Personal Perspective: Clarksdale, Mississippi - Birthplace of the Blues by Jamie O'Quinn
Distance in the Mississippi Delta seemed to defy all mathematical properties that governed the rest of the world.Having travelled through Greenwood, Mississippi and taken a right onto Highway 49 toward my destination of Clarksdale, I told my friend on the phone that I was 30 miles out.Well, 30 minutes and 30 miles later, I swore that time and distance must have stood still because I was still 30 miles out and had become road hypnotized by the flat, skyward barren and unchanging landscape.I was SUV deep in the heart of the famed Mississippi Delta known as the inspiration for an entire genre of music, the soul feeding Blues.
I once asked author/television personality Walt Grayson to tell me his favorite part of the Magnolia state.Without hesitation he replied that just like your children, each region is totally unique and equally wonderful. It was this trip to Clarksdale for a songwriting workshop sponsored by the Mississippi Writers Guild that gave me the opportunity to experience the Delta region’s allure firsthand.
The charm of the area lies within its people, talent, and to some extent, its architectural past.If you’re looking for frills, well, I suggest you change your mind set.The downtown area is an old time main street which consists of timeworn painted brick buildings, individual awnings covering the sidewalks, and window front browsing. The thread of blues music intertwines from shop to shop. As you look up one of the main streets you see Ground Zero Blues Club better known for being jointly owned by actor and Mississippi native Morgan Freeman.It was here that several writing friends and I chose to eat that evening.
Ground Zero is a true Delta juke joint from the old duct taped couches and chairs on the front porch to the intriguing décor and pool tables inside. Fortunately I was able to dig through my Mom purse and find a black sharpie that indulged the autographing whims of the five kindred spirits sitting around our table.From the crest of the interior columns to the bar top to the bathroom floor, written legacies are left by patrons to read, sit and walk on.
Crossing the parking lot in the direction of the Delta Blues Museum, we could hear the Marshall Drew band warming up for an outdoor concert.Within a couple of hundred feet of the outdoor stage, we walked through a short white picketed fence surrounding the patio of the Pink House where a couple of friends were staying and we drug up enough chairs to accommodate our growing party which included the Pink House host, Pal.The Pink House is a converted ice cream factory which still boast incredibly thick walls and high ceilings in the common area which gives an advantageous cooling effect.Directly next door is the Little Pink which is an old time commissary transplanted for the purpose of guest rental.Our host captured our attention with stories of the “good spirits” that inhabit the Little Pink along with tales of Blanche, the ghost that roams the Cutrer Mansion down the road.It is the tale of this Blanche who inspired Tennessee Williams’ character by the same name in “A Streetcar Named Desire”.
Being adventurous spirits, Richelle Putnam and I mingled among the crowd.Small children rode tricycles in front of the stage area; adults lay on blankets or sat in folding chairs.Toward the back by the Pink House, someone set up a hammock on the back of his pickup truck.Within feet of our white picket fence was a vintage Avanti and numerous motorcycles.It was here we struck up a conversation with a newfound friend, Rip Woodward, also a fellow writer and a sporting soul who graciously let us gals board his beautiful Harley.
Our group met early for breakfast the next morning at the Delta Amusement Café.Here owner Bobby Tarzi not only took our order, cooked and served, he also showed us how to play Tonk, the card game the locals play at his diner on their lunch break.As we made our way out to attend the workshop session at the Cutrer Mansion, I was met outside the diner door by local icon Puttin Hatchett who showed me a few quick dice tricks while stopping periodically to return greetings from passersby on the street.
The morning songwriting session was conducted by Gary Vincent, who was a songwriter in Nashville for 28 years.His songs have been recorded by artists such as Leon Redbone and The Crickets. He and his wife, Carol, moved to Clarksdale and both work at their “Coahoma Opportunities” location several blocks away.It is here that our group met for the afternoon session.After Carol talked of the nuts and bolts of contracts related to music and/or songwriting, Gary worked with us on individual songs.The group was eclectic both in background, interests, and in genres of music.The winning songwriter of the day, Jim Ellis, got to record his original “Psychotic Service Station” in Gary’s studio in the back, the Clarksdale Soundstage.The Clarksdale Soundstage is a state of the art film and recording facility located on the very spot which W C Handy once lived.It is the birthplace of the Blues.Gary is also President of Ground Zero Blues Club Music which is a co-venture film company with Morgan Freeman.
Our group was given free rein of the studio and watched as Ellis recorded his humorous song that had us heartily laughing.From vocals to guitar, he did an excellent job with the song especially considering the ill fate of a few of his fingers thanks to an electric saw.It was here I also saw recording artist Richard Crisman AKA Daddy Rich performing for a second time while in town.I recognized him with his signature sunglasses from the night before playing with the Marshall Drew Group.He was one of the treats of the day and played several of the instruments for the recording track of Ellis’ contest winning song.
It was about sunset that evening when I hit highway 49 again, but this time I was heading home.Unlike my arrival the day before, time and distance didn’t seem to stand so still.I was reminded what Lydia Dell told me earlier that day about growing up here.In the Delta you have to look at negative space, not what is there but what isn’t.If there’s a tree, don’t look at it but instead at the sky behind it.There is nothing more beautiful than a sunrise and sunset in the Delta because there is nothing to interfere with its beauty.
As I focused my eyes on the one tree in the distance, I could see it’s darkened shape as streams of vibrant colors burst out and saturated the sky surrounding it.The beauty was there all the time, it was just a matter of perception – both of the heart and mind.
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