Key To The (Blues) Highway

Sun Recds Anna Kiesker

Charles Shaar Murray does the Mississippi Clarksdale to Chicago Delta Blues pilgrimage.

This piece was written in the summer of 2001 for Land Rover’s house mag and then remixed for The Guardian. This is the Guardian remix.

The assignment was to drive from the Delta to Chicago, making sure I heard live music and ate a meal every night. yeah, I know: life is hell. Since i don’t drive and have a major propensity for losing things and forgetting stuff, I needed to take a tour manager, driver and bodyguard. Fortunately, Anna Chen was available. The above pic shows her in the foyer of the Sun Records studio, re-enacting the moment in 1954 when Elvis Presley first walked in.

Clarksdale, Mississippi, is as close to the cradle of the blues as it’s possible to get. Ike Turner was born there. Sam Cooke was born there. Bessie Smith died there. Natives of its immediate environs include John Lee Hooker and his cousin Earl Hooker. Muddy Waters, Charley Patton, Son House, Sonny Boy Williamson and many other greats from elsewhere in the Delta gravitated there. Just a little way down the road is Tutwiler, where Memphis native WC Handy, waiting for a train in 1903, heard a lone guitarist playing what was the first documented sounding of recognisable Delta blues. Along the way you pass signs for West Point, where Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett was born; Tunica, birthplace of harmonica giant James Cotton, and Friars Point, where the young Muddy Waters once heard Robert Johnson play and was too awestruck to speak to him. “He was a dangerous man … and he really was using the guitar, man … I craawled away and pulled out, because it was too heavy for me.”

For many years — as I discovered during the 1990s whilst researching John Lee Hooker’s biography — there was little or no official acknowledgement of the only reason why anyone would want to visit Clarksdale: the town’s towering blues legacy. Tourists insufficiently well-connected to be aware of local guides versed in blues lore would find little more than a tiny, isolated Southern town. There was no access point. Slowly — everything in the South happens slowly – things are changing. In the Mississippi Delta — not the triangular epiglottis at the mouth of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, but that area, incorporating parts of Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee, which spawned African-American music in its purest form — in Clarksdale and in Memphis, Tennessee, they’ve realised that there’s more to their pop-cultural heritage than the Elvis industry.

The Delta landscape is distinctive: the 80-mile section of Highway 61 between Memphis and Clarksdale is one of the longest straight roads in the world. It’s a perfectly flat expanse of red soil and fields of corn and cotton slashed by those dead-straight highways, and flanked by giant billboards for the state’s new casinos. Along the way you can keep a lookout for that legendary crossroads — an intersection between Highways 61 and 49 — where Robert Johnson, the phantom of the pre-war Delta blues, allegedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his extraordinary musical prowess. But blues historians are still in dispute as to (a) where this event took place and (b) whether it took place at all. There are many intersections between 61 and 49, and the most likely contender I find boasts a monumental marker, plus Abe’s Barbecue House.

Clarksdale is a tiny town, with a population not much in excess of 20,000 souls: nevertheless, for the likes of John Lee Hooker, born in the surrounding countryside, it was “our nearest big town that we would go to.” When corn and cotton were kings, the bulk of the population lived off the land. But between the wars, all that changed and the bottom fell out of agriculture. Now Clarksdale is slowly coming round to the idea of exploiting a different resource.

In a way, it started with Memphis entrepreneur Isaac Tigrett, co-founder of the Hard Rock Cafés. At a loose end after selling out his share of the Hard Rock franchise some years back, he dived right back into the murky — did someone say ‘muddy’? — waters of the themed-restaurant racket by starting up a new chain: the House Of Blues.

The original selling point of the Hard Rock Cafes was the food (and later the rock memorabilia), but the House Of Blues outlets which sprang up in major US cities shifted the emphasis to the drinks and the live music. The South was scoured for old sharecroppers’ shacks, which were dismantled so that the tarpaper, corrugated iron and wood from which they had been built could be recycled for the frontages and interior décor of the epitome of Tourist Blues, or — as they call it in the Mississippi Delta — McBlues.

