This entry is a bit briefer than yesterday's. Smaller area to cover, plus we're getting into more modern forms of blues, which I can't stand.
Beyond blues history, some excellent barbecue, and the Cat Head Folk Art store1, Clarksdale doesn't have much to recommend itself as a vacation spot. In the first place, I understand that it's one of the poorest cities in the poorest counties in America. Clinton stopped in here on a tour of areas hit hardest by poverty back in the 90s. I mention this because, unless you're here for the blues, you will be very, very bored. I went to the Wal-Mart for fun one night. Even if you're there for the blues I recommend staying in Memphis, which is only an hour away, and driving down. The hotels are cheaper though.2
Clarksdale does allow you to hit an awful lot of blues sites at one whack, two whacks at most. It's not a very big city—bigger than Avalon or Itta Bena, but then so is my living room—but it's rich with history, people, and events. I just missed the Helena Blues Festival, which was a bit of drag, but it seems like there's always a festival going on nearby. Local blues gents like the wonderfully named musician and folk artist Super Chikan play at nearby clubs and jukes, and they're black too. Really.
As for history, Clarksdale is the former home (or is near the homes) of performers like Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, and John Lee Hooker. Just about everyone who was anyone passed through here too, and Clarksdale was a key starting point for the massive black migration to the North of the early 20th Century. I forget the exact figure, but most black people in Chicago came from or are descended from folks from Mississippi. We even have a statue, the Monument to the Great Northern Migration, which displays a feathered black man standing at 25th and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. Well, to me he looks like he has feathers. See for yourself.
I started out by driving to the Riverside Hotel, a working inn with a tremendous blues pedigree. For starters, it used to be a black hospital, and when Bessie Smith was injured in an accident on Highway 61, she was brought here, where she died on the operating table. The innkeeper doesn't rent out that room, and instead maintains a shrine to the lady. The Riverside also put up Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Nighthawk, John Lee Hooker, and others.
Not so far away is the former Clarksdale Greyhound station (now a visitor information center), where Muddy Waters, after quitting his 22 1/2 cent an hour sharecropping job on nearby Stovall Farms, boarded the bus to Chicago. Muddy wasn't the first bluesman in the big city—for years there had already been an urban blues tradition there and elsewhere, usually through female singers and piano players—but Muddy brought plenty of innovations to the music as well as a firm footing in the Delta blues tradition.
There are a few other spots that I visited. Wade Walton's shop, a blues-playing barber who played with and cut the hair of the usual suspects. Alan Ginsberg even came to town once and had his frizzy hair styled by Mr. Walton. Next door I saw where W.C. Handy's house once stood—it's a parking lot now. I'm not sure why, but the folks in the South have a big willy for placing plaques in front of things that aren't there anymore. Beale Street in Memphis was like that too. The Dipsie Doodle club, which Alan Lomax recalls visiting in the 40s in his book The Land Where the Blues Began and where he met Honeyboy Edwards (a Robert Johnson contemporary) is still there, though it's now a flower shop.
Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art is a revelation. Set in downtown Clarksdale, they carry blues music, books, shirts, posters, and such like, of course, but the larger part of the store is occupied with folk art by local artists. I won't use the term outsider art, with its intimations of mental disease and gross amateurism. No, while there is a certain untrained, sloppy, and occasionally deranged look to some of the pieces, folk art is the more applicable term. This is the sort of stuff urban cowgirls and boys like Heather McAdams, Jon Langford, and the Handsome Family try to mimic, but end up doing in a way that, wittingly or not, only seems pretentious and patronizing. Well, maybe not Langford now that I think about it, who tries to look rough but doesn't create a facade of primitivism. Still, the guy is a Welsh transplant to Chicago. There are no cotton seeds stuck in the soles of his boots. Folk art is the only kind of art where I demand authenticity; unless someone wants to come up with a term like Faux Folk or Urban Folk Reflection Art, or maybe just Big City Hipsters with NPR and Art School Connections Pretending They Crawled Out of a Bayou Art.
Run by Roger and Jennifer Stolle, who moved to Clarksdale from St. Louis, the place feels open, friendly, and honest. Cat Head is a store that should exist in Chicago, but can't. Why? Because in Chicago it would be too far from the source. Hence, art prices would be marked up, there would be no sense of the artists' presence, artists who didn't meet criteria for salability would be rejected, and the whole damn place would stink of patchouli and wine—no reflection on the Stolle's, the owners of Cat Head. The Stolles are the main force behind the store. When we spoke, Roger proved a pleasant and agreeable fellow with encyclopedic blues knowledge and exceptional taste in art and music. Asking for recommendations on local favorites, he pointed out Super Chikan's latest album, Chikan Supe, which is a weird but enjoyable swirl of early Delta blues, soul, and some untraceable squonks, bleats, and other sounds. Fat Possum's Robert Belfour was another revelation. Mr. Chikan also had some rather keen cigar box and gas gan guitars on display: well out my price range, unfortunately. The rest of the place is filled with exceedingly colorful paintings and assemblage art. If you can't get to Clarksdale, check out the Web site above.
