Travel the back roads between American Highways 49 and 61 in search of Lost Superstitions and the spirits of Sam Cooke, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Son House and Elmore James. Head into Clarksdale Mississippi, the birthplace and heart of the Delta Blues and tour the Delta Blues Museum, Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, The Ranchero, Rock “n Roll Blues Heritage Museum and Hambone Art Gallery. Below is a mural painted on the side of one of the older buildings in Clarksdale, a shot I took on our cross country journey earlier this year.
We hadn’t planned on going to Mississippi so it ended up being a detour after I learned that it was the birthplace of the blues and we were bound to hear some great authentic music in town. Unfortunately although we his great weather most of the way, we crossed the state border in gray skies with lots of clouds – the air was damp and the trees were bare as we were smack in the middle of winter.
Cooler than we anticipated, we headed straight for Clarksdale, which was less than a two hour drive from Memphis Tennessee, where we had hung our hat for the previous week, taking in everything the city had to offer, from music and food to historical sites that took us deep into soul, rock-and-roll and blues music. See some of my articles on Memphis: Graceland and Elvis, Stax Museum (soul music), Sun Studio (Elvis’ earliest studio), Barbara Blue and Lafayette Room and the foodie scene there.
Blues and jazz lovers will likely know about Clarksdale as it is where some of the best blues musicians started and have played over the years. It’s a funky little American town and if you are interested in American History, the South and southern culture and blues music, Clarksdale is a must for your Southern State list. There are two notable places I’d recommend for lodging and they couldn’t be different from each other: The Lofts at the Five and Dime and the Shack Up Inn. Rust Restaurant now open at the Shack Up Inn also offers food and there is live music there weekly. Read my write-up on both hotels.
Shack Up Inn has played host to such blues performers and movie stars as Tom Waits, Pinetop Perkins, the North Mississippi Allstars, Dwayne, Gary and Cedric Burnside, Kenny Brown, Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, Johnny Neel, Morgan Freeman, Patty Griffin, Big Jack Johnson, Samuel J. Jackson, Super Chikan, Sam Carr, Charlie Musselwhite, Robert Plant, Mary Louise Parker, John Mayall, Ike Turner, Barefoot Workshops,Down 2 the Crossroads Guitar & Bass Camp and Jon Gindick’s Harmonica Jam Camp just to name a few.
It’s hard to explain the Shack Up Inn to anyone who hasn’t stepped foot on its grounds, which is in the heart of the Hopson Plantation, a mere three miles out of central Clarksdale, on the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61. Take a look at the below cotton field which is at the corner of the main highway, before you make a right and circle around into the entrance of Shack Up Inn – it is simply like something out of an old southern movie.
Go on a visual journey with me throughout the grounds of the Shack Up Inn. It was teaming down with rain when we were there, so the skies are cloudy and you might even see some fog residue on my lens as a result. You will feel as if you’ve traveled back in time, with so much untouched. It’s not the kind of place you go to if you’re after luxury accommodations, but it is the place to visit if you want an authentic experience and if you want to dive deep into the history of the blues.
Virtually unchanged from when it was a working plantation, you’ll find authentic sharecropper shacks, the original cotton gin and seed houses and other outbuildings. You will glimpse plantation life, as it existed not that long ago. In addition, you will find one of the first mechanized cotton pickers, manufactured by International Harvester, as you stroll around the compound. It was raining when we arrived and I can’t tell you all the objects I discovered under the wet skies, camera in hand without an umbrella, suspended by the almost artistic chaos of it all.
It seemed to spread in all directions and each shack had it’s own unique charm. Rusted trucks are sprawled out on the property in the oddest of places and the building’s corrugated tin roofs and Mississippi cypress walls will conjure visions of a bygone era, taking you far back in time to a Mississippi you can only imagine from novels and movies. And so, like a kid in a candy store, I went exploring, so mesmerized by it all, that I barely took notice of the rain and cold air penetrating my bones as I took shot after shot. And so it went…..I couldn’t seem to get enough of the relics from a yesteryear I have been curious about for as long as I can remember.
There’s also a main building, which is where you check in of course, but they also have a bar and club where you can hear authentic blues in the evenings. Like the shacks that surround it, the building is rustic, authentic and all things grunge, but artistically so.
You can find interesting gems in the gift shop, such as blues CDs from names you may never have heard of, to bottle tops and funky artwork – I bought a small painting of a saxophone player, which now proudly hangs in my kitchen. They have regular musicians and other special talent passing through – check the latest schedule to know what to expect and when. Also a great resource is www.msbluestrail.org/calendar which will point to various venues, musicians, dates and times.
Then there’s REDs Lounge. Known among all blues musicians, this bonafide juke joint has been going since early days, run and managed by a guy locally and nationally known as RED. About as authentic as it gets, REDs Lounge has a variety of different types of blues players who come in from around the world. I read an interesting write-up about an incredible show last year of Terry “Harmonica” Bean that lasted for four hours.
There were only a couple of random musicians playing the night we were there, one in from the Netherlands. The below shot was taken on my iPhone across the bar — it’s hard to see the ceilings in this shot as the neon red covers a lot of the bandaids, but you feel at times as if the place is being held together by duck tape on all four sides.
And yet, this place has so much soul and so much character, you can’t help but lose yourself in what’s happening around you, shutting it all out except for what’s coming from the guitars, harmonicas and vocal chords in the middle of the bar/lounge, which is a small area dedicated to musicians. I thought this was a classic description someone wrote on their Facebook page: “The real deal, exemplifies an authentic blues scene. Backed by the river, fronted by the grave.”
