Clarksdale, Mississippi is where, according to legend, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. The alleged swap took place at the junction of Highway 49 and Highway 61, crossroads now marked with a blue-and-white sign and a guitar. Across the street: Church’s Chicken and a gas station. Opposite, Abe’s Barbecue “Swine dining since 1924.” You can judge a place by the length of time since anything noteworthy happened.
There is a Carnegie Library, built in 1913. Blue plaques commemorate Ike Turner and WROX Radio. Ground Zero blues club, part-owned by Morgan Freeman, looks like a cross between the set of The Wire and the toilets in an indie rock club: busted sofas, a bench seat from some ancient automobile, scrawls and music stickers slapped on the walls. Its patio looks like Miss Del’s “garden” a few blocks down — a concrete plot sprouting mismatched furniture beneath a wall blazoned “God Speed the Plow.” Miss Del’s garden, like the adjoining General Store, is slumped and peeling. The only bright spot a crisp red-and-white “For Sale by Owner” sign.
Whoever sells these signs has the only growth industry in town. The grocery store is boarded over; sheets drape the windows of Dependable Appliances; the Sunflower Building is a rambling corrugated iron shed that betrays no sense of purpose; “Customer parking only / Others towed at owner’s expense” warns a sign in front of a derelict drive-through. Mag-pie Gift shop is one of the few establishments that looks alive but it’s Sunday afternoon. What business gets done in Clarksdale doesn’t happen on the Lord’s day. Especially not as dull a one as this.
Highway 61 runs through pancake flats of mud broken by lines of black, leafless trees. Rain falls, unremitting, feeding shallow silver pools of water. Occasionally a line of bright green-and-yellow John Deere tractors breaks the monotony; less predictably, a shack roofed yellow parachute fabric. God gave good advice: If you want some killing done, no one will notice here.
Above, flat silvery clouds; alongside, sodden fields; ahead, burnished concrete ribbon unspooling at the speed of our tires. For an open space, it feels awfully cramped. Tension splits the sullen sky and black Delta mud. This land’s richest days sprang from the slavery. Its finest heritage is heart-cries of anguish distilled through despair to bittersweet blues. What becomes of a place whose only pride is the beauty of its ugliness?
Judging by Clarksdale, it crumbles, contracting in a permanent spasm of hopelessness, too broke to sustain even the liquor store. You can buy beer at the gas station next door, though. A big, elderly black woman stands between thebattered gas-pumps and the shop’s iron-barred door, her red sun hat blooming like a flower above a royal purple dress. She’s the only sign of life on the streets, apart from a heavysetman wrangling two small children across an empty intersection. Do they bother to teach kids to look both ways here? Is anyone ever coming?
Levon’s Bar and Grill is the only place to get a drink or assurance you’ve not stumbled into a nightmare. Two white-haired white guys play the blues. On the guitar, Mr Pony-tail, beret and handlebar mustache; on harmonica, vocals and kick-drum, Mr Clean-shaven in a loose-fitting black button-down, says he has a wife but doesn’t wear a ring. They play “Sunshine of Your Love” and “It’s Alright Mama”, run through a joke about topless hippies that’s as threadbare as knees on old Levi’s.
Behind the bar, Mr Birdsong chirps. His daddy is a retired firefighter-cum-blues historian who tends bar across town. Mr B the younger, a “fourth or fifth generation” Clarksdaler, got away all the way to Tupelo (two hours east) to apprentice as a portrait painter. Spent 13 years learning his art then moved back, 14 years ago, tended bar with his daddy till Levon wrangled him. “I have kids running around, ex-wives on my nerves,” he says, grinning.
There are half a dozen of us in the room. A tattooed tourist from Milan wearing a fancy-dress take on Easy Rider chic: denim vest over a leather jacket, cowboy boots, red bandana tied over a frizzy curls that swish around his shoulders, rings on every finger. Sharing his table, a big man with bloodhound jowls wearing overalls and hoodie. Tucked in the corner is a tidy, middle aged couple in matching black puffa jackets. They’re from Brazil, which means they must have read about the Delta Blues Museum and Highway 61, must have come looking for some magic. I wonder if this enough.
Blues was survival music. Here in Clarksdale, whose famous sons and daughters include John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, Son House, Sam Cooke, Johnny B. Moore, and many others, it still is. Those fields of Mississippi mud aren’t likely to birth anything better and it is a long way to somewhere else on Highway 61.
Listen: Bob Dylan, Hwy 61 Revisited