Delta Blues and THE crossroads

In search of the roots of rock and roll, Clash embarked on a pilgrimage across America and discovered the musical foundations the country was built on.

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An unassuming little town, Clarksdale is one of the most important locations in the development of the blues.

We were staying at the Riverside Hotel, run by seventy-three-year-old Frank ‘Rat’ Ratliff. The building was formerly the G.T. Thomas Hospital, an African-American-only hospital, and it was here that Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, was brought following her car crash on nearby Highway 61 in 1937, and died. In the ’40s, Rat’s mother bought the hospital and turned it into a hotel, which would house travelling musicians, some of which would repeatedly return to the same room. Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Nighthawk all lived there. Ike Turner wrote ‘Rocket 88’, credited as the first ever rock ‘n’ roll record, in his Riverside room. The walls - and all original furniture - drip with history.

Clarksdale is the focal point for the Mississippi blues artists who came from the surrounding areas. John Lee Hooker, Sam Cooke and Ike Turner were born there, but the environs of Clarksdale produced a stunning array of artists - B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Skip James, Son House and Willie Dixon were all born in the Delta. Hence why Clarksdale is now home to the Delta Blues Museum.

“At first, it was hard work to get the town to realise that agriculture is no longer the big thing, that tourism is the thing,” the museum’s Tour Manager, Maie Smith, told Clash, “and in order to make tourism big, you got to preserve the area. And what they had is the blues.”

The Delta Blues Museum is situated in downtown Clarksdale, in a former freight train depot. How pertinent that it should stand on this spot - the poor couldn’t afford train tickets, so travelled with the cargo on freight trains which left from here and took them to employment and (hopefully) fame up north. Its artifacts include the actual wooden shack in which Muddy Waters lived when young, which was removed from the Stovall Plantation and rebuilt inside the museum. Further to exhibiting, the museum is preserving the blues by offering workshops, tutorials and educational programmes to local kids. “We are training the younger generation to carry the torch on,” Maie says. “So when the older generation die, we’ll have young men and young women to continue the tradition as it started.”

Walking around downtown Clarksdale is captivating. It’s wonderfully caught in a sleepy timewarp - Miss Del’s General Store, though not even a decade old, could be a 1940’s grocery, while the outstanding record and guitar shops in town are as lazily quiet as the streets they’re on. We found life at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club though! The most sincere, authentic and vibrant blues club of our whole trip, no less.

Driving out of Clarksdale on Highway 61, you encounter its crossroads with Highway 49. This crossroads is one of many reputed as the site of Robert Johnson’s deal with the Devil, whereupon the musician sold his soul in exchange for incredible musical abilities. The highly influential blues pioneer died (poisoned) aged twenty-seven, never achieving fame in his lifetime. Nobody knows for sure where he is buried, but the “official” gravesite (‘verified’ by the wife of the grave digger) is an hour south of Clarksdale at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church.

The Dockery Plantation, also just south of Clarksdale, is considered the birthplace of the blues. Dockery was a ten-thousand acre cotton plantation, a self-sufficient town of almost four hundred African-American families, but is most famous as being home to guitarist Charley Patton, considered the most important early blues innovator. Among those he taught and influenced were fellow residents Howlin’ Wolf and Pops Staples, but he came to define the Delta blues sound.

Driving out of Mississippi towards Louisiana, rolling steadily through infinite cotton fields, dirt roads and luscious pastoral landscapes, we left a little bit of our hearts in its fertile countryside.

Riverside Hotel: 615 Sunflower Avenue, Clarksdale 38614
Delta Blues Museum: 1 Blues Alley, Clarksdale 38614
Miss Del’s General Store: 145 Delta Avenue, Clarksdale 38614
Ground Zero Blues Club: 252 Delta Avenue, Clarksdale 38614
Crossroads: Highway 61/Highway 49 Intersection, 598 N. State Street, Clarksdale 38614
Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church: Money Road, Greenwood, MS 38930

Watch Rat’s tour of the Riverside Hotel HERE and read the full interview with Maie Smith HERE

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