As a blues lover, tracing the roots of the blues has
always drawn thousands south to the Delta. The town of
Clarksdale, Ms., the places such as Red's, and the Hopson
Plantation, all add up to create the 'true delta' flavor
you just can't read about, you have to experience at least
once in your life.
An annual event that draws thousands to Clarksdale is
the Juke Joint Festival. This event celebrates the richness
of the local music talent, yet brings in artists from
all over. It's not unusual to see spontaneous musical
magic happening around town, for example Watermelon Slim
strolling into Red's - a legendary Clarksdale juke joint
- and just tearing the house down.
STLBlues had the doubly good fortune of going down to
Clarksdale, and being the driver for Arthur Williams,
a St. Louis musical icon, and a master of the Chicago
harmonica sound. The journey instantly turned into a living
blues history lesson, with Arthur as my guide.
As the trip unfolded, the need to chronicle this story
became obvious. Our road trip took us through Memphis,
where coincidentally the Memphis community radio WEVL
89.9 fm (a fantastic station) began playing a track from
a Frank Frost album called 'Harpin on it', which featured
on harp, you guessed it, Mr. Arthur Williams!
Interspersed in this story are excerpts drawn from the
handwritten notes of Arthur's mother, rich in detail of
Juke Joint Journey - A road trip with Arthur Williams
There were numerous stops along the way, on both new and
old Hwy. 61, as Arthur retraced his past - several old,
long abandoned juke joints, sitting desolate among the
towns where Arthur played 50 years ago, a visit with Sam
Carr, endless anecdotes of his times with Honeyboy Edwards,
Big Jack Johnson, and so many other stories.
Arthur is one of the few remaining 'authentic' bluesmen,
with a background rich in the roots of the Delta, overlapping
with his youth in Chicago. Arthur was born in Tunica,
Ms. on July 8th, 1937, on the Coke and Stone plantation,
where his dad drove a tractor on the plantation. As so
often was the case, lean times and the prospects up North
led to a family move to Argo, Il. in Nov. of 1939, when
he was only 2 years of age, and then onto Chicago when
he was 12. He continued to spend his summers in Tunica.
"Arthur never liked the city, he loved hunting, fishing,
and living in the country. He was always good at putting
things together, such as machines. In school he was very
smart, and had all kinds of awards and achievements in
spelling, art, and his focus in high school was commercial
art. When he was 17, he seemed to lose interest in school,
and decided he wanted to move back to Mississippi."
Arthur attended Dunbar High School in Chicago until his
senior year, when he went back to Tunica to live with
his grandparents. It was there that Arthur became lifelong
friends with Frank Frost, and they played around the Tunica
/ Clarksdale area during the 1950's.
"Arthur began playing the harmonica ever since he
was 5 or 6, and he got to be real good at it. Arthur was
a good boy; I never had any problems with him. He was
a very cute and handsome little boy. He was crazy about
his blue jean pants; he always had from 5 or 6 pairs.
He was always real neat and clean, and all the girls liked
him. He was real fond of Norman, his stepfather, and Ollie,
his real daddy. Ollie was very good at blowin' the harp.
When Arthur was 19 years old, he began working at the
Palmer House in Chicago. He'd take his harp, and started
blowing it out in the hallway. He had all of the young
people and some of the older ones dancing and listening.
Most of them had stopped working to listen, and Arthur
got fired for stopping the workers!
The next thing I knew was my son was inducted into the
Army. He went to Fort Hood in Texas, and he was stationed
somewhere in Michigan, where he finished his education,
and became a cook. He ended up playing with B.B. King,
and Muddy Waters. He is now playing in a movie with Mr.
From the official website, here's a short synopsis on
'The Honeydripper', with Arthur appearing as the character
'Metalmouth Sims'......a harp player. The Honeydripper
is John Sayles 16th feature film. Arthur's best memory
of the experience was his jammin' with Keb Mo and Gary
Clark Jr. at a crawfish boil, and the cast party that
"It’s 1950 and it’s a make or break
weekend for Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover), the proprietor
of the Honeydripper Lounge. Deep in debt, Tyrone is desperate
to bring back the crowds that used to come to his place.
He decides to lay off his long-time blues singer Bertha
Mae, and announces that he’s hired a famous guitar
player, Guitar Sam, for a one night only gig in order
to save the club. Into town drifts Sonny Blake, a young
man with nothing to his name but big dreams and the guitar
case in his hand. Sam Carr's homeRejected by Tyrone when
he applies to play at the Honeydripper, he is intercepted
by the corrupt local Sheriff, arrested for vagrancy and
rented out as an unpaid cotton picker to the highest bidder.
But when Tyrone’s ace-in-the-hole fails to materialize
at the train station, his desperation leads him back to
Sonny and the strange, wire-dangling object in his guitar
case. The Honeydripper lounge is all set to play its part
in rock n’ roll history.
Our route led us to Sam Carr's home, off Old Highway 61.
Arthur wanted to grab a visit with his old friend. Sam
now lives a simple country life, and although his walls
are lined by numerous music awards and recognitions, he
"feels like they forget about me anymore. I used
to roll all the time, sleep only 2 hours a night. I'm
87 now, and can't do that anymore".
Arthur and Sam reminisced about their times in the area,
playing the jukes and house parties, and their friendship
with Frank Frost. Visiting with Sam was a experience that
is best described as a 'deep blues' moment. The former
firefighter in me made me remove the robe that was lying
against his blazing space heater, and worry about his
future safety - at 87 years old, Sam is the caregiver
for his wife Doris, who is bedridden. After saying farewell
to Sam, we made our way into Clarksdale.
The Juke Joint Festival was in full swing! Music was in
every club, restaurant, and on the sidewalks, with Deak
Harp jammin all day in front of Bluessource.com, with
Honeyboy on the main stage, Super Chikan over at Ground
Zero, and Arthur sitting in with the Mississippi Marvel.
Then the journey continued on to the Hopson Plantation
to end the evening! Haven't been to Clarksdale? It's blues
history, and you'll never forget it!
Honeyboy Edwards Stops you must make - The Riverside
Hotel and 'Rat', the Delta Blues Museum, Ground Zero Blues
Club, Red's Juke Joint, The Depot Blues Club, Sarah's
Kitchen, Cat Head, Abe's BBQ, the list goes on and on.
The Crossroads sign at the intersection of Hwys 49 and
61 is always a good kodak moment, and no, it's not the
true crossroads, but the turista's sure love it!
Betsie Brown of Blind Raccoon (music promotion, media
relations & marketing communications) was on the scene,
working with Honeyboy Edwards, and of course the gang
from the Blues Foundation drove down from Memphis for
the day. As a Blues Highway travel adventure, just point
yourself south from Memphis on Hwy. 61, past the casinos
of Tunica, and you're there.
It's a world class Blues adventure. Make it your own journey,
or hook up with someone like Amanda and the Delta Music
Experience, and let her be your guide! Either way, it's
a spectacular way to experience the roots of this art
form we call the Blues.
Publisher - STLBlues.net