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Killing the Covid Blues in Clarksdale, Mississippi

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

I might as well have driven down to Mississippi a hundred years ago. But it was March of 2020.

Peering back through the lockdown haze, I remember a carefree, hastily-organized Clarksdale stopover on a Chicago-to-Atlanta road trip - a fascinating and thirsty wander around the mud-caked cradle of Mississippi Delta Blues that was filled with wonderful music and memorable characters, and punctuated by an ominous conversation with a German tourist.

“Really?” I said after learning he was an infectious disease specialist. “So, what do you make of this corona virus thing that everyone seems to be talking about?”

“Vell,” he said with a very German accent and a shrug. “Vee vill all get it, no?”

I thought about that a lot on the drive back to Chicago, then stumbled into the two-year Covid blur that was book-ended by the deaths of my father and mother – he from what seems like it was Covid (early in the pandemic, so no testing available); she from a stroke, and a broken heart.

As I finally began to think about traveling again, I found myself drawn back to Clarksdale and its music. And I wondered if the simple, 12-bar blues that grew out of slavery, poverty, heartache and loneliness might have anything to offer someone staggering out of a Covid depression.

Let the record show that my life as a Connecticut-born, college educated, reasonably affluent white male has nothing in common with African American sharecroppers like Muddy Waters, Son House, and Robert Johnson. Claiming the music as my own is not the goal here. Looking to it for comfort is. I wondered if the emotion of authentic, well-played Blues music might be especially relevant in the world After Covid, and if some sort of redemption could still be found along Highway 61, an hour south of Memphis. I talked my wife into a return trip.

Clarksdale is not for the feathered pillow set. Don’t go looking for turned down beds or Michelin stars. Mississippi is one of the poorest places in the country, and the Delta – occupying a large chunk of the Northwest corner of the state – is hardly booming. But you’ll find decent, even interesting lodgings. And there’s excellent food of you look for it. More than anything, however, you'll find authenticity.

The locals do their best to promote the town, and make sure there's live music playing every night. But it hasn't been shined and polished - or even faux distressed - by the Convention and Visitor's Bureau types. Clarksdale is real.

First, a very brief history lesson. Former slaves and their descendants – along with poor whites like Johnny Cash - toiled for decades in the fertile southern soil along the Mississippi. The so-called “Delta blues,” played on acoustic guitars accompanying simple, emotional lyrics in a style that borrowed from church spirituals, work-gang songs, and bawdy juke-joint romps, grew out of this life.

When African Americans moved north looking for factory work, they brought their guitars, often plugging them into rudimentary amplifiers to be heard above the urban noise. This electronic Blues music became the roots of rock and roll, which is why places like Clarksdale attract both pure fans of the genre as well as modern musicologists looking for the source.

Clarksdale today is a sleepy, economically struggling burg that clings with great enthusiasm and not a lot of flash to its Blues roots. It is the kind of place where you can walk into an artsy book shop and chat with the owner, only to have him pause the conversation and introduce you to one of the greatest blues harmonica players in the world.

“This is Charlie Musselwhite,” Roger Stolle said to me as he nodded at the grey-haired, Covid-masked gentleman who had just entered his shop.

A Mississippi native, Musselwhite said he’d just left California because of the increasingly persistent wildfires there. He moved to Clarksdale to be closer to family, and also to a creative energy he said is baked into the soil.

“It seems like people in the Delta, many people seem compelled to create, whether they’re trained or not, whether they’re folk artists or poets; sculptors and writers and painters and, of course, musicians too,” he said. “There’s just something about that that’s just really nice to be around.”

“That might sound a little mystical,” he continued. “But if you come here and you love the blues, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s the kind of thing, you can’t really nail down, but you’ll recognize it. And it’s almost like when you meet somebody for the first time and it seems like you’ve been friends forever. That’s what coming to Clarksdale’s like. It feels like home.”

Stolle, a cultural jack-of-all-trades whose Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art shop is a kind of living community bulletin board, echoed Musselwhite’s assessment. He suggested that the Blues helped the town through Covid.

“With blues music … it was all sort of making something out of nothing, because a lot of people had nothing,” Stolle said. “I feel like being this Blues town gave us that extra edge … We’re very fortunate to have this entrepreneurial spirit.”

I’d found that spirit in places like the Bluesberry Café on my first night in town on the first trip. The room was barely half full, and I picked out a cracked vinyl booth and took pull on my first cold beer after eight hours of driving. The four-piece band was wandering back to the one-step riser after a break when I noticed a dishwasher walking out of the kitchen in a red apron, a trash bag in each hand. He was an older man and he stopped in front of the stage and nodded at the guitar player who’d just sat down. He put down the trash bags and the guitar player eased into a familiar blues progression. Then Bill "Watermelon Slim" Homans - one of the owners of the place, it turns out - lit into full-volume, Delta-soaked rendition of “Catfish Blues.”

