Tucked away in the heart of the Mississippi, surrounded by vast expanses of cotton fields, Clarksdale is believed to be where the blues began.
I was in town for the start of the Juke Joint Music Festival, and to experience life a little more laid back than I am accustomed. Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, field-hollers, or call-and-response tunes, perhaps meant that the days for slaves and workers would pass by just a bit more quickly. Blues was a way of life for many and would eventually make its way into mainstream music and people’s hearts, with many iterations and transformations along the way.
The Most Important Blues Singer
My first stop was where Highway 61 meets Highway 49. To most people, it could be any junction in any town, but not for those in the know. “The Crossroads” is a mecca for blues music followers. While I stood and took photographs, a steady stream of tourists drove up to witness where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil. “Wouldn’t miss this for the world,” one of them said. “Coming on this trip from England is a dream come true.” I had no idea the word about Clarksdale spread so far. So had the word about where to eat. At Abe’s Bar-B-Q, which is right next to The Crossroads, I was served a huge platter of delicious pulled pork smothered in tangy barbecue sauce, accompanied by sides of baked beans and coleslaw.
Hopson Plantation Commissary
Although all of the cotton fields I saw were bare, having already been stripped of their crops for the year, I did manage to find a little plot of land still covered with fluff. Funnily enough, it was right next to the Hopson Plantation Commissary, my next destination, and where the first mechanical cotton picker originated. The building was surrounded by what looked like dilapidated structures and a scrap yard full of broken-down cars and trucks. Inside, I found a bar, restaurant and a treasure trove of historical items and curiosities on display.
After listening to some brilliant live music, I left, only to be greeted by a magnificent sunset coming down over the plantation, with shades of pink and orange meeting the horizon.
Ground Zero Blues Club
I was headed to my last stop of the day, in the Historic Blues District, otherwise known as Blues Alley. I found Ground Zero Blues Club, an authentic juke joint with graffiti-filled walls, which is co-owned by Oscar-winning actor and native Mississippian Morgan Freeman.
I pulled up a stool at the bar and sat back to listen. Lost in the loud grittiness of the live music, I wished I didn’t have to leave so soon. Thankfully, the city celebrates the onslaught of spring every year about this time by setting up numerous stages where singers and musicians are set free to delight audiences. I definitely have to return.