European Reflects on the Birthplace of the Blues

What I found while visiting Clarksdale. By Guest Bohemian Andrea Vlonk

Initially, it was the history of Clarksdale, Birthplace of the Blues, that made me want to visit. Nearly all of the great old blues musicians lived in/around Clarksdale, or frequented the place at a certain point.

We’re talking big names here: Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson ll, Son House, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and so on. There must have been something about the Delta that encouraged musical genius, and I wanted to see for myself where these men lived.

Even though a century has passed, there are things that do not change, and many things have literally not been touched for years.

Clarksdale, Delta Avenue. 2015. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Clarksdale, Delta Avenue. 2015. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Clarksdale is a place that makes you wonder. The Mississippi Delta is the true, genuine birthplace of music as we know it and when I started to prepare my trip, I expected Clarksdale to be a fast, radiant town that could solely live on the profits of blues tourism. In real life, it is a poor, struggling town that only recently started to focus on its musical heritage.

Historically, the cotton industry used to be prevalent but when mechanization set in, many people lost their jobs; with nearly no alternative businesses, the unemployment rate rose dramatically. This reflects itself in the looks of Clarksdale. At first glance it looks old, run down -even a bit alarming to a woman traveling by herself, like me. But if there’s one thing you learn in the South, it’s that appearances can deceive.

Anyhow, nothing could stop me from going to Clarksdale, because it’s Blues Central–everything I wanted to see was located in it or around it. It took some Googling to find someone who could show me around; I don’t have a driver’s license, travel by bus and rely on local resources to get me from a to b. Fortunately, Poor William from Delta Bohemian Tours also happened to be the innkeeper of Clark House, my bed and breakfast for the first 3 nights! We made arrangements for a full day’s tour on Tuesday.

Cotton in a field in Coahoma County, near Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Cotton in a field in Coahoma County, near Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Street art of Robert Plant on Delta Avenue in Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Street art of Robert Plant on Delta Avenue in Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

On my first day, Saturday, I walked around downtown Clarksdale for hours. This may seem strange, because downtown Clarksdale only covers a couple of streets, but you have to keep in mind that basically EVERYTHING was new to my European eyes. Also, I was walking the streets where some of my heroes used to walk: I wanted to absorb EVERYTHING.

I naturally went to the Visitor’s Center in the old station building and had a very nice talk with the lady who was in charge. She showed me the platform, which is now a quiet terrace with bottle trees and hanging baskets, since the station is no longer serviced by any passenger trains. Just imagine the importance of train stations in the old days, though, and let your fantasy do the rest..! Those rails were once lifelines, an iron freeway to a better World!!

Platform historical Clarksdale Train Station. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Platform historical Clarksdale Train Station. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Strolling along, I passed several markers from the Mississippi Blues Commission. These signs are a nice way to get some background information on historical sites. You see them everywhere in Mississippi.

As it turns out, I came at a perfect time. In Helena, AR the King Biscuit Festival was still going on and Clarksdale was oozing with blues. That Saturday evening, I saw Super Chikan & The Fighting Cocks at the Ground Zero Blues Club. I had already heard some of his music on Youtube and decided this was one thing I would’t want to miss -had a great, great time!! During a break, I met Josh ‘Razorblade’ Stewart and just had to make a picture of this sharp dressed man.

James "Super Chikan" Johnson at Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

James “Super Chikan” Johnson at Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Mr. Josh "Razorblade" Stewart outside Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Mr. Josh “Razorblade” Stewart outside Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

At the end of the evening, I was overwhelmed by the amount of wonderful people I had met. And this was just the beginning!

Next morning, I learned that there would be Post-Biscuit blues at almost every venue in Clarksdale, starting at 9am and ending whenever.

I saw Leo Welch and Big George Brock in front of the Cat Head and enjoyed some of Red Paden’s fantastic bbq chicken wings, before Poor William and Magical Madge picked me up to drive to Hopson/ Shack Up Inn, where the Pinetop Perkins Memorial Homecoming Festival started at about 3pm.

What a day!! Great music, great company, great food and so very many great people I was introduced to; even the weather was just about perfect!

On the way back we spotted an owl that mysteriously responded to Magical Madge. The sun set down over the wide fields and I felt at home.

I guess it was this day that changed my feelings about Clarksdale permanently. Locals like to tell us tourists that ‘…people come here for the blues, but they come back for the people.’ The people I have met during my stay were so kind, they took their time to talk to me and explain things, were curious about my background; I’m not just talking about one or two people, it seemed like EVERYONE was like that. And it was not a facade, it was not a way to talk me into buying this or that: it must have a lot to do with being Southern. I loved it. I have never ever met people like that.

