I Went Down to the Crossroad

15 Mar

I just returned from an excursion to Tunica, Mississippi with my parents. I gambled and lost. I ate a lot of food. I did not find any prostitutes. However, the highlight of the trip was a drive south on Highway 61 to Clarksdale, Mississippi, a town that I have been wanting to visit for a long time.

I only knew a couple of things about Clarksdale. It is one of the places that claims to be home to the crossroad where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in return for being a great Blues guitarist. The junction of Highway 61 and Highway 49 is marked by a sign commemorating the spot.Clarksdale 5

As I got out to take a picture, I wondered if this was the real crossroad. Then, I wondered why I was wondering about a place that claims to be the location of an event that is more myth than fact.

No matter what happened at what crossroad, Clarksdale has built itself as the center of the Blues universe because of that legend. It hosts music festivals and is home to our next destination, the Delta Blues Museum.Clarksdale 1

This is a cool museum with all kinds of interesting artifacts. It is also where I learned that there is more to the town’s legacy than a legend at a highway crossing. It is the birthplace of Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker and Ike Turner, who is famous for being the abusive husband of Tina Turner. Before that, he was known as the piano player on “Rocket 88“, which is considered by many to be the first Rock n’ Roll recording.

People who lived in Clarksdale include the aforementioned Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and W.C. Handy.

At the museum, I picked up a town map that marked all of the historic locations. That is when I found out that a couple of other famous people lived in Clarksdale.

Charlie Conerly, a hometown hero, was quarterback for the New York Giants throughout the 1950s. However, the biggest surprise was discovering that Tennessee Williams lived there as a child when his grandfather was assigned to a local parish.

The town is not that large, and it did not take long to find the historic markers. We started with the marker for W.C. Handy, known as “Father of the Blues.” The museum claims that is more to good marketing than actual influence.Clarksdale 2

Next, we drove across downtown to the Tennessee Williams Park, which sits around the corner from his grandfather’s church.Clarksdale 3

This is where I learned that Williams got some of his characters from people he knew in Clarksdale. Down the street sits the Cutrer Mansion, the home of Blanche Cutrer and her husband. It seems to me that there is a character in one of his plays named Blanche.

After taking a drive past the palatial homes in this neighborhood, we went back across town to the other thing I knew about Clarksdale. It is home to Ground Zero Blues Club, owned by Morgan Freeman.Clarksdale 4

Here are my parents in front of the Ground Zero sign.Clarksdale 6

The club served lunch during the day, but we were disappointed. It was not that great. However, the waitress did a good job. My mom asked a lot of questions about Morgan Freeman, and I am sure that they were questions that the waitress has heard many times. He lives in Mississippi when he is not filming and comes by quite often. In fact, he has an apartment upstairs. He is humble but, as the waitress described, “smells like money.” I reckon that was her way of saying that he tries to hide his success, but everyone knows he is rich and famous.

We finished our meal and drove past the famous crossroad on our way out of town. However, that is when I started thinking about the place we had just seen and how it may have looked back in the old days. I started by wondering how the crossroad looked back then. If Robert Johnson made his way to this place, then was it a dirt crossing in the middle of cotton fields like I have always imagined? Or, was it a group of shacks on the outskirts of town where people lived and survived?

Whatever it looked like, I imagine that it was completely different from the neighborhood Tennessee Williams and Blanche Cutrer lived in. That was the home of the landed gentry who owned the cotton fields surrounding the town and the businesses within the town.

Clarksdale’s downtown, which can be walked across easily, is an interesting place. Although the buildings are now old and worn, they are signs that Clarksdale was once a thriving place. The buildings are multi-storied and must have been grand in their day. There are facades of banks and other lucrative businesses. There is no doubt that this was once a place of money.

However, that money flowed to one side of town. The other side of town, literally the other side of the tracks, was where those who left the fields of sharecropping to make their way, congregated and lived. This is where the Blues could be heard, and small African-American owned businesses could be found.

The two sides of town were within walking distance but were worlds apart. Downtown must have been the intersection. I could see people like Brick, Maggie the Cat and Big Daddy walking the streets and talking about “those people” when they saw them across the street. In the real world, “those people” were Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson.

I wonder what the landed gentry would think about the modern version of their town. While their houses remain, they are not why people travel to Clarksdale. People come to Clarksdale because of the music that was made on the other side of the tracks. People come to Clarksdale because of the music that was inspired by the conditions that people on the other side of the tracks found themselves in. People come to Clarksdale to celebrate their accomplishments and not the accomplishments of the ones who thought they would be remembered.

By the way, the richest man in town is an African-American who “smells like money.”

As we drove out of town, I wondered what the landed gentry would think about that.

