Clarksdale, Miss., has been singing the blues for years -- only now it's making money from it. After decades of being just another stop on U.S. Route 61, 65 miles south of Memphis, Tenn., Clarksdale is now, belatedly, capitalizing on its heritage as the virtual hometown of American blues music.
The city is hot. Its Delta Blues Museum is drawing thousands of visitors, as is its Sunflower River Blues Festival (Aug. 2-8 this year), and Clarksdale is finding itself featured in the media from MTV to "The Economist." The tourists are coming, but -- at least for now -- not too many to spoil the place.
It all seems a bit of a pleasant surprise for people around town. For years most of them just didn't know what they had. The whites knew the blacks were making music, but most of them didn't much care. The blacks knew it, and thought the rest of the world didn't care about Clarksdale, either.
Turns out the world does care, and these days the people coming in are bringing money and a reverence for the blues. They get a friendly reception. When an out-of-towner walks into Nellie May's on Delta Avenue, a clean and fragrant antique shop, the first question is "Y'all here for the blues?" Say yes, and they smile and tell you how glad they are that everyone is so interested in Clarksdale these days.
Clarksdale's product is its heritage. And that heritage comes from the plantation, the sharecropper, the juke joint: incubators of the blues. Clarksdale made the blues and sent the music north; it was the starting point of the Great Migration during which 5 million blacks left the South from 1940 to the mid-'60s, each heading for a new life in the North. For years, Clarksdale was a place to leave, not only for blacks but for young whites looking to see more of the world. Now, with people coming in, the heritage is being shared by more people than ever before.
Three landmarks of the heritage in and just out of town are the Stovall Plantation, site of the shack where Muddy Waters grew up; the Riverside Hotel, formerly a hospital where Bessie Smith died and temporary home over the years to dozens of blues and gospel names; and the Delta Blues Museum.
The Stovall Plantation is about six miles northwest of town. It's a spread of 4,000 acres of cotton and soybeans that has been in the Stovall family since 1836. McKinley Morganfield moved there when his mother died in 1915. He was just 3 years old, and he came to be raised by his grandmother in her sharecropper's shack on the plantation. He picked up a nickname, Muddy Waters, and started fooling around with music in his early teens, first the harmonica, then guitar. He listened to Eddie "Son" House and Robert Johnson, imitated their style, and learned to play bottleneck. He played all around town, at suppers and get-togethers; he played on the front porch of the shack, on Saturday nights turning the place into his own juke joint, complete with homemade whiskey.
It took years, but he built a reputation, and it brought him recognition before he was 30. In 1940, Alan Lomax, the folklore collector at the Library of Congress, traveled to the Delta to record the music of Robert Johnson, the undisputed wild man of blues music. Trouble was, Johnson had been dead for nearly three years, poisoned by strychnine-laced whiskey one hot Saturday night at a roadhouse in Three Forks. Legend has it he had been fooling around with the roadhouse owner's wife, and that was that. Or maybe he was stabbed; after more than 50 years, details remain sketchy.
So Lomax discovered he'd missed Johnson, but he heard about this guy named Muddy Waters at the Stovall Plantation. He put his primitive tape recorder in the car and headed over to the shack. Carter Stovall, who runs the farm now, was a teenager when Lomax visited -- he saw the session, but it didn't make a big impression: "I don't remember anything except seeing the automobile parked there, and seeing Muddy Waters sitting on the porch playing his guitar, and this fellow with a recording device set up on the porch; they were doing it outside." Lomax recorded 10 songs, came back the next year, and by the year after that Waters had moved to the South Side of Chicago and was playing the blues at Pepper's Lounge and other spots. He lived in Chicago for the rest of his life.
The shack is still there, at least part of it. It was originally a four-room house, until a tornado hit it several years back. Now just one room remains -- padlocked because the structure is dangerously rotted, but still there. The porch where Muddy Waters played is gone. Still, lots of people drive by to take a look. Even though the Stovall place is private, the shack is easily seen from Stovall Road.
In town, the Riverside Hotel is on Sunflower Avenue. Most everybody who goes there wants to stay in Room No. 2. That's because the hotel used to be a hospital -- the Afro-American Hospital -- and Room No. 2 was the operating room. It was in that operating room, on the first floor facing Sunflower Avenue, that the dying Bessie Smith was brought after an auto accident north of town on Sept. 26, 1937. She had appeared that night in Memphis, performing in "Broadway Rastus." Later, she headed off to Clarksdale, with a friend driving her Packard. He hit a truck on the dark, narrow Highway 61; Smith was thrown from the car and badly injured. Clarksdale's black ambulance company took her to the Afro-American, where she died a few hours later in Room No. 2.
For years, her death seemed to be another example of Mississippi's racial tragedy, because word spread -- was accepted by most people as fact -- that Smith died because she was denied admission to the white county hospital, that her ambulance driver was forced to make the long drive to the Afro-American while the singer's life ebbed away. In "Promised Land," his brilliant essay on the black migration, Nicholas Lemann writes, "Black Clarksdale was full of rumors and secrets, because there was so much that couldn't be expressed openly or that blacks were in no position to investigate. Everybody black in Clarksdale knew, though there was no hard proof of it, that Bessie Smith ... had been refused admission to the county hospital on grounds of her race, at a time when she could still have been saved."
People who have investigated the incident say it just didn't happen that way, that Smith wasn't denied admission anywhere, that she was rushed straight to the Afro-American where great measures were taken to save her life. But the whole story just increases the draw of Room No. 2. People ask Z.L. Hill, the hotel's owner, if they can stay there. Sure, she says. It's $38 for the night.
