Home of the Blues, or getting spooked in the Delta

This year of travel hasn't quite stopped yet. I got home, went to Canada, and have now headed as far away from Seattle as one can get while staying in the lower 48, a detour to the South and the Mississippi Delta. 

 Mural under work in Clarksdale.

Mural under work in Clarksdale.

This trip started as a visit to Little Rock to see a friend perform at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. Little Rock holds little interest other than as the location of Central High (the first integrated high school) and part of the Clintons' origin story. To compensate we expanded the trip outwards from Arkansas to include the city of Memphis and a detour to Clarksdale, MS, home to the Delta Blues. 

All these places are part of the world where you can still smoke in bars, where people engage in conversation with you with disarming genuineness, where Kudzu is a real thing, and cotton is still a cash crop. Driving through the countryside, and stopping in odd little dinners and towns, this tiny slice of the South had the unmistakable aura of being of the now and somehow very removed from it all. 

In Little Rock, the Clinton library anchors a new revitalization effort in the center of town, but most of the downtown is a depressing mix of empty buildings, too-wide streets and little life. We did have drinks at the Flying Saucer, on (you guessed it) President Clinton Avenue. 

The next day we left sharpish and drove a couple of hours back east to the home of the blues, Clarksdale, MS. Clarksdale came to be because of, and during, the cotton boom, in a corner of the state famous for the fertility of the earth and the deep poverty of the people. Something about all that created the right mix for the birth of the Blues and a whole cohort of famous musicians. Artists that are associated with more northern cities, starting with Memphis but going all the way to Chicago and Detroit, have their roots in this tiny, flat, cotton-farmed corner of land on the east side of the Mississippi. 

This "crossroads of the blues" is a small, very ramshackle town clinging on for dear life to the new economy. Most surprising for a place with so much American cultural history is the very real destitution of the downtown. The two main streets, about 4 blocks of mid century buildings very en vogue in hipster cities are 90% derelict, and not because of the recent downturn. This town of some 20,000 people felt, on the grey foggy Sunday evening we arrived, sadly spooky and forgotten.

That enduring state of being forgotten has acted as a preservation agent for much of the town. Ranging from small shotgun shacks to the ruins of the Alcazar hotel where an 8 year old Ike Turner worked. Bisecting the town are abandoned rail tracks, overgrown and forgotten. The old train station has been turned into the Delta Blues museum, an homage not so much to the history of the blues as to the musicians who made the music. Muddy Waters' childhood home, taken from the nearby Hopson Plantation, sits reconstructed inside. 

We stayed at the Shack Up Inn, just a couple of miles down the road from Clarksdale center. The hotel is a series of old sharecropper cabins located on the old Hopson Plantation which have been barely brought up to modern standards.

The shacks are esoteric and on a cold gray day with low lying fog, pretty damn eerie. Some reviews accuse it of making nostalgia chic out of a hard part of American history, but for me the experience was a way to imagine how tough life must have been. The writing of past guests on the wall isn't a plus, but I could easily imagine a few friends, a hot evening, some cold beers and the place coming to life. The beds were comfortable and the shack we rented was clean if bare boned.

Before we headed out towards Memphis, we ate at Abe's BBQ, tasted delta tamales at Larry's Tamales and listen to a very pickled old blues man play his slide guitar with soul and booze and red lights at Red's, the only blues place open on a Sunday night in October.

Clarksdale was strange but even with the sadness of the place very evocative of a certain time and a particular slice of American culture. If you love the blues, want to see some of the real south and not the Bourbon Street version, then come and visit. Stay a night or two, but be prepared for the ghosts of a few sharecroppers to remind you of what has happened here. 

Next up Memphis! Graceland! more BBQ! 

 Central High School - site of the first integrated high school. 

Central High School - site of the first integrated high school. 

 Cotton is king

Cotton is king

 Our shack at the Shack Up Inn

Our shack at the Shack Up Inn

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