By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
* * *
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.)
But the Delta town clings protectively to its ancestry. Muddy Waters might not be around anymore to play on neighborhood porches, but Mr. Tater, a bluesman with buck teeth and lion-paw hands, is happy to perform on the street corner -- to no one in particular.
"We want to hold onto the basic feel and sensibility of the place. We don't want it too high-toned, because the minute you get too big, you become like Beale Street, New Orleans, or any other place that becomes touristy, very surface and commercial," said Freeman. "Right now, Clarksdale is very real."
Currently, the blues town registers about six juke joints, but that number can change daily. Generally speaking, they're in decrepit buildings that are one cockroach away from condemnation: leaky roof, burned-out lights, windows so dirty they block the sunlight. But the music is raw, real, euphoric. That is, when there is music. True to the places' informality, show dates and times are haphazard. For blues aficionados, many of them Europeans who follow the Delta Blues Trail from Memphis to Vicksburg, Miss., this can be annoying.
"We were always hearing on the street, 'Where can we hear some live blues music?' No place in town was offering regularly scheduled, consistently played blues music," said Luckett, 67, who has lived in Mississippi since infancy. "It was a hit-or-miss thing. . . . So we decided to change that."
Enter the Ground Zero Blues Club. Now Clarksdale can hold its blues note just a little longer.
* * *
On this Friday night in Clarksdale, you could hear Red's before you actually entered Red's. The dimly lit juke joint was blaring Big Jack Johnson from an elephantine stereo system. The floor shook slightly from the thudding track, but no one danced or even twitched. They were in a music stupor. Good blues can do that to you.
Around the corner, though, the crowd at the Ground Zero Blues Club had no control over their hips, heads and feet. A daughter of Clarksdale was getting married the next day, and her guests were in party mode. As local bluesman Super Chikan pranced around on the stage, playing his guitar as if possessed by Johnson's Devil, the patch of floor before him was a constant ebb and flow of dancers. They bobbed and whirled, then dashed to the bar for beer or a breather on the porch, then went back for more. The night finally ended closer to dawn than midnight.
"The allure of the kind of blues that this town is known for is still here," said Jeff Marlow, 23, a guitarist and vocalist who moved to Clarksdale from D.C. to pursue his music. "If the crowd at one of these venues claps for me, that will be more satisfying than a venue in a large city."
Freeman himself has never performed on the club's stage. He's more of an actor than a singer, though he can carry a fine baritone tune. But he does credit Clarksdale as the place where he got his acting chops, a humble start for an enviable career that has included such box-office hits as "Million Dollar Baby" (for which he won an Oscar this year), "Driving Miss Daisy," "The Shawshank Redemption" and "March of the Penguins" (he was the narrator).
Freeman was raised for a time by his grandmother in nearby Charleston, Miss., while his parents were living in Chicago. His grandmother died when he was 6, and his father moved Freeman and his sister north. He stayed for less than a year before returning to Greenwood in neighboring Leflore County, where he remained for most of his formative years. Here, amid racial injustice and an impoverished local economy, he read Shakespeare and plunged into the dramatic arts. All the while, the Delta culture was streaming through his veins.
"I graduated from high school in 1955 and left running, never to come back again," said Freeman. "But as soon as I was away, I began to notice the differences and the sameness between Mississippi and the rest of the country. We get a bad reputation for being segregated, but I've never found any greater place. California, New York, Chicago, never found it."
In the mid-'90s, he and his second wife, Myrna Colley-Lee, returned for good, building a home on the land his parents once owned. And if the mockingbirds and gracious folks lose their appeal at least his investments will keep him around.
Besides the club, Freeman and Luckett also own a local restaurant, because, they say, they were tired of driving 60 to 80 miles for a good meal. Madidi, just down the street from Ground Zero, seems out of place with the other local spots -- a barbecue joint on the highway, a Mennonite-run diner, a coffee shop with a bookie in the back. An elegant place that serves such upscale entrees as venison flambe and a terrine of foie gras, it could fool you into thinking you were in Los Angeles. The walls are adorned with stunning artwork, mostly local but some from Freeman's own collection.
Freeman sightings are common at the restaurant, and he comes in unannounced, without bodyguards -- and yes, he always pays his tab. Usually before a meal, he does the rounds, stopping at tables to say hello, give a hug, agree to a photo.
"I shouldn't talk about it as a problem. Sometimes when I am home I get to go to Ground Zero, but I can't stay for very long," he said. "Everybody has a camera and bits of paper."
During this night's meal, though, no one bothered the man who once drove Miss Daisy, played God to Jim Carrey and pumped up a Million Dollar Baby. Instead, he approached them.
As Freeman wandered through the restaurant, smiling at customers and staff, his dinner mates prepared to move the party to the club. But Freeman bowed out. He was ready to go home, although he was already there.