By Rosemary Davis
A visit to the home of the Mississippi blues.
Sometimes the answers aren’t easy. Driving down endless country roads—seeing nothing but identical rows of crops covering the flat, uneven land, one ponders the meaning of life.
But in one Southern town, the meaning of life can be summed up in two words: cotton and the blues.
Welcome to Clarksdale, Mississippi! Home of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and John Lee Hooker. Rumor has it that Mic Jagger once stopped by just to learn the harmonica. Known for its famous bluesmen, including the late Ike Turner, the townspeople supply the local cotton industry with a mighty workforce both in the fields and at the cotton gin.
This is my first trip to the Deep South. I wonder if all that much has changed in this town over the years. Like a jam session— small cafes, ladies fancy dress shops and old-fashioned dime stores mix well with historical murals on brick facades. One cobalt blue building mimics the color of the river named after this state, which flows just west of here.
Men of various ages congregate at a desolate gas station. They pass the news of the day, drink from paper sacks. Swat flies. Their faces reflect the slowness and repetition of their lives. The only thing that cuts the stillness is a semi roaring past.
It’s actually a town divided by race, and a set of railroad tracks. On one side of town, white middle-class families sit on the front stoop with their black help. The other side of the tracks is littered with run-down housing and vacant lots. You’ve read about towns like this, but these folks live here.
Tourist brochures in nearby Louisiana allude to slavery as if it were a benign afterthought—some kind of romantic fiction. I see a metal cage-like contraption on the site of a plantation and wonder if it was once used to punish slaves. What of the race relations in present day Clarksdale, have they changed? Do my Northern eyes misinterpret? Does my love of the blues draw me in closer?
The Delta Blues Museum comes to order. Once inside, the voice of BB King comforts the cds, tapes and stacks of the King Biscuit Times. A white guitar on display has its own muddy river meandering down its long neck. Photographs of blues greats flow through the room like a current. They give witness to the music. Say amen.
Our official town guide lets it slip that once the town fathers voted down a plan to bring a junior college and factory to the area. They didn’t want to give people any other option but picking cotton.
A headache drives me to a nearby pharmacy, after a quick lunch at the café. When I leave, a young man walking my way engages me in conversation. “You’re not from around here,” he quips. I explain that I am indeed from Minnesota. “It gets really cold up there doesn’t it?” He unknowingly settled on a Midwesterner’s favorite topic of discussion—the weather.
We gently banter back and forth as we tour downtown streets. Joe’s Grocery is permanently closed, along with other vacant boarded-up buildings. Others are open to plenty of customers. Twenty thousand people live in Clarksdale and my walking partner is one of its spontaneous ambassadors. When we part, the town no longer seems to be so anonymous. I muse how quickly we bridged age, race and gender.
Out in the fields the rain halts the picking and folks stream towards the cotton gin. Mountains of white cloud my vision as workers stand silhouetted in the enormous doorway. The fluffs are in-bedded with sharp, pointy seeds. Machines with hoses and claws manhandle, reshape and bundle. Working with the cotton seems hard and surprisingly dirty.
Smitty’s Juke Joint opens when the work is done. During most days it’s empty, but for a few friendly bartenders. Unassuming. But, at night, it explodes. Here told, the music comes from the dirt.
Momentum builds like a bonfire, with sunglasses worn inside. Musicians play with abandon despite bad cables and worn-out instruments. Middle-aged couples seductively move to the dance floor. Arms rise above heads; patrons clap and sway to the music. Sweat runs down a man’s neck and he swipes it with a white handkerchief. Next to a smoky, crowded pool table sits a woman with a navy blue straw hat. The shrieks, laughter and shouting give birth to a deafening chorus. “I’m free, free now….”
Alcohol makes the heartaches disappear for a while, that and the music. In the early morning darkness, the band members spill out into the alley. They speak to us northern whites reverently about their wives and children before hitting the road. We wish them well. One of the men pinches my ass when he helps me into the van.
Guitarist Eugene James invites us out to his place for a private concert the next afternoon. He works the fields, drives the trucks during the day and grooves by night. It’s a life. We arrive first and find a dilapidated shack on a deserted old road. There is absolutely nothing to see on the horizon. Eugene’s pickup eventually tumbles in, kicking up more dust, like trouble.
His lean frame ambles from the truck and joins us. His eyes show a myriad of experiences behind them. A gentle humor and his flirtatious ways attract my attention. I follow Eugene into his flea-infested living room, with its yellowing pictures of family on the wall and hand-me-down furniture. We check out the amplifier and other sound gear – moving them outside. The door, black with peeling paint, is left ajar. Its ripped screen hangs down.
My friends and I form a brigade across the wood porch, while Eugene begins picking his guitar from a tattered couch. Beyond him I see thin white blankets against the trees and sky. Red trucks in the distance bring the cotton home.
A storm that had been threatening begins. The chill surprises us. Rain thrashes down around that porch, so we listen more intently. Eugene’s guitar weeps and his voice rises and falls with the thunder. Deliver us from evil.
Rosemary Davis, a nonfiction writer and poet, received an MFA in writing from Hamline University. Her work has been published in Brevity, Minnesota Literature, A View from the Loft, the Open 2 Interpretation book series, the Minneapolis Star Tribune Travel Section and other anthologies and journals. Her interests include architecture, documentary films, and book arts. Rosemary tends a large overgrown garden and takes care of other people’s pets.