Continuing to follow the Mississippi south we’ve reached Mississippi… which… makes sense. Letting the river dictate the border between Arkansas and Mississippi makes sense too, though the centuries since the decision has (I presume) caused several meanders to become ox-bow lakes, leading to very bizarre land ownership:
The state of Mississippi collectively calls itself the birthplace of American music, and various towns seem to compete over where exactly delta blues originated. I’m staying in Clarksdale, which has seen legends like Son House, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters either born there or living there. It’s home to Ground Zero, a blues club co-owned by Morgan Freeman, named after the town being regarded as “ground zero” for the blues.
Every inch of the place is covered in graffiti, my favourite being, on the leg of one of the bar stools, “Blues is a felling”. The night starts with a young group who do a few blues standards almost as an entry fee before changing to a rock feel. I’ve been told the best show of the night will be at Red’s, so set off there.
Red’s is pretty hard to describe. It’s hard to distinguish it from just another abandoned building. From what I was told the owner (… Red), opens it when he feels like it, when he’s found a good musician he wants to showcase. Inside it’s a cramped, smoky room. It looks like someone has tried to turn a garage into a storage room into a recording studio into a bar and then back into a storage room. The light above the plain wooden bar by a mechanic lamp. Chairs are littered about the place, there are a couple of tables, but most of the room is for the musicians, who sit within cat-swinging distance of the punters. Tonight’s treat is Lucious Spiller, a wonderful bluesman from Arkansas. As he starts the room’s about a third full. Spiller is joined by a ridiculously talented 14 year old going by the name Kanefish. Pretty soon the place is packed, people pilling in and finding any space they can. The room becomes thick with smoke (either you can smoke indoors in Mississippi, or no-one here cares).
It’s a fantastic night that has only one main oddity: I’m sitting on a stool by the bar and a white woman, I’d say in her late thirties, joins me and strikes up a conversation. Somehow, within five sentences, we go from “how’ya, where’ya from?” to “I don’t mind paying more taxes, if Obama would send me pictures of all those ghetto babies I’m supporting”. … But anyway:
The night’s accommodation is one of the odder places I’ve ever stayed: the Shack Up Inn. You can stay in one of the refurbished sharecropper huts or a bin in the renovated cotton gin. Each of the rooms has their own style, which comes about from looking as if recent history had exploded in them. The one I was staying in was dubbed the Office, complete with Woodstock typewriter and filing cabinets. One shelf had a row of small radios from different decades (the only working one being an incongruously modern one). The thin wooden walls do little to keep the cold out and the temperature is only fought off by a gas heater. The TV has one channel: a blues radio station. At check in you are invited to borrow a guitar from the lobby for the duration. Of course, I had to. Of course, I can’t play guitar at all. There is a solution to that problem, if I’m willing to risk it: nearby is the intersection of Route 61 and Route 49, the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for mastery of the blues. (Though do watch for the small-print)