The Riverside isn't famous just because of Bessie Smith. Pretty much everybody else in the world of blues and gospel has stayed there at some time or another. Robert Nighthawk. John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. Ethel Mayes. Early Wright. Lots of them. Hill used to put up the traveling musicians and cook them big meals, lots of fried chicken and vegetables. The black customers loved it, and some whites heard about it too. But "I wasn't supposed to serve white people in here, not to say nothing about sleeping," Hill says.
Now the clientele is a little different. "My specialty is those white people," she says. "We got quite a lot." Who? Mostly yuppie blues fans, but also the occasional celebrity. People still mention the visit of John F. Kennedy Jr. a couple of years ago. He stayed for three days, and stopped by each day to chat with the apparently hunk-resistant Hill. "We would talk about the blues fans," she says. "But he didn't say anything interesting to me."
The main stop on anybody's trip to Clarksdale is up on the second floor of the Carnegie Public Library on Delta Avenue. A solid old structure, like the libraries Andrew Carnegie gave to small towns across America, it is now home of the Delta Blues Museum, the place that is helping to make Clarksdale famous.
You go through the town library to get there, past the mastodon tusk on the first floor, through a few doors and up the stairs. Right now the museum is a small but growing collection of recordings, photos and artifacts of Mississippi blues. You can put on headphones and hear selections from dozens of blues artists, some famous, some almost amazingly obscure. There's an impressive collection of photographs, some old and anonymous, some quite arty, including one of Fred McDowell taken by that eccentric Delta aristocrat and photographer Bill Eggleston, who grew up not far from the museum in Tallahatchie County.
Then there's the walk-around display, featuring a life-sized, molded resin figure of Muddy Waters, wearing clothes that Muddy wore himself, donated by his wife. And there are guitars -- no flashy instruments from today, but the old cheap ones, the ones Delta bluesmen could afford: a 1907 Sears Roebuck steel-string with original case, 1930s Stellas, resonators, one of B.B. King's many "Lucilles."
You also see displays on such blues greats as John Lee Hooker, born in Clarksdale; Eddie "Son" House, born over in Lyon; B.B. King, from Indianola; Robert Johnson, from Copiah County; Nehemiah "Skip" James, born in Bentonia. Lots of others. The Delta produced them all, and the museum tells their story.
It hasn't always been a story people wanted to hear. The museum opened in 1979, and it's fair to say it had a slow start. As late as 1987, it attracted about one visitor per day. One. This year the museum is averaging 1,000 a month.
Surprisingly, salvation came in the form of three rockers with a thing for Muddy Waters. ZZ Top, a Texas band that never reached superstardom but never faded away either, adopted the Blues Museum and led it into the big time. In 1988 the band held press conferences from New York to California singing the praises of the museum. They held them in Clarksdale too, pulling in MTV and the music magazines. They encouraged people at their concerts to visit the Delta and the Blues Museum. They put out the message on the back of their albums. The museum's guest book reveals signatures from all over the globe. "We get responses from Australia, Italy, Germany, everywhere," says Sid Graves, director of the museum. "After 13 years, to have ZZ Top adopt us and lead our million-dollar fund drive ... we're doing great."
With publicity supplied by the band, in 1989 the museum received a National Endowment for the Humanities challenge grant. If by July 1994 the museum can raise $750,000 for expansion, the endowment will kick in $250,000. So far the museum has collected more than $600,000.
The museum plans to renovate its building, which was constructed in 1914. And it's bought the land behind the library for room to expand. Things are looking up -- all without charging admission.
Graves says the museum is changing things around town. "The residents of this area are experiencing a new pride in the African-American music which came from Clarksdale. ... It's demonstrating to the poor people of this region that their ancestors, who they've always been told were poor and oppressed, were also great artists."
Byron York is a producer at Channel 4 News in Washington.
Today's blues artists are still making the music, and the place to hear it is the Sunflower River Blues Festival (Aug. 2-8 this year), which features mostly Mississippi artists. Monday (Aug. 2), Tuesday and Wednesday will feature lectures and workshops; showings of "Deep Blues," Robert Palmer's recent documentary on Delta music; and evening performances. Thursday through Sunday, those scheduled to perform include Big Jack Johnson, Lonnie Shields, James "Super Chicken" Johnson, John Hurt, Jr., Lonnie Pitchford and Jessie Mae Hemphill. (Sunday will be devoted to gospel music.) The festival is generally free, although admission to "Deep Blues" is $4 and donations of $3 are suggested for several of the performances.
GETTING THERE: Delta, USAir, TWA and Northwest fly from Washington to Memphis and are quoting round-trip fares of about $333. Clarksdale, Miss., is 65 miles southwest of Memphis, Tenn., via U.S. Route 61.
WHAT TO DO:
Delta Blues Museum (114 Delta Ave., Clarksdale, Miss. 38614, 601-624-4461) is open June through October from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; the rest of the year, from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. It is closed Sundays and holidays year-round. Admission is free.
The Muddy Waters House is on private property. The owners have padlocked the cabin for safety reasons, but allow access to the grounds. To see it, go north from the Delta Blues Museum on Oakhurst Road, which becomes Stovall Road. The cabin is six miles out of town, about one mile past a sign marking Stovall Farms. It is marked by a sign identifying it as the Muddy Waters House.
Riverside Hotel, 615 Sunflower Ave., Clarksdale, Miss. 38614, 601-627-2694. Rooms are still available here, with double room rates starting at $40 a night.
INFORMATION: Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 160, Clarksdale, Miss., 38614, 800-626-3764. -- Byron York