Cotton Pickin' Blues

Thursday, April 02, 2015 Road Junkies 0 Comments


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?
The logical place to begin in Clarksdale was the Delta Blues Museum.  Established in 1979 by the local public library, it became an independent institution twenty years later when it moved to the abandoned passenger depot.  Our first impression of the museum, which houses an eclectic collection of memorabilia related to area blues musicians, was that some professional curating was needed.  Yet we soon realized that excess orderliness and polish in an institution devoted to a genre and group of musicians who thrive best in the informality and disorder of juke joints would be a blundering injustice.


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
When we asked a museum employee where to find live blues music tonight, he directed us to Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, the dominion of Roger Stolle.  A blues aficionado since his Ohio childhood, Roger visited the Delta twenty years ago and found himself disappointed at the dearth of live music performances.  After a number of return trips, he eventually abandoned his career as a successful advertising executive in 2002 and moved to Mississippi.  He didn't come here to just listen to music.  He came to be part of the fabric of life in Clarksdale, to help preserve a musical tradition that he valued, to be a local blues music ambassador.  And he got busy.

Cat Head's Roger Stolle
In short order, Roger opened the delightfully cluttered Cat Head, his shelves overflowing with books, magazines, CDs, vinyl records, folk art, and souvenirs—anything related to blues music.  With an ambitious objective of promoting local blues music "from within," Stolle met people, made friends, offered assistance, and eventually carved out a place as a Clarksdale fixture.  In his efforts to help keep Mississippi Delta blues thriving, the versatile and passionate Stolle has filled a variety of roles from film and music production to festival organizing and journalism.

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.
A former hospital that served African Americans in the Delta during the days of Jim Crow, the Riverside Hotel was opened as a boardinghouse in 1944.  Still operated by the family of the original owners, the hotel's registration log reads like a Who's Who of the blues music world.  John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner and Robert Nighthawk have all spent time at the Riverside.  And in a nod to authenticiy, the guest rooms—and the shared bathrooms down the hall— have been preserved in their historical condition.  For Clarksdale visitors who want to brush shoulders with the ghosts of the greats, Riverside is the place to stay.

Shack Up Inn
Just south of Robert Johnson's famous Crossroads is another funky lodging option—the Shack Up Inn on the grounds of the old Hopson Plantation, where fully mechanized cotton farming was introduced in 1944.  Their labor no longer needed, sharecroppers migrated north, leaving an excess inventory of empty derelict shacks.  In the mid-1990s, a few enterprising locals decided to make the shacks habitable—but just barely—and rent them out.  Timing is everything, and the Shack Up Inn opened just as the popularity of "shabby chic" reached mainstream.  Europeans flocked to the inn for an authentic American experience, and locals soon joined in.  More shacks were moved in and even cotton gins and silos were converted to rentable guest spaces.  Like Riverside, the going rate at the Shack Up is around $70, but you do get your own bathroom here.

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
An art gallery and music venue owned by a couple of blues musicians transplanted from Florida, Hambone was hosting students and coaches from a five-day blues guitar camp in progress at the Shack Up Inn.  Led by professional blues musician instructors Ralph Carter, Eric Deaton and Hash Brown, students jammed with their teachers, and Hambone owner Stan Street even joined in from time to time.  The range of talent was instructional, giving us an opportunity to compare talented blues musicians with those who just had a love for the genre.  (We've included only clips of the professionals below.)

The New Roxy stage
From Hambone, we returned to the New Roxy to find that the substitute band had started playing.  A native of the Pacific Northwest, Robin Colonas bought the New Roxy, a roofless shell of an old movie theater, in 2008, expending years of sweat equity to transform it into an open-air live music venue.  After being rained out too many times, she put a roof over the stage, but patrons enjoy the celestial ceiling over the seating section, so it's likely to remain that way.  A drummer, bass player and singer/guitar player were performing but their music was offering too much volume and not enough blues, so we lasted only 20 minutes before bailing and transferring to Ground Zero Blues Club.

For many reasons, Ground Zero is a fascinating venue, but we'll tell its story tomorrow.  Tonight was blues jam night at GZ, meaning the stage is open to any performers.  When we arrived, a seventy-something white guy was on stage demonstrating and teaching about some type of African drum, completely oblivious to the audience's total disregard for his elementary classroom style performance.  We had faith that something better would follow, and it did.  Up next was Jacqueline "Jax" Nassar, a Clarksdale native who began playing at age 7.  By the time she was 18, she had amassed a string of awards and a reputation as a blues prodigy.  We heard a few great numbers from Jax and her band before Steve Kolbus, another Clarksdale musician and host of the jam, joined in.

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