Meanwhile, on the native soil of the blues itself, awareness began to stir. The blues may have launched its legend from Chicago and gone global via London, but for anyone who genuinely wants to see where the music which changed the world was born and developed its earliest recognisable forms, the Delta is the only place to come. Memphis was quicker off the mark and had more money to spend to build up the Blues Economy, but in its own laid-back, sleepy-time-down-South way, Clarksdale is stirring its stumps and starting to catch up.

In what we might laughingly call Clarksdale’s ‘downtown,’ hard by the old railroad tracks which for many Delta migrants was their last sight of the South before heading for St Louis, Detroit or Chicago, are two new street signs. One reads “John Lee Hooker Boulevarde” and the other ‘Blues Alley.’ Here’s where we find Clarksdale’s two primary blues attractions: the Delta Blues Museum and the Ground Zero Blues Club, a venue-cum-restaurant-cum-bar recently opened in what was originally a grocery store by a consortium including the Delta-born actor Morgan Freeman.

The Delta Blues Museum first opened its doors in an annexe to Clarksdale’s Carnegie Public Library. Among its original sponsors were ZZ Top, who donated funds, relentlessly talked the place up, organisied benefits and commissioned the “Muddywood” guitar. Researchers had located the shack in which the great Muddy Waters, the godfather of postwar Chicago blues, had lived before he upped stumps for the Windy City. It was disassembled before the demolishers moved in, and meticulously rebuilt within the walls of the museum, but not before ZZ’s guitarist Billy Gibbons had earmarked a few planks of wood to serve as the raw materiel for a a pair of custom-made ‘Muddywood’ guitars. Decorated with a graphic following the line of Mississippi River, all the way from New Orleans at the guitar’s butt-end to the Delta at its headstock, one guitar toured the world as a fundraiser for the museum, where it now resides. Its twin is in Gibbons’s private collection.

The Museum’s new premises at 1 Blues Alley are in what was once the old railroad station, by the tracks. Inside you find not only Muddy’s shack, which contains a facsimile of his tombstone, and an eerily lifelike waxwork of Muddy himself in a suit and hat which once belonged to him, holding a goldtop Gibson Les Paul guitar. The great man’s eyes follow you around the cabin, if not round the museum itself. Within its precincts is a music school where local kids can study the lost arts of the blues; the folk art of local sculptor/musician James ‘Son’ Thomas; farming implements and bales of cotton; a collection of stellar Stella guitars — the mail-order tools-of-the-trade of many a travelling troubadour — and all manner of memorabilia. Curator Tony Czech, current successor to founding director Sid Graves, shows us round before walking us across the parking lot to Ground Zero. Its blocky structure and peeling-paint exterior houses a spacious woody room with high ceilings and rough-hewn decor. Morgan Freeman isn’t around — he’s filming in Liverpool — but his business partner, entertainment lawyer Bill Luckett, is. Unfortunately, there’s no live music tonight. Most of Clarksdale’s top blues musicians have day jobs as farmworkers or mechanics, so Ground Zero — what the same term which gallows-humour Manhattanites now apply to the ruins of the World Trade Centre — functions as a music venue only on Fridays and Saturdays. Tonight’s a Tuesday.

“I think they [the House of Blues people] missed out by putting the sheet metal on the walls ‘n all,” says Luckett. “There’s no such thing as a jook joint that was built to be a jook joint. Jook joints are developed over time by taking a building that was originally used for something different, and converting them into places where people basically hang out, have drinks and enjoy blues music.

