A weekend jaunt to Clarksdale offers a festival for the senses
Story William Browning | Photograph Will H. Jacks
From Columbus, I drove Highway 82 into the Delta, then north on Highway 49. The Emmett Till Memorial Highway is along the way and so is the little town where they claim the blues was born. There are scenes of poverty, a fenced-in prison and crop-covered flatland. The moment my tires spun into Coahoma County the radio was playing Led Zeppelin. Bonham’s fills and Page’s riffs pushed me into my destination: Clarksdale.
Not much shine remained in the sky when I got there.
I was hungry, so I stopped outside a liquor store to ask for directions to Abe’s Barbecue, a place I had heard about for years. A tattooed man putting a flame to a Marlboro was out front, and he looked like someone who knew his way around pork. I put the question to him. A Clarksdale native, he pointed up North State Street, to a cinder-block building.
“That’s Abe’s,” he said. “It ain’t what it used to be.”
I asked him to elaborate. In his childhood the barbecue at Abe’s was chopped finer than it is now, he explained. That’s a matter of taste and not enough to sway me. But he suggested I order a Big Abe’s cheeseburger with this caveat: “You gotta ask to get slaw and extra sauce and extra cheese.”
After a long drag from his cigarette, he closed his eyes and said, “Oh, God.”
A nicotine-filled Delta native uttering a higher being’s name while thinking of a burger is not something to take lightly. I decided to take his advice.
As I turned to leave he hollered after me.
“It ain’t on the menu,” he said. “They’ll know what you talking about, though.”
I had come to take Clarksdale in. To try and capture what the Delta town, famous for the music its sons and daughters have released onto the world, could offer a visitor. In some ways I found what I expected. But there was more, too.
BED AND BEER
The Shack Up Inn is located beside the Hopson Plantation Commissary, just outside of Clarksdale. The inn is a series of refurbished sharecropper shacks in fields travelers can stay in. The idea is guests get to experience the Delta of the early 20th century. Instead of a “bed and breakfast,” The Shack Up Inn advertises itself as a “bed and beer.” Each shack stands alone. Each has a name.
The office had a gift shop feel — guitars, T-shirts and hats for sale — and a man named Steve manned the desk. He gave me keys to the Sunset shack, which was mine for two nights.
The porch had rocking chairs. Inside, the floor was concrete, there was a bucket of cotton and no TV.
The Delta’s pull is powerful: I inspected the guest book and found the folks who stayed at the Sunset before me were from Switzerland. Another page bore the signature of Cary Hudson, a Mississippi singer-songwriter.
I laid down my bag and was off to Abe’s.
It was near empty when I walked in. The man behind the counter said, “What you want?”
A few minutes later he handed me a paper bag with grease stains creeping through. I ate at a table outside and savored the piping-hot cheeseburger. The cheese complemented the beef perfectly and the cool juices from the tomato and lettuce I will describe as a blessing.
The 27th Annual Sunflower River Blues & Gospel festival was in full swing during my visit. After taking in the cheeseburger, I went downtown to hear some live music.
A stage was set up along Blues Alley, beside the Delta Blues Museum. A bright moon was out, and beneath it all, a crowd bearing Heineken and Blue Moon beers had gathered on the lawn. I joined the festivities.
Johnny Rawls, a fine Mississippi soul singer, eventually took the stage. He urged the mingling crowd to be quiet, pointed to his guitar player’s instrument, which was letting out some high-pitched sadness, and said, “I want y’all to feel that shit. Y’all want the blues? Listen.”
Some folks cheered.
Later, I walked downtown streets. Little pockets of people were here and there, but mostly, the longer I walked, the more lonely things seemed.
There was a Mississippi Blues Trail marker on Issaquena Avenue for the late Sam Cooke, a Clarksdale native. Nearby, a lively party was on inside a place called Club 2000. I passed by and heard music and good times coming out. On the other side of Issaquena stood what was left of a crumbling, deserted and quiet building.
I took DeSoto Avenue out of downtown and the music faded. At the Shack Up Inn that Friday night, I slept well.
BESSIE SMITH’S LAST NIGHT
On Saturday morning I went downtown again.
At Daylight Donuts I picked up an apple fritter, a giant pig-in-a-blanket with jalapeños and a coffee. Outside the Delta Blues Museum, on a bench made of giant musical notes, I ate.
Walking downtown in sunlight, I noticed many of Clarksdale’s oldest buildings still have a hint of old signs painted on bricks years ago. In other places, new paintings adorned old bricks. There was one of Robert Plant with big hair; one of Clint Eastwood in his western days, holding a pistol. It struck me as a strange and somehow inspiring symmetry.
I had always wanted to visit the Riverside Hotel. The legend is that great musicians — Ike Turner, Duke Ellington, Robert Nighthawk — stayed there, and Bessie Smith died in one of the rooms after a car wreck that took off her arm.
I walked Sunflower Avenue toward the hotel. A woman outside introduced herself as Zelena “Zee” Ratliff. I went to shake her hand, but she declined, saying, “No sir. We hug here,” and we did.
We sat outside the Riverside Hotel for about half an hour, talking. Zee’s family has owned the hotel for decades. Her father, Frank “Rat” Ratliff, died in 2013. Zee has been running the 15-room establishment since.
