CLARKSDALE, MS – Back in the day, early blues musicians migrated to Clarksdale, Miss., where they honed their musical crafts and eventually formed a blues culture.
It’s hard to say if they knew they were creating an epicenter for the evolution of the blues, but they did. Some were born and raised in the rural Mississippi area. Others were drawn to it.
The blues culture lives on in this tiny spot on the map that was once a transportation hub for highways, railways and public transpiration.
Highways 61 and 49 connect in Clarksdale — an important crossroad 30 years before the interstate systems sprawled across the country. It also is the crossroad immortalized by Robert Johnson, who supposedly sold his soul in exchange for mastering the blues.
Illinois Central (IC) and other railroads maintained depots and passenger terminals. The Greyhound Bus Company also built a station in Clarksdale.
In the 1920s, the town of Clarksdale was flush. Only 90 minutes from Memphis, it was close enough to a lot of places for music devotees to make the trip to hear regional musicians play. Which they did and those fortunate enough to do so heard the best of the best.
Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Son House, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, Jackie Brenston, Junior Parker and W.C. Handy all played Clarksdale. Namedropping in this corner of the music world is easy. Robert Johnson traveled Clarksdale, as did Howlin’ Wolf and Charley Patton. All became associated with the city. Musicians still arrive, if not on a venue then to jam or at the very least pay their respects at the Delta Blues Museum.
The historic culture of the blues thrives within the walls of the town’s original IC depot as the Delta Blues Museum. When the museum opened its doors in 1979, accolades began. It is the state’s oldest music museum.
The museum is a partnered place with the National Trust for Historic Preservation headquartered in Washington, D.C., a Blue Star Museum, 2015 trip advisor Certificate of Excellence winner, and boasts its own chapter in the bestseller “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.” It also is part of the Mississippi Blues Marker Trail and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival held in August and the Juke Joint Festival held each April are held on the Delta Blue Museum stage adjacent to the museum. The stage is devoted to musical performance. The Sunflower festival has a permanent exhibit inside the museum; it celebrated 28 years this summer.
Along with holdings of significant blues-related memorabilia — think the Muddy Waters guitar made from a plank of wood from Water’s childhood cabin and used on tour by ZZ Top — the museum exhibits and collects art portraying the blues tradition, including works by sculptor Floyd Shaman and photographer Birney Imes.
The museum houses many artifacts related to the blues, notably the shack where blues legend Waters lived in his youth on Stovall Plantation, near Clarksdale. The shack was restored to structural stability through the intercession of Isaac Tigrett, the House of Blues owner, and transported from Stovall Plantation on a tour of House of Blues venues before being returned to Mississippi to the museum and rebuilt inside.
One of the museum’s docents told me that the museum has been visited by many famous musicians, and not all blues players. Eric Clapton made the trip to Clarksdale, as did Paul Simon. Texas-based rock band ZZ Top, especially front man Billy Gibbons, have made this museum their pet project and have raised thousands of dollars in support.
The museum also focuses on educating young people interested in learning to play musical instruments. The day before I arrived, he told me that Elvis Costello had driven over from Memphis. For Costello and other visitors like me, there is plenty to see and to listen to.