“The word ‘jook’ itself” — like all purists, Luckett pronounces the word to rhyme with ‘hook’ rather than with ‘puke’ — “is an African word: it means ‘to shake.’ The jook joints around Clarksdale were the outgrowth of little country stores and commissaries. One of ’em was Levine’s Music Store: it’s now Red’s, which is quite well-known, with live music some weekends, but not enough. Margaret’s Blue Diamond Lounge was a little store ’til the roof fell in. This” — he gestures around him at Ground Zero’s funky, spacious interior – “is as authentic as they come. We just made it into a place to hear music and drink.”

And, of course, to eat. Naturally, we’re talking barbecue: as the Manhattan-based Kentucky-born novelist Jack Womack puts it, “In the South, the hog is man’s best friend.” Somewhere along the line, Luckett discovered that local taxes are drastically reduced if a certain percentage of an establishment’s turnover comes from food. So he and Freeman added a kitchen, hired a chef and now the cuisine is a major Ground Zero attraction. Ground Zero isn’t his only culinary collaboration with Morgan Freeman: Clarksdale’s streets also contain a restaurant called Madidi, named after a Brazilian rainforest. Its décor is dark and lush, its upper corridors bedecked with original art. In hard-scrabble dusty Clarksdale, it is only marginally less incongruous than the Starship Enterprise would be if it landed on Kilburn High Road.

A few miles south of Clarksdale on Highway 49 lies what is possibly the most spectacular example of the Delta Renaissance. It’s modestly known as the Shack Up Inn, located on the Hopson Plantation, one of Mississippi’s oldest, where International Harvester first perfected the cotton-picking machine which spelled the end of the old system and sent the remaining plantation workers off to the big cities to start a new life. The guest residences are the old workers’ shacks, rebuilt and reconditioned to include facilities the workers never had — like plumbing, air-conditioning and electricity — and the one we’re in, The Cadillac Shack, is designed as a haven for creatives and arties, primarily songwriters. Its equipment includes an electric piano and an excellent sound system. You can sit on the porch, sipping bourbon and fanning yourself against the heat and the mosquitoes, before eventually drifting off to sleep to the sounds of Robert Johnson and Son House.

On one level, there’s something vaguely macabre about the notion of tourists playing at being sharecroppers on the site of one of the major crimes of modern history, but the blazingly transparent sincerity of co-proprietor Bill Talbot and his partner James Butler, and their desire to rebuild the place as a tribute to the strength and courage and culture of the workers, rather than the owners, are utterly disarming. Talbot and Butler certainly aren’t in it for the money: a night in one of their shacks will set the blues tourist back a mere $40.

One of the shacks, the Robert Clay Shack, is named after the man who had lived there since before Hopson closed down as a working plantation. He raised seven children in that shack, but even after his sons grew up and successfully entered the professions, refused to allow them to buy him a conventional home elsewhere. The shack’s décor includes the contents of his medicine cabinet, all root-doctor folk remedies, his iron and ironing board and, above the bathroom sink, the copper tubing from the still with which he prepared his own corn liquor. Another is the “Full’a Love Shack,” a ‘honeymoon suite’ decorated with old 78rpm records, all of which have the word ‘love’ in the song titles. In progress is the ‘Crossroads Shack’ which, and as the name implies, will be a tribute to the Delta blues in general and Robert Johnson in particular; on the drawing board is the ‘Pinetop Shack,’ a recreation of the childhood home of former Muddy Waters pianist Pinetop Perkins, born in 1913 and raised on Hopson. When it’s ready, Pinetop himself will be there to dedicate it. “I used to ride the school bus here every day as a child,” recalls Bill Talbot. “We’d pull up here to pick up the manager’s children, and I was always fascinated by the place. We did some fix-up things on the commissary building and had a great club for about five years. We got plans for the whole thing, but we just need money. We got great ideas: we just got to implement ’em somehow.

