Saturday, July 16, 2016

I went down to the crossroads

The intersection of US Highway 61 and US Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi is said to be the legendary crossroads featured in Delta Blues musician Robert Johnson's famous song.

Not a lot is known about Johnson, but it is known that he lived for a time here in Clarksdale, and that  he possessed an extraordinary talent for playing the guitar.

Folks said his talent for playing guitar was so good he must have sold his soul to the devil for it - a notion Johnson encouraged, it being good for his popularity as a musician. Such a bargain would have taken place at a crossroads such as this one.

Today, the city of Clarksdale has erected a marker memorializing the place; so, too do the businesses around it, including Abe's Barbecue, the Crossroads furniture store, and the Crossroads market.

Lots of cars pass through this intersection, on their way to the center of town to visit the Delta Blues Museum, the cafes and pizza parlors and the blues club that is popular with tourists.

Clarksdale thrives on tourism, as people inspired by the music of the Mississippi Delta come from all over the world to seek its origins. The museum is located in a restored railroad depot, and nearby, the Ground Zero Blues Club, owned by a Hollywood actor, features live music by nationally famous musicians.

There's plenty of atmosphere here to take in, both authentic and contrived. I stayed overnight in a hotel of sorts that was a collection of restored sharecroppers' shacks and other farm buildings, moved to the site and retrofitted with amenities like running water and air conditioning. For just $75 a night, I slept beneath a tufted chenille bedspread in a room in an old Cotton Gin, complete with microwave, coffee maker, and Wifi.

There's a bar and live music stage, decorated with old signs and other vintage flotsam. The main visual theme here seems to be corrugated metal and rust.

Even so, there's a sweetness to this kind of manufactured nostalgia; the joy and enthusiasm for the music draws both young and old people here. There were several young couples staying in the place, but also large groups of white-haired folks. Traveling musicians play for their lodging here, and if you want a guitar to pick while you're sitting out on your screened porch, you can borrow one from the lobby.

You can even get a good plate of Mississippi style tamales, cole slaw and collard greens.

Yet if you drive around Clarksdale, you can see places in town that weren't assembled by theme-park set designers. The small downtown is charming but a little run down.

On the other side of the tracks, vacant buildings looked forlorn.

Someone's repurposed an old, roofless movie theatre into an open-air performance venue (alas, no events were booked the day I visited.)

You can see the tourist attractions side-by-side with vestiges of the rich musical past of this part of the country.

You can also see the continuing economic disparity between the visitors seeking authentic Mississippi Delta culture, and the people living and earning their livelihood in this small and struggling town.

As a visitor, I could feel an underlying discomfort within. Isn't there something unseemly about viewing their struggle as a picturesque attraction? Perhaps that discomfort is what we're meant to feel.


Unknown said...

Great story!

David Duff said...

I know it's only a microcosm of America but it is truly depressed and depressing. Please, Auntie, try and find somewhere pleasant and thriving to show us that will restore my faith in America.

Ellen Bloom said...

Excellent commentary, G! I used to host a local L.A. blues radio show on public radio. So many songs and people reference Robert Johnson and Clarksdale. It was great to see your photos and hear about the REAL place!

Glennis said...

David, I'm not here to restore your faith in America. Sorry.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Thank you for giving us a look at both sides of Clarksdale. When I drive through old towns, I notice both the charm and the dilapidation. It often makes me wonder about the people who stay and the people who leave... why some and not others?

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Much more interesting than the "Crossroads" that popped into my mind at the start of this post -- Crossroads Mall in Bellevue!