CLARKSDALE, MISS: LOTS OF BLUES, NO STARBUCKS by RJ Furth
Clarksdale, Mississippi, is like a lot of small towns in America. There are no Walmarts or Targets, no Starbucks and no place to buy a news magazine. This has true in every city that Anthony and I have visited in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi since leaving Atlanta one week ago. Any decent sized town has a strip a mile or so out of town, next to the highway, that features gas stations and chain hotels and restaurants, and auto parts and tire stores. This is also true in small towns all over the country. The Deep South, though has more dollar stores than I’ve seen anywhere. Dollar Generals and Family Dollar are as common as stop lights, more so in the smallest of towns. It speaks of the region with the lowest per capita income, where big box stores would be overkill. A dollar store is where you can buy inexpensive shoes or candy or sewing supplies or bandaids. You won’t find a New York Times. Clarksdale is one of those small towns, yet it has something that makes is special. Clarksdale is the birthplace of the Delta blues.
Even people with a vague knowledge of the blues have heard of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker. These and dozens of other blues legends were born in or near Clarksdale, or spent time here learning the blues. The city, not surprisingly, has as small yet constant stream of tourists and music lovers, peaking during the numerous blues festivals that are held every year in the area. You can hear the blues played nearly every night of the week, often in bars or restaurants or dives or on outdoor stages. Visitors from England and Australia, in particular, are common; nobody seems surprised to learn that Anthony is English. After all, it was English bands like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin that brought the blues to a mass young audience in the early 60s. The Stones idolized Muddy Waters, who opened for them on many occasions. I would guess that few tourists leave here empty handed. Sure there are T-shirts and hats and the usual tourist stuff. There are also guitars and harmonica’s and original vinyl and vintage photos. Anthony and I wandered around town today, stepping into shops to cool off. We always received a friendly greeting, often talked about music or instruments. The town has wide streets and a number of vacant stores so it feels spread out, people tend to stroll in the heat, to smile at strangers and welcome them to Clarksdale. This is small town America at its best, a touch of charm, a bit of funk, a long history, deep roots.