Clarksdale, Mississippi – Verse Two and Chorus
Friday Morning at the Shack Up Inn
Friday morning came a little too early when we were awoken by some sort of tweety bird chirping right outside our bedroom window around 7 AM. With the help of some earplugs, we were able to fall back asleep for a couple more hours with hardly a sound from the outside world audible from inside our little shack. After eating some breakfast while listening to a little Robert Johnson, I decided to go on a photo taking expedition around the grounds. It might not be right for everyone, but I found the decor around the Shack Up Inn immensely interesting. Rusted old farm equipment decorated the lawn, old Coca-Cola signs were placed at random, a tree was covered with blue and green bottles – these folks had figured out how to turn what might otherwise be considered junk into art, and this helped make the Inn feel like some sort of living museum of the old American South.
We set out a little while later to begin exploring downtown, and our first stop was to take a few photos of the ‘crossroads’ sign at Highway 49. The picture in my mind of this place where Robert Johnson allegedly made his deal with the devil is of course nothing like this modern touristy version, as this intersection is now surrounded with businesses including the adjacent Churches Chicken. It was still worth a few pictures, and later in the day I accidentally found another intersection in town that looked eerily like the crossroads I envisioned.
As we continued driving towards downtown we began to notice how poor this community is, seeing many run down buildings, once occupied by businesses and services, now empty, their exteriors slowly deteriorating. Upon arriving downtown we easily found a free parking spot near the Delta Blues Museum and began our first walk around amidst some light foot traffic. Our first stop would be Blues Town Music, a local music store filled with cool old gear, worthy of the store’s namesake. An Asian man was sitting on a stool and playing some traditional blues on an open tuned guitar – “I saw you play at Ground Zero last night. Great playing!” he commented. “Thanks. I’m Eric, pleased to meet you.” “My name is Gypsy, and I’m here on vacation from Japan.” he informed me, and after some conversation I learned this was his 10th trip to Clarksdale. We continued our stroll, taking in the sights of this obviously once booming town, now struggling for its very survival. The downtown area had pockets of activity, and other areas that seemed void of all life. Many of the buildings looked like they hadn’t been painted in decades, some with boards on the windows, others with bars on them. As we continued our walk on some of these near empty streets, this kind of sporadic hot and cold ghost town feeling was almost a bit unnerving, however, not once did we feel in danger.
We walked over to the Ground Zero Blues Club to snap a couple of quick pictures in the daylight, and continued onward in search of the legendary ‘Red’s Blues Club’, the infamous juke joint everyone seemed to hold in such high regard and our destination for later that night. Coming out the back side of the Ground Zero parking lot we came to a large abandoned blue brick building touting the sign ‘Delta Wholesale Hardware Co.’ before crossing the train tracks. A little further down the road we spotted another old brick building with a couple of smokers sitting on the curb in front. Somehow we just knew this was Red’s and ventured closer to take a peek. If you didn’t know what you were looking for you would never think to stop at this Sanford and Sonesque place, it’s curb littered with a beat up old couch, a broken toilet, and several large pieces of homemade barbecue apparatus. Above a tattered old canopy the faded words ‘LaVENE MUSIC CENTER’ were stenciled onto the brick, perhaps remnants of another failed business out of yesteryear. Only once right upon the sidewalk did the sign ‘Red’s Blues Club’ become visible. It was a curious moment of realization knowing that a few hours later we would likely be experiencing something very unique and special.
We began walking back to our car to return to the shack for some lunch when a friendly local volunteered to take our picture. For a split second we both had the vision of the scene in National Lampoon’s ‘European Vacation’ when a local runs off with the tourists camera, but that didn’t happen, this local was quite genuine.
