Clarksdale: Myth, Music, and Mercy in the Mississippi Delta

by Shelley Ritter

While the term the blues means many different things to many different people, it’s undeniable that everyone gets them at one point or another. As the late vocalist Johnny Taylor sang, “People got money, still got problems/ Go to the psychiatrist, try to solve them/ Any way you look at it/ It’s still called the Blues.” But there’s no denying that the best place to get the blues is in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

The Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Photograph by Joe Mazzola. (WikimediaWhether you find the blues by donning a shiny suit and dark glasses to hit “the hole in the wall” and juke the night away or quietly sneak down to the fabled Crossroads at midnight to make a deal with the devil in exchange for musical prowess, when in Clarksdale you are always confronted with myth and music—and you will without a doubt find mercy for both suffering and celebrating the blues. 

The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale strives to help untangle the mystery and meaning of it all through an interpretation of the lives of the men and women behind the music. A Blues Trail Marker greets you in front, immediately letting you know you are some place special: “Founded in 1979, the Delta Blues Museum is the world’s first museum devoted entirely to blues.” Visitors soon realize that they are standing on what many consider to be hallowed ground. The museum is housed in a former depot near where many a musician or singer boarded a train to either become a star or simply make a better life. But like many of those artists, instead of starting out big, the museum had to grow from humble roots. It began in a small branch section of the Clarksdale Carnegie Public Library. The library initiated one or two displays of artifacts because people from all over the world would turn up in Clarksdale wanting to explore blues history. Inevitably, these visitors wound up at the library asking for information and directions to sites. Lacking the proper security for even the few items on display, the librarians had to take the exhibits home with them each night. By 1981 the increasing number of visitors and the need to handle the artifacts more professionally prompted the library to move the displays into the main branch.

Interior of the Delta Blues Museum, with displays on B. B. King and Joe Willie "With growing holdings, the library later built an addition to accommodate the museum’s artifacts, but they outgrew even that space. In 1999, the Delta Blues Museum relocated to the renovated historic rail depot. Just like the musicians it honors, the museum started with little more than talent and a dream but evolved into being a star. Today, thousands of people continue to come to Clarksdale to visit the Delta Blues Museum, which greets them with world-class exhibits and internationally recognized programming. In fact, visitors from outside Mississippi and the United States are our biggest supporters.

The blues has always had a strange and riveting power. Seventy-eight years before the Delta Blues Museum was founded, anthropologist Charles Peabody, while excavating a Native American ceremonial mound dating to around 1100‒1200 in the small community of Coahoma just outside of Clarksdale, became distracted by what he described as the “extraordinary” songs of the black men working for him. The music motivated him to set aside his archaeological findings to write an article for the Journal of American Folklore urging ethno-musicologists to visit Coahoma County, declaring that the music was “autochthonous music [of which] it is hard to give an exact account”:

The music of the Negroes . . . may be put under three heads: The songs sung by our men when at work digging . . . unaccompanied; the songs of the same men in their quarters or on the march, with guitar accompaniment; and the songs, unaccompanied, of the indigenous Negroes.

A couple of years later, in 1903, while W. C. Handy was waiting on a train to bring him from Tutwiler back to the Clarksdale depot—the same one that now houses the museum—he heard what he described in his 1941 autobiography as “the weirdest music I ever heard”:

A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly - “goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.”

Classic blues instruments (Courtesy of the Delta Blues Museum)The power of this music so influenced Handy, by then a popular jazz cornet and trumpet player and band leader, that he began to incorporate “blues” into his music. He subsequently marketed himself as the “The Father of the Blues,” which also became the title of his autobiography. Handy left the Delta headed to Memphis and eventually wound up in New York, where the mysterious sounds of this “newly” created genre began to take possession of audiences.