“Well I wish I was a catfish

Swimming in the deep blue sea

I’d have all you pretty women

Fishin’ after me”

The next day I was on a personal tour with local native William “Chilly Billy” Howell, bouncing his bright red jeep past pecan groves, cotton fields, and up and down the ever-present Mississippi River levee. He runs his own operation: Delta Bohemian Tours, which is essentially him and as many people as can fit in the Jeep.

He’s the kind of person who pauses for a wave and a “hah-yew-doin” chat with almost everyone we pass, which makes the tour even better. He took me up and over the levee for an elusive stroll along the actual banks of the Mighty Mississippi. (Although the region is defined by the river, the 1,600-mile-long levee that protects it from flooding on both sides makes enjoying the actual river not as easy as it should be.)

We wound up at the edge of the Stovall family farm, where McKinley Morganfield lived and worked before he was “discovered” and changed his name to Muddy Waters. Folklorist Alan Lomax taped Waters at Stovall in 1942, a recording he said gave him the confidence to quit his job, move to Chicago, and help create a new genre of music – electronic blues.

The Morganfield sharecropper’s shack is now on display in the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, leaving just a small marker at the spot now. Nothing fancy. Just a weathered plaque surrounded by rich, Delta soil, and a gnarly old tree bent sideways, like a laborer picking cotton, that caught my attention.

"Muddy Waters pissed on that tree,” Chilly Billy said.

Also on the outskirts of Clarksdale sits the Hopson Plantation, perhaps one of the most interesting lodging options in the area. The site is famous as the farm where American Harvester first used a machine - even cheaper than cheap labor - to harvest cotton. It was a development that contributed significantly to the Great Migration of African Americans to northern industrial cities.

Now Hopson is a gathering of recreated sharecropper shacks available to tourists looking for the "real" experience. My wife and I toured one two-bedroom unit that featured Spartan-but-clean amenities, including a small kitchen and a lovely back porch. We vowed to return with friends, and guitars. (If you don't own a guitar, the hotel will loan you one when you check in.)

Perhaps the biggest Hopson attraction is the juke joint at the center of the shacks. So-called “Jukes” were at the heart of Blues culture. They were often little more than shacks where rural impresarios would hire musicians and sell refreshments to locals looking to let their hair down.

Another excellent option is the Traveler’s Hotel, in the heart of downtown. A reclaimed building that was at various times, railroad bunkhouse and a printing shop, it is now run as a sort of artist’s collective. Most of the operation is app-based and self-serve, right down to a lobby bar that is “self-tap” and runs on the honor system. You pour yourself a beer, then write your name and room number down in a little notebook on the bar. Local artists help run the place in return for free housing and studio space. Our room was “retro chic,” with an extremely comfortable bed and easy proximity to everything downtown.

Our favorite restaurant was Hooker’s Grocery, but Abe’s Barbecue is solid as well. Just outside of downtown is local favorite Ramons (pronounced Ray-muns). I loved it on my first trip, but guessed Mary wouldn’t enjoy a menu that is almost entirely fried food.

Clarksdale boasts live music every night of the week. The scene is anchored by the Ground Zero Blues Bar, partly owned by Mississippi-born actor Morgan Freeman. We also caught a great set in Red’s, a no-nonsense joint with the vibe of a low-rent house party. We were sitting so close to the bass player that I could have played a chord. You feel like the folks running the place simply took over an abandoned bar, especially when you order a beer and the guy reaches into a battered cooler - not a vintage tavern cooler, mind you, but the kind two people would lug out to the yard for a barbecue - to hand you a can of Miller Lite. Cash only.

Although we listened to music late into the evening both nights we were there, it was on our last morning that I felt at least a hint at why I came back.

It was back at the Bluesberry Café, this time in the morning. As we sat at our table, wondering without malice or complaint if the coffee we’d ordered from the lone, elderly waitress would ever arrive, I once again marveled at the passion of Watermelon Slim.

It was 9 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. There were maybe 15 people in the place. And he was making his table-top guitar wail and scream under the bottleneck on his finger. He was singing – shouting, really – a song as if it was the only thing in the world that mattered.

It wasn’t just a song. It was the real deal. Watermelon Slim is an old guy, singing several times a day about a tough life as he tries to make a living in a very poor place.

I could reach for a comparison between the blues of the Delta and the mournful keening of my Irish ancestors. But that would be the kind of overthinking people always do about music like this.

It was just nice to listen to real music, and to let it make me feel however I felt.

Check out our other music posts here.


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