Cotton Pickin' Blues
CHASING THE BLUES, CHAPTER 9: Vicksburg, MS to Clarksdale, MS
A steady rain was falling as we drove away from the Vicksburg Courtyard around 8:30 this morning. We explored the Port of Vicksburg industrial area briefly, passing numerous transitory lakes in fields that are normally dry land. Warren County was under a flood watch with the river expected to reach flood stage today. Time to move on.
We drove north on the Blues Highway, US-61, officially entering the Mississippi Delta, that fecund stretch of earth bordered by the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers between Vicksburg and Memphis. Thanks to the ever-growing deposits of topsoil left by thousands of years of periodic flooding, the area is home to some of the most fertile soil in the world. For more than 100 years, cotton was king in the Delta, and its strong fibers bound the majority African American population to this land, first as slaves and then with the manipulative and unfair practice of sharecropping.
Born out of the struggles of this hardscrabble life, a plaintive music grew alongside the cotton, a merging of African rhythms, Anglo American influences and local gospel traditions. This fusion of musical styles became a way to cope and survive the hard times, and it was called the blues.
By 9:45, we had reached the little hamlet of Rolling Fork (pop. 2,143), the birthplace of legendary blues man Muddy Waters (an apt reference today) and our first opportunity since leaving Vicksburg to refill our almost empty fuel tank. Rain was still pouring down like a waterfall, and in the vast roadside fields—aready plowed for this year's crops—the dark brown ridges and furrows were drinking in the watery bounty.
Though clouds lingered, the rain finally stopped an hour farther north, and held off as we rolled into Clarksdale (pop. 18,000) just after 1 p.m. We had reached the epicenter of Mississippi Delta blues. At the famous crossroads where US-61 and US-49 intersect, legend has it that early bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for mastery of the blues guitar. With a list of local-born musicians that resembles a blues honor roll, Clarksdale boasts a thick crop of official historic markers on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
|The devil came down to Clarksdale?|
A newer section under development, which does have the air of a museum professional, focuses on Muddy Waters, who grew up near Clarksdale. The core of his childhood home (the part that wasn't destroyed by a late 1990s tornado) is the centerpiece of the exhibit. A life-size figure of the bluesman sits inside, looking as if he is about to coax a growling riff from the vintage electric guitar in his hands.
|Muddy Waters exhibit|
|Cat Head's Roger Stolle|
Today Cat Head is the go-to place for anyone who wants information about the local blues scene. Each week, Roger compiles and distributes a listing by date of live musicians playing in the Clarksdale area over the next seven days. We left his shop with this week's blues menu, annotated with his prioritized recommendations. Between Cat Head and tonight's music line-up we had time to check out a couple of quirky Clarksdale landmarks.
|Even JFK Jr. slept here when he visited Clarksdale.|
|Shack Up Inn|
Preferring creature comforts over authenticity in our lodging, we booked a room at the newly opened Hampton Inn. But before turning in for the night, we wanted to hear some music. Following Roger's earlier guidance, we started at the New Roxy, where we learned that the band that was booked didn't show. But another band was hanging around out front and would play later. So we moved on to Hambone Art and Music on East 2nd Street.
|Hash Brown and Eric Deaton jam at Hambone|
|The New Roxy stage|
When the music and the club shut down at 11 p.m. and with nothing more on our dance card, we called it a day and happily retired to our prosaic cookie cutter hotel.
A Taste of Delta Blues from Clarksdale