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18 Responses to “I Went Down to the Crossroad”

  1. Marilyn Armstrong March 15, 2014 at 04:45 #

    That’s a lot of history for a relatively small town. Sounds like fun!

    • Rick March 15, 2014 at 05:15 #

      It was a great day.

  2. Andrew Petcher March 15, 2014 at 07:00 #

    It looks as though Morgan Freeman needs to spend some of his money on a can of paint!

    • Rick March 15, 2014 at 15:26 #

      It’s a little rough around the edges.

  3. Dennis Tate March 15, 2014 at 16:01 #

    This brings back memories of my growing up in the Memphis area since I was 11 until I transferred to my first duty station in the Navy.

    Back then, in the 1970s, there were no riverboat casinos, those museums weren’t there, at least not as they are today. The biggest sign then was the sign for Delta State college. Highway 49 was, and still is, the only bridge crossing the Mississippi River between Memphis and Greenville, Mississippi.

    What one would see driving on Highway 61 would be miles and miles of cotton fields, sharecropper shacks and those small speed trap towns. It was reminiscent of the Old South, during the Antebellum days before the Civil War, and was the result of the “Carpetbaggers” of the Reconstruction.

    One could see why the Delta region of the lower Mississippi is the birthplace of the blues, and what most people do not realize, the old spirituals, that gospel music started from the laborers in the cotton fields. This music came from the soul, hence the term “Soul Music” of that era. Singing among the field hands helped them keep rhythm of the ergonomics of the work they were doing. “Choppin’ cotton,” the regional term for chopping the weeds out of the cotton fields is hard, laborious and high energy work (speaking from personal experience). To keep from hurting oneself, a rhythm in the motion of swing a how into the dirt, and chopping the weed, they sang.

    During the autumn, when the cotton bolls were white and fluffy, the fields would look like snow, back before cotton pickers, the field hands picked it by hand, putting in those big sacks draped on their backs until they weighed about 100 lbs. then they would dump it into a trailer. Again, arduous work. They sang, again keeping their minds off of the monotony and pain from such hard work.

    I do thank God and the circumstance of my dad’s job transferring him from Louisiana to Memphis to see this area and learned first hand the history of the Old South portrayed in history textbooks and to experienced the Memphis music scene and growing up in the very roots of that music.

    • Rick March 16, 2014 at 03:30 #

      Thanks for the comment. That must have been an interesting time to live in the area. I imagine Clarksdale was one of several cotton towns in the area. A small town but filled with money from the industry. All of them looked up to Memphis, the cotton capitol. The whole time the industry was built on sharecropping.

      As we went through town, I explained to my parents about spirituals and the roots of music in the area. Despite the hardships, people were able to add greatly to our culture.

      • Dennis Tate March 19, 2014 at 01:47 #

        Rick,

        Thanks for your comment. Memphis was super cool in the 1970’s, as far as the music scene. Not just Soul and Gospel, but Rock (I was in the booth when ZZ Top recorded “TV Dinners”), but also country.

        I never met Elvis, but I met his dad, Vernon during his last days when I worked at Baptist Hospital.

        I have a lot of stories, and they can make some good topics for future postings.

        Again, thanks.

  4. El Guapo March 15, 2014 at 16:28 #

    To be in the spots where history was, and to see the old living amid the new is one of my favorite parts of traveling.
    So did you hear any blues while you were there?

    • Rick March 16, 2014 at 03:32 #

      Ironically, I didn’t hear any Blues. We went in the morning, and I guess Blues is better played at night. Or earlier in the morning.

  5. shutterbugshea March 15, 2014 at 19:18 #

    That was a great day for you and your parents….So much history there in that little town…really fascinating….all that talent!

    • Rick March 16, 2014 at 03:31 #

      It was definitely a great day. History is made in all kinds of places and in all kinds of ways.

  6. jcalberta March 15, 2014 at 19:54 #

    Amazing … I had just finished listening to Steve Vai & Ry Cooder guitar duel from Crossroads (1986) before I read your article. True! – I’m synchronized – if nothing else.
    Thanks for the interesting history lesson and background surrounding the legend/myth of Johnson’s … deal.
    Wonder if there’s more truth to that than we’d like to know.

    • Rick March 16, 2014 at 03:33 #

      We tend to put legend in the places where we have few facts. Not much is known about Robert Johnson. There are even three gravesites. Crossroads was not a great movie, but that last guitar duel was awesome.

  7. Lea March 16, 2014 at 18:08 #

    I think your photos are great! I don’t think that I’ve ever been to Clarksdale, although I think I have probably sold my soul way too many times.

    • Rick March 16, 2014 at 18:23 #

      Thank you for reading and for commenting. Clarksdale is an interesting town. I feel that I have sold my soul too many times, as well. Unfortunately, I didn’t get Robert Johnson type talent in return.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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