Previously Published in The Valdosta Daily Times
There we were standing in the rain in Clarksdale, Mississippi. This was the midpoint and pinnacle of our blues vacation to Memphis and the Mississippi Delta. Luckily we had the shelter of the porch of Morgan Freeman’s bar in Clarksdale, MS., but we had no ticket. We did not know this was such a high profile event that it required a ticket and attracted cameras from CNN, the Food Network and People Magazine. It was the first anniversary of the juke joint named Ground Zero because it is located within a rock’s throw of where the blues began.
Robert Johnson said “the blues is a low down achy chill”, and standing under the stoop at Ground Zero, I understood what he meant. Most know Robert Johnson as the man who supposedly traded his soul to the devil at the crossroads for the ability to play guitar as a master. He eventually became the King of the Delta Blues and, for comparison’s sake, he was the Jimi Hendrix of his day. He played guitar with technique that had never been used before he came along. It was here in Coahoma County that Robert Johnson was inspired on many occasions. To see the area is to know why Johnson was inspired.
We had driven south into the Mississippi delta from Memphis. Two friends from Florida, my girlfriend - Sue Swanson, and myself were on a blues vacation. It is quite an ominous drive from Memphis down through the delta. In South Georgia we have the Flatlanders Fall Frolic, but our landscape does not compare to that of the delta for flatness. During the day it spreads wide open and there is security in seeing everything, but as night comes it takes on a lonely, empty feeling. It is a bizarre sight as you drive through Tunica where huge casinos thrust neon lights out of the ground miles in the distance across the delta cotton fields. The mood becomes eerier when the sky opens as it did on our way to Clarksdale. With white lightning flashing across the dark and sopping delta, we made our trek to the home of the music we love.
Ground Zero is in an old downtown hardware store with black marker writing on the door warning you of the unsteadiness of the floor as well as the holes. It sits next to the train station where countless people raised on plantations in this area waited on the train to take the blues north with them. It seems the perfect setting for a juke joint in the home of the blues.
Eventually four people left who were willing to state that they were gone for the night and the club admitted us. We made it in time to see the main act - 70's Muddy Waters sideman, “Steady Rollin’” Bob Margolin and his band back up Award Winning harmonica player, Charlie Musselwhite. Although not known to many outside of serious blues fans and the music industry, these men are accomplished lifelong musicians who have honed their craft playing their music for decades.
Our night as fun, but inside it did not have the feel of a juke joint. Television cameras monitored Morgan Freeman’s every move. Black cocktail dresses were teeming. Nothing against black cocktail dresses, but they dress up the feel of a jook joint a bit much. I realized that the night would have been more fun watching from the porch outside experiencing the “low down achy chill.” It was unfortunate that it was not the juke joint experience we wanted. It was more like the Disney version of a juke joint.
For three days prior to this we had been in Memphis for the W. C. Handy Awards. Typically called the Blues Grammy, the show is named for the father of the blues, W. C. Handy. Legend has it that Handy was waiting on a train in Tutweiler, MS, to take him north to a good paying job when he heard a man playing slide guitar with a knife and singing a song about where the Southern cross the Dog (where the Southern Railroad crosses the Yazoo Delta Railrod - also known as the Yellow Dog). This was in 1902. He decided he could make money at this music and he stopped in Clarksdale to learn more. The rest is history as blues music has spread throughout the world. Blues is extremely popular in Europe. It is the basis for much of our modern music and many artists continue to use partial or entire lyrics from music since the thirties.
The Handys are held every year at the Orpheum Theater near Beale Street in Memphis. As they say in Memphis, our mojo was working because we had center aisle seats on the third row. We had better seats than Ike Turner. The show is like any other award show you would see on television. It was hosted by New Orleans great, Dr. John. Songs were performed by such blues greats as B.B. King, Ike Turner, Little Milton, Rosco Gordon, Charlie Musselwhite, Keb’ Mo’ and others. The most notable presenters were actor Steven Seagal and Sun Studios owner, Sam Phillips. Phillips is credited with discovering Elvis and many blues and other rock ‘n roll greats.
After the awards show, we walked down Beale Street to an all night jam performance at the Little Daisy Theater. It is a gathering of people in the best of social atmospheres to hear the music they love. The experience is enhanced by the performers presence in the audience for conversation, autographs or pictures. One memorable moment was when Memphis bluesman Robert “Wolfman” Balfour approached me thinking I was a bass player he played with at the Blue Monkey Club in Memphis. Sue was mistaken for blues vocalist Tracy Nelson when a man asked her if she was playing the next night on Beale Street. In her typical trickster style, she replied that she was in fact doing two shows at the Rum Boogie Club. Another great moment was seeing Best New Artist Winner, Otis Taylor, and his band pick their guitars like white lightning for twenty minutes straight. Needless to say, it was a late night. I am happy there was a downtown Denny’s across from our hotel.
The rest of the weekend centered around the Beale Street Blues Festival. The clubs on Beale Street feature blues all weekend and it fills the air along with the sweet smell of barbecue. The barbecue is the finest here. There are over 250 establishments where you can find barbecue in Memphis and it is home to the World Barbecue Championship the week before the Handy Awards.
