Clarksdale Changes Lives in the Birthplace of the Blues
“Muddy Waters’ music changed my life, and whether you know it or not, and like it or not, it probably changed yours too.”
Eric Clapton about Muddy Waters, who grew up in Clarksdale, Miss.
Your life has probably been changed by someone from Clarksdale, Mississippi. From Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, and W.C. Handy to Tennessee Williams and Morgan Freeman, Clarksdale has been the home of some of the greatest musicians, writers and actors in American culture. Their influence still ripples through today.
Clarksdale is the heart of the Mississippi Delta and the town of 18,000 is still surrounded by cotton, soybean, corn and wheat fields. It is more than flat land, fertile soil and nights so black that darkness seems to swallow the light. From the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, to Deer Creek where McKinley Morganfield played in the muddy waters (his grandmother nicknamed him Muddy and he later added Waters), Clarksdale is the birthplace of the blues. The heartbeat and bass line of American music started here.
Muddy Waters left sharecropping on Stovall Plantation, moved north and became “King of the Chicago Blues” with songs such as “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “Mannish Boy” and “Baby Please Don’t Go.” He amplified his acoustic guitar and influenced musicians from Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton to AC/DC and Led Zeppelin.
Mick Jagger was holding the Best of Muddy Waters album when he bumped into Keith Richards on a train in England in 1962. They started a band and named it after Waters’ song “Rollin’ Stone.” Music magazine Rolling Stone is named after it, too. ZZ Top called Waters their musical godfather and they helped raise money for the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale and made the Muddywood guitar from a timber of Waters’ one-room cabin (that cabin is now in the museum).
People come from around the world to soak in the origins of the blues. The Delta is almost unchanged; many people are still poor and the rivers still flood. Thunder rolls across fields and gray clouds linger like spirits after the storms pass. The mud is so thick, it will suck the boot off your foot. Summer air is filled with heat and humidity and long rows of cotton still bloom in the fall.
Longing, pain, escape and beauty have always been here.
“Keeping it real” and “Come as you are” are Clarksdale’s mottos and people come here to find something real. It starts with the blues and ends with who Southerners are and what we have in common.
Clarksdale is home to Ground Zero and Red’s, the top two blues clubs in the country. There is live music every night of the week without the neon or glitz of other music cities. Ground Zero is the only place where on a cold Saturday night you can meet Baroness Natalie Evans, leader of the British House of Lords touring the Delta, and Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman as Super Chikan plays his homemade guitars just a few feet away.
“We visited Clarksdale and the Delta to learn more about the history of the blues and hear some fantastic music, but what was most striking was the warm welcome we got from everyone we met,” Baroness Evans says. “We saw the economic challenges the city and area are facing, but Clarksdale has a real air of authenticity and a very proud local community. With the rich history and vibrancy of the music scene which we experienced at Red’s and Ground Zero, it has a strong heritage to promote.”
“Clarksdale is still a work in progress,” says Mayor Bill Luckett, who owns Ground Zero with his best friend, Freeman. Both have invested much money and time to renovate buildings and homes and start businesses to bring back the town. “I meet a lot of people who come to town. Robert Plant, Ozzy Osbourne, Gene Simmons, Paul Simon, and Tim Hinkley of Humble Pie have come here. Julia Lennon, John’s sister, comes here all of the time. The world comes here and the old rock guys bring their children to show them where they got their musical influences. Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Costello, Dan Aykroyd have come here too. We are ground zero for delta blues.”
It is a town where Ike Turner once worked the elevator at the Hotel Alcazar and Elvis Costello recorded his album Clarksdale Sessions in the studio Jimbo Mathus built on the hotel’s ground floor. Turner also rehearsed “Delta 88,” one of the first rock ‘n’ roll songs, with Jackie Brenston at the Riverside Inn (the song was recorded by Sam Phillips at Sun Studio). Jimmy Page and Robert Plant named their 1998 album Walking Into Clarksdale and then came for a visit soon after the release. W.C. Handy lived in Clarksdale and became a successful player and publisher of blues music, and crooner Sam Cooke was born here in 1931.
I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ev’r since
It’s been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come”
Tennessee Williams, one of America’s greatest playwrights, penned the classics “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” He won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and from Blanche DuBois to Brick Pollitt, some of his best-known characters are based on people he knew in Clarksdale while his grandfather served as rector at St. George Episcopal Church.
Despite the deep cultural legacy, businesses closed and people moved away at the end of the cotton boom, leaving behind a deserted downtown. Restaurants, music venues and art galleries are slowly bringing Clarksdale back. Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes (and blues club) and Yazoo Pass Bistro are busy on Saturday mornings. At the popular Shack Up Inn, rooms are literally shacks, grain bins and a gin on the old Hopson Plantation. The plantation once had the world’s first mechanically produced cotton crop and was the home of piano-playing Pinetop Perkins.
Outsiders are moving to Clarksdale and making a difference, too. Paul Wilson moved from Utah and brought back blues station WROX; Stan Street moved from Florida and opened Hambone Art Gallery. Deak’s Mississippi Saxophones sells custom-made harmonicas, gives lessons and provides “open harp surgery.”
Clarksdale is the people who live here and take in strangers. They lead you around town to find the one restaurant that isn’t closed on New Year’s Day, or invite you into their parlor and serve wine and cheese and tell stories of Tennessee Williams playing in the house and the real lives of the neighbors he wrote about. Officer Vince patrols downtown and pulls over just make sure you are OK.
Kimberly Eckles opened her own restaurant when her husband made her stop talking about it and do it. She named it Skimke’s Smokin N’ Grillin, with a letter after each person in her family, and has found freedom working for herself.
“I have been barbecuing about 23 years.” Eckles says. “My mama had a small grill and I would watch her put on the ribs. I had a passion for a slab of ribs and by trial and error, I learned how to do it. I bought a little grill and started cooking for friends and they said I needed to open my own business. They were eating free food. It’s all good when it’s free.”
Stacy Garner is a server at Ground Zero. Her son, Jadarius, was a football player at Troy University and would have gone pro, but he came home for Christmas break three years ago and was run over by a car on New Year’s Eve. Stacy wants to open the Jadarius Garner Total Achievement Center where kids can study, play sports and find themselves.
“You don’t ever get over losing a child,” she says. “There are days I can’t get out of bed, but this job helps me through because I meet so many interesting people. I got to serve Ozzy Osbourne and he put me in one of his shows. I am proud of my little town, we are more than fields here. Mississippi is so much more. The heritage, the history, the beauty. I love it in the summertime. Ground Zero is one big family and they help me through my hard times. My boy was my star and he is still my star.”
Heritage. History. Beauty. Clarksdale changes the minds of visitors and their misperceptions of the South.
“I am from Toronto and our plan was to just visit New Orleans, but my friend found this part of the Delta and we decided to spend New Year’s here,” Julien Braghieri says. He was leaving the Shack Up Inn to drive 16 hours back to Toronto. “I didn’t realize how poor the South is. There are two worlds here, everything is slow during the day, but it changes at night. There is so much energy and Ground Zero and Red’s and everything moves to the bass and rhythm of the music. My friends thought it was crazy for us to drive from Canada to the South, especially after the election with Trump. I am gay but nothing has happened and everyone has been so welcoming. People talk to us in the streets right away. That doesn’t happen in Toronto.”
Things happen in Clarksdale that don’t happen anywhere else. Music brings together black, white, rich, poor, musical and un-musical, Southern and un-Southern to this small town in the middle of nowhere.
Clarksdale and her people will change your life.
Like it or not.