- The Washington Times
Sunday, April 12, 2015

Their sound was three-chord laments born of a history of oppression — simple dirges wailing upon the hardships of life.

From humble beginnings in the Mississippi Delta’s black community, the blues would migrate to become a dominant musical genre, influencing not only Americana but also leaping across the Atlantic to inform the sounds of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and others so much so that the British Invasion would effectively sell back to American teens part of their own heritage in the rapidly expanding vocabulary of rock ‘n’ roll.


But the Delta has always been the home of the blues. Local son Morgan Freeman once said, “What was true then is true now: Mississippi is in fact no more or no less racist than the rest of the country.”

Despite its complicated history and economic troubles, the region is undergoing somewhat of a cultural renaissance thanks largely to its greatest export.

In addition to the blues, the Delta offers a rich culture and traditions to explore.

Canton

The small town of Canton, the Madison County seat, was the setting of the book and film “A Time to Kill,” written by Mississippi’s own John Grisham, who grew up in the Delta community of Southaven.

Visitors can stroll the town square and see the Madison County Courthouse. The iconic structure was central to the action of the film that made a star of Matthew McConaughey, who was 26 when “A Time to Kill” debuted in 1996.

Because of its logistical importance during the Civil War, the town’s cemeteries boast a large contingent of Confederate veterans.

Be sure to check out Mississippi Blues Trail marker on the outskirts of town.

Hopson Plantation Commissary

Farther north along Highway 61 is the old Hopson Plantation, formerly a bastion of cotton growing but now a roadside do-drop-in for weary travelers and adventure-seekers alike. The local Blues Trail marker explains that with the mechanization of the cotton industry in the 1940s, many blacks left the South to head for industrial jobs up north.

Visitors can pop by the commissary for a cool drink — spiked or virgin — while listening to local musicians strum guitars. For those wishing to spend more than an hour or two, The Loft provides comfortable overnight accommodations.

For the more rustic-minded, across the highway is Shack Up Inn, which proudly proclaims on its website: “The Ritz we ain’t.” Shack Up offers authentic sharecropper lodgings that allow the patron to step back in time to the glory days of the South’s most famous — or infamous — crop.

The Crossroads

At the junction of Highway 61 and Highway 49 in Clarksdale lies the Crossroads where, legend has it, blues great Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil one dark night in exchange for the astronomical guitar skills he was known for the remainder of his short life.

Johnson sang of the fabled meeting in the appropriately titled “Crossroad,” and the stuff of legend later found its way into the work of countless artists, including Bob Dylan (“Highway 61”) and Mr. Clapton (“Crossroads”), as well as popular culture. The 1986 film “Crossroads” with Ralph Macchio puts a contemporary twist on the legend, and the Coen brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou” goes in the opposite direction, working that legend into a tall-tale tapestry structured along the lines of Homer’s “Odyssey.”

Today, two crossed guitars mark the spot, which time and progress have industrialized and changed from the days when Johnson met a tall dark stranger on a rural highway to strike his indecent bargain.

And just across the street from the Crossroads, pop by Abe’s BBQ for some rib-sticking ribs and other grillin’ favorites.

Clarksdale

Just down the street from the Crossroads is central Clarksdale, the epicenter of blues culture and history. The Delta Blues Museum — the second-oldest music museum in the country, after Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame — stands as a monument to the Delta’s most notable cultural export.

Live blues is ever-important to this hamlet, with several clubs offering modern takes on the old standards on Fridays and Saturdays. As Clarksdale is effectively the proving grounds for the blues, one club and one famous Mississippian draw tourists and music aficionados to the region.

“We named the club for the fact, or because of the fact, that, for decades, Clarksdale has been referred to as ‘ground zero’ for blues music,” said Bill Luckett of Ground Zero Blues Club, which he co-owns with Howard Stovall and the Academy Award-winning Mr. Freeman.

“When we decided to open the club and call it Ground Zero Blues Club, I put the definition of ‘ground zero’ on the front door right out of Webster’s: ‘the point of beginning of something or where a nuclear explosion occurs,’” Mr. Luckett said. “So we are the point of beginnings of blues music, which is America’s, in a way, gift to the world. Blues was the root music, and everything else is the fruit music, so to speak.”

Mr. Luckett, a lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for Mississippi’s Democratic nomination for governor in 2011, has been the mayor of Clarksdale since 2013. He is proud of his hometown and that tourists from the world over have come to know and love its culture as he and his business partners do.

“Bill, Howard and I are proud over what we have done to preserve and promote our blues music heritage by our opening Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale,” Mr. Freeman said in a statement provided to The Washington Times. “Prior to our opening we were getting concerned that tourists could not find live blues music right here at ground zero for blues music. But that has changed, and at our Juke Joint Festival this year over 20 venues will have live music.”

Ground Zero, which opened in 2001, is now the anchor of the annual Juke Joint Festival. Musicians who have graced the club’s stage include Robert Plant, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Dan Aykroyd, Willie Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Although Mr. Freeman is known to appear at Ground Zero, Mr. Luckett said, it’s difficult for the 77-year-old Oscar winner — who left Hollywood some years ago to return to his native Magnolia State — to enjoy himself amid the throng at the Juke Joint Festival.

“He does come to the club, but on lesser weekends, if you will, when we can handle the security,” Mr. Luckett said of his business partner and friend of two decades. “But he loves the music.”

Mr. Luckett has high hopes for several of the other blues festivals to hit the Delta throughout the year, including the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in August, which features family-friendly entertainment by day.

“But then it gets serious” once the sun goes down, Mr. Luckett said. “We’re playing the devil’s music at night.”

Perhaps the angel of darkness still roams the nearby cotton fields awaiting the next transaction.


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