stopped and enjoyed laying in bed feeling the vibration of the blues for the last few minutes of the performance.
As luck would have it, we found seats with a great group of guys who had been good friends since primary school and were biking cross-country and around the area on their Harleys and invited us to sit with them. They were a lively and engaging group so we really enjoyed our time with them. The table was directly in front of the stage. Good conversation, cold beer and
a BBQ sandwich all preceded some great live music, courtesy of Mark “Muleman” Massey, a true local bluesman, who entertained us for the next few hours. Our good friends Dancing Dave and Denise had previously been witness to his music and we were glad to have the chance to listen to his talents. A brief chat with the Muleman left us feeling as though he was a genuinely nice man, grateful to have the chance to play for the crowd.
The next morning had us out exploring the nearby area, which is chock full of all things related to the Blues. Remember that Clarksdale is small town America, and ….we are in Mississippi. Most of Mississippi is rural and the median income in this part of the country is half or less than the rest of the country. The countryside is dotted with churches of all kinds, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal and an occasional Catholic. You are in the bible belt so remember not much will be open on Sunday.
As we sauntered the quiet streets we had the feeling not many people were visiting but we had seen them the night before at Ground Zero so they must
Mark "Muleman" Massey
Ground Zero Blues Club
be sleeping in. We spotted a place just down the street from where we had breakfast that sold some blues t-shirts and the like. Of course we bought some shirts and in conversation with the owner discovered that just a few doors down at the Bluesberry Café, blues music was in progress…..we took his suggestion and immediately headed in to find Watermelon Slim blowing his harp with Robert Eskew, who was playing some great acoustic slide. Both were fantastic and we later had a conversation with Slim, who autographed the CD we’d bought and seemed most gracious. This was a continuing theme throughout the weekend.
Watermelon Slim is now a local resident to Clarksdale. We learned he had a lot more success in Europe than the U.S. After listening to his performance we are baffled why he was not more well-known here. We truly enjoyed his music and his personality.
We later visited the Rock and Blues Museum and the Delta Blues Museum. Each was unique and told a great story. The former focused on local talent along with the transition from the blues to rock ‘n roll, while the latter focused on the blues and its rich
Perfect night at Red's
history in the area. Both are a “must see” and are quite informative. No matter what shop we were in they made sure to add a couple of must sees to our list, whether it be another museum, folk art store, t-shirt shop….even a canoe shop.
One of the wonderful things about Clarksdale is the kindness of the residents and their openness about how they landed in the area. While in the Rock and Blues Museum we met Tracy who was once in the corporate world in Oregon. After being downsized she moved to Memphis and slowly migrated to Clarksdale. This is where she has found her happiness. She provided an excellent introduction to our visit at the museum.
Art runs the Bluesberry Café and he came from Florida after retirement. He had a friend who kept inviting him to come by and check out Clarksdale. So now he's the proud owner of the cafe and it provides a great local venue for the blues.
Watermelon Slim was a truck driver before he became a world reknowned blues musician. He had a few stories to tell.
When we were at the Bluesberry Café we met John
who owns the Hooker Hotel. He invited us to consider staying with them on our next visit. We took a stroll over there and it looks very nice. The nice thing about the Hooker Hotel is the location. It is in the heart of Clarksdale and you can walk to everything. He was escorting Robert Eskew around to several local establishments to sit in with other musicians. As we said earlier Robert is a very talented musician and we were disappointed to find out that he has not recorded a CD yet. He actually has a real job with Transamerica and this is still a hobby. He was discovered by blues musician KebMo. We suspect his career may take off sooner than later. His voice has a real silky husky tone and he can handle a slide guitar.
No trip to Clarksdale would be complete without a stop at “Red’s.” This place is the closest a tourist is going to get to being in an actual “juke joint.” Simplistic in appearance, this is a small place where the patrons are as close to the musicians as you can get. You might be able to cram 50 people in if
MJ & the Muleman
Clarksdale, Mississippi Ground Zero
you were trying. On the night we visited there were about 30 blues enthusiast. We were treated to Anthony Sherrod and the All-Stars, who literally blew the roof off the dump. We were in blues heaven……..
While at Red's we met the owners son working the bar. We understand his son is a state representative for Mississippi. As he served our drinks we began talking and with a happy grin we learned that on occasion his father volunteer's him to work behind the bar. He was fun so we are glad he was there.
We are happy that we had such a wonderful evening at Reds because we missed seeing Morgan Freeman at Ground Zero. Evidentially he has a house in the area and we are told he stopped by for about 5 minutes. A couple of people got pictures of him, not with him and then he left. We would have enjoyed seeing him but it was not meant to be. The music at Reds was outstanding and we were where we were supposed to be.
A return trip to Ground Zero that night found us listening to Otis TCB Taylor, which proved to be not
Watermelon Slim, Dave & MJ
At the Bluesberry Cafe, Clarksdale
the greatest act we’ve ever seen. Maybe a bad night for the band, but hey, it happens….. but with that said, he played about an hour after we went upstairs, so he could play to us privately and the songs he played toward the end of his set were more to our liking. We freely admit we left his show after he sang his rendition of Endless Love and the woman in the group….she could not carry the tune.
We rebounded quite nicely the next morning as we returned to the Bluesberry Café to catch “Table Hill” with their brand of folksy blues. Three of the people playing are from Victoria Australia and one a local from Clarksdale. The Australian group plays at Radio Springs in Victoria. They tossed out tunes while playing at times a dulcimer, triangle, and a washbasin bass. Quite authentic.
Whether you drive in from Memphis, New Orleans, Little Rock or others you'll find that this is Mississippi farm land. You are likely to see fields of corn and cotton. You'll see modern farms with expensive commercial equipment and you'll see a few old timers with old equipment trying to keep it going. Many
Playing at Red's
of these people work the land and are happy to do so.
While in the area we hope to get back to Clarksdale at least once so we can stay at the Shack Up In, which was booked this weekend. There’s no doubt we’ll be back to Clarksdale. Many have passed through, having even traveled internationally to take in the music of Nashville, Memphis, Clarksdale and New Orleans. It’s the blues, man! It speaks to us all………. Comments and suggestions for restaurants
Ground Zero Blues Club – beers, burgers and southern cooking
Stone Pony Pizza- NY pizza place with a variety of interesting things on the menu
Bluesberry Café –down home food and music. Don’t go with expectations and don’t worry if the service is a little slow. You are in town for the music.
Yazoo Café – a modern café with an attempt at a few healthier dishes on the menu
Larry’s BBQ – we stopped by for lunch to find that it didn’t open for another 5 minutes. By the time they actually opened almost 15 people were waiting in line for the famous ribs! Music
Venues - the larger venues charge $10 per night per person cover charge
Ground Zero Blues Club – live music Wednesday through Saturday nights.
Red’s Juke Joint – live music- not sure what nights.
Hopson Plantation – live music on weekends.
Hambone Art & Music – live music on Tuesday nights
Bluesberry Café- live music Saturday & Sunday morning at 10am and other times
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