Monday, 14 May 2012

Clarksdale, Mississippi - 'Home I'll Never Be'

If you follow my twitter account, you might have seen that Mrchalky and I recently took a road trip from Baltimore to New Orleans. It was quite a long way (the equivalent to 1/10th of the circumference of the world) and we did it in just over 2 weeks. We drove through tornado ravaged towns, defunct coal communities, past cotton fields, old plantations, national parks, race courses, bourbon distilleries, swamps and even a baby bear and a squashed baby alligator.

As we passed from state to state, the music on the radio went something like this: Rap/R'n'B -> Bluegrass -> Bluegrass Gospel -> Country -> Rock'n'Roll ->Blues -> Jazz.

I got introduced to hot tamales and juke joints in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and the best margarita I've ever tasted in Kentucky. Indiana gave us a home for the night, as did our lovely friends in Blacksburg, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland. We stopped our car for a moment to figure out which part of West Virginia we were in, only for a woman to approach our window to ask us for our order for drinks and something for lunch. America! We saw Low play in the amazing Louiseville palace. We got inadvertintly sucked into Elvis's childhood home in Tupelo, Tennessee, and saw a lot of drunk people dancing in Nashville. We stopped off the Natchez trace in Alabama for a picnic and saw swimming snakes and 'disappearing' turtles. The trip ended up in Lousiana with more Jazz than you could shake a stick at, oysters at $3 a dozen, racer snakes and plenty of sneaky gators. I loved it all apart from the snakes.

Clarksdale, Mississippi was the music highlight of the trip, although a night in an uptown bar in New Orleans and of course, the Low concert ran close seconds. Clarksdale is a crazy place. By day, the town looks like nothing more than a fading homage to times past. Many of the shops and homes are boarded up with paint peeling everywhere, collapsed roofs, plants growing through the floor, that kind of thing. It has the feel of a place that everyone has just upped and left, and that is in part exactly what has happened. Many left in what is known as the The Great Migration to the north in search of greater economic opportunity during the 40's/50's. Mechanical cotton equipment replaced jobs and many other social problems made people want to leave in search of a better life. You can't fail to visit the Mississippi delta without getting one hell of a history lesson.

As far as musical history goes, Clarksdale is basically the home of the delta blues. Names such as Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Johnny B. Moore, Ike Turner and Muddy Waters to name but a few, have all lived in Clarksdale. Ike Turner wrote 'Rocket 88' while staying at the Riverside Hotel (see photo below). This is considered by many to be the first rock'n'roll song. He also used to work at The New Roxy theatre back in the 40's (see photo below). There is really too much musical history to do it justice in this blog post.

By night, Clarksdale still has the delta blues pulsating through it's ramshackle looking juke joints. We ventured out to Red's juke joint for some Monday night blues having just missed a big weekend festival hosted all over the town. We were quite lucky because Monday night is usually a pretty quiet night, but Red's was putting on an evening in memory of their old friend, legend and regular performer, 'Big Jack Johnson'. Red's was about as laid back as you could get. You could help yourself to some bbq out the front, there was a guy dunking some kind of fish in a batter and then frying them in a tin of hot oil. The bar had a few bottles of beer you could buy, if you wanted hard liquor you had to bring your own. We sat near the back taking it all in. A guy sitting near our table was invited to pay his respects and join the band on stage. It just so happened he was another local bluesman. You just never knew who you were sitting next to. I caught the owner, Red, laying back on a couch right next to the stage while the band was playing, possibly the most chilled out person I've ever met. What a hero to be running a place like that. He's the kind of person you want to keep going for ever.

I could go on, but I'll save it for another time. I wanted to get something up on the blog to share with you the awesome experience that was Clarksdale, Mississippi. The town does have it's problems for sure, but getting a glimpse of it's history coupled with it's fantastic juke joints is something I would recommend any music fan to visit at some point in their life.


Riverside Hotel, Clarksdale in operation since 1944. Blues legend Bessie Smith died here in 1937. Ike Turner wrote Rocket '88 here. John F Kennedy Jr stayed here in 1991.(Read more)

Riverside Hotel - You can stay here.

Riverside Hotel

Riverside Hotel

Me playing my gee-tar in our shack in Clarksdale

Keen Clarksdale kitty visiting our shack

Flat Mississippi


New Roxy, Clarksdale

W.C. Handy Marker, Clarksdale

Wade Walton's Barber Shop - " Wade Walton was a unique individual having spent his entire life in Clarksdale, cutting hair and slapping out blues rhythms on his razor strap. A barber for 55 years Wade has probably known more blues performers and has performed for and with more blues performers than anybody else around the Clarksdale area." - Delta Musicians

Gritty Clarksdale

Former location of Sarah's Kitchen, Clarksdale

Nature taking back this empty shop building

Former Stackhouse Records, Clarksdale's most famous blues record shop, now defunct. Cat Head record shop took it over but also didn't make it. It looks like a boat and apparently it was one?

Typical collapsed roof in a shop in Clarksdale

Ground Zero Juke Joint - Morgan Freeman's club, Clarksdale.

Ground Zero, Clarksdale

Delta style Hot Tamales - So tasty.


TCB at Red's

TCB's bodyguard at Red's

Sunset at Clarksdale

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Next time you are in the State, particularly the East Coast, please give Mr. Chalky's cousin David a ring.

He would love to see you guys.


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