Upon returning downtown a couple of hours later our first stop would be at 252 Delta Ave, home of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art. The place was kind of a cross between a gift shop and an art gallery for blues aficionados containing CDs, DVDs, books, T-shirts, and some amazing local folk Art. They had a large collection of documentaries and books about blues history and culture available and I could have easily spent a small fortune. Not having grown up in the South, I asked the man behind the counter about the origins of the term ‘Cat Head’. He explained to me that “In the early 1900’s ‘Cat Head’ was a company that made giant biscuits, biscuits so large they were the size of a cat head.” In addition to being a store selling everything related to the blues, Cat Heads website is kind of a central gathering point for information pertaining to not just Clarksdale’s live music scene and points of interest, but to blues related events throughout the Delta. After browsing the store for a little while longer while listening to some obscure blues recordings over the speakers, we went on down the road.
Located on East Second Street, (a little bit off the beaten path) we found our way into the museum and were greeted by ‘Theo’. Theo is originally from Europe and the owner of the museum and, above all else, Theo loves American blues music, history, and culture. After paying the minimal entry fee of five dollars a head, well worth every penny mind you (not to mention helping this great nonprofit organization), we began exploring this massive collection of American roots music culture. “Roots to Fruits”, Theo explained, is the theme of this museum, and if you walk through the museum on the recommended path, it shows the evolution of the earliest blues artists and recordings, and how that music transcended across generations and continents giving birth to early blues influenced rock and roll artists like Elvis, the Beatles, and the Stones before morphing into the roots of modern rock with artists like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Who, and beyond. Amidst this collection of rarities, which I learned was moved here from Europe about five years ago, were some of the earliest and rarest blues records, concert posters, early record players and jukeboxes, even an old barber chair that came from a local barber shop in which John Lee Hooker and many other legends got haircuts back in the day. We saw the Muddy Waters record which gave birth to the Rolling Stones namesake, its title bearing ‘Rolling Stone’. The original contract offer form for the Who’s performance at Woodstock, where they received $6250.00 for their historic performance. Pencil drawings by John Lennon, the controversial Jimi Hendrix ‘Electric Lady Land’ album sleeve bearing several nude ladies, and Muddy Water’s ‘contract rider’. We could’ve stayed in there all day, and this would have been especially easy to do as Theo loves to talk, but we said goodbye as we still needed to check out the Delta Blues Museum.
This nonprofit museum is also a must see for anyone who wants to learn more about American blues culture. We arrived a bit late in the day, only about 45 minutes before closing, so we had to breeze through a little faster than we might have preferred. However, the place is magnificent. Early blues recordings can be heard playing over the loudspeakers upon entering the lobby. After we paid our entrance fee of seven dollars each, we walked into a giant room that seemed to radiate from another era. The walls were covered with records, plaques, and drawings of blues legends that came from this part of the Delta. Guitars, clothing, and other memorabilia from artists like Charlie Patten, Son House, Ike Turner, and countless others who had grown up within a few miles of this place were beautifully displayed within plexiglass cases. Perhaps the deepest moment of experience we had within this giant roomful of blues was the Muddy Waters exhibit. The original sharecropper shack in which Muddy Waters grew up had been placed inside this room, complete with one of his old Fender Twin amplifiers, and a legendary guitar commissioned for the museum by Billy Gibbons that had been built from one of the pieces of wood from this shack. Inside the shack, videos showed archival footage of Muddy as well as interviews with his peers, all to a soundtrack of his rootsy music. The moment was revealing knowing the hard life this man must have endured, growing up with his family in such a small coarse space in pre-civil-rights America. It was difficult to pull ourselves away, and we gradually made our exodus as the museum was about to close.
Having thoroughly explored the streets and sites of this unique downtown during the daylight hours, we returned to our shack for dinner and a shower, anxious for our second nighttime adventure into this land of the blues. I had noticed earlier in the day that the intersection of the road leading into the Shack Up Inn, especially from one particular angle, looked a bit like the crossroads of the Robert Johnson era that I had many times pictured in my mind. So right before dinner, with the sun low in the western sky, I snapped a few photos to see if I could capture the unique feeling of standing at such a foreboding spot out of American folklore. A little while later I couldn’t help but to experiment with my picture in Photoshop, and with a few quick adjustments, I had a photo that, at least to me, looked like ‘the crossroads’ where Robert might have made his deal.
