Monday, December 8, 2008

Clarkesdale's Got the Blues

Clarksdale is a small town located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, on the crossroads of Highways 61 & 49. This area was full of prosperous cotton plantations in the early half of the 20th century, generating work for thousands of migrant workers and fieldhands that toiled the lands during the day while sitting around their old cedar porches at night, playing the blues. Thus, Clarksdale and its surrounding areas became the home of the delta blues spawning such legends as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Son House. Other local residents included WC Handy (sometimes dubbed Father of the Blues, for publishing the first blues song, called Memphis Blues in 1911), Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton. Other notable people from the Clarksdale area include Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, Jimmie Rogers and Tennessee Williams. Fertile land indeed!

Today, most of the work is gone, and the whole area I observed to be quite poverty stricken. Although music still plays a big part in the lives of the delta residents, which I'm told you can see on any given weekend in the ramshackle juke-joints that dot the landscape. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see any such music, or night life of any sort, since I was only touring through the area from Monday to Thursday. When I arrived in Clarksdale on Monday night, I strolled through downtown Clarksdale. I was literally the only person in town. Nothing was open, and the streets were ghostly quiet and dark. I was a little spooked actually and wondered if walking around at night was such a safe thing to do. There were no dinner options in Clarksdale or any of the other towns I explored (there actually are, but none are open on Mondays or Tuesdays) so I subsisted on groceries I'd buy at the Kroger supermarket. I caught a cold in Memphis, so after a long day of driving around I would pass out asleep at 9 o'clock every night. It was the most sleep I've gotten in years.

The Pinetop Shack, where I stayed.

The best part of my trip was the place where I stayed, The Shack-Up Inn. Located on the Hopson Plantation, the owners have relocated and renovated several shotgun shacks to make up the living quarters on the premises. They rest quietly amongst an old Cotton Gin, Comissary and rusting farm equipment. When I arrived I met Guy in the lobby, which is in a beautiful old structure, standing 30 feet high made up of various corrugated tin panels that are patchworked together. Guy was a laid back fellow in his 50's, with a pleasant southern drawl who helped run the place. The Inn is a real artists and musicians retreat with such celebrity guests as Robert Plant and Elvis Costello, so as soon as I walked in Guy asked me if I wanted to borrow a guitar. I grabbed the Stella and checked into my room, which also had an upright piano (I stayed at the Pinetop Shack, named after local blues legend Pinetop Perkins).

I highly recommend traveling to Clarksdale and staying at The Shack-Up Inn, just go on the weekend. Try the BBQ at Abe's!

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