“The Shack Up Inn has been in existence since 1998. We started with the Cadillac Shack and the Robert Clay Shack, and now we’re up to four. We’re working on the Pinetop Shack, and we have another in Tutwiler that some people want to give us.” It’s hard reconstructing the shacks, he says, because so many have already been bought up by House of Blues so that their wood and tarpaper and corrugated iron can be used to build new McBlues franchised outlets. Nevertheless, he insists, “When you don’t have and you want and you can’t afford and you can find stuff that’ll work — you can make it work.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the former plantation commissary, now retooled as a music venue and bar. (Talbot calls the place a B&B, except that in his lexicon that stands for ‘bed and beer.’) It’s as impressive as Ground Zero, but bigger and more elaborate. What he hopes is that bands about to tour the region will use The Shack Up Inn as a boarding-house and rehearsal space in which they can road-test their set before hitting the road. In the Commissary Club itself, there are more examples of the preservation and recycling of the detritus of olden times. Behind the bar is a vintage soda fountain, rescued from a demolished store in Shelby, Mississippi; and at the back of the hall a full set of barbers’ chairs from New Albany, Mississippi. The room’s centrepiece is a heroic female sculpture, found in a closet at an old high school and retrieved less than 24 hours before demolition commenced. The lighting rig above the stage was once the rotating blady part of an old combine harvester. Forget beating swords into ploughshares: these folks turn ploughshares into décor.

As far as Talbot and Butler are concerned, the upsurge in the delta’s fortunes hasn’t arrived a nanosecond too early. “It’s crazy that it’s taken as long as it has for them to realise that there’s a lot here,” Talbot says. “People in Clarksdale are in denial in a lot of different areas. The founding fathers didn’t want any new industry or a college: they didn’t want anything which would take away their farm labour. Strictly a farming community: that’s all they cared about. Once farming went down, Clarksdale was left with virtually nothing. Now they’re trying to take advantage of their history in that respect: ‘Well, we have nothing, but we got the blues.’

So what’s the difference between sitting in an air-conditioned House of Blues in Manhattan or Hollywood, and checking into a reconditioned sharecropper’s shack outside Clarksdale? Primarily, and most obviously, that authentic sense of place only present in a location in which events actually occurred. And maybe it’s something to do with the way sound travels in the air across that particular stretch of land, whether it’s the high-pitched buzz of cicadas or the music of Mississippi John Hurt floating from a CD player. Above all, the restoration of the Hopson plantation is nothing if not an act of cultural reparation, part of the protracted and painful healing process of the Old South. As far as Talbot and Butler are concerned, the gift of the blues to the world is something for which the African-American community can never be repaid, but nevertheless, their restoration and renovation of Hopson is their way of attempting to give something back.

“Hopson is significant,” says Bill Talbot, “because the cotton-picker was invented here in 1944. That displaced a lot of sharecroppers, the black families who lived on the farms. They’d have large families so that there’d be a lotta hands to pick the cotton. Once the cotton-picker was invented, there was no more need for a hundred large families on a farm. So the blues got on the train and went to Chicago and got electrified, and the rest is history.”

If Clarksdale is the cradle of the blues, then Memphis is the first staging post on that long trek to Chicago. The delta begins, as folks in Memphis never tire of telling you, in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Peabody Hotel iis old-time Southern plush, complete with its famously eccentric spectacle of a platoon of ducks who march solemnly across the lobby every morning at 11 to disport themselves in the water feature, and back again at 5pm, and it seems as far away from the hard-scrabble world of plantations and shacks from which the blues originally sprang as you can get. Yet it’s right around the corner from Beale Street, once the rockingest street on the planet, and a mere seven blocks along Union Avenue from Sam Phillips’s Sun studios, where the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner and Jerry Lee Lewis cut their first recordings. Oh yeah, and someone called Elvis Presley.

