Catfish Blues in “The Most Southern Place on Earth”
“When I was a teenager, I began to settle into school because I’d discovered the extracurricular activities that interested me: music and theater.”
With rumors spreading like wild-fire about Morgan Freeman’s death (he’s alive and well) I was inspired to write about my trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi. Although Freeman moved around a lot while growing up, he spent time many years in the Mississippi Delta. He currently owns a juke joint in Clarksdale (Ground Zero Blues Club) and was the co-owner of an upscale restaurant called Madidi. Freeman is loved in Mississippi (specifically the Delta) for his charitable work – he offers scholarships and has provided jobs in the community.
It was a beautiful day in April when Sarah took me on one of her well-planned road-trips. I spent the night at her place, woke up really early and hit the road. We were off to the Mississippi Delta, that sorrowful yet mysterious stretch between the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers known as “The Most Southern Place on Earth.” The Delta was one of the richest cotton growing areas and all those stories you’ve heard about racism and abject poverty, plantations and slaves stem from this region. Few people are aware, however, of the bewitching music that emerged from the Mississippi Delta, namely the blues and rock and roll. Currently, the Delta depends heavily on agriculture (rice, corn, soybean) and catfish farming. The many music oriented festivals bring tourists to the area but the Delta has not lost its foreboding character, having been witness to the horrors of slavery.
Sarah timed our visit so that we would attend the 10th Annual Juke Joint Festival, the slogan said it all: “half blues festival, half small-town fair and all about the Delta.” There were small stages spread around Clarksdale with amateur bands as well as a series of performances, exhibits and strange events. And by strange events I mean cowboy-monkeys riding dogs. But The South is renowned for its peculiarity. Walking around and poking our heads in dark alleys, we found a stolen vending machine in someone’s backyard and the most outlandish “decorations” on people’s homes.
The soil around Clarksdale is black, rich and fertile making it the best place to plant cotton but the town’s real claim to fame is its music.
The blues is a combination of mournful wails and dryly humorous lyrics that’s every bit as much a way of life as a musical form. Born from the chants of slaves who worked the cotton fields in this part of the state decades before the Civil War, the blues is recognized as American’s only original music. As blues great B.B. King puts it, “the blues is the truth about life, how it was lived, and how it is lived today.”
Blues legends W.C. Handy, Charlie Patton, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, and Howlin’ Wolf all called Clarksdale home. Weekends found Issaquena Avenue packed with sharecroppers who came to town to shop, socialize, and party in rough-and-tumble nightclubs known as “juke joints.”
We spent the day wandering around Clarksdale, bags clutched tightly to our bodies. As worried as we were, there was nothing dangerous or menacing about Clarksdale – although we made sure we tried to stick to main streets and left Clarksdale before nightfall. I think it’s generally safe during festivals, but it mostly felt like a tired old town just trying to survive. It had a dejected vibe as if nobody really wanted to be there and the town was still stuck in a different era.
I loved the Delta Blues Museum and bought a John Lee Hooker CD as well as some guitar picks from the gift shop. The museum looks shabby on the outside but don’t let that put you off – it’s a real ode to the blues and the musicians themselves.
At lunch time we found ourselves walking around in circles, hungry but skeptical. We wanted to try a place called Sarah’s Kitchen, a home style family owned restaurant. Unfortunately it was closed (permanently?) so we wandered around until we came across Chamon’s Rest Haven. “Rest Haven” was right… it felt like a resting home for old people on their final days! We were seated in a large room at a round table. S. and I were a little creeped out by the dusty floral curtains and all the grandparents who were dining there. Every where I looked an old granny was sipping her soup… ever so slowly. When we got the menu, I shrieked in surprise. It was a Lebanese restaurant in the heart of Mississippi! Talk about globalization. I was not in the mood to try “kibbe”, “baklava” and “pita bread” so far away from home. We quickly picked up our bags and escaped giggling at the restaurant’s nursing home vibe. A restaurant that was recommended by our trusted guidebook was Abe’s Bar-B-Q, listed as one of the best pork joints in the South. That clearly wasn’t an option for me. I think we settled for Popeye’s or Wendy’s (by the way, Morgan Freeman’s Madidi recently closed because it never made any money).
No, life is not juicy in Clarksdale, Mississippi – but sure is worth the trip. If you’re looking for a real juke joint this is the place to go but don’t let your guard down! My guidebook cautions,
“Don’t expect live music during the week; most blues artists hold day jobs and save their music for Friday and Saturday nights. There are juke joints all over the Delta, but arrangements with the artists are often last-minute and never binding. Since most of these establishments don’t have telephones, the only sure way to confirm a blues performance is to show up and wait for the music to start.
A word of warning – the best blues are played in juke joints where people warn you not to go. Incidents do happen, but if you don’t mess with anybody (or anybody’s date), you should be safe.”
S. and I felt like it would be best to avoid juke joints all together. I mean a blonde artist and a veiled Muslim woman would have looked a little out of place, don’t you think? We would have been more daring in a group but we decided to play it safe and stayed outdoors. There were no shady cafés or juke joints for us! It was just great being right there in Clarksdale where legends like John Lee Hooker once lived, strolled and performed.