And They Called it … the Birth of the Blues!

Crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 in Clarksdale.

Crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 in Clarksdale.

I’m in Clarksdale, Mississippi … just two hours south of Memphis, in the heart of Delta Blues country. My trip concludes tomorrow, and I’m making the best out of my final hours as a traveler to indulge in the best Mississippi has to offer. I’m blogging from Ground Zero Blues Club, where an open mike starts in about 45 minutes. I had wanted to get some good blues, but was told there isn’t much going on Thursday night between here and Memphis. And the locals tell me Beale Street in Memphis is overhyped. Ground Zero, co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman, specializes in having local up-and-coming blues musicians perform live. Before W.C. Handy made it big in Memphis and Muddy Waters was discovered in Chicago, they got their start here in Clarksdale.

Fort Vicksburg ... highest elevation in Mississippi along the River.

Fort Vicksburg ... highest elevation in Mississippi along the River.

I left Vicksburg this morning, and Seth’s advise for where to grab breakfast was probably a good one. But when I got there, the place had a hand-written notice saying: “closed Thursday.” So I hopped into my car, and headed up north on Highway 61. One thing I’ve learned about the “Great River Road” is that you really can’t see the Mighty Mississippi very much — unlike California’s Highway One, which hugs the Pacific Ocean. But Seth had told me to check out the Vicksburg Civil War Memorial site … directly north of town. It’s the highest elevation point along the River, and offered a terrific view.

I’m hungry, but am having a tough time finding a place to eat along Highway 61 … at least something old and traditional you would expect from the Mississippi Delta. The casino economy has exploded interest in Route 61, transforming it from a sleepy two-lane road into an efficient four-lane highway. So I pop in the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou, as bluegrass favorite after bluegrass favorite gets me into the groove as the road follows the rolling hills near the river. When I get to the village of Onward, I take the option to turn left on Route 1 to get back into a quiet two-lane backroad. Now we are in the Delta, a flat countryside … as I imagine George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson escape in their prison clothes and hide among the various bayous.

A crossroads along Route 1 ... near the Mississippi River.

A crossroads along Route 1 ... near the Mississippi River.

In the small village of Mayersville, I finally find a convenient store / restaurant where I can grab breakfast (or lunch?) … as it’s almost 12 Noon. It’s one of those places without a formal menu. You just get in line and request either chicken or ribs, and the cook serves you a tray with your choice … along with corn, sweet mashed potatoes and beans. Humble farmers with the thickest accents I’ve ever heard eat their lunch near me, as I indulge in the traditional Southern fare. I strike up a conversation with Ricky, the owner’s son, and I ask him where I can get some good blues in the area. “Clarksdale,” he replies … which is a few hours to the north.

This is blues country … a predominantly black part of the Mississippi where sharecroppers in abject poverty created a new music form that has transformed American culture. As Muddy Waters once said, “the blues had a baby, and they named the baby rock and roll.” Legend has it that somewhere in these parts, a young Robert Johnson met a devil at the crossroads … who taught him to play a mean guitar in exchange for his soul. Nobody knows exactly where that crossroads was, although a few places in the Mississippi Delta take credit for it. As the O Brother soundtrack comes to an end, I put in a Blues compilation CD that will keep me occupied for a while.

Great River Road Park, just north of Rosedale.

Great River Road Park, just north of Rosedale.

As Bessie Smith wails a melancholy tune in my car and I admire the peaceful road (there is practically nobody else around), I long to get a view of the Mississippi River. Just north of Rosedale is a turn left into “Great River Road State Park.” I arrive at the park’s entrance, and there’s no ranger to greet me. But there’s a sign that says “Honor Box: pay 3 dollars if no attendant.” I drop three bucks in the bin, and move on. The park is even more desolate than Route 1, as I now have just myself and the Mighty Mississippi to contend with. It’s one of the most serene moments I’ve had in a while, interrupted by the blues riff of my phone ringing … whoever is trying to call me won’t have much of a chance. There is absolutely no cell phone reception in these parts.

I had been advised that in these parts, you can’t just open up a tourist guidebook to find out where the real blues joints are in town … you gotta be proactive, and ask the locals. I arrive in Clarksdale around 3:30 p.m., and visit the Delta Blues Museum. The place is incredible, as we have original guitars owned by B.B. King and Muddy Waters … and I read about the area’s rich history. Muddy Waters was born in the area in a pre-Civil War log cabin that was a slaves’ quarters for many years. Most of the cabin structure has been relocated inside the museum, as I watch a short video documentary about Muddy Waters’ life. I am now more determined than ever to seek out blues tonight.

Cat Head, a blues memorabilia souvenir shop in Clarksdale.

Cat Head, a blues memorabilia souvenir shop in Clarksdale.

I ask the museum attendant where to go. He says on weeknights there isn’t much … and between here and Memphis is nothing but riverboat casinos for entertainment. He advises me either to drive up to Beale Street in Memphis, or hang out at Club Ground Zero. I’m skeptical about any club owned by a Hollywood actor (even if he grew up in the Delta), but I go to a local memorabilia shop called Cat Head. The owner, who is organizing tonight’s “open mike” at Ground Zero, tells me it’ll be a good jam session. She says that Memphis on Monday or Tuesday nights is good, but not on Thursdays … might as well stay in town for the entertainment.

I take a quick ride — with Aretha Franklin singing in the car — to Abe’s BBQ, a legendary joint in town to get a nice pork sandwich. Now I’m back at Club Ground Zero, blogging away as a local musician performs on stage. The jam session will start in about 20 minutes … I don’t have a guitar, but if the spirit moves me I think I can borrow one from a performer. We’ll see … I’m determined to make my last night of this road trip one of the most memorable.

After tonight’s show, I’ll drive to my cheap motel south of Memphis. My plan is to wake up tomorrow morning, go to Graceland, turn in the rental car and then fly back to San Francisco. I’m in denial that this trip is ending.

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