For much of the previous century, Beale Street was a leading candidate for the title of rockingest street in the rockingest city on the planet. To understand why, you just have to look at the map. Scrunched up in the bottom left-hand corner of Tennessee, with Arkansas to its left and Mississippi just below it, the city is at a crossroads where rural bluesmen from the Delta could rub shoulders and trade licks with their jazzier, more sophisticated counterparts from Texas and the Southwest Territories. Under the Nixon administration, Beale Street was gutted and torn apart as a sacrifice to Bible Belt morality and urban renewal. On the trail of the blues from the depths of the delta to the major urban centres of the north, it was the first stop. Now Beale Street is once again a raucous, neon-lit promenade of clubs and restaurants and bars, fully two-thirds of which feature live rhythm-and-blues entertainment.

Its flagship club belongs to BB King, the exemplar of the ‘Memphis synthesis’ bluesman: originally from as raw a Delta background as Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker, he tempered his music with jazz and swing to create the style which has made him one of the most beloved entertainers alive today. At BBs, tonight’s featured attraction is Little Jimmy King. Real name Manuel Gales, elder brother of one-time teen prodigy Eric Gales, and a former backup guitarist for the late Albert King. He’s fronting a band with a serious horn section, and — Albert King-style — playing the left-handed hell out of a Gibson Flying V guitar. As his stage name would suggest, he’s a walking tribute to Albert, and to Jimi Hendrix. He’s working to a small but enthusiastic audience — it is, after all, a Monday night, and no club should be judged by what it’s like on a Monday. White women dance happily with black men, something which would have been inconceivable in the Old South, even comparatively recently. BB himself, of course, isn’t around. He’s on tour in Europe. “Wherever I go,” BB will still defiantly assert, “people say Chicago is the home of the blues. No, to me it’s still Memphis.”

As BB says, he is Memphis’s second favorite son. No guesses for who gets top billing. But there’s a famous photo of BB and Elvis both (comparatively) lean, young and hungry, arm in arm on Beale St., and you can buy a poster or postcard of it in the gift shop adjacent to the model of all studio restorations: Sam Phillips’s Sun studios, at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, where the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner and Jerry Lee Lewis (oh yeah, and someone called Elvis Presley) cut their first recordings. Sun is where the Elvis industry and the Delta Renaissance meet: the missing link between the Delta Blues Museum and that surreal restaurant on Beale St which calls itself ‘Elvis Presley’s Memphis’ and will be happy to sell you its version of that notorious deep-fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich. The studio includes facsimiles of the original equipment, though the control room — off limits to visitors — has been uncompromisingly modernised. The studio floor itself displays the Very Microphone into which Elvis, the Wolf and the others once sang, and there’s no extra charge for having yourself photographed pretending to sing into it.

Sun is a tourist attraction by day, but at night its fur and fangs grow back and it reverts to being a real working studio. U2, famously, recorded part of their Rattle And Hum album there and, more recently, guitarist/producer Vernon Reid took his fellow six-string avant-gardist James ‘Blood’ Ulmer there to cut the remarkable Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions. They must be accustomed to Brit visitors at Sun: the gift shop’s stock includes inscribed pint glasses.

The foyer still contains the original desk used by Sam Phillips’ secretary Marion Keisker: it was Phillips who found Ike Turner and Turner who found Howlin’ Wolf, but it was Keisker who found Elvis Presley. The PA system blasts old Ike Turner instrumentals, his Stratocaster as hot as the summer sidewalk, alongside the clipclopping pick- and-strum of Johnny Cash and the galvanic piano abuse of Jerry Lee Lewis.

Howlin’ Wolf cut his first records for Sam Phillips in Memphis, but when they started to sell he moved to Chicago, the Northern storm centre of the Delkta diaspora. In Chicago, as in Memphis, they have their history down cold, as is only appropriate for the capital city of modern blues. One of the city’s current art projects is a set of stylised chairs dotting the sidewalks of downtown Michigan Avenue: naturally, the project is called ‘Suite Home Chicago.’ But the higher the numbers go on South Michigan Avenue, the funkier the neighbourhood becomes. The homeless mingle like ghosts with shoppers and tourists on the posh bits around the low-numbered blocks, but by the time you reach 2120 South Michigan, you’re definitely on Planet Blues.

