Road Music, Chapter Five: Clarksdale, Mississippi

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Road Music, Chapter Five: Clarksdale, Mississippi

For this series, we’ll be following Paste’s own Curmudgeon, Geoffrey Himes, as he sets out on a massive road trip across the South, exploring musical landmarks, traditions and history along the way. Fifth stop: Clarksdale, Mississippi.

The day before Z.Z. Top’s Billy Gibbons finally made it to his hero Muddy Waters’ childhood home in 1987, a tornado came through northwest Mississippi, ripped the flimsy siding off the house and reduced the bungalow to its origins as a slave cabin of rough-hewn cypress beams. This transformation was metaphorical as well as meteorological, for it revealed how deeply rooted the poverty of the 20th-century sharecropping system was in 19th century slavery.

I first encountered the cabin the year after Gibbons, and it was astonishing to see such an important historical landmark sitting at the corner of a country road, unprotected from weather or vandals, cotton fields stretching in every direction. Gibbons, who picked up a piece of cypress torn off by the tornado and turned it into his famous Muddywood guitar, convinced the House of Blues to take the cabin on tour in 1996. And when the tour ended, the cabin wound up in the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale.

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When museum officials gave me directions to the cabin in 1988, the museum was no more than a large room in the town library. Now it occupies the town’s old railroad depot, and in a handsome, new extension sits the cabin. It’s the centerpiece of an ambitious, if underfunded, home for the history of the blues in the flat, swampy delta region of northwest Mississippi—and thus a home for the origins of so much Anglo-American music.

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Folklorist Alan Lomax rolled up to the home of McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield in a 1939 Ford Deluxe on August 31, 1941, with recording equipment from the Library of Congress. That car isn’t on display, but a car of the same year and model is parked right outside the cabin in the museum.

“He brought his stuff down and recorded me right in my house,” Muddy later told writer Robert Palmer, “and when he played back the first song I sounded just like anybody’s records. Man, you don’t know how I felt that Saturday afternoon when I heard that voice and it was my own voice. Later on he sent me two copies of the pressing and a check for 20 bucks, and I carried that record up to the corner and put it on the jukebox. Just played it and played it and said, ‘I can do it, I can do it.’”

Morganfield left for Chicago in May, 1943, leaving from the Clarksdale passenger train depot that still stands next door to the museum. Once he got to the noisy city, he got himself an electric guitar so he could make himself heard, and that changed not only the blues but also much of the popular music that followed.

You can read about history or watch documentaries on TV or the web, but a special connection is forged when you stand in proximity to physical objects—a cabin, a car, a guitar, a depot—that were part of that history. That’s what the Delta Blues Museum provides. Across from the cabin door, for example, is a big metal sign with blue letters on white declaring, “Stovall Gin Co., Inc.” That’s from the cotton plantation where Morganfield lived—the gin refers to a cotton gin, not to liquor.

Behind the cabin is Gibbons’ Muddywood guitar. Just outside the cabin is a case with an acoustic guitar and a note that reads, “Muddy Waters played this Gibson guitar at a whorehouse in Elizabethville, Louisiana…Muddy got into a fight with a customer and hit him with the guitar. He had to make a fast exit out of town and sold the guitar.”

Because the museum doesn’t have an acquisition budget, it depends on donations and loans, so the collection is strong in some areas and weak in others. Seven different guitars owned and used by John Lee Hooker are on display, for instance, but Howlin’ Wolf is represented by very little. There are stage outfits from Jessie Mae Hemphill, Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, Little Milton; guitars from B.B. King and R.L. Burnside, and harmonicas from Little Walter, Bobby Rush, Sugar Blue and Sam Myers.

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Mississippi Fred McDowell’s original, misspelled gravestone is there. The North Mississippi Allstars are represented by Luther Dickinson’s coffee-can guitar and by Cody Dickinson’s hand-painted washboard. Son Thomas, a remarkable outsider artist as well as a blues singer, is represented by both a guitar and a hand-sculpted woman in a hand-built casket. Nine harmonicas that have been left on John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson’s grave have been saved—including one signed by Billy Branch. A handwritten letter from Furry Lewis to Charlie Musselwhite is in another case.

The museum has spurred the faint stirrings of a musical tourism industry in Clarksdale. The Ground Zero nightclub, co-owned by Morgan Freeman, is across the street, and a few restaurants have opened. South of town the old Hopson cotton plantation has been retrofitted to become the Shack Up, a B&B (“bed and beer,” the brochure says) where you can stay in a renovated sharecropper cabin next to a cotton field or inside the gin mill surrounded by rusting machinery.

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The museum also offers music lessons to all ages four days a week, 52 weeks a year. In 2014 the students played at the White House. Both the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival and the Juke Joint Festival have a stage on the museum grounds each year.

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The whole state of Mississippi is filled with history—both the inspiring and the ugly. When Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black kid from Chicago, was brutally murdered after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman, the acquittal of his confessed and identified killers kicked off the modern Civil Rights movement in 1954. You can see the courtroom and courthouse where the trial took place in Sumner, and you can see the site of Bryant’s Grocery, where the alleged flirtation took place. A recreation of a 1950s grocery store is now on the site in Money, Mississippi, and the hulking, vine-covered ruin of the original building is next door.

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Further down the highway, as described in Rosanne Cash’s evocative song, “Money Road,” is Little Zion Church, where the great bluesman Robert Johnson is buried under a pecan tree. There are two other putative Johnson graves, but this is the one identified by surviving witnesses. Still further is Greenwood, Mississippi, the home of Bobbie Gentry, whose song “Ode to Billie Joe” famously described a young woman and her boyfriend “throwin’ somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

The song is a wonderful psychological portrait of adolescence in a Southern small town, spiced by the never-explained mystery of what was tossed off the bridge. Gentry was photographed by Life magazine walking across the Tallahatchie River near Money, right around the corner from Bryant’s Grocery. That wooden structure collapsed in 1972 and has been replaced by a concrete span. Other people argue that the bridge in question is the one right across from Gentry’s elementary school in Greenwood, now designated by a red historical marker.

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In either case, it’s easy to visit both bridges in the same hour with Johnson’s grave in between. The Tallahatchie is a wide, chocolate-brown river with steep, muddy banks. Emmett Till’s body was tossed into that water by his real-life killers, and perhaps the fictional Billie Joe McAllister threw his aborted baby in there too.

I had one more stop to make on my Mississippi pilgrimage, the Blue Front Café, the juke joint owned by the man who is, to my ears, the greatest living country bluesman: Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. The Blue Front was opened in Bentonia by his parents in 1948, the year after Jimmy was born. The youngster grew up hearing stories about Skip James, the most famous practitioner of the town’s unusual blues style. Holmes learned that style directly from Jack Owen, the less famous master of the Bentonia style, which is based on an unusual guitar tuning.

“I don’t know what the tuning is or why they did it that way,” Holmes told me Monday. “I only know how to tune that way. Jack was here all the time, especially after his wife died. He’d sit me down and show me things, and talk to me. I never copied nobody but him.

“Now I wake up with the words in my mind. I never have to write them down, because it’s all up here in my head. I may change them, but I never write them down. Don’t say I make them up, because they’re all based on real things. I might write a song about you.”

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Holmes, 69, wore a gray, sloping cap with a black scarf hanging down the back and a black leather jacket over an orange shirt. Silver stubble speckled his jaw. He sat in a wooden chair on the cafe’s concrete floor and demonstrated how “Amazing Grace” and “Rock Me, Baby” sound with the Bentonia tuning. In the latter song, he improvised two verses about a stranger visiting from Baltimore on his way to New Orleans.

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