Clarksdale, Mississippi – Planning our Pilgrimage
Last weekend my wife and I embarked on what turned out to be the most exciting vacation we’ve ever taken. Our three days and nights in historic Clarksdale, Mississippi, birthplace of many of America’s greatest blues artists, was as much an education on American history and culture as it was a vacation. In this small, struggling, yet proud town born in one of the darkest periods in American history, we met some of the friendliest and most soulful people you could ever meet. All the locals made us feel welcome and at home, and we also met and became friends with visitors from several other countries, as well as many other parts of the states. The experience was so massive and life enriching that I will not be able to share it in just one article, so I will spread out my writings about this adventure over several.
Several years ago my wife, Kelly, and I watched a fascinating documentary about an old Mississippi juke joint that was still continuing the traditions of ‘old-school’ Delta blues music. At the time, we talked about how great it would be to go to Mississippi and experience this tradition born out of a time and place that gave birth to so much of our favorite music. By the time we got around to exploring that possibility a couple of years later, sadly, we learned that the place had closed down. So, this year, as her birthday approached, I did a little research to see if there were any other juke joint experiences on which we could embark.
I remembered hearing something about Morgan Freeman owning a nightclub in Mississippi and, also aware of his ongoing work to preserve American roots music, this was where my research would begin. A quick Internet search revealed that he is the co-owner of “The Ground Zero Blues Club”, the namesake of this club derived from its location in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a town in which many of America’s greatest blues artists were born. Artists like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Son House, and many more. At about 300 miles from Nashville, or a 5 hour drive, the trip was easily feasible, so this idea for a birthday vacation/blues exploration became an instant hit.
When we began looking on the Internet for hotels in the Clarksdale area, we stumbled across what sounded like the perfect place to stay. “The Shack-up Inn“, located on the historic Hopson Plantation, is a series of renovated “sharecropper houses and/or tenant houses” and, after reading what must’ve been 50 or 60 glowing reviews on trip advisor, we booked a couple of nights at the shack that seemed to get the most comments, the Robert Clay shack. Among the amenities toted on the Shack Up Inn website are; AC and heat, running water – both hot and cold, indoor bathrooms, and wireless Internet “which tends to work better if you are near the lobby”. While there is a television in each of these units, the sets receive and play only one channel – Sirus radio’s Bluesville. Our particular shack would also be outfitted with a full kitchen, and old piano, and a screened in porch. The Inn also touts themselves not as a bed and breakfast, but as a “B and B” which they will tell you stands for bed and beer, as they don’t serve breakfast. Another uniqueness offered is the option of using a loner acoustic guitar, available by request in the main lobby.
In the midst of all this research we also began learning about the current live music scene of Clarksdale. While the Ground Zero blues club had some decent reviews, further digging revealed that “Reds Blues Club”, right around the corner, offers a real juke joint experience and is “the real deal”, regularly featuring some of the finest local talent. Of course this town built on such a rich history of musical heritage has plenty to see in the daytime as well. The Delta Blues Museum, Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, and the Rock and Blues Museum all came up in numerous reviews as must sees in Clarksdale.
So our plan was to check in to our shack on a Thursday afternoon, attend the weekly blues jam at Ground Zero that night, explore the town on Friday, party at Reds Friday night, and leave Saturday morning for Memphis where we planned to see Graceland in the afternoon, Beale Street at night, and then spend the night at a local hotel before driving back to Nashville on Sunday. Sounds like fun, right? Well as it would turn out, fun would be the understatement of the year, and we wound up changing some of our plans at the last-minute. As you will read later, the only thing we would see in Memphis would be a view of it from our van window as we passed it on our way home.