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Clarksdale, Mississippi Part 1: The Crossroads, Ground Zero and One Bad Apple

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Robert Johnson desperately wanted to be able to play the blues on his guitar. But established players on the Mississippi Delta blues circuit, stars like Son House, told Johnson that he just couldn't cut it. Eventually Johnson disappeared for a couple of years, only to return to his old stomping grounds with the ability to play guitar like nobody's business. Jaws dropped and this player that once was laughed at was suddenly welcome on any stage. When the question of how Johnson became such a great player in such a relatively short period of time came up, someone got the idea that, well, he must have made a deal with the Devil. Robert must have met Old Scratch at midnight "down at the crossroads" and bargained away his soul in exchange for musical ability. This myth endures to this day, more than 80-years after Johnson's death, and nowhere is the legend more celebrated than in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the place where the deal supposedly went down.

Crossroads
Crossroads

One of the things a visitor to Clarksdale must see is the marker that commemorates the Johnson legend. Although there is some question as to where the actual crossroads where Johnson supposedly made his deal were located, today the former intersection of US Highways 61 and 49 (the routes now bypass Clarksdale) are designated as the crossroads. There, in a median, a towering guitar-festooned marker keeps one of Clarksdale's major claims to fame alive. Visitors will assuredly want to get photos of the signage; there's plenty of room to park near the sign adjacent to Abe's Bar-B-Q, which by the way is a great place to have lunch or dinner. Besides the typical barbecue items, Abe's also serves up delicious Mississippi Delta Hot Tamales. Keeping with the theme of the crossroads, it could be said that the tamales at Abe's are devilishly good! Another thing about Clarksdale is that it is rich in interesting personalities. Often parked in Abe's parking lot and waiting for folks to chat with about the sign or anything else, is Brickman. Brickman's real name is Marvin Young and his nickname comes from his occupation as a master brick mason and designer. Ask him anything you want to know about Clarksdale including his favorite dishes at Abe's. It will be an unforgettable experience.

Clarksdale's blues and overall musical heritage goes way beyond Robert Johnson. Those who were either born in or were/are residents of Clarksdale include Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Son House, Watermelon Slim, Pinetop Perkins, Super Chikan, W.C. Handy, Christone "Kingfish" Ingram, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup and many others. Contemporary blues player extraordinaire Charlie Musselwhite has recently relocated to Clarksdale, and rap star and native Clarksdalian Rick Ross operates the local Wingstop franchise. It's no wonder that Clarksdale is known as "ground zero" for the blues, and that's why the most famous blues club in town is called Ground Zero. Open Wednesday through Saturday (and other days once in a while) Ground Zero Blues Club showcases players from the Mississippi Delta along with occasional touring acts. Acts set to appear at Ground Zero in July include the Lucius Spiller Band, Big A and the Allstars, Bill Howl N Madd Perry, Mississippi Marshall, Steve Kolbus and the Clarksdale Blues Revue and many others. A unique feature of Ground Zero is that graffiti is encouraged; bring your Sharpie and you can make your (tasteful) mark on the walls, on a tablecloth or sometimes, on the ceiling! One of the owners of Ground Zero is movie star Morgan Freeman and he shows up at the club now and then; feel free to ask to take a picture but Morgan will not sign autographs. Also, Freeman has just turned 84-years-old so fans are advised to keep in mind that he may be too tired at times to fraternize. Ground Zero also has good home cookin' available should you fancy a catfish BLT, Jukin' Blues Burger or some fried green tomatoes with your music. Upstairs from the club, Ground Zero has a handful of rooms that can be rented on a daily or extended stay basis. How convenient is that, blues fan?

Graffiti at Ground Zero
Graffiti at Ground Zero

Zachariah Lloyd at Ground Zero
Zachariah Lloyd at Ground Zero

It's not hard to get around in Clarksdale and most of the attractions are within walking distance of one another; others require a short car ride. But speaking of convenience, the Delta Blues Museum is located within a stone's throw of Ground Zero. The Delta Blues Museum has the distinction of being the world's first-ever museum dedicated to the blues and was also the first music museum ever to open in Mississippi. The place has an amazing collection of blues memorabilia, stuff like guitars that belonged to John Lee Hooker, Otis Rush and RL Burnside along with stage attire worn by the likes of Koko Taylor and Eddie "The Chief" Clearwater, including one of his elaborate Indian headdresses. Little Milton's sequined jacket is there too along with countless photographs, posters, records and gold record awards and a whole section dedicated to Malaco Records, the vaunted Jackson, Mississippi label that counted stars like ZZ Hill, Johnnie Taylor and Mississippi Fred McDowell among its acts. The real centerpiece of the museum though is the cabin that Muddy Waters lived in when he was a sharecropper on Stovall Plantation just outside of town. The salvageable portions of Muddy's cabin were carefully moved to the museum and it is amazing to think that in 1941 musicologist Alan Lomax came to the plantation to record Muddy playing on the front porch of this very shack. Fans will need to be understanding when visiting the Delta Blues Museum as there is a policy of no photography allowed. The displays in the museum are very memorable though and fans will leave the premises with vivid images in their minds of all they saw there. Maybe they'll leave with a cool souvenir too; the gift shop is well-stocked with blues music, t-shirts and assorted goodies like replicas of Clarksdale's famed John Lee Hooker Lane street sign.

Delta Blues Museum
Delta Blues Museum

Like any settlement anywhere, there's always one, a bad apple in the bunch. Fortunately for Clarksdale their bad apple isn't really a bad apple, he's blues man Sean "Bad" Apple. Apple holds court at his very own joint, the Bad Apple Blues Club, where fans can hear him sing the blues while playing an acoustic resonator guitar or acting as a one man band, playing electric guitar and creating a rhythm by using his feet and pedals to thump away at drums. Other Clarksdale musicians sit in too and the relatively small size of the club gives it a party-like atmosphere. If you're curious about how Apple got the Bad nickname, just ask, it's an amusing story. Sean also likes to retell the Robert Johnson story which he also adds humor to. You'll notice fairly quickly upon entering the club that there is no bar, but fear not --- there's a small refrigerator tucked into a corner that's full of cold beer for sale.

Sean Bad Apple
Sean Bad Apple

After a day of seeing the sights and an evening full of live music, a very cool place to lodge for the night is The Hooker Hotel. Easy now, The Hooker Hotel is named in honor of Clarksdale's favorite son, John Lee Hooker. Tiny and unique, the hotel only has two rooms and one shared bathroom but the whole place is decorated with John Lee Hooker memorabilia, much of it donated by Charlie Musselwhite. Hooker and Musselwhite were good friends (John Lee was the best man at Musselwhite's wedding) and the late blues star gave Charlie lots of memorabilia.

The Hooker Hotel
The Hooker Hotel

In Part 2 of our Road Trip to Clarksdale we'll visit more blues clubs and other fun area attractions. In the meantime go here to start planning your visit.

Photos by Kevin Wierzbicki

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