Robert Johnson was a Blues legend. And as the story goes, he got his talent by agreeing to sell his soul to the devil, who he met at the crossroads—the intersection of highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, MS.
While this story may or may not be true, today Clarksdale is known as the Birthplace of the Blues and as the Blues Capital of the World—and that legacy is being kept alive not only by the older generation of Blues artists, but by a younger group of musicians who have embraced the musical style born from suffering and hardship.
“From extreme poverty and extreme hardship comes extreme emotion,” explained Shaun ‘Bad’ Apple, a musician and owner of the Bad Apple Blues Club. “You have to get it out somehow.”
Juke joints, where people went to hear live music, gave them a place to go to forget their troubles. And Clarksdale is still home to a number of these clubs, where visitors can go to hear live performances from a wide range of talented Blues musicians including Apple, Black Lung Lucy, Terry ‘Big T’ Williams, Lady Gladys, Ice Man, Muddy Alexander and more.
In fact, Clarksdale is known for having live music seven days a week—including on Christmas—and visitors can pick up a free Sounds Around Town calendar to figure out who is playing where. Just a note; while some of the juke joints look pretty intimidating from the outside—Apple’s club even has a sign that says ‘Don’t be Afraid’ on the front of the building—once you get inside, you’ll be treated to a truly immersive musical experience.
You never know what you might find at a performance, either; during my visit to Ground Zero Blues Club, owned by Morgan Freeman, local performer Steve Kolbus was joined by an Elton John tribute band from the U.K. And while it wasn’t quite a Blues performance, it was certainly a surprising and wonderfully fun way to spend a night. And you don’t even have to attend a juke joint to hear live music; performances also take place at cafes, the Cat Head porch, art galleries and more.
Speaking of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, this is the place to stop if you want to surround yourself with everything Blues—owned by festival promoter Roger Stolle, Cat Head’s mission is to promote the Blues from within—which means making sure that there’s live music 365 days a year, as well as more than a dozen annual festivals.
“At one point, locals had given up on downtown Clarksdale,” said Stolle of the town that is still admittedly a little ‘grittier’ than some other Mississippi cities. “But all kinds of musicians started moving here, and now we have a mix of locals and transplants who play every night.”
The Juke Joint Festival in April brings in more than 100 acts, and has hosted musicians from 45 states and 10 foreign countries. Other festivals include the Sunflower River Gospel and Blues Festival in August, and the Deep Blues Festival in October.
As the home to such Blues luminaries as Robert Johnson, Big Jack Johnson, Ike Turner, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke and more, Clarksdale pays tribute to these legends in a number of ways. Signs have been erected around town as part of the Mississippi Blues Trail, and visitors can also learn more about the artists and the musical style at the Delta Blues Museum, Mississippi’s first music museum and the first museum dedicated to Blues music in the world.
A must-stop includes a visit to Deke Harp’s Mississippi Saxophone & Blues Emporium, where the world-famous musician will not only regale you with tales of music and mayhem, but will put on a live concert for a ridiculously reasonable price. Make sure to pick up a CD while you’re there as well!
While known for its musicians, Clarksdale was also home to the famous author, Tennessee Williams, who wrote A Streetcar Named Desire, the Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and more. The Tennessee Williams Rectory Museum is open for scheduled tours and includes an inside look at the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s work, and Clarksdale also holds a Tennessee Williams Festival in October.
One of the most unique places to hear music, as well as lay your head, is the Shack Up Inn, which, again, should not be judged by its appearance. A former cotton seed farm, the property was abandoned in the 1990s, and owner Bill Talbot built his home in a tractor shed on the property. He turned a number of former sharecroppers’ cabins into overnight accommodations, and the cozy, comfortable rooms now welcome guests who can spend the evening enjoying live music in the Juke Joint Chapel, a massive space featuring live music, historic Blues history, and even a big blue boll weevil hanging on the wall.
“We’re on a cosmic ride here, and you just have to come experience it,” said Talbot, who calls his place a Bed & Beer because he doesn’t know how to cook. “Phenomenal things happen here—serendipitous occurrences.”
Speaking of food, local favorites Abe’s Bar-B-Q, located at the Crossroads, and Ramon’s Restaurant are must-stops while in the area. But don’t be surprised if the locals want to get to know you; a Clarksdale judge sat down with us at Ramon’s to enjoy his dinner while we snacked on delicious barbecue nachos.
To learn more about Clarksdale, MS, check out www.visitclarksdale.com.