“I’m just finding my way,” she said.
I asked about the legends. She confirmed them all but did so in a matter-of-fact way. The hotel was booked solid the weekend I was there. I asked to see where Bessie Smith died. Zee said she couldn’t because she did not want to intrude on any guests. She considers them family.
As we talked, two men left the hotel. They called her “Zee,” and she called them, “David” and “Paul.”
After the door closed behind them Zee motioned for me to come in. I followed her down a narrow little hallway, and she opened a door. Inside the room, which was furnished with old furniture and a window unit, I saw the walls Bessie Smith looked at while dying. Then Zee, without saying a word, ushered me out.
We hugged before I left. She was a likeable and swell woman. My day had begun.
DREAMBOAT BBQ AND TAMALES
I toured the Delta Blues Museum, the state’s oldest music museum. It consists mainly of a large room of nifty memorabilia: the boots of this late performer, another’s guitar, dozens and dozens of the greats’ names. It is informational, hardly inspiring.
Along one wall, though, hangs a photograph. The chance to take it in is, by itself, worth the $7 admission price.
It depicts a 73-year-old Son House performing in Toronto in 1975. A performer whose guitar skill never rivaled his friend Charley Patton’s, House made up for it with a burning intensity. He sang spare poetry behind simple, hard-driving riffs. He has always been my favorite bluesman.
In Dick Waterman’s photograph, House’s hair is gray, and there is a droop in his face. But an intensity pours forth. He looks dignified but dogged, and I stared at him before leaving.
I ate lunch at Dreamboat BBQ & Tamales on Sunflower Avenue because Shack Up Inn Steve told me I should.
The barbecue sandwich and tamales I ordered came in a paper basket lined with tin foil. The sandwich, topped with a scoop of cole slaw, was good. The tamales, fresh and seasoned hot, were some of the best I have had.
By noon, downtown Clarksdale was moving with people attending the festival. There were little live performances of blues music all around, and some people were already drinking.
I met Abe Hudson Jr. along Third Street, where he has his office. Hudson, a young man and former college instructor, operates The Real Delta, which offers tours of the Delta. But the offices he keeps also double as an art gallery.
Everyone knows about the blues history in Clarksdale, Hudson told me. But what he hopes people know is that there is a creative energy bubbling in the town. Painters and potters are at work around many corners, and investors are sensing an entrepreneurial spirit. As we talked in Hudson’s gallery, soft jazz played in the background.
I went next door to a crowded place called The Holy Moly Drug Store on the corner of Third and Issaquena. It is in the old Masonic Temple Building. Adrian Kosky and his wife, Carla Maxwell, bought it in early 2014 and opened their business. There is, of course, an ice cream parlor. As Kosky prepared sundaes, we chatted. He wore a purple beret.
He is a native of Australia. When he bought the building, it was boarded up. His goal is not so much to make money. He wants to help invigorate Clarksdale with the creative energy Hudson spoke of. Kosky is putting apartments above the drug store and plans to open a theater, a place where independent films are shown and people have poetry readings.
A few blocks over, on Sunflower Avenue, I stumbled across Quapaw Canoe Company. In the parking lot young men swinging machetes and axes were making canoes out of trees.
John Ruskey began Quapaw Canoe Company beside the Sunflower River in 1998. He is an earthy man with long hair, and we talked. His business gives guided canoe trips along the Lower Mississippi River. At the same time, they offer a skill-based apprenticeship program for area youth focused on carving canoes and learning the river’s ways.
Ruskey spoke slow and deliberately and had good energy. Then he was gone-off to help a young man conquer some canoe-making obstacle.
I spent the the rest of the afternoon at Ground Zero Blues Club, which is next to the Delta Blues Museum. It is owned by Clarksdale mayor Bill Luckett, actor Morgan Freeman and Howard Stovall, a Clarksdale native and Memphis entertainment executive.
The place was full, and I sipped Mississippi-made beer at the bar while an acoustic blues band played.
WHAT’S GONE AND WHAT REMAINS
I had planned on taking in the festival’s live performances that night. The whole thing was supposed to be a tribute to Big Jack Johnson’s legacy.
But something turned in me. I wanted to be alone and quiet, and I remembered that Kenny Brown, a blues player, was slated to play at the Shack Up that night, at a restaurant called Rust. That’s where I went.
At Rust I had barbecue tacos and homemade fries and drank more Mississippi beer. Kenny Brown was a few tables away, waiting to take the stage.
I thought of what I had expected when I drove to Clarksdale. The blues, the history, what is gone.
Many people who care about Clarksdale have done a good job of capturing that spirit in order for the world to enjoy it. But that can feel stale and predictable if you let it. What counteracts that is the creative people infusing Clarksdale with their personalities and dreams.
It made me think of the tattooed, cigarette smoking man and what he told me about a local joint’s barbecue the day I arrived. It ain’t what is used to be. And what you come for might not be on the menu. But if you show up and open your eyes …
Somehow, the same notion applies to Clarksdale.
I left Rust before Brown took the stage. I went to my shack and slept well. I woke Sunday feeling refreshed and inspired, and drove to Columbus feeling hopeful and fulfilled. Clarksdale was on my mind.