Clarksdale, Mississippi and the Blues Trail

On New Year’s Day my sons, one of their friends, and I traveled down through the Mississippi Delta on our way to New Orleans.  The Delta is easy to bypass, since no interstate traverses it, it’s well off the beaten path, and still struggles with considerable poverty.  One might not consider it a place to explore.  But for the Blues, and the culture that gave birth to the Blues, there is no place like Clarksdale or the Delta.


We were only there one night, and of course went to the Ground Zero Blues Club.  Great music, but man, they don’t believe in that smoking-ban thing.


This is how the joint looks in daylight.  Yeah, it has character.


On the outskirts of town is the Hopson Plantation, which is now a sort of museum, but where the cruel hardships of cotton workers from the past still float through the air.  Note the old workers’ shacks.  I can’t imagine the life they lived, or what is was like picking cotton, by hand, for decades on end.  Bad enough as an underpaid worker, pure hell as a slave.  But cotton harvesting went mechanical in the ’40s, and many of the Blacks fled north to St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit, taking their music with them.  In fact many left from the old Depot in Clarksdale, which is were the Blues Museum now is.


And this is the former hospital, now the Riverside Hotel, where Bessie Smith died after her car wreck in 1937.  It was only the hospital for Blacks in the Delta at that time, then was converted to a hotel in 1944.  Robert Johnson never got to stay here, since he died before the place became a hotel.  But the Crossroads he wrote about aren’t far away.


Then of course in the Delta, just 30 minutes south of Clarksdale, is Money.  This is where the boy Emmett Till was lynched in 1955 for whistling at a white woman.  And that, along with centuries of an injustice so brutal it can’t really be described, is what helped launch the events that followed: Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat, Martin Luther King’s intelligent assault on sheer stupidity, and everything else that led up to the inaugeration next Tuesday.  Maybe the U.S. can now become a real republic, since we can’t be until all our citizens are fairly and equitably represented.

Like all our family trips, the first priority is fun–and lots of it.  But underlying this is the importance of learning: about the history and culture of each region, and the legacy that those things are built on, whether cruel, glorious, inglorious, or bizarre.  In this case, my sons appreciated more in one day about the Civil Rights movement and what inspired it, than all the books they’ve read in school.  Well, that was the point. 

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