All it takes is one night in Clarksdale, MS, to understand how music has shaped the Mississippi Delta, the land where the blues were born.
IT’S A COOL, CLEAR NIGHT IN CLARKSDALE, a small town of about 20,000 residents in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, and it’s dead quiet downtown. Even on a Friday evening, there isn’t much more than a handful of people out on the streets, which are dotted with check cashing shops, run-down drug stores and hulking warehouse buildings abandoned since Clarksdale’s mid-20th-century manufacturing era.
BUT A TURN ONTO YAZOO AVENUE—JUST off East Second, which cuts right through downtown Clarksdale—brings a blast of noise coming from a tiny Italian restaurant with a long, ridiculously balky name: Tricia’s Italian Restaurant and Pie Hole. Inside, Robert “Bilbo” Walker, a 73-year-old blues guitarist with a thin, mischievous mustache, a mop of wild, curly hair and a taste for sharp clothes (tonight’s outfit is a bright white blazer and pants), is onstage thrilling two dozen revelers crowded around small tables.
“Take your hands off me! Cos’ I don’t belong to you!” Walker shouts. He then rips through a particularly wiry-sounding, jagged-edged solo on his electric guitar, and the audience begins to dance. By midnight, the atmosphere is fevered and sweaty, and the bright, pink-colored backdrop behind the stage gives the club a vibrant glow that stands in contrast to the darkness outside. It’s a somewhat bizarre experience, because if you head outside to catch your breath, Clarksdale is still eerily quiet, making the scene inside Tricia’s seem like a mirage.
Spend more than a few hours in Clarksdale, however, and you realize that the inconspicuous surroundings of the the city’s blues haunts masks its musical greatness—and there is probably no place in America with deeper ties to this genre.
In the early 1900s, when the then-rural town was an agricultural powerhouse thanks to the thriving cotton trade, African-American field hands played guitar or piano to entertain their fellow workers weary from the backbreaking labor. Thus, the blues were born.
SINCE THEN, THE AREA HAS GENERATED iconic bluesmen by the dozen. According to lore, it was in Clarksdale, at the junction of US routes 49 and 61, that guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the guitar and sing the blues. Pianist Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins toiled at Clarksdale’s Hopson Planting Company (which produced the first crop of cotton to be mechanically planted, harvested and baled). A young McKinley Morganfield—who was nicknamed “Muddy” by his grandmother because he liked to roll in the mud—lived on Stovall Plantation in the early 20th century before moving to Chicago and transforming himself into blues titan Muddy Waters. Meanwhile, singer/ songwriter Sam Cooke was born at 2303 Seventh Street to an oil mill laborer and sang gospel music with his large family until he, like Waters, moved to Chicago. Once there, Cooke pioneered a scorching R&B sound with profound roots in the suffering of the segregated South. Indeed, his “A Change Is Gonna Come” became an anthem of the civil rights movement.
Clarksdale’s importance to the blues isn’t as widely known as it should be. Even so, the story of the city is far from lost: Hopson Plantation and other historic landmarks are accessible to visitors, thanks to the Mississippi Blues Trail, an ongoing project by the Mississippi Blues Commission that places plaques at musically important places in Clarksdale and neighboring towns such as Tunica. But the trail does more than simply mark the most iconic spots—it also identifies lesser-known sites, including the Riverside Hotel, a small ramshackle property in downtown Clarksdale. During the 1940s, the Riverside was frequented by the likes of Ike Turner and the great harp player Sonny Boy Williamson II. Tragically, it was also where blues queen Bessie Smith died in 1937 from injuries sustained in a car accident while traveling to Clarksdale for a performance.
Blues history can also be taken in at the Delta Blues Museum in downtown Clarksdale, which, like the Stax Museum in nearby Memphis, is more of a living tribute than a sleepy institutional retrospective. Particularly interesting is the Muddy Waters display, featuring the remains of his cabin from Stovall Plantation. Inside the cabin, a fascinating documentary about Waters plays on a flat-screen TV. In one scene, Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards tells a story of meeting Waters for the first time while Waters was painting the ceiling of a studio at Chess Records. (Waters signed with Chess, a Chicago-based blues and R&B label, after moving to the Midwest from Mississippi.) Richards remembers “Muddy’s great, big beaming black face, all splattered with whitewash,” and he seems so struck by the memory that he is rendered speechless. However, moments later, Marshall Chess (son and nephew of Chess Records’ co-founders) says that Waters wouldn’t have been caught dead doing painting jobs, lest the paint ruin any one of his fine, expensively tailored suits.
THE BEST WAY TO EXPERIENCE THE BLUES SCENE IN CLARKSDALE, however, is not through the past, but rather the present, via its many clubs and juke joints. Just steps from the Delta Blues Museum is the Ground Zero Blues Club, a sprawling nightspot (co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman) housed in a former cotton grading warehouse. Outside, revelers are sprawled across the tattered old couches that line the building’s landing. Inside, a hungry, blues-loving crowd wolfs down fried catfish sandwiches and listens to the rousing sounds of bluesman Mark “Mule Man” Massey. If you dig the vibe, you can rent an apartment above the club for the night.
Just a few blocks south, down the street from the Riverside Hotel at the corner of Fourth Street and Sunflower Avenue, locals pack into Red’s Lounge. The club is housed in a small, red-brick building and, thanks to the tires, toilets and old plumbing littering the sidewalk, resembles a junkyard from the outside. The atmosphere inside Red’s, however, is loud and energetic, as revelers drink ice-cold beers and witness Delta bluesman Robert “Wolfman” Belfour tearing through songs like “Hill Stomp” and “Stayed Awake.”
Perhaps the ultimate blues experience can be found 30 miles south of Clarksdale at Po Monkey’s Juke Joint. A 69-year-old farmer named William Seaberry owns the old wooden shack in the middle of some Mississippi Delta cotton fields and only opens it for business on Mondays and Thursdays, which are each billed as “Family Night.” A sign warns “NO RAP MUSIC,” and a DJ spins an ecstatic mix of blues, soul and R&B to a friendly, diverse crowd. But blues isn’t the only thing on the menu: Customers eat fish, ribs and pork chop sandwiches prepared by Seaberry’s former sister-in-law, Irene Johnson.
A weekend spent experiencing haunts such as Po Monkey’s allows music aficionados to take in the blues’ long history in a remarkably short amount of time. And it is the music that is the Mississippi Delta distilled: easygoing and, despite the harrowing inequality and challenges the region has endured, shot through with inspiration and uplift.
TRICIA’S ITALIAN RESTAURANT AND PIE HOLE
226 Yazoo Ave; 662-627-3677
MISSISSIPPI BLUES TRAIL
615 Sunflower Ave; 662-624-9163
DELTA BLUES MUSEUM
1 Blues Alley Ln; 662-627-6820; www.deltabluesmuseum.org
GROUND ZERO BLUES CLUB
0 Blues Alley Ln; 662-621-9009; www.groundzerobluesclub.com
395 Sunflower Ave
PO MONKEY’S JUKE JOINT
From Clarksdale, take Hwy 61 South to Pemble Rd. Turn right then immediate left at fork. Approx. 1/4 mile down on left; 662-514-7488; Merigold, MS