Beale Street has changed over the years and many clubs do not regularly have blues, but the festival or other blues events in Memphis are the time to make sure you catch some good blues music. If you are planning a trip to Memphis hoping to see blues in addition to Elvis (who ain’t leavin’ this building), then your chances are likely hit or miss.
The most memorable act of the weekend had to be The Dempseys. They are three young shirtless rockabilly cowboys who act like the didn’t take their ritalin as they should have. When I walked in the Blues City Café, the bass player was standing on the bar playing an old stand up bass. He was pounding it furiously. Standing awestruck by this sight on the bar, I was oblivious to the fact that the guitar player was standing near the front door rather than at the other end of the club on stage. Soon the drummer came off the stage keeping the beat by rapping his sticks against everything along his way to the bar. He climbed up on top of the bar and started playing the bass beat with his sticks on the strings of the bass while the bassist fretted the instrument. The guitar player joined them and wailed on his guitar while standing on top of the bass which was still on the bar being pounded by the drummer. All three of these shirtless wonders played every instrument. Like Chuck Berry’s duck walk, it was a lot of showmanship, but a lot of show nonetheless. And a lot of talent, too.
We spent the rest of the weekend staying up late, seeing music on Beale Street, eating barbecue, and of course, eating at Denny’s. As the excitement part of our trip ended, Sue and I made our way back to Clarksdale and our friends departed for home. We stayed in the Shack Up Inn. Shack Up Inn is a bed and beer located on the Hopson Plantation outside of Clarksdale and only two miles from Robert Johnson’s famed crossroad intersection of US 61 and US 49. It was in Hopson where they first totally mechanized the production of cotton. The owners have moved old plantation shacks to the area by the plantation commissary and spiced them up with central heat and air and one television station. The television station of course is the blues channel.
On our first day, they cooked barbecue in the commissary. I think they were showing off for the Food Network which heard about the Shack Up Inn the night before at the Ground Zero Club. Luckily we arrived in time to get in on Clarksdale’s award winning specialty. The sandwich I had was as fine as I have ever tasted. The company was pretty good too as we sat down and had a few beers with the locals and soon new all the town gossip.
We stayed in the Pinetop Perkins Shack which is named for the piano player and former Hopson Plantation resident. The cabins are rustic. The bed is lumpy like your grandma’s spare bed. The floors have cracks. While in the commissary I reminisced about my great grandmother’s shack being as primitive, but without the AC or the light fixtures. A patron named Harlon told me he grew up in a shack like that saying, “When the dogs would get to fightin’ underneath the house, the dust would come flyin’ up through the floor.
It was out of the Shack Up Inn that we made short excursions during the day looking for historical blues sights. There is a lot to see around Clarksdale for a blues fan. The area and surrounding counties are homes to such legends as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, Johnny Winter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Pinetop Perkins and many others.
We drove to Friars Point, MS, where Robert Johnson used to play on the sidewalk in front of the local store. He also mentions Friar’s Point in several songs. Sue also said she felt his presence here which gave us good mojo for the rest of the trip. I’m not sure about the good mojo part as Johnson was poisoned by a jealous husband and eventually died of pneumonia at age 27. But as it turned out, we did have a good trip the rest of the way.
We visited the Delta Blues Museum where we saw many historical objects such as guitars, personal notes and even a telegram from the Rolling Stones to Muddy Waters. There is also the exact plantation shack in which Muddy Waters grew up on the Stovall Plantation outside of Clarksdale. We also picked up a Delta Blues Map which I highly recommend if you plan to go searching as we did.
With our map and a blues encyclopedia in hand, we found the graves of Charley Patton, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Robert Johnson. None of these men are entombed in noble places. There are no historical markers or signs pointing the way. Then again, searching out these remote places on your own is part of the adventure, but I still recommend the map.
All are on a road that will never make it on a map. Charley Patton’s grave sits in an unmown graveyard next to a cotton gin in Holly Ridge. Robert Johnson is buried at a church on a dirt road between Morgan City and Itta Bena and off a State Highway that was not on our AAA highway map. Trust me, get the blues museum map.
We stood and viewed the murals at Tutweiler Station where W.C. Handy was inspired. We drove past Dockery Farms where some say Charley Patton started the blues. We traveled to Moorhead, MS, just to find the exact spot where the Southern cross the Dog.
We even drove through the crossroads a couple of dozen times. We may have even driven through the crossroads where Robert Johnson made his deal with old Scratch. Many towns in the delta claim to have the crossroads where the deal was done. The crossroads with the monument has two or three convenience stores, Abe’s Barbecue, Dixie Donuts, and a Church’s Chicken. No one really knows where the crossroads is located or if Johnson’s fabled pact was actually made. The roads have been moved from the thirties. Most people don’t seem to care. The blues map explains all of this and goes further to jokingly say, “If you ask us one more time if that is really the crossroads, we’ll punch you in the mouth.”
Sue and I also had our time sitting on the front porch of our shack soaking up the relaxation that the vast expanse around us provided. We visited with the neighbors on the porch of their shack. We even spied Charley Musselwhite two shacks down dancing to the blues.
It is funny how sometimes we think we may enjoy one thing more than another. As it turns out, our favorite part of the trip was just hanging out in our shack. It was also interesting to wonder how many plantation workers sat on the very porch where we sat and sang music to cure what ailed them. It was relaxing. Delta time is slow. And easy. Especially when your Delta time is spent at the Shack Up.