I drove through Clarksdale on my way north to Stovall Farms and the site of Muddy Waters' cabin. During my visit, I'd mainly restricted my visit to Highway 61, where my hotel was located, so it was nice to see its interior. Plenty of charming little houses everywhere, running beside the Sunflower River before crossing the city's border into farm country, and king cotton everywhere. Here's what the stuff looks like when they bind it up into blocks the size of a car. I actually saw these particular cotton mounds on my way to Memphis, but they're everywhere.
So, on to Stovall Farms:
I'm not a huge Muddy Waters fan, but as I've said about other things, he's important. Just not to me. I'm not sure I can forgive him for providing what is probably the quintessential blues lick (dah-DAH, dah-DUM!) with most of his songs, or launching the Chicago electric blues style, which sounds deceptively simple to play, but is actually quite annoying. He's catchy and many of his songs are quite good, but I can only take so much Muddy. If you want a great Chicago blues album, get Willie Dixon's I Am the Blues (Dixon wrote for Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and others). Maybe I'm just prejudiced against Waters' album titles...like Hard Again. Yeah, we get it, Muddy.
Stovall Farms, as I said, was where Waters (real name McKinley Morganfield) worked, when he wasn't running his own juke or playing guitar. His cabin stood between the fields and the road. Always keeping in mind that Waters and thousands of other blacks were regularly reamed here, it's still quite a peaceful place. The cabin is currently residing in the Delta Blues Museum back in Clarksdale (which I'll discuss in a moment). In its place is an historical marker.
Stand here and picture Muddy picking out tunes on a hot summer day beneath the gnarled old tree out front. Or imagine when ZZTop and their big goddamned beards stopped by, stole a piece of loose wood that had broken free from the cabin, and had it made into the hideous "Muddywood"electric guitar (also on display at the museum).
To make up for the lack of Muddy's cabin, which will eventually be returned to it's original spot, there are plenty of other shabby houses nearby. And a few nice ones. I don't want to give the impression that everyone lives in total squalor down there. Weirdly, often I'd see the most run-down, ramshackle cabin, and out in front there'd be a brand-new car. Maybe some people like to pretend they're sharecroppers, and the insides of all those shacks look like stately Wayne manor.
Okay, so, the museum.
Of all the museums, the Delta Blues Museum has the most space, and, I assume, money. More displays of instruments and stagewear, a film about Pinetop Perkins3, Muddy's cabin (which is inhabited by a kinda scary wax statue of the man), and more folk art. Well worth spending a half hour at, though the gift shop is a tad Disneyfied. Blues-themed golf shirts? If that isn't a miscarriage, I don't know what is. If you're sneaky, like me, you can even break the no-camera rule and get shots of some of the exhibits, like the sign for the place where Robert Johnson was allegedly poisoned.
Onward to Memphis, but not without stopping by Abe's 4 one last time.
Look at how ready that pig is to have the marrow sucked out of his ribcage! I like that the pulled pork is given a topping of coleslaw too. Nummy nummy.
(Next: Memphis, fucking Elvis everywhere, visiting a Jim Jarmusch landmark, Isaac Hayes' caddy, the worst hotel in Memphis (not mine, but rather Dr. King's), and more.)
Oh, right. the crossroads where Robert Johnson made his deal with the devil are in Clarksdale, which is, of course, complete hooey. There's a metal sculpture at the point where they cross in town, but I think the more accurate location is just outside of Clarksdale. Lonelier and spookier too. Unfortunately, it's more of a T than a cross. Picky picky.
1. Oh, and Morgan Freeman, who's from Mississippi, owns a blues club here called Ground Zero. I didn't stop by so I can't recommend it one way or another.
2. I stayed at the Comfort Inns in Clarksdale and Memphis, and while the Clarksdale one had a slight ant problem, they were perfectly comfy places to stay. You can get a suite for next to nothing too.
3. Who was in town to perform a "homecoming" show... I had the opportunity to go see him perform at Ground Zero, but the tickets were $24, and, as I suspected and learned the next day, he only played a couple of songs with the band that was REALLY performing. The dude is 93 years old, for chrissakes.
4. My friend Seth commented on how bizarre it was to hear about a BBQ place called Abe's. "That's like ordering a ham sandwich at a place called Mandelbaum's," says he.