THEIR TOWN | People We Like and the Places They Love
Morgan Freeman, Down Home
Sunday, November 13, 2005
When Morgan Freeman is away from Clarksdale, Miss., too long, the Delta blues call him back home.
"The big question was, 'My Lord, you can live anywhere in the world you want, why did you choose Mississippi?' " said the 68-year-old actor, who agreed to play tour guide during a recent visit. "My glib answer was, because I can live anywhere. But the true answer is that of any place I've ever been, this feels most like home. When I come here, when I hit Mississippi, everything is right."
Mississippi, and Clarksdale specifically, seem like the last place you'd find an Oscar-winning celebrity setting down roots. The agrarian, slightly downtrodden town of 20,000 has no red carpet, no Hilton sisters, no Hollywood cliques or cachet. But what it lacks in glam, it more than compensates for with smoldering blues music and Southern hospitality.
"He's been a tremendous ambassador not only for the town but for the whole state," said Guy Malvezzi, who runs Delta Recording Service, a recording studio founded by his nephew, Jimbo Mathus of Squirrel Nut Zippers fame.
Freeman, who was born in Memphis and lives on a 120-acre ranch 39 miles southeast of Clarksdale, is proud of his adopted town. During a trip home in late September, he easily slipped into the role of tour guide, starting out at the Ground Zero Blues Club, a music venue he owns with his friend Bill Luckett and a third partner.
"One reason to be back here is because I made a lot of money and I am going to spend it somewhere," said Freeman, dressed in casual-Friday clothes with a sparkling stud in his ear. "This is the best place to spend it."
Freeman and Luckett opened the club in May 2001, transforming a 1900s cotton warehouse into a gritty concert venue where the music is earsplitting and the decor is frat house-meets-dance hall. Sagging, beaten-up couches sit out front, with views of a mountainous dirt pile and a forlorn street where traffic (people or cars) is rare. You can usually find a local hustler named Puttin' hanging around, bantering with other porch birds and fooling even Freeman with his sleight-of-hand card and dice tricks. The walls are graffitied inside and out with scribblings that range from idolatrous ("Erin saw Morgan Freeman 7-25-03 Awesome") to slightly alarming ("Mothers, watch your daughters").
But the graffiti that gets to the heart of the place is written on a stall in the ladies' room: "Delta blues are the real deal."
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Musicologists consider Clarksdale the epicenter of blues, and it has the pedigree to support this claim. Musical legends who have lived or passed through the town include Sam Cooke, who was born here, and Ike Turner, whose green clapboard house still sits on Washington Street. Muddy Waters was raised on the Stovall Plantation outside of town, and you can poke around his sharecropper cabin in the Delta Blues Museum or pay homage at a stone marker littered with picks. In 1937, Bessie Smith, who was on her way to perform in Clarksdale, died from car-accident-related injuries at the G.T. Thomas Hospital, which is now the Riverside Hotel. Die-hard blues fans who don't mind a bit of seediness can sleep where Turner and Sonny Boy Williamson once overnighted.
Most famously, at the crossroads of highways 61 and 49, the early-20th-century bluesman Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the Devil for the gift of a guitar. (A guitar-shaped monument marks the spot, though the "original" location is at the intersection of East Tallahatchie Street and Martin Luther King Drive.) And in the past year, Elvis Costello has recorded at Malvezzi's studio and Robert Plant has swung through town, in search of that ineffable blues feeling that helped shape Led Zeppelin's music.
Clarksdale, though, is no Beale Street-in-progress. Its abandoned storefronts are still waiting for retailers to take over, and its Blues Alley could fit inside one square of the legendary Memphis strip, about 75 miles north. (The town was not affected by the recent hurricanes.)