In 1941, the Library of Congress sponsored a trip for American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and Fisk University scholars—folklorist John Work, sociologist Lewis Wade Jones, and graduate student Samuel Adams Jr.—to the Mississippi Delta to acquire field recordings. It was on this trip that they “discovered” and recorded a young McKinley Morganfield, nicknamed “Muddy Waters,” on Stovall Plantation, just a few miles out of Clarksdale, as well as David “Honeyboy” Edwards who was on leave from the service and hanging out at a local juke joint called the Dipsey Doodle. The Fisk scholars also meticulously documented how blues music and lyrics sometimes changed with geographical locations and audiences, shifting in tone and content from the farms to the cities and to what was then actually recorded and being played on jukeboxes. They noted that the music tended to morph and adapt, yet it never lost its mysterious hold on listeners.

Muddy Waters, 1964. Courtesy of photographer Brian Smith.Muddy Waters, hearing his own voice on record for the first time, was struck by the power of it. When he did not get a promised raise on the farm—and now knowing he possessed that powerful voice—Waters set out to make a career in music. Starting out as a traditional Delta blues acoustic guitarist, Waters made it first to Memphis and then headed to Chicago. There, he faced an environment much more urban than he had ever imagined; life was faster, louder, more mechanical. Everything seemed to be jumping. So like blues musicians before him, Waters began to reshape what he had been playing on the farm to better reflect his new environment. He plugged into an amplifier and picked up an electric guitar. His song “Catfish Blues (Rolling Stone)” went on to inspire the name of one of the world’s greatest bands as well as a music magazine, and influenced a folk musician named Bob Dylan to switch from acoustic to electric as well. It is often suggested that Muddy Waters changed American music as we know it today.

Remnants of Muddy Waters's cabin (Courtesy of the Delta Blues Museum)The Delta Blues Museum is now home to the remains of the cabin where Muddy Waters lived before he took on the world. Because a passenger depot was built in Clarksdale in 1926 and the depot where the museum is now located was used for freight, no one can say for certain whether or not Waters boarded a northbound train from the exact site where the cabin now stands. But it can certainly be assumed that much of the cotton Waters and others harvested at Stovall Plantation came straight to the location for transport to Memphis and around the world. While Waters left Stovall for the world, the world now comes to the Delta Blues Museum for the myth of Stovall and other plantations where field workers chanted to endure their labor, for the magic of Muddy Waters, and for the mercy afforded by the life-leveling commonality of “the blues.” 

The Delta Blues Museum is not about any particular celebrity or style of blues. It exists to honor the men and women who possessed the spirit and creativity born out of hardship and hard work to create the unique American art form known as the blues. Beginning as field hollers using call and response, it later came to be with instruments and taught one-on-one, with one musician in turn training, inspiring, or challenging the next.Interior of Muddy Waters's cabin (Courtesy of the Delta Blues Museum) That tradition is perpetuated even today through the museum’s Arts & Education program which allows the next generation of blues artists to learn directly from today’s purveyors. Local musicians are hired to teach students of all ages not only how to sing and play the blues, but also to help them understand the history of the genre and how it has evolved—while still standing firmly on a foundation built by the men and women commemorated in an adjacent wing of the museum. In 2012, 7300 square feet of exhibit space was added to the historic depot location. The next year, the museum received the prestigious National Medal for Museum and Library Service. In 2014, the Arts & Education program received a National Arts & Humanities Youth Program Award. Both awards were presented by First Lady Michelle Obama at ceremonies in the East Wing of the White House, with the museum’s students performing at both events.

In 2019, the Delta Blues Museum will celebrate its 40th anniversary, and plans for new permanent exhibits are currently underway with an eye towards that milestone. Much like the music and the people who created it, the Delta Blues Museum continues to endure and adapt. The State of Mississippi has created the popular Mississippi Blues Trail and has helped fund music museums in three nearby delta towns. Other blues museums are opening in cities like Chicago, St. Louis, and even in Notodden, Norway. The myths are perpetual. The music is universal. The mercy is all-cleansing. But the foundation of it all stands firmly in Clarksdale, Mississippi, at the Delta Blues Museum. So, if you choose, come sell your soul at the Crossroads. Maybe travel far distances to seek your soul in Clarksdale. But, in the end, let the Delta Blues Museum help heal your soul with the mercy found in the blues.

Shelley Ritter is the director of the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi. She received the 2013 Keeping the Blues Alive (KBA) Award in Memphis, Tennessee, for her work in preserving and documenting the history of the blues.

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