Leo "Bud" Welch playing in front of Cat Head in Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Leo “Bud” Welch playing in front of Cat Head in Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Big George Brock playing in front of Cat Head in Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Big George Brock playing in front of Cat Head in Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Pinetop Perkins Memorial Festival at Hopson-Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Pinetop Perkins Memorial Festival at Hopson-Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

After three nights at Clark House, Poor William gave me a ride to the Delta Cotton Company’s apartments above Ground Zero, where I had made reservations for another 3 nights. A stay at Ground Zero doesn’t include breakfast and that is just fine, because if it did I probably wouldn’t have gone to the Delta Amusement Cafe, where they serve the best cheese omelette EVER!!! I met the owners, Carolyn and James Ashford and had a great time listening to Sam Cook songs coming out of the jukebox.

In the afternoon, I went to the Delta Blues Museum. Muddy Waters’ house is undoubtedly the biggest attraction in the museum, but the other exhibits are interesting as well. If you’re a huge blues fan, you won’t be able to walk the walk in just an hour! Having said that, I did miss Sonny Boy Williamson ll in the collection. There was a tiny little showcase of him that seemed a bit sad compared to the wing that’s dedicated to Muddy Waters. However, I enjoyed it very much and yes: Mr. Razorblade has his own spot, too, just like he told me!

Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Tuesday was a big day for me, the day everything revolved about. I had my own list of things and places I wanted to see and Poor William picked me up with his Jeep at about 10am. We went to Tutwiler, Ruleville, Merigold and then up North: Stovall, Friars Point and Lula. You can read a full report of this day in the near future on this site!

Sunset on the Mississippi River. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Sunset on the Mississippi River. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Cotton modules waiting to be processed in Coahoma County near Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Cotton modules waiting to be processed in Coahoma County near Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

After Tuesday’s enervating tour I decided to take it easy, so I just kept walking through the town of Clarksdale, checking out fun places like The Rock & Blues Museum and Cathead Delta Blues & Folk Art. At Cathead, I had the opportunity to thank Roger Stolle for the useful information on his website (www.cathead.biz ); information that is not really provided by any other/ official Clarksdale websites.

There were still places I hadn’t visited, but all energy seemed to have been drained from me: time to slow down and just happily walk, have great dinners at the Stone Pony and of course at Ground Zero–the place where everything seems to come together! The staff at Ground Zero deserves an extra hooray for their kindness and expertise. When it was time for me to travel on, they insisted on bringing me to the bus station by LIMO!! Dear Abraham even said he would have taken me to Memphis, had he known that was my next stop. And I believe him!

Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Because THAT is really the bottom line here: the great, fantastic people you get to meet when you are traveling in the South. It seems to intensify when you stay a while in the Delta.

Mr. John Ruskey, local river guide/ canoe expert/ adventurer said it quite well in an interview I found online, and I hope he doesn’t mind the quote: “….Everything that happens here has a certain quality to it because of the richness of the landscape – the music, the people, the food, the stories – it touches all the aspects of human and animal life.”

AMEN!

Cotton Field in Coahoma County near Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Cotton Field in Coahoma County near Clarksdale. Photo by Andrea Vlonk

Bill Abel, Andrea Vlonk, Magical Madge, Becky Bobo Williams at Shack Up Inn

Bill Abel, Andrea Vlonk, Magical Madge, Becky Bobo Williams at Shack Up Inn

The Delta Bohemian is proud to share this fantastic reflection from Dutch woman Andrea Vlonk after her visit to Clarksdale. We are thankful our paths crossed for so many reasons. We miss you, Andrea!

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Comments

  1. I definitely would love to read follow-up accounts by this sensitive, articulate visitor!! I hope she does return to spend more time throughout the Delta, as I have done over the past eight years. Thanks to Madge and Billy for accommodating and transporting Andres Vlonk, she was able to maximize her short stay. Clarksdale high society reaches out to all visitors!!

  2. Dorothy L. Hill says:

    This was a wonderful article and I could not agree more – her comments about the people of Clarksdale are spot on. I felt the same way the first time I went to Clarksdale in 2004 and have come back every year as often as I can afford it. I call it my “second home”. Your website is much appreciated for highlighting Clarksdale and the great things happening there. If the weather was better, I would move there but San Francisco is where my heart still is. However, I leave a little bit of it there every time I leave Clarksdale!

  3. Dear Yamo and Dorothy,
    Waking up this morning to both of your thoughtful comments blessed me. Thank you for taking the time to respond. Next week we will be sharing another writing from Andrea so look for that. It is all about her 13 hour Delta Bohemian Tour with Poor William!! She’s such a lovely writer and we are grateful she is in our life!! And Dorothy, we are so encouraged by your feedback. Knowing that what we write about and share resonates with two or three or more keeps us going. Truly. Thank you both for supporting and for being Delta Bohemians. ?
    Magical

  4. …………….read today this article! YES – everything is right, and: you come for the Music and the heritage, but: you come back for the People! YES! YES!, again and again. One time Clarksdale and the Delta, for ever Clarksdale and the Delta! We love it all!! Till April ……..

  5. We love you, Guenter!! AND we look forward to y’alls return….always!!!

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