Home' Rhythms Magazine : RHYTHMS JULY AUGUST 2019 Contents 44
I was driving from New Orleans to Memphis in my rental car,
having attended an American Planning Association conference in
New Orleans on urban planning and development. The drive up to
Memphis to catch a flight to Los Angeles and home to Melbourne
marked the end of this visit to the USA.
As I proceeded up Highway 61 and across to Highway 49, I checked
my Lonely Planet guidebook for possible places to stay the night.
The guidebook advised that if you like the Blues, you must visit
Clarksdale, the fabled ‘crossroads’ in the mythology of Blues music.
With no second thoughts, I drove into Clarksdale, and that was the
beginning of my long relationship with this Mississippi Delta town.
Driving into Clarksdale was an experience in itself. Approaching
from about 3km south of downtown, industrial and highway
commercial activities litter the landscape, with buildings generally
in a poor state of repair, many vacant and unused, or simply lying
derelict. As I drove closer into town, the gas stations and fast food
outlets came into view, and the number of dishevelled buildings
appeared to proliferate. This journey into the unknown led me
straight into Delta Avenue and Downtown Clarksdale.
But the broken pavements and dishevelled edginess of the
downtown also reflect the underlying strength of Clarksdale, rooted
as it is in Blues music and Delta culture. This is the Crossroads of
Highways 49 and 61 where, as the fable tells us, Robert Johnson
made his deal with the Devil in return for the gift of playing Blues
guitar. This is the birthplace of Son House, Earl Hooker, John Lee
Hooker, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, Jackie Brenston, Willie Foster and
numerous other music icons. Muddy Waters grew up at nearby
Stovall Plantation and started his early career in Clarksdale; Bessie
Smith died there at what is now the Riverside Inn (it was previously
an African American hospital), following a highway accident. Sonny
Boy Williamson and Elvis Presley were heralded at the local WROX
radio station where Early Wright was the world’s longest-serving
black DJ for his 50-year hold on the microphone.
Others have called Clarksdale ‘home’ at some stage or another
and include Charley Patton, Bukka White, Pinetop Perkins, Frank
Frost and Sam Carr. Jack Johnson, one of the Jelly Roll Kings,
played weekly at Red’s Lounge until his death in 2011, as did Dave
“Honeyboy” Edwards who died at 96 years of age. Others who have
passed on in very recent times include LC Ulmer, Leo Bud Welch and
Robert “Bilbo” Walker. But the legacy is taken up by the younger
generation, with 20-year old Christone “Kingfish” Ingram in the fore
with his new album featuring special guest Buddy Guy.
While blues music is a force in popular culture, it reflects the
trials and tribulations endured by generations of people – African
Americans – for well over 100 years, noting that the ‘blues’ is also
a condition that is not confined to any particular group. Blues is an
essential part of the social and economic environment of those with
roots in the American South, and especially in the Mississippi Delta,
that expanse of fertile land which – as described in popular terms
– extends from the front door of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis to
Catfish Row in Vicksburg.
In the words of John Lee Hooker, a Clarksdale-born blues musician
interviewed in Melody Maker in 1964, “I know why the best blues
artists come from Mississippi. Because it’s the worst state. You have
the blues alright if you’re down in Mississippi”.
In 2001, downtown Clarksdale had one diner, live music just one
or two nights a week, only one place of visitor accommodation
and, sadly for us Melburnians, no ‘real’ coffee. Today, downtown
has eight cafes and restaurants; music 365 nights a year; a dozen
or more annual festivals; numerous (and fun) places of visitor
accommodation; and real coffee! Much has been achieved over
recent years as downtown has revitalised in an economic and
cultural sense and, importantly, it continues to keep its ‘sense of
place’ as a small Delta town in America’s Deep South. Much of this
revitalisation has been achieved (and continues to be) by individuals,
their positive outlook, enterprise and personal investments.
Of special interest, Fodor’s Travel in 2018 voted Clarksdale as No.1 of
the “12 Best Music Cities that Aren’t Nashville”. The travel publisher
mentioned that although Nashville has earned the nickname “Music
City” for fostering country music legends, other cities are also
recognised for their live music. Clarksdale tops the list. And just
this year Clarksdale was voted as one of the top 5 small towns in
After all of these years, I am reminded of what Charlie Musselwhite
told me at a gig at the Corner Hotel back home in Melbourne. As
he stood in front of the audience, the lid of his aluminium harp case
was open, and across that lid were the words “I (heart) Clarksdale”.
Charlie had finished up for the night and was now signing CDs, so
I approached him, bought a CD, and casually mentioned that I was
going to Clarksdale in a couple of weeks’ time. Charlie smiled and
simply responded: “once you’ve been to Clarksdale, life is never the
same”. How true ...
John C Henshall is is an urban economist and city planner and the
author of Downtown Revitalisation and Delta Blues in Clarksdale,
A trip across the Mississippi Delta
changed a life and the home of the blues.
By John C Henshall
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