The Devil Plays Straightline Blues
Highways 61 and 49 run right through the middle of Clarksdale. Elvisland is less than an hour away. Legend has it that a teenager Robert Johnson in the 1920’s came to this crossroad and made a deal with the devil. Johnson agreed to sell his soul if the devil would teach him how to burn up a guitar! According to the myth, he did indeed begin to kindle a fire in his guitar. Today, at the crossroad where Johnson allegedly made the deal, there is a statue of two guitars! Although there is some dispute as to which crossroads he was at and in what city!
Ground Zero Blues Club
Clarksdale is a Blues town! Ground Zero Blues Club was voted #1 Blues Club in the nation by bestbluesclub.org. One of its owners is Morgan Freeman!
On the second day of the Harmonica Camp, attendees had to perform at Ground Zero. It was an amazing place and experience. Local bands were so electrifying that the lights seemed to dance.
The audience was surprisingly international on Jam night. Anyone who wanted to play could sign up. The aging Buzzards from the UK (Listen to this link!) sent shocks up the spines of all of us. I called them the “Rocking Grandpas.” They were in their 60’s but they really energized the house!
We learned that there is live music every day of the week in Clarksdale. Other Clubs include Hambone Gallery, Bluesberry Cafe, Levon’s Bar and Grill, the Stone Pony, and of course, the Shack Up Inn where we stayed while Tom was at the Harmonica Camp. The Shack Up Inn has a few hook-ups for RV’s and they plan to add additional sites! Call ahead for a reservation.
The Town of Clarksdale
Last December, on our way to the Mississippi coast, we tooled around Clarksdale. I was not sure if I wanted to return to this city of 17,000. The downtown area, like so many other major downward U.S.A. cities in the late 20th century, was in ruins. Businesses had fled and many of the buildings were in disrepair. Houses around the south side of the city were also crumbling.
But, behind some of those crumbling facades are vibrant businesses. We dined at the Stone Pony. The inside of the restaurant looked like any local restaurant anywhere, and the food was delicious. After touring the city, and even finding a landromat, I discovered wonderful southern charm. Everyone was very polite and helpful!
Delta Blues Museum
There are many interesting sites in Clarksdale, but I really enjoyed the Delta Blues Museum. It was so great to see African-American musicians plastered in posters all over the walls. The museum has created glass cases to showcase the Blues careers of both females and males. (Photography was prohibited so I can’t give you a glimpse of the wonderful displays.) The steel sculptures of Blues greats were fantastic.
Female Blues singers included Dorothy Moore, Big Mama Thornton and Denise La Salle. Many of the names of Blues players were unusual, like Model T. Ford, Jimmy Duck Blues, Little Mike and the Tornadoes, Ike Turner and Ikettes and Furry Lewis. Jug bands were also featured!
Muddy Waters had his own holy area. He is probably one of the most well-know Blues musicians. You entered his sacred space by ducking under a canopy. Another musician whose story took up a lot of space was Charlie Musselwhite (a light-skinned person). His harmonica rocks! Just listen!
The Delta Blues
There are so many different types of Blues, it can make you go crazy. Check out Piedmont Blues, Chicago Blues, Texas Blues, West Coast Blues, Country Blues, Hillbilly Blues, Jump Blues, Piano Blues and many more. For the past few months I have been trying to understand the differences in this music, but I have not made very much headway.
One of the books I was reading created cameos about popular Blues singers/musicians from the Delta. The stories of gunfights, violence, physical and verbal abuse were too much for me. Who sleeps with a knife or a gun under her pillow? I sent the book back to the library.
There has always been this idea of the “devil” associated with Delta Blues. I surely did not understand this link. I thought the churches were very puritanical and bad-mouthed the Blues. But, now I am reading a book, Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues a Musical Journey. To my surprise, the early Blues (1920’s) lyrics were on the edge if not square in the middle of pornographic. The singers referred to body parts with vocabulary that fit the heat of the song in what are termed “Party Blues.” “Shave ‘Em Dry” by Lucille Bogan is heart and soul Party Blues. (You can look up those lyrics if you are interested.) All of this vivid sexual imagery (often grotesque) went right along with their drugs, liquor, brawling, and sleeping around. Many of the lyrics we listen to in the “tame” Blues really allude to the same sexual imagery. We just don’t make the connections. What does “Dust my Broom” mean? If Johnson did not sell his soul to the devil, it seems pretty obvious that others did! (Just kidding!)
I have never been a fan of the harmonica. It seemed that the harmonica players I heard were always too loud and they wailed too much. I wanted to turn down the music! (Had it not gone out of style like the accordions?) After an entire week of hearing harmonicas played every day, I understand the so-called “drugging” effect of music.
A great harmonica can sound just like a person who is talking to a guitar or the audience. The conversation mesmerizes you. The more you hear it, the more you want to hear it. For the first time in my life, I understood why people spend their lives singing and playing and inventing music. I think listening to music all day long rewires your brain, and that brain is not happy unless the tunes are playing or being played. I get it!
So Much Is Left OUT!
There is so much more to see, hear, and experience in this area of the world. Visit it yourself. We can’t capture all of it for you!
As always this post is copyrighted by Marla J. Selvidge