The Birthplace of the Blues

Bottle ArtThe Shack Up Inn is easily one of the best hotel experiences I’ve had. Outside of Clarksdale on an old plantation, the rooms really are shacks. Most are the old shotgun style, refurbished to add nice things like plumbing and air conditioning without sacrificing nicer things like creaking floorboards and slamming screen doors. The shacks are all themed, mine being for the blues musician Pinetop Perkins. The grounds are littered with well-placed old bicycles, farm equipment, and bottle art. The front desk told me they had doughnuts there in the morning, and moon pies in the evening. I asked what a moon pie was and she told me, “It’s like a Wagon Wheel, only smaller.” This didn’t actually help as I didn’t know what a Wagon Wheel was either, but eating the Moon Pies later cleared everything up.

Pinetop ShackI drove into town to see what there was to see. In small towns the answer of what there is to see is usually “not much,” but sometimes that’s what I’m interested in. I parked near a few stores and walked along, looking through the windows. I came upon the Cat Head, which was mentioned by both the innkeeper and my National Geographic road trip. The Cat Head is a blues music & art store, so it wasn’t surprising to hear music as soon as I walked in. What was surprising was that it was being played by the man behind the counter. I bought a postcard, he put down his guitar and introduced himself as Preston, and I told him about my trip. He offered to teach me a little about the Mississippi Delta and how the flooding of the river gave birth to the Blues. To paraphrase:

The Mississippi River loves to overflow it’s banks, reaching all the way out to the Yazoo River. After hundreds of years of seasonal flooding, the delta had some of the richest topsoil on the planet, making it perfect for cotton plantations. When white settlers first discovered this rich soil the delta was full of trees and marsh land, and it was still subject to regular flooding. In order to build a plantation, the land had to be cleared and levees built. At the time this meant slave labor, and slave labor in excess of what most people could afford. As a result, only the wealthiest slave-owners moved to the delta. Preston said that at one point, the richest people in the country all lived on Manhattan or in the Mississippi Delta.

After the civil war, the plantation owners still needed cheap labor, and ensured they could get it with things like vagrancy laws. This allowed the police to arrest any man walking on a public street who didn’t have any money. The plantation owners could then pay the state to hire these “criminals” to work the land. Another popular way around the illegality of slavery was to bring on black families as tenant farmers, with the idea that they would work the land for several years, pay the landowner with the crop yield, and eventually make some money for themselves. In the grand European tradition of getting people who don’t read English to sign contracts written in English, most tenants were given a bad deal.

One notable exception to this system was plantation owner Will Dockery. He developed a reputation for fair treatment of his tenants, and his plantation grew to have over 2,000 workers. One of these workers was Charley Patton, one of the first great blues musicians. The likes of Robert Johnson, Willie Brown, and Tommy Johnson came to learn from Patton and his students, and the Dockery Plantation is recognized by many as the birthplace of the Blues for this reason.

The Sunflower RiverAfter the history lesson, Preston went on to explain how the drastic economic disparity of the Delta’s slavery roots never went away. “There is no middle class in Clarksdale,” he told me. “You are the very rich, or the very poor. The former being white, and the later being black.” Preston moved to Clarksdale eight months ago, and he says most of the black friends he’s made thus far are illiterate, including the guys in his band. Looking around the town, I could see what he meant. It became more apparent when I was sitting in a diner the next day and a black woman came in to order some food to-go. She asked what it cost, and had to go back out to her car twice to find the last four pennies she needed to pay for it. “You can tell I’m waiting on payday,” she joked with the woman behind the counter. On my way out of Clarksdale, I saw a sign with a set of words I was not expecting in such a rural part of the country: Coahoma Country Club. I would see two more country clubs on the way to Vicksburg, and pass by the two kinds of houses the region has: mobile homes and beautiful, large, brick buildings.

I’d heard live music four nights in a row, and the birthplace of the blues seemed like an awful place to break the cycle. Unfortunately I was in Clarksdale on a Tuesday, and Preston lamented that I wouldn’t be able to go to Red’s, a place he called “the last real Mississippi juke joint in the world.” There was only one place in town with live music on a Tuesday. The venue is an art gallery by day with music in the evenings. It’s not exactly the kind of salt of the earth dive one might hope to find on the Mississippi River, but it was still live blues music. I met a few foreign travelers before the show began, and for awhile the only people there were other guests from the Shack Up Inn. An old Skinny man came in to sit down at the bar. He obviously knew the owners and started joking back and forth with them, primarily about the inability of Americans when it comes to driving and something about Thomas Jefferson being a slave owner and a rapist so who needs to listen to him anyway. The old man slumped over on the couch next to me and slept through most of the first set.

MusicianFor his part, the guitarist playing that Tuesday was an interesting and talented man. Preston warned me that “he can play some good blues for a white boy, but he’s a bit too flamboyant for my tastes.” I could understand what he meant. He reminded me a lot of my “uncle” Rich, one of my parent’s old band mates. He’s the sort who always seems to be walking the line between musician and comedian, and won’t be shy about taking a drink of his beer in the middle of a chorus. The musician in Clarksdale had a habit of finding every other blues player in the room and calling them up to play a song, at which point he would head over to grab another beer and introduce himself to everyone in the place. He pointed to the old man slumped over on the couch and said, “That’s blues legend Watermelon Slim passed out on the couch, when he wakes up I’ll have him come up here a play you a tune.”

The CrossroadsAs the evening dragged on a few more people showed up, clearly locals. The room was still only halfway full when the mayor walked in wearing a suit and tie, and the party really started. Dozens of people trailed in after him, and I was only able to stay another half hour before the late hour got to me and I had to head back to my shack. I passed by the legendary crossroads at Highways 61 and 49, one of the many sites said to be the spot where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his amazing musical talent. Early in the day when I checked in to my room I was shown a collection of guitars in the lobby. I was told I was welcome to bring any of the instruments to my room. I grabbed a guitar and sat on my screen porch, looking at the stars and pretending I knew what I was doing. I may have my soul, but I can’t play the guitar worth a damn.