The sound of Mississippi is loose and slow. It stomps and hollers, and it hides in tumbledown little shacks. And when you hear it, you put two big pieces of the story of music together: without this, there would be no rock ‘n roll, no r’n’b. I’ve listened to blues since I started playing guitar but I’ve never seen it up close and loud, the way it should be listened to. Last night put that to rights with our stay in Clarksdale, a town in Mississippi that’s on the blues trail, and is the home to a number of blues musicians including Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Ike Turner.
Even our hotel had history. It used to be the African American hospital until 1944 when it was bought and turned into a hotel by this man’s mother:
Mr Frank Rat has lived in this hotel all his life, and grew up amongst the blues musicians that stayed at the hotel when they played in Clarksdale. He describes how he ‘grew up fast’ in this home from home – and he’s still running it. He showed us around the different rooms before we chose ours and gave us the history of who’d stayed where. Bessy Smith, the ‘Empress of the Blues’ was brought to a room opposite ours after her fatal car accident in 1937 and the room is a shrine to her memory. According to Rat, he only lets the room out when all the others are full: there’s a reverence for her memory in this place.
We decided to go for a room that was once stayed in by the ‘sexiest man alive’, John F Kennedy Jr – somehow this seemed more appropriate *cough* – but we soon headed out to catch some music and drink some cold beers. Our first stop took us to Ground Zero, a bar owned by Morgan Freeman, and one that’s well renowned as a great place to watch music.
It’s renowned for the right reasons: the place filled up as the band played a set of blues classics, and danced around the stage playing blues harp. And they knew how to pose for a photo too hehe. The venue is covered in pen: from signatures to recipes to phone numbers to tags, every surface in the house is covered. Even:
After one too many tequila, we decided to hit the road. Well, to walk about 200 yards down the road to the fine establishment known as Red’s Lounge.
A TV was on and the whole place was drenched in red light while a man monologued over a backing track. Slightly odd, but the bar served cold beer and later, donated bourbon to our thirst. And soon enough the music changed gear with RL Boyce taking the floor. He’s a musician who plays hill country blues and he does it in a way that’s totally gripping. He did need a bit of a warm-up but then his band hadn’t showed up to play with him so he was at a bit of a disadvantage.
When he got into a groove, he didn’t stop. And soon there were people on the floor shaking their bits and pieces. So much fun. And the rawness of the music in this place was unlike anything I’ve seen before, and is definitely one of the best things I’ve heard since we arrived in America.