100. Musical Travels – Clarksdale, MS: Blues Explorations in the Mississippi Delta
On Wednesday, December 19, I was back in Memphis visiting with my friend Matt Petty on my way home to Louisiana for Christmas. I had seen the Memphis music sites over the summer, but now Matt recommended I head an hour south to Clarksdale, Mississippi—a town revered as “The Birthplace of the Blues”—and see the sites there too. Situated in the Mississippi Delta, Clarksdale had been, like Memphis, another urban center where nearby musicians could go to make names for themselves. Significantly smaller though, Clarksdale never had the same recording infrastructure as Memphis, but it did have plenty of bars and juke joints where the Delta’s emerging bluesmen and women might setup to play and earn money. Indeed, many of the biggest names in blues have connections to Clarksdale, including W. C. Handy, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Ike Turner. Although I found Clarksdale fairly quiet when I was there the next afternoon, the town apparently comes alive during its annual Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival—Robert Plant, formerly of Led Zeppelin, was a headliner a few years back—and throughout the year it serves as a popular tourist destination for blues enthusiasts worldwide.
I took Highway 61, the so-called “Blues Highway,” south to Clarksdale on Thursday morning. The classic blues singer, Bessie Smith, “The Empress of the Blues,” had evidently died following a car crash on US 61 one night while travelling between Memphis and Clarksdale—the first blues legend I came across on my journey. Before reaching Clarksdale, I stopped at Stovall Plantation just west of town where blues singer and guitarist Muddy Waters spent the first thirty years of his life as a sharecropper. Here he lived in a simple wooden cabin before being discovered by folksong collector Alan Lomax and subsequently moving to Chicago to become the chief innovator of electric blues. Muddy, however, was still playing in the lowdown style of Son House and Robert Johnson at the time of Lomax’s visits in August 1941 and July 1942. He recorded several songs for Lomax, starting with his own “Country Blues” and also including two he had written for his employer, Colonel Stovall, an innovator in cotton harvesting—“Burr Clover Farm Blues” and the “Burr Clover Blues.” Lomax’s recordings of Muddy Waters are now available on the disc, The Complete Plantation Recordings, which I purchased at my next stop, the Delta Blues Museum in downtown Clarksdale. There I was also able to see Muddy’s cabin which had been relocated to this museum after it had become dilapidated at Stovall. From some of its planks, in the meantime, “Muddywood” guitars were crafted at the instigation of ZZ Top guitarist, Billy Gibbons, as a fundraiser for the museum. Only a Mississippi Blues Trail marker and a plaque dedicated jointly by the Blues Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame stand at Stovall (it still operates as a privately-owned farm), but both speak to Muddy’s commanding influence. The plaque holds this quote by British rock legend Eric Clapton: “Muddy Waters’ music changed my life, and whether you know it or not, and like it or not, it probably changed yours too.”
The Delta Blues Museum, located inside a former railroad depot in Clarksdale, contains many artifacts in addition to the cabin. These include guitars and outfits of many Delta musicians, but also other blues musicians, not necessarily native to the Delta. Its lawn is the site of the annual blues festival. In addition to the museum, I also just enjoyed walking around downtown. There are numerous Mississippi Blues Trail markers, banners on lampposts, and other signs honoring the area’s musicians. One historical marker indicates that W. C. Handy, “The Father of the Blues,” lived in Clarksdale from 1903 to 1905 where he notated the untrained Delta musicians’ songs and integrated what he learned into compositions of his own. A nearby Blues Trail marker honors Wade Walton who chose to remain in Clarksdale and work as a barber rather than make his profession as a bluesman; instead he would serenade his customers at his barbershop. Another marker tells how a teenage Ike Turner started his career in Clarksdale, playing blues and boogie-woogie piano at juke joints and on Clarksdale’s WROX radio. It was Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm, who under the alias of sideman Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis in March 1951 the song which is often considered the earliest rock and roll hit—“Rocket ‘88.” Their use of distortion, historians claim, is what sets it apart from previous rhythm and blues, and it was this sound which Sun producer Sam Philips eagerly tried to recapture throughout the 1950s, finally finding the ideal combination in Elvis. Leaving downtown, I arrived at The Crossroads—the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 where bluesman Robert Johnson claimed he had sold his soul to the devil and which is now fronted, ironically, by a Church’s Chicken. By evening I was home.
It would be nearly a month before I was back on the road to Louisville; the return trip, however, would also include a few musical destinations. On Thursday, January 17, before ever leaving Louisiana, I stopped at the home of rock pianist Jerry Lee Lewis in Ferriday, a central Louisiana town not far from the Mississippi River at Natchez. I was not able to tour the home—family members still live here, although they will open up as a museum for special occasions—but there is a second museum in downtown called the Delta Music Museum dedicated to rural Louisiana’s contributions to the popular music of the 1950s and thereabout. Wax figures of Jerry Lee Lewis and his famous cousins, country singer Mickey Gilley and minister Jimmy Swaggart, greet visitors at the door. The displays that most interested me were those dedicated to Lewis, who these days calls himself “The Last Man Standing,” the Louisiana Hayride, and Clarence “Frogman” Henry who once proudly exclaimed, “I can sing like a frog!” The next day, Friday, January 18, I was in Jackson, Tennessee, a town known for rockabilly. The guide at Jackson’s Legends of Tennessee Music Museum, located at the former Carnegie library, insisted that if Memphis was known for rock and Nashville for country, then Jackson in-between the two would be known for rockabilly—a genre which merges rock and country. The museum emphasizes Carl Perkins, whose home was Jackson and who continuously injected country music influences into his brand of rock, but there are also guitars, outfits, and memorabilia belonging to many other popular musicians, including B. B. King, Buddy Guy, and Eddy Arnold. Although less attention was given to Johnny Cash, I could not stop singing the familiar line from the duet he and his wife, June Carter Cash, had recorded, “I’m going to Jackson.” Actually I was already in Jackson—that exciting destination of their song!
I am back in Louisville now after these fun musical stops in Clarksdale, Ferriday, and Jackson. The next few weeks will be critical for completing my master’s thesis which I return to tomorrow. If you don’t hear from me, that’s likely why! The complete draft is due to my committee in March, and then the finished product must be submitted by the end of April. Until that time I will be busy writing as I still have a lot of work ahead of me!
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a master’s candidate in musicology at the University of Louisville where he has been awarded the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship. His current research focuses on French spectral music and the compositions of Kaija Saariaho, exploring the aesthetic ramifications of timbre, harmony, and melody in this new music. He has recently shared this research at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meeting in Asheville, NC and at the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival in Knoxville, TN. Previously, Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, LA following the completion of his undergraduate thesis, “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” Then, from 2014 to 2016, Jackson served as director of the successful chamber music series, Abendmusik Alexandria. Since that time, he has remained concert annotator for presenters of classical music across Louisiana. Also a composer, his music has been performed at the Sugarmill Music Festival and New Music on the Bayou. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.
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