Red’s Blues Club
We arrived at Red’s just after 9:00 PM and ‘Big Anthony’ was getting ready to play. The place was still near empty and, after paying a five dollar cover charge, we found a seat and began to take in the sultry scene. Red was working behind the bar and sporting a pair of dark sunglasses in an already dimly lit room. I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not, but the lighting in Red’s is just that – red. Red colored neon signs scattered throughout and a couple of red colored lights aimed at the stage create a kind of reddish hue that was inescapable. The place was fairly small, about 20 x 40, and sheets of plastic haphazardly covered the ceiling. Every square inch of the walls was covered with something, be it photos, posters, beer signs, or the lone flat screen TV which never went off. The place had 2 air conditioners which occupied the only windows in the place and a series of fans placed strategically (or randomly) at different locations throughout. The furnishings were comprised of several varieties of barstools, tables, chairs, and couches, all mis-matched and old looking, yet amazingly comfortable. The performance area faced the bar, and its central location seemed to optimize the room. On either side of the ‘stage’ stood a giant column of four or five speakers, circa 1980’s, although it only seemed like a couple of them were being used.
Anthony spotted me from across the room and made his way over asking “Did you bring a guitar?” “Yeah, but I came to hear you play. I’ll get it in a little while.” A few minutes later a friendly older gentleman, who seemed to know everybody, walked on over to our table and said “I’m going to sit with you folks tonight, if that’s okay.” “Of course, have a seat.” I said, later learning his name to be Dingo. We ordered a couple of beers and set our bottle of tequila on the table next to Dhingo’s bottle of Evan Williams whiskey. Beer is the only alcohol sold at Reds, therefore allowing a BYOB for liquor only.
Anthony’s show began as perhaps the most subtle start to a performance I have ever seen. Also wearing sunglasses, “A” was sitting on a stool with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth when he began playing some blues guitar licks, backed only by a drummer. There were maybe only six or eight of us in the room at this point, and the feeling was relaxed and comfortable as Anthony played his brand of Delta blues. He must have played seven or eight blues instrumentals, for nearly an hour, before the vocal portion of his night would begin. The music was earthy and hypnotic and it felt as if time had stood still. As his deep voice resonated some mournful passages, I felt transported to another era. Gradually the night picked up and people started coming in. Another local sat in on backup vocals for a couple of songs, and then Dingo was up to sing a little too. The dance floor (or carpeted area in front of the band) had a few eruptions of activity throughout the night whenever locals and tourists felt the mood. At one point Anthony asked different folks around the room where they were from. The answers were as diverse as imaginable – Italy, Canada, Switzerland, New Orleans, Japan, San Francisco, Tennessee, Australia – people from all over somehow knew about this hidden blues universe.
Now pretty far into this evening and feeling fine, I asked Anthony between songs if I could play a couple with him. He nodded yes, so I went out and grabbed my guitar and amp. I joined him and his band of drummer ‘the Clarksdale All-Stars’ for two or three up-tempo blues, a high point coming on the last song with a little ‘head cutting’. Already having played two and a half hours straight, Anthony suggested I sing a couple while he took a break. His drummer stayed on and I played a couple of blues classics before launching into a funky version of Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Child’ which received a roaring applause. I returned to the stage to Anthony, and a little while later when we were getting ready to leave, Red made his introduction. “You should come back tomorrow night, ‘T-Model Ford’ will be here and it’s gonna’ be a good time. Bring your guitar too. The old guys don’t mind other musicians playing with them.” “Were supposed to go to Memphis tomorrow, but if we can rent our room for one more night we just might do that. Are you sure it would be okay for me to play with him?” I asked. “This is my place, just come on down and bring your guitar.” I then grabbed the unopened bottle of Evan Williams, Red’s whiskey of choice, from the back of my amp and presented it to Red. “We read on the Internet that this is your favorite whiskey, so we brought you a bottle as our way of saying thanks.”