Tracking down the Delta Blues

Clarksdale Unofficial Capital of "Cotton Kingdom"

Mitchell Smyth, Vancouver Courier
Published: Friday, May 15, 2009 - Canada.com

CLARKSDALE, Miss.--All the great blues artists have sung and played in Clarksdale's "juke joints" (black music clubs)--the likes of Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, B.B. King and Otis Rush, to name just a few.

This Mississippi Delta town has a proud place in blues history, for it's the unofficial capital of the Delta's northern "Cotton Kingdom," and that's where the blues were born.

It's only fitting, therefore, that Clarksdale should be the home of the Delta Blues Museum. It's located in the old Yazoo-Delta Railroad freight depot. Through pictures, artifacts, instruments, videos and recordings, the museum tells the story, a story that goes back to the end of the 19th century when blacks began drifting into town from the cotton plantations, bringing a new sound: 12-bar blues.

Among its prized possessions are the remains of the cabin where Muddy Waters lived. A 1940 recording has Waters playing on the front porch.

On the outskirts of town, at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, three huge steel guitars are welded to a pole high above the traffic. This is the famed "Crossroads," the place where, in blues mythology, the great Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in return for guitar genius.

A bit north of the Crossroads, a car accident on Highway 61 in September 1937 seriously injured the great Bessie Smith, "the empress of the blues." She died eight hours later in Clarksdale's G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital. The hospital is now the Riverside Hotel.

Clarksdale is one stop on a tour of what's now called the Blues Highway, a stretch of Highway 61 running from Tunica, in the north, to Yazoo City. It's a route--with some short side trips--that takes us into the lives and careers of the men and women who found their musical inspiration in the Delta.

Some notable stops:

Tutweiler--Murals record how W.C. Handy, who popularized the blues, first heard the music here. That was in 1903. Sonny Boy Williamson is buried nearby.

Parchman--"Residents" of the penitentiary here included blues artists Son House, Sonny Boy Williamson and Bukka White. The "Midnight Special," mentioned in many songs, was the train from New Orleans that brought loved ones to visit.

Morgan City, Quito and Greenwood--Graves near these towns each claim to be the last resting place of Robert Johnson. Take your pick.

Itta Bena--A house beside the road just south of this hamlet used to be the Three Forks, a grocery and bootleg-liquor joint. It has its niche in blues history as the place where, in 1938, the Devil finally claimed the soul of Robert Johnson. He was playing a gig when somebody--allegedly a jealous husband--slipped him a glass of whiskey laced with poison. He was 27.

Greenville--On Nelson Street there are juke joints where the likes of Ike and Tina Turner got their start. Memphis Minnie's and, much later, Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks" recalls the disastrous flood here in 1927.

The Delta Blues Museum website is www.deltabluesmuseum.org.

For more information on the Clarksdale area, visit the Coahoma County Tourism Commission website at www.clarksdaletourism.com.

Mitchell Smyth is a member of the Meridian Writers' Group.

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