Leaving Chicago on a Friday morning, I set out for a Saturday concert in Memphis, TN. As I approach Memphis, I keep the car running and head for the delta. Earlier this morning, I realized that a night in Clarksdale, MS was there for the taking. Following Highway 278 west, I approach Clarksdale as the blood-drenched host of a sun slides behind the horizon and darkness quickly envelopes the green fields riding both my hips. About ten minutes outside Clarksdale, I look at the odometer for the trip and the red numbers tell me I have driven 666 miles to this spot. I roll down the windows and turn Robert Johnson’s ‘Me and The Devil Blues’ up loud. If I am going to stumble upon any evil spirits on this desolate highway, they sure as hell will hear me coming.
Almost hidden in the darkness on Sunflower Avenue, I park in front of the Riverside Hotel. Weaving past rusted chairs, I walk through the screen door into a narrow hallway. Pictures of musicians line the walls to the ceiling and an organ sleeps under a pile of towels. To my right, I hear movement and turn to meet Frank “Rat” Ratcliff, proprietor of the hotel. He invites me into his living room and I slump into a deep, worn couch as he taps the ashes from his cigarette into a metal ashtray stand between us. There is no lobby, no reservations book, and no cash register. Rat takes the calls and remembers your name. We talk a little about my travels with Cowboy Junkies who I’ll meet up with in Memphis, TN tomorrow and he slowly takes his feet to give me a tour of the rooms.
The Riverside Hotel used to be known as the G.T. Thomas Hospital and served the black community until 1944. In 1937, Bessie Smith was brought here after a car accident on Highway 61. The room where she died is the first door on the right as Rat walks me through the converted hotel. A picture of Bessie is resting on the pillowcase and a tall painting of the “Empress Of the Blues” looks down from above the bed. The stillness in the thick humid air does not prevent a chill from climbing my spine as we slowly make our way further down the hallway.
Each room at the Riverside Hotel is different. The furniture has been saved from the 1940’s with only the mattresses being replaced as needed. As we move from room to room, Rat talks about the musicians that came through the hotel. Ike Turned recorded a demo for ‘Rocket 88’ (dubbed the first rock and roll song by many) in a room here. Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Nighthawk, and John Lee Hooker all spent time in these rooms. When given the choice, I ask Rat for the room Hooker preferred.
After dropping my bags and changing into a new shirt, I walk out into the stifling heat to explore Clarksdale, MS on a Friday night. As I leave, Rat tells me that a band might be playing downtown and I follow the sound to an outside stage where locals sit on the tailgate of their trucks and drink cans of beer. Motorcycles line the edge of the parking lot as a family band covers classic rock and blues standards. Seeking respite from the heat and mosquitoes, I duck into the Delta Amusement Parlor and eat a mayonnaise drenched chicken sandwich as young teens wander in and out.
Across the parking lot, the Ground Zero Blues Club sounds like it’s the happening place and I head over in search of more music. On stage, Kent Burnside is just getting the night started with a heaping scoop of traditional delta blue music. The backbeat never lets up over the next two hours as the band plays loose music intended to keep a juke joint rocking late into the night. The fiddle player occasionally steps forward to take a solo and the difference between the roots fueled delta blues and the flashier electric blues that stretched from Memphis to Chicago becomes apparent. This is where rock and roll first took shape as sweat filled shacks across the delta were infused with the field hollers, spirituals, and work songs that would become the foundation of blues music. If you listen closely at a White Stripes concert today, you can still hear traces of it lingering beneath the exploding drums and bent strings.
The cans of beer begin to pile up and I stagger back into the unrelenting heat of the delta that makes midnight feel like noon. Back at the hotel, the heat follows me like a spirit until I lock John Lee Hooker’s old door and the air conditioner in the window sputters to life. Earlier, Rat mentioned that he never cleans out the dressers and in the bottom drawer of mine; I find an empty rum bottle that looks decades old and some tattered shirts. As I fall asleep, I try to count the rock and roll bands influenced by the handful of blues greats that slept in this hotel. Like sheep, I get well past 100 before I’m asleep.
In the morning, I meet some German tourists who are following the blues trail up to Memphis. Paging through the guestbook on Rat’s table, countries like Iceland, Japan, and Finland are far better represented than the surrounding states. Following the other tourists, I make my way to the Delta Blues Museum, which is housed in an abandoned train depot at the center of town. Inside, two disinterested teens collect my $5 and I walk around the exhibits. In one corner, there is a shack the recreates the childhood home of local legend Muddy Waters. Inside the shack, a television plays old video clips while a wax statue of Waters with guitar keeps an eye on the happenings. There isn’t a ton of artifacts to view. When the blues were taking shape in the delta, few people could anticipate the global impact the music would eventually have and most of the history is now found in the stories of those who played it.
Packing up the car for the ride to Memphis, I have one more stop to make. I follow Highway 61 until it crosses Highway 49 and there in the median is a metal sculpture marking the mythical crossroads made famous by Robert Johnson. It is here that Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil for his musical talents. Today, the gas station on the corner is hosting a car wash and an abandoned storefront marks the other corner. It is an insignificant piece of burning asphalt buried deep in a rural delta town still crippled by poverty. But for those who believe in the spiritual power of music, this corner gave birth to the blues and everything that came after. I take a few pictures as the locals cast an indifferent glance in my direction. After 13,000 miles of travel on tour with Cowboy Junkies and visits to landmark sites such as Woodstock, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and even an afternoon in the offices of Righteous Babe Records, it is these few minutes standing at the crossroads that I will remember most.