There is no official website and we learned about it from a young guy in town who does some work for the mayor, who in addition to his love for politics, supports the Mississippi blues scene. He too said that RED’s was the real deal and since we found ourselves walking around in the dark looking for the place (no phone number, no website), he escorted us over one night while it was pouring with rain. A Dutchman was jamming away when we arrived…..
Here’s RED himself in true form – notice all the photos of famous blues musicians who have passed through his doors (and played in his oh so casual juke joint lounge) over the years. He’s one proud man of the musicians he has had the incredible opportunity to host.
I mentioned that he’s a real character right?
Since we only saw REDs by night, below is a shot I found on the web of the outside of the joint by day. Photo courtesy of Sheinde (2012).
Ground Zero is another classic place in town to hear live music and you can’t go wrong regardless of what evening you show up. On the outside, it might not look like much (worn brick, faded paint, unevenly textured), however inside, you’re faced with an entirely different world — be expected to transform as the Delta Blues hits you on all sides.
This amusing older musician had me at hello…..apparently a former regular, he told me later that they only let him play once a week now. I figured it had to do with his age, but the man knows how to belt out a number and I for one, had my foot tapping the entire time, mesmerized by his sound.
This woman, despite suffering from a cold that evening, seemed to go on for hours without a break. Her fingers strummed that keyboard like there was no tomorrow and her voice shone through the entire club while the place rocked.
Tourists from around the world have passed through Ground Zero’s doors – from England and Argentina to Japan and South Africa…..and everywhere in between. Flags, photos, emblems and currency were scattered along the walls, the ceilings and around poles. It was hard to find a spot in the bar that hadn’t been laced with an international gift or two.
Bill Luckett, who is an attorney in town and also the mayor of Clarksdale, owns in Ground Zero together with actor Morgan Freeman and Memphis entertainment exec Howard Stovall. Having grown up in Mississippi as has his wife and four children, he understands the essence of what makes the state shine, the song of the blues and its deep rooted history such an integral part of it. He happened to be at the club the night we were there –– in a suit of course — while the rest of us were in jeans and casual shirts and there amidst the jam sessions, we talked about Clarksdale and the Club.
A factoid I didn’t know, but apparently Clarksdale has long been described as “Ground Zero” for blues aficionados from around the globe. Located at Ø Blues Alley next door to the Delta Blues Museum in the heart of historic downtown Clarksdale on 252 Delta Avenue, it is a stone’s throw and easy five minute walk to REDs across the railroad tracks. Going back and forth between clubs late at night in the rain brought me far back in time to when I was in high school and used to hang out at dive’s clubs — there wasn’t a care in the world and we were happy as clams.
It’s been purring along since May 2011 and each week, the best of Delta Blues musicians come through the club’s doors. Live music plays every Wednesday through Saturday and even on a few Sundays when the occasion arises. You can also get food here, which is a “down home” menu ranging from traditional Southern dishes to juicy hamburgers and — of course — crispy fried catfish and slow-cooked pork barbecue. See my two other “foodie” picks for Clarksdale in my restaurant write-up.
Named in 2005 as one of the “Top 100 Bars and Nightclubs in America” the club has been featured in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, Southern Living, USA Today, Esquire Japan, Food and Wine, The Washington Post and TV Guide — to name but a few. Below, I’m chatting with Bill about his life in Clarksdale and about the blues scene from his point of view.
The Town of Clarksdale itself has raw character and is about as authentic as the blues scene which made it famous. In downtown Clarksdale, along the main drag (Yazoo Pass), you’ll find a number of shops and stores, some vacant, some not and other antiquated buildings mostly made of brick.
Other buildings are not as well maintained and some of the older buildings which originally housed a music shop or two, are now vacant, the original signs fading into the background as you’ll see below.
Below the cemetery in town on a rainy drizzly day.
Delta Blues Alley Cafe…
These shops were closed on one afternoon and another morning so we couldn’t go inside – it was hard to tell how which business was still alive or not, but what was evident was that there was a growing interest from locals who are proud to call Clarksdale their home, to revive the city and surrounding area.
One example of this revival is the Five and Dime Lofts on Yazoo Street, where you can rent an apartment for short or long term stay. Chic and modernly designed, we stayed there while in town and had everything we needed at our fingertips, from soda and candles stocked in the closet to a washer and dryer inside the flat itself. Located in a renovated warehouse building, the ceilings are tall and the exterior has maintained its original character.
On the found floor adjacent to the Five and Dime Lofts sits its sister restaurant Yazoo Pass. The entire building is owned by a guy they refer to as Bubba in town. You probably don’t expect a guy named Bubba to have an Irish surname, but Bubba O’Keefe is somewhat legendary in the town. You can learn more about the background of the Five and Dime Lofts in this short, but interesting historical look at the past — way in the past when it was once an old Woolworth building in its heyday.
Bubba has been referred to as a visionary homeboy and in one article on him, he had said, “…born here, raised here and I’m going to die here.” While some were out seeking their fame and fortune in the world after college, Bubba was more interested in his hometown. Below is Mayor Bill Luckett and I at Yazoo Pass — Anthony and I ran into him again at the cafe the next morning at breakfast.
Yazoo Pass has a boat load of character, from the brick walls and creative artwork on the walls…..
TO the food itself. Fresh, organic and as close to farm-to-table as you get, they take great pride in serving fresh salads, fish and meat dishes paired with a lovely wine selection. More photos can be found in my Clarksdale restaurants write-up.
Also in the center of town is another fresh and organic joint The Oxbow, a more casual restaurant located on Yazoo Avenue that focuses on lunch.
The Chef and owner Hayden Hall took great care of us, serving up some of his favorite dishes while we tried nearly every dish on his lunch menu on a rainy afternoon in January.