Finding the Blues in Clarksdale Mississippi

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Clarksdale, Mississippi is a town of contrasts -- the site of both a literary festival and a blues attractions and events. Clarksdale was the childhood home of American playwright, Tom "Tennessee" Williams and the Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival pays homage to the man and his works. Clarksdale is also home to the Juke Joint Festival, Ground Zero blues club, the Delta Blues museum paying homage to the music of the Delta and other unexpected bits of history.

Clarksdale feels like the Blues at bit down-at-the-heels, but still hanging tough -- like the men and women who made and sang the music. If you had to pick one place to hear the Blues, it should be the Mississippi Delta, and Clarksdale.

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Juke Joint Festival

The yearly The Juke Joint Festival, which takes place in April, draws visitors from around the world. It provides the perfect reason to visit, offering over 100 blues acts during the course of the weekend. During the daytime, the streets fill with a dozen small stages and music drifts through the city. At night, the juke joints and blues clubs warmly embrace their unique music.

Ground Zero Blues Club

Ground Zero Blues Club is the Clarksdale destination for Blues with live music every Wednesday through Saturday night. Started in May, 2001, shortly before the words Ground Zero took on a different meaning, the club is owned by local attorney and businessman, Bill Luckett; Academy Award-winning actor and Mississippi Delta resident, Morgan Freeman; and Clarksdale native and Memphis entertainment executive, Howard Stovall who pursue their mission to showcase the best of the Delta Blues. Food is traditional Southern and drinks come in plastic cups. The feel, from outside to inside, is gritty, but don't be dismayed by the dilapidated front porch, or the graffiti-filled inside stuffed with everything from Christmas lights to Budweiser signs. The acts are foot-stomping, heart-rending, uplifting Blues.

Art Gallery Cum Music Venue

For art with a touch of music, visit Hambone Art and Music. It's a gallery for owner Stan Street's paintings but also a music venue. Besides painting and hosting, Street is a musician and you may hear him play on one of his musical evening.

The town marinates in the syncopted music of Blues and you can find other joints here at Clarksdale -- Live Music and BluesHoundFlat--Juke Joints .

A town this rich with Blues offers other sites important to the music's history but one important site is certainly the Riverside Hotel. At 615 Sunflower Avenue, the Riverside Hotel rates not only a Blues Trail Marker in a sense it has Civil Rights history as well. In the 1930s, it was the G. T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital. Bessie Smith died in the emergency room here following a car wreck on Highway 61. The building was converted into a hotel and then became a boarding house. It's been home to well-known bluesmen including Ike Turner, Robert Nighthawk, Sonny Boy Williamson II and John Lee Hooker.

Museums Large and Small

The town's former Illinois Central train depot has been transformed into the Delta Blues Museum. They have a full program of rotating exhibits but their permanent collection is fascinating. Inside you'll find brief bios of bluesmen and blueswomen with lots of memorabilia. The highlight is probably their Muddy Waters Exhibit housed in a new wing. There’s a “Muddywood” guitar, made from salvaged wood from the cabin, courtesy of Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. Although the guitar is part of a traveling exhibit, the remains of the cabin grab attention. Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield and the core of the exhibit is the central portion of the former Morganfield home originally located on Stovall Farms, just outside Clarksdale.
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There's also one of the stream of Lucilles played by BB King among a collection of many famous guitars. There is a focus on W. C. Handy, but there's also lesser known blues artists like Jessie Mae Hempbill and Jimmy "Duck" Holmes. The red suit of Big George Brock and the dresses of Denise LaSalle -- her Smokin' in Bed recorded in 1997 won the 1998 Living Blues Critic Award.

The funky and informal Rock and Blues Museum is packed full of music memorabilia from the 1920s through the 1970s. Started in the Netherlands by Theo Dasbach showcasing his musical memorabilia, he moved the collection to Clarksdale 10 years ago, in 2005. Don't miss their souvenir shop just in front of the entrance to the museum itself. The museum makes it clear that Rock 'n Roll was the progeny of the Blues. Or, as Muddy Waters famously put it "The blues had a baby and they called it rock 'n roll"

Blues music history abounds in Clarksdale and throughout the Delta. Learn more about the history of the Blues and even put together your own trip through Mississippi Blues Trail.


Clarksdale offers some highly unusual lodging choices. Ground Zero Delta Cotton Company Apartments are located above Ground Zero Blues Club in what was once a cotton-grading warehouse. Centrally located in downtown Clarksdale, Mississippi, the Five and Dime Lofts offer overnight accommodations with modern conveniences and amenities. The Lofts take up the upper level of the Woolworth building, in the heart of downtown.

The Squeeze Box, Delta Digs, and the Hooker Hotel (named after John Lee Hooker) make up a trio of lodging. Find out more about these and other offbeat places to stay (as well as all things Clarksdale) at: Visit Clarksdale

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: September 9th, 2015

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