Birthplace of the Blues
Clarksdale, Mississippi, is a small town with a huge place in American music history.
W.C. Handy lived here. So did Son House and Muddy Waters, Junior Parker and Ike Turner. Sam Cooke was born here. Bessie Smith died here.
And here, so the legend goes, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for incredible guitar prowess. (Or maybe not. More about that in a minute.)
Clarksdale today is a little rough around the edges, but its vibrant live music scene and colorful murals make it a must-visit for music and art lovers alike. Blues aficionados from around the world make pilgrimages here — you’re likely to hear a variety of international accents as you wander its downtown streets.
Our visit lasted a too-short 24 hours — just long enough to eat some catfish, drink some beer, and do some juke joint dancing. We stayed in a super-cool AirBnB with an honest-to-goodness Magic Fingers bed, stuffed ourselves at a blues brunch, then headed on down Highway 61.
Here, at the intersection of Highway 49 and Highway 61, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil.
According to the tale, 19-year-old Johnson got up on a juke joint stage one night and played guitar — badly. He disappeared for a few years, and when he next appeared on stage, he played amazingly well. How? Obviously, with a little help from the Devil.
Or, you know, maybe he practiced.
The Devil has gotten credit for other musicians’ talents over the years, but the legend really stuck to Johnson because he died at just 27 under mysterious circumstances.
By the way, several other towns claim that they’re home to the crossroads where Johnson met the Devil, but Clarksdale has the sign, so…The cover picture comes from a mural from a BBQ stand right next to the sign. I didn’t expect to feel things while I was there… but I did.
Musical Mural (1)
Street art abounds in downtown Clarksdale. Many, naturally, feature musicians. This is perhaps the biggest piece we saw. It’s more or less across from the Delta Blues Museum, which, sadly, we did not get to see because of poor planning on our part.
I recognize John Lee Hooker and Sam Cooke. Embarrassed to say I’m not sure who the other two are. We ran across a guitarist we saw in Jackson the night before. This place is just lousy with them!
This is our AirBnB. And that’s really what it’s called. It’s named for John Lee Hooker, we swear. If you decorated a place especially with me in mind, you couldn’t get much more perfect than this little two-bedroom apartment in what was once Clarksdale Telegraph Office. Vintage signs. Folk art. Lots of color. Everywhere you turn, something catches your eye. I almost wanted to stay in rather than go exploring.
We thought the Magic Fingers vibrating bed thing was a joke, but when we put a quarter in, it worked. And was surprisingly relaxing! We used up every quarter we had. I want one. And you want one, too. Trust me.
Musical Mural (2)
This is just part of the mural on the building that housed our AirBnB. See that little musical note bench outside the blue wall on the far left of the photo? We sat there mid-afternoon and sipped some delicious Southern Pecan beer from Mississippi’s own Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company that our hosts had left for us.
Catfish & Cheese Grits
Because it was Easter weekend, our options for downtown dinner were few. But we lucked into a lovely meal at Levon’s Bar & Grill. Sadly, we couldn’t sit in their riverboat room, but we did enjoy some excellent catfish with cheese grits and Andouille sausage. One of these days we’ll remember to take pictures of our food before we starting eating. Might have been the best catfish I have ever had, though, to be fair, I never eat catfish.
Musical Mural (3)
This is Leo “Bud” Welch, a gospel and blues guitarist who died in 2017 at age 85. The entire alley was full of cool stuff like this. And it was just a regular old alley!
The highlight of our Clarksdale sojourn was without doubt our time at Red’s Lounge, a tiny juke joint that’s been serving up authentic blues for more than 35 years.
We bought a couple of beers — no need to consult the menu board; you’ll have whatever the bartender has in the cooler — and settled onto a couple of broken-down stools. The incredible guitarist Lucious Spiller played a mix of blues and R&B, at one point taking a call from his “old lady” mid-song.This guy was the best. He kept calling Soyia “Wilma” when he found out my name was Fred. Usually that calls for my boot to be inserted into your rear-end, but the way this guy did it was kind of charming.The manager on duty (who was not Red) asked me to dance. I did my best to follow his lead and had a ball doing so, but I’m glad there’s no video evidence of my clumsy footwork.She did great. Who knew Soyia could dance? Then again, this also happened in the universe, so anything is possible.
We’d intended to end the night at Ground Zero Blues Club, which is co-owned by Morgan Freeman and Clarksdale’s mayor, but we stayed so long at Red’s that Ground Zero had closed by the time we meandered back to our AirBnB.Nothing stranger than wandering home on foot from across the tracks in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Side Note: If you want to know who’s playing where, be sure to pop into Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, where you can buy souvenirs and get the skinny on what’s happening in Clarksdale from owner Roger Stolle.
Musical Mural (4)
This trombonist was painted by a Denver artist named Chase Reid.
Musical Mural (5)
I love this one, by a female folk artist who goes by the moniker Church Goin Mule, who I’ve now got to start following on Instagram.
Musical Mural (6)
Howlin’ Wolf’s mother, who lived in Clarskdale, did not approve of the “devil’s music” he played and refused to take money from him. Here’s a fun bit of trivia for you: Wolf’s real name was Chester Arthur Burnett, and he was named for our 21st president, Chester A. Arthur.
The morning after Red’s, we stopped for breakfast and blues at the Bluesberry Café. Now, if you’re in a hurry — or starving — this might not be the place for you. But if you like your French toast with a side of live music, you can’t beat it.
On our way out of town, we stopped to pay our respects to Bessie Smith at the Riverside Hotel.
Smith died in this building in 1937, after the car she was riding in sideswiped a truck late one night, nearly severing her arm and causing significant internal damage. At the time, the hotel was the GT Thomas Hospital for African Americans. It became a hotel in 1944, and many famous blues musicians stayed there over the years. COVID finally ran the hotel out of business in 2020, though preservationists are trying to save and restore it. Here’s hoping they do!
|↑1||The cover picture comes from a mural from a BBQ stand right next to the sign. I didn’t expect to feel things while I was there… but I did.|
|↑2||We ran across a guitarist we saw in Jackson the night before. This place is just lousy with them!|
|↑3||I want one. And you want one, too. Trust me.|
|↑4||Might have been the best catfish I have ever had, though, to be fair, I never eat catfish.|
|↑5||The entire alley was full of cool stuff like this. And it was just a regular old alley!|
|↑6||This guy was the best. He kept calling Soyia “Wilma” when he found out my name was Fred. Usually that calls for my boot to be inserted into your rear-end, but the way this guy did it was kind of charming.|
|↑7||She did great. Who knew Soyia could dance? Then again, this also happened in the universe, so anything is possible.|
|↑8||Nothing stranger than wandering home on foot from across the tracks in Clarksdale, Mississippi.|