I stood beside the Blues Trail Marker for the sharecropper’s shack that Muddy Waters grew up in, in what was Stovall’s Plantation just outside Clarksdale, and gazed over the landscape. The vast fields were ploughed but unplanted, the alluvial soil brown and fertile. The sun was low in the sky but shone brightly against the bluest sky imaginable. And it was cold – a dry, bitter cold that chilled your bones.
But it was strangely warming to have reached this point in our blues pilgrimage. It was here in 1941 that Alan Lomax found McKinley Morganfield and recorded his Burr Clover Blues, a song he’d written at the request of Colonel Stovall, who six years previously had invented the burr clover seed harvester. Muddy Waters’s house also served as a juke joint where Waters entertained field hands. Waters left the plantation in May 1943 after the plantation overseer refused his request for a raise from 22 and a half cents to 25 cents an hour. The rest, of course, is history, Muddy going on to become a preeminent Chicago blues artist and a musical inspiration to subsequent generations of blues and rock musicians.
If you head on out past the famous Crossroads at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, you’ll soon come to the Shack Up Inn, on the site of Hopson Plantation. In 1928, this plantation had over 3,500 acres and was farmed by black sharecroppers and mules, working from 4.30am until 6 in the evening. You can get a sense of plantation life here, as you wander round the sharecropper shacks, with their tin roofs and Mississippi cedar walls (now available as (basic) hotel accommodation), the original cotton gin and seed houses and other outbuildings. I was taken by the old rusting vehicles, including old cars, a tractor and a derelict fire truck. An ancient railway line runs through into the distance, giving a further sense of timelessness to the place. As does the Bottle Tree, with its host of blue bottles, traditionally used to ward off evil from the family home.
The sense of poverty exuded by the sharecroppers’ shacks was very tangible and striking. Sharecropping was a system that came to dominate agriculture across the cotton-planting South from the end of the nineteenth century. Black families would rent small plots of land from white landowners, to work themselves. Often, the landlords or nearby merchants would lease equipment to the renters, and offer seed, fertilizer, food, and other items on credit until the harvest season. At the end of the year, tenant and landlord would settle up, often with the sharecroppers owing more to the landowner than they were able to repay with the sale of their crops. It was an exploitative system that resulted in debt and poverty from which the sharecropper found it difficult to escape. It was out of this situation that the blues began to emerge in the early part of the twentieth century and it’s no surprise that many of those we now consider blues legends worked the land themselves.
If you go to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale itself, you’ll see Muddy Waters’ shack reassembled inside, a kind of shrine to perhaps Clarksdale’s most famous son. Not that Muddy was the only legendary blues artist from round these parts – born and raised nearby were John Lee Hooker, Son House, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, Junior Parker, and W. C. Handy. In addition, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Charley Patton are all associated with the town, stopping by in their constant traveling. All of this history is preserved and these artists celebrated in the Museum, which makes for an excellent visit.
Talking of blues museums, on the way down from Memphis, we’d stopped at the Tunica Gateway to the Blues Visitor Centre and Museum. Set in an old, refurbished train depot, this is a fabulous introduction to the land of the blues – great exhibits, well displayed, which tell the story of the origins and development of the blues in the Mississippi Delta.
Back in Clarksdale, right across the road from the Delta Blues Museum is Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club (Clarksdale being the blues’ “ground zero”). We stopped by for lunch and enjoyed the general vibe, though sadly, there was no live music. We were wonderfully served by Stella, who took one look at my scrawny looks and said, “Well now, a’body’s momma wanna take him in an’ feed him up. Mmhnnn”. I had the barbeque pork in a spicy pancake – absolutely delicious, but laced with a thousand chillies which quickly had my mouth on fire.
On down the street and you come to Blues Town Music, owned by the inimitable Ronnie Drew, who welcomed us warmly and regaled us with stories of visits to Europe in days gone by. I enjoyed playing one of his acoustic guitars and then chatting to Ronnie’s good friend, an older gentleman, an ex-bass player, with long seventies-style hair and a droopy moustache to match, who intrigued me with tales of visiting New York City as a boy and watching the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field.
And then, right across the road we found the treasure trove that is the Cats Head Delta Blues and Folk Art store and had the pleasure of chatting to proprietor Roger Stolle. I was interested to meet Roger, having read his excellent book, Hidden History of Mississippi some time ago, and being aware of his work to help regenerate Clarksdale. The store is quite unique, selling everything from books to posters to art to CDs, vinyl records and DVDs, all with a blues theme. Even if you don’t buy anything (but please do! My Cat Head poster is now framed and hanging in my office!), it’s a fabulous place just to browse around in.
And Roger’s such a nice guy, full of positivity and enthusiasm, and wondrously knowledgeable about the blues and the Mississippi Delta. Glad to say he agreed to a follow-up interview, which will appear before long here at Down at the Crossroads.
Actually, once again, I have to comment on the welcome and friendliness of everyone we encountered in Mississippi. We were quite charmed. We got on our way in the early evening, unable to take up Roger Stolle’s suggestion of staying for the show in Red’s Lounge later on, and drove back to Memphis on the legendary Highway 61, Mississippi saying farewell to us by means of a spectacular sunset, the sky changing colour dramatically as the sun sank below the horizon.
As somebody famously once said, “I’ll be back!”