This is the next blog post in the series about my trip along the Mississippi Blues Trail. Catch up on blog post one (New Orleans to Vicksburg), two (Vicksburg to Tutweiler) and three (Po Monkey’s and Dockery plantation).
We arrived at Clarksdale not sure what to expect, but thinking it would be similar to the other towns we’d passed through but this is an oasis for blues fans in Mississippi. Clarksdale has set itself out as the heart of the blues and it’s much needed here. Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head, moved to Clarksdale about 15 years ago and has helped shape it from a dying town into one that is slowly reviving, unique in the state. There is Red’s and Ground Zero juke joints, Red’s being a more authentic experience while Ground Zero is owned by Morgan Freeman and he sometimes pops in, like when we were there!
Lots of places are popping up based around blues: restaurants like Levon’s owned by an Australian couple (good pizza), and the Bluesberry cafe which has great breakfast live music on the weekend, and where we discovered Captain Dirk and RL Superbad, and also Watermelon Slim.
We were also lucky enough to see Terry ‘Harmonica’ Bean, and were blown away. Watch the link and see how he plays the guitar and the harmonica, absolutely brilliant to see live. He’s one of the last authentic blues men, and it’s a shame to think the old van guard is dying out. Once these blues men and women go then the connection to the origins will be gone too. Luckily, there are festivals that find them and bring them together, one being the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, and one I def want to visit.
It also has a set of crossroads where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil. There’s about four of these crossroads around Mississippi, BTW.
But Clarksdale is setting itself up as the blues capital of the state (though apparently it was always gospel here in the old days, if you wanted blues then you headed to Greenville), and it seems to be working. There is still a feel of sadness around the town, but some life is being breathed back into it. Just outside of town is the Hopson Plantation, and one that is also working the blues angle – you can stay in a sharecropper’s place, and they have regular music and weekend workshops around the blues.
I also paid a visit to Blanche Clark Cutrer’s house, with her being the inspiration for Tennessee Williams‘ Blanche DuBois in a Streetcar Named Desire. Williams was a Clarksdale native so I managed to squeeze in a quick literary tour too.
BTW, I’m writing a post around what to do and when during the week so if you’re interested in visiting then you’ll have a better idea of what’s put there. Most of the information we found is out-of-date.
First thing we did is go to Graceland and say hi to Elvis. We drove past a vast white building, and thought that wee Graceland but nope, that is the hotel you can stay in! It utterly dwarfs the actually Graceland building.
I peered over the wall, wrote a note and left as it’s $45 to visit, and I’m not that into Elvis, sorry. The queue for the house was huge, and more and more coaches were lining up the drive, so we went to Beale Street instead.
We hit up BB King’s Club to watch Blind Mississippi Morris play his harmonica – more blues rock – and I got the worst food poisoning there and had to leave. And that was Memphis for the next few days! Ugh. Although when I was a bit better we went for the BEST NOODLES EVER (whether this was due to feeling better or them actually being brill, I don’t know) at Crazy Noodle.
That night we went out, despite it being a Monday, to a local bar that had live music playing and discovered Nashville band, Volk. Definitely worth a watch, especially if it’s been a while since you heard country punk music.
The University of Mississippi has one of the largest blues archives in the world so it made sense to visit this pretty little town and explore the special collections, in particular the Sandra Lieb and Sheldon Harris ones. There’s a lot of material to go through so thankfully I had my research assistant, AKA the boyf, helping out! Also, I was so cold by this point that I had to layer and buy another jumper.
There was some useful material and we discovered Princess White, a vaudeville/blues singer who was bigger than Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith in the south, and who only ever recorded one song in her nineties. We’re trying to track it down. I’ll write about our findings proper in another blog post.
It was also the Oxford literary festival and we caught up with Martin Amis who was talking live on local radio, sandwiched in between Larkin Poe and Sarah Shook. Then the food poisoning caught back up with me again, just in time for the last few days of the research trip.
We headed back to New Orleans just in time to see Tuba Skinny at d.b.a on Frenchmen Street, which is awesome and everyone should go watch them as they’re there every Friday night. We went back to the India House Hostel and had one of the rooms overlooking the pond, small but interesting. It also overlooked the court yard which meant it was noisy and we could hear everything, including the lads from Manchester who spent ALL NIGHT trying to chat up a couple of American women. Literally until 5am, and then THEY STRUCK OUT! Seriously, Manchester, your blokes need to get their act together, they’re letting the side down here. Also, it’s a nice hostel but you need ear plugs, you really do.
Then it was Saturday and we were flying home!
Stay tuned for more posts as I work through notes, but at the moment I’m trying to get through the jet lag.