This is the address for the Blues Heaven Foundation, set up by Willie Dixon, the great songwriter who brought the world ‘Little Red Rooster,’ ‘I Just Wanna Make Love To You,’ ‘Spoonful,’ the ‘You Need Love’ from which Led Zeppelin ripped off ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ and hundreds of other blues classics, on the site of the legendary Chess Records Studio where Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker and visiting pilgrims like The Rolling Stones recorded during the Fifties and Sixties. As Tiger, the Blues Heaven Foundation volunteer who does the guided tour, is winding up another round, there is a knock on the door. It’s a street person who wants in. Tiger tells him he’ll see him later, but the street person is not taking no for an answer. Tiger has to put his visitors on hold and go out and deal with the guy direct. He tells him to come back Thursday, the day when Blues Heaven volunteers give out free food to the homeless.

The restoration of Chess is proceeding slowly. The original furnishings and studio equipment are long since scattered to the four winds, but they’re on it and a visit is still more than worthwhile. Like the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Blues Heaven run a tuition programme for local kids who might not know about the blues. As singer Koko Taylor argues in the introductory film, “If all they ever advertise is pork chops, how you gonna find out about chicken?” At face value, it might seem that the blues has no more relevance and appeal to hip-hop-obsessed kids in the ghettos of Chicago or the hamlets of Mississippi than morris dancing would have to their British contemporaries in Stevenage or Sunderland. Nevertheless, the ease and alacrity with which many of them respond to the ancient disciplines of harmonica and slide guitar suggests that the astonishing breadth and depth of the emotional palette of the blues is refreshing parts which samplerdelic rap and rhyme have thus far failed to reach.

Ten years ago, the Delta Blues Museum and the Blues Heaven Foundation were in their infancies. BB’s club on Beale Street didn’t exist. Neither did Ground Zero, the Shack Up Inn, the National Civil Rights Museum constructed within the shell of the old Lorraine Motel where Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968, or the Smithsonian’s wonderful Memphis Rock ‘N Soul Museum in the Gibson Guitar Building. However, Willie Dixon, Albert King, Albert Collins, Junior Wells, John Lee Hooker and many others were still alive, well and playing the blues. Now all of them are gone, though BB is still with us, as is the seemingly indestructible Buddy Guy, celebrating his 65th birthday and promoting a firebreathing new album. The terrible paradox of this late-flowering but welcome renaissance of interest in the blues is, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, that so many of us didn’t know what we had until it was almost gone.

New talent will emerge, and with them either new forms of blues, or an intoxicating blast of youthful energy to refresh the old ones. In the past decade, new blues has indeed emerged out of Mississippi without having to travel to Chicago or even Memphis in order to do so. Of late, the hill country of North Mississippi has given the world RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and the youngbloods of the North Mississippi All Stars. The rough, raw hill-country sound has even taught an old blues dog some howling new tricks, as Buddy Guy’s current album Sweet Tea, recorded in the area, deafeningly demonstrates. The blues is often down, but never out. And somehow it always has something new to tell us even as it reconnects with the eternal verities of the human soul.

The Mississippi Delta begins, as folks in Memphis never tire of telling you, in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg, Mississippi: Willie Dixon’s birthplace. The Mississippi Delta is not necessarily the only home of the blues — after all, the blues has more homes than Michael Meacher and will have many more — but, for all practical purposes, the birthplace of the blues was in the Delta. Now the blues is coming home. Not to die but, hopefully, to be reborn.

Afterword: before returning to the UK we checked in with our friends in NYC. Having a spare sunny afternoon, we dithered over whether to stroll around Central Park with ice-creams or ascend the World Trade Center and groove on the view. in the end, we opted for Central Park. I said to Anna, ‘We’ll do the WTC next time we’re here …’