World Capital of the blues
This Mississippi town is one of the USA’s great music destinations – a quintessential Deep South ‘small town’, which boasts live blues every night of the year and a welcome as warm as an embrace between old friends.
At first sight, Clarksdale, is an unlikely place to bear so grand a title as the ‘World Capital of Blues’. There are no imposing music venues here like the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville nor glittering streets of neon-signed honky-tonks like you’d find in downtown Memphis. [/ingress]
Instead, as I cross the Sunflower River into central Clarksdale on a languid summer’s morning, I find a town that’s clearly seen better days – the streets full of vacant lots and crumbling storefronts, of barbershops selling jail bonds and mom-and-pop restaurants stuck in a time warp.
But looks can be deceptive, and as I jump out of the car and head off on a walk around the heart of downtown, it soon becomes clear that Clarksdale is dripping in character and history. I quickly come across the birthplace of Sam Cooke, the golden-voiced pioneer of 1960s soul music, -famous the world over for hits such as ‘You Send Me’ and ‘A Change Is Gonna Come.’ Then, I spot the former studios of WROX, Clarksdale’s first ever radio station, which hosted early performances by the legendary Sonny Boy Williamson and ‘chief of the hepcats’, saxophonist Raymond Hill. Outside Red’s Lounge juke joint, I can even make out the faint lettering of the building’s former occupant: Levine’s Music Center, where Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm bought the instruments that played what is widely considered to be the first ever rock ‘n’ roll song.
Home of the Delta blues
“Music is in the DNA of Clarksdale; it’s in the soil and the air; literally everywhere,” says Deak Harp, a renowned local harmonica player who I meet outside his store, ‘Deak’s Mississippi Saxophones & Blues Emporium’. “Nowhere in Mississippi or the Deep South comes close in terms of music heritage or live music. You can find authentic Delta blues here 365 days and nights of the year, in venues all across town. It doesn’t even stop at Christmas.”
Harp invites me in and shows me the workshop where he makes and and repairs harmonicas. “Ozzy Osbourne has an original of mine, so does Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins.” He picks up an instrument and lets rip with a prolonged and impressive flourish of notes. “They say I got the best tone in the business,” he says. “They describe it as like a train whistle that hits you in the chest. And that’s the power of blues. When it’s good, it can really move you; it can transport you back in time to when the likes of Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson were first playing. It helps you understand how it gave the early pioneers a voice to express their culture, their experience, through the blues.”
Don’t Be Afraid.
I continue my wander around the compact heart of downtown. Outside the dilapidated Wade’s barbershop – where former owner Wade Walton would cut hair and perform the blues for customers – a station wagon pulls up at the kerbside. “Live Blues this afternoon at the Bad Apple Blues Club,” says the man from his driver’s seat. “3pm until -whenever. You’ll be very welcome.”
I head to the address later in the afternoon and find an ominous-looking tin shack, with a sign above the entrance that reads ‘Don’t Be Afraid.’ Inside, the station wagon driver is busy putting bottles of beer on ice. We shake hands and he introduces himself as Sean Apple, club owner and blues musician. We chat a while as music fans from as far away as California and New Jersey file through the door. With just 15 people in the room, it already feels cramped. “That’s what’s so great about playing and listening to live music in Clarksdale,” Apple says. “It’s not like the big stadiums. It’s intimate; you’re almost sitting in each other’s laps. You can really feel the music.”
Apple then begins his one-man show. In between songs, he gives a potted history of the blues: its deep roots in the music of Africa that was brought to Mississippi via the slave trade; the birth of blues in the Delta’s cotton plantations, notably at nearby Dockery Farms where the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and Charley Patton resided. “Patton was an illiterate, illegitimate descendant of slaves himself,” Apple explains. “He went on to become one of the greatest and most influential blues musicians of all time.”
As local musicians drop in to jam with Apple, he also shares some of his own story. He is originally from -upstate -Pennsylvania, he tells the crowd that he fell in love with the blues as a 12 year-old; he then went on to play the clubs of Beale Street in Memphis before settling in his spiritual home: Clarksdale. “It’s the only place to be if you eat, breathe, sleep and bleed blues music,” he says. “It’s the grandfather of music after all. Without the blues, there’d be no rock n’ roll, no Elvis, no Rolling Stones, no Led Zeppelin.”
In the early evening I stop for a bite at Ramon’s, a Clarksdale institution, run by the inimitable Beverly Ely. (See issue 10) “I bought it back in 1967 when it was called The Snack Shack,” she says with a broad smile. “And pretty much the only thing that’s changed in fifty years is the name.”
She disappears to the kitchen and returns with the house speciality – a plate of deep-fried Gulf prawns, just as the jukebox switches from ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ to ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. “I used to dance the jitterbug to Elvis Presley at a local club called The Cat Cave; it burned down a long time ago,” she tells me. “I saw him play live in Clarksdale too. This was Tupelo Elvis, not Vegas Elvis, before he got popular. A furniture store brought him in for their opening. All us young girls were hollering at him like crazy. I can remember it as clearly as if it was yesterday. Music puts down all kinds of vivid memories doesn’t it? And it helps bring them back too.”
Supa Chikan gotta shine
That evening, I take up an invitation to visit one of Clarksdale’s oldest bluesmen, James ‘Supa Chikan’ Johnson, who flashes me a jewel-encrusted smile when he greets me at the door of his bungalow. “I make all my own grills,” he says. “This one I made outta a gold-look arm bracelet. Being a showman, I can’t go on stage with snaggle teeth and holes in my mouth. I gotta shine.”
He leads me to a workshop in the rear yard where he builds and customises guitars and diddley bows, each one bearing his famous insignia: a chicken’s head. “When I was little, no more than 5, my job was to take care of the roosters and hens,” he says, pausing to light the first of a chain of cigarettes. “I was good at my chores, it’s how I got me my name.”
We drop onto the sofa; behind us a guitar hangs on the wall that has been converted from a hunting rifle. “Music is in my blood, always has been,” he says. “My momma showed me my first guitar licks; she and my daddy would have front-porch parties and Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters and Johnny Lee Hooker would come to play. So I absorbed it, slowly, slowly, from when I was just a kid.”
A colourful kind of guy
Supa Chikan then goes on to tell me about his grand-father – Ellis Johnson, first cousin to Robert Johnson, the legendary bluesman who was said to have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61 in return for his extraordinary guitar skills. “They played together and had a pact: if one died the other would play on,” he says. “Well, Robert got popular; the women loved him ‘cause he played so well. They’d be all over him, buying him shots. One jealous husband gave him a drink laced with strychnine. The way he died – foamin’ at the mouth, cryin’ in pain – it was like he’d turned into some kind of animal. It scared the hell out of my granddaddy. So he stopped playing altogether. Then my grandma shot him ’cause he’d beat her. His dying words were: “do for me what I should’ve done for Robert.” I was only six at the time. Here I still am though, aged 70, and touring the world.”
Johnson picks up a rainbow-coloured diddley bow. “This one features all the colours of my heart. I’m a colourful kind of guy,” he says. He closes his eyes and begins to strum. He sings of heartache and moonshine, and the harsh life of the cotton plantations. “My family were sharecroppers; it was modernised slavery,” he says. “There was violence too. My granddaddy would gamble and kill the men he beat. They say he killed seven men. So when you come from that kinda hurt and hardship, the Blues becomes the most powerful way of tellin’ your stories. Blues is an expression of our pain,” he says. “And the blues is also our salvation.”