Down at the Crossroads
The Delta is too obstinate to care that it’s an alluvial plain, too poor to take its students off the critical needs list, too steeped in fabled funk to leave alone; even if, like Muddy Waters, come departure time one’s fondest wish is never to return. Could be it’s the devil or the cottonfields or the deep fertile sadness that resonates from the land herself.
The Delta quite literally reeks — the smell of deep sadness, not fear — of its hard history colliding with modern America. From Highway 61 in Memphis, you can drop on down across the state line. The well-tended medians and billboards and flags proclaiming some version of grown-up Disneyland cannot disguise the desperation of the string of drivers peeling off into the parking lots of Tunica’s casinos.
Keep going. Nature takes her course. The sun moves toward setting and mosquitoes fill the air like a pixilated rainsquall. The river is omnipresent. The home of the blues is on ahead, just a spot in the road, really. Welcome to Clarksdale, Mississippi, y’all.
THE CROSSROADS of modern US Highways 61 and 49 are duly decorated with a large blue guitar-shaped monument that rises above the gas stations, the Delta Donut shop, and Abe’s BBQ. It’s an ironically soulless photo-op, but serves its purpose; authentic delights await those who turn off either highway onto some of its tributary roads. Blues-heads sojourn here to find the wellspring of Delta mystique, to stand at Robert Johnson’s crossroads. But the ghosts of Johnson and a thousand others have to compete for attention with the local haints and scholars who work at keeping the old magic fresh. This is a good thing.
THE DELTA BLUES MUSEUM (One Blues Alley) sparks the imagination, with earthy evidence of Delta history (giant cotton bales) and hardships (crude homemade tombstones) and a scholarly dissection of how “blue notes” became the blues. This sun-baked red brick edifice was, in a former life, the Clarksdale Freight Depot; the passenger station, just across Issaquena Avenue, was the departure point for Muddy Waters and countless other musicians looking to leave the Delta for the lure of cities to the north such as Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, New York…
Clarksdale is working hard to reverse the direction of that flow, bringing thousands of tourists and blues devotees back into town to experience the sights and sounds of living, breathing music history. The jewel in Clarkesdale’s crown is the SUNFLOWER RIVER BLUES AND GOSPEL FESTIVAL; the sixteenth annual event took place in August and, among other honorees, paid tribute to the late Othar Turner.
The showpiece of the museum is Muddy’s cabin, removed (under spurious corporate auspices) from its original site on the Stovall plantation just outside Clarksdale and reconstructed in all its roughness, big gaps between its huge cypress timbers. Its interior is decorated with album covers, Fillmore gig posters, and an eerily lifelike wax figure of Muddy himself — plus also (unless it’s out on tour, maybe with the cabin itself) the custom guitar commissioned by ZZ Top, made from a blown-down cabin plank.
The jumble of incongruities does nothing to diminish the terrifically strong juju here. This rugged frame wrapped itself around countless episodes of Saturday night revelries, dancing and gambling and music, sheltering the fleeting joys of a careworn class.
Issaquena Avenue passes from the downtown business district under the Illinois Central tracks; the block on the other side was the center of the nightlife that flourished in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. The short strip of storefronts from the tracks to 4th Street (now Martin Luther King Blvd.) was the Beale Street of Clarksdale: The Dipsie Doodle was here, as was the New Roxy Theater, where Clarksdale native Ike Turner staged shows.
Attrition has claimed most of this sector, some of it only recently. An ice storm closed Margaret’s Blue Diamond in the ’90s, while Smitty’s Red Top Lounge was bought and shuttered by a neighborhood church just two years ago. Soon enough, the outsized Coca-Cola bottle caps high up the brick wall will be the only identifiable feature of the Red Top, today barely recognizable from the cover art of an old Jelly Roll Kings LP.
But coming up Issaquena, out from under the shadow of the tracks, it’s not so hard to picture the wide way teeming with nightlife, frenetically pulsing and moving in all directions, an Archibald Motley street scene come to colorful life.
Downtown Clarksdale strives to represent its musical heritage, but it can be slow going. The storied WROX studios, the shop of barber/musician Wade Walton, and the ’30s-era Greyhound station are all works in progress, while sites such as Dela’s Stackhouse retain their charm (what steamboat-shaped blues recording studio can ever lose that?) but have definitely seen better days.
Thriving, however, is the CAT HEAD DELTA BLUES & FOLK ART emporium (252 Delta Avenue), named for local artist James Thomas’ image of choice, feline line drawings on discarded desk drawers, appliances, any flat surface really. Cat Head, half down-home self-taught folk art gallery and half record/bookstore, is hands-down the best source for information on what’s happening musically and culturally anywhere in the region.
Clarksdale transplants Roger and Jennifer Stolle pride themselves most rightfully on their acumen and insights. The right kind of crazy, the thirtysomething Stolles gave up their “good” jobs, sold their St. Louis home, and beat their retreat to Clarksdale just one year ago. Wooed and won half a decade ago by a culture they found teeming with life on their “dead bluesmen grave tour,” today Jennifer extols the virtues of Delta tamales (a whole ‘nother story there) eaten with saltines (though neither sweet tea nor the gristled meat at Swee Bees is her thing), and Roger hips us to a motorcycle car jump for charity. The latter is how we find ourselves spending a summer evening in the Wal-Mart parking lot alongside half the town, including hearty representation from Clarksdale’s large Mennonite community.