Thursday, November 13, 2008

Clarksdale, Mississippi: Where The Blues Had A Baby And Named It Rocket 88

Delta Karate
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey
It takes a while for the eyes to adjust from the blue brightness of a Mississippi afternoon to the gloom in the hallway of Clarksdale’s Riverside Hotel. But eventually the shadows lighten to reveal a sullen piano, and walls pasted with a jumble of flyers and posters for the blues. On the floor, lining the wall of the corridor, are packets of tiles, as if the place is in a state of constant refurbishment. Looking oddly out of place among this cheerful chaos is an arrangement of photographs recording the 1991 visit made to Riverside by the late John F Kennedy Jr, and, ominously – to the right, under the ceiling fan in the front office – a sign reading “Be Nice or Leave”.

The Riverside’s proprietor, Frank Ratliff, appears. He is a wiry man with a strong handshake and a quick smile. “Call me Rat,” he commands, gesturing into the darkness. “Sam Cooke’s room is gone,” he says, pointing towards the closed door of Room 7. Room 11 – named after Pops Staples - is also unavailable, though a glimpse inside reveals a glittering disco ball suspended from the ceiling. (It used to hang in the Subway Lounge, the club Rat ran in the basement). The door to Muddy Waters’ room remains stubbornly closed.

Rat pauses for a moment to survey the scene. He has met my travelling companion before, so she is ushered into Bessie’s room, Room 2 – an honour, and a mixed blessing, perhaps, as it’s the room in which the great Bessie Smith died, when the Riverside was the only black hospital in Clarksdale. I get the consolation prize of John Lee Hooker’s room; a compact space with tinfoil over the window, and a plastic sheet on the bed. The view isn’t much, and the communal wash room is some way along the hall, but then nobody comes to the Riverside expecting Egyptian cotton or the airlocked convenience of a Holiday Inn.

The sign at the front of the hotel tells part of the story, boasting that the Riverside is “the home of the delta blues”. The hotel’s historic importance has also been recognised by its inclusion on the Mississippi Blues Trail, which plots the important sites in the evolution of the blues, from the Dockery Plantation – the former residence of Charley Patton, between Ruleville and Cleveland, and often viewed as the birthplace of the delta blues – to the grave of Robert Johnson.

Actually, Johnson was buried in an unmarked grave at an uncertain location outside Greenwood, Mississippi, but such is the interest in his story that he now has three gravestones in three different places, though an unprepossessing site along Money Road at the Little Zion Church currently holds sway amongst musicologists. Still, even 70 years after his death, Johnson remains a controversial figure locally. The first blues marker at the Little Zion site had to be replaced after someone shot bullets through it. The next two markers were stolen.

There are also several opinions as to the location of the crossroads where Johnson sold his soul to the devil, an even less verifiable claim. Clarksdale has one, marked by crossed guitars hung over the junction between highways 49 and 61. The plausibility of this is in no way diminished by the fact that there was no crossroads at this point in Johnson’s day. Still, carnivores in search of authentic Robert Johnson experience could do worse than stopping to sample some of Abe’s barbecue or – a Mississippi speciality – tamales: ground meat rolled in cornmeal and boiled in the leaves from a shuck of corn. It’s conceivable that Johnson did the same. He died on 16 August 1938. Abe’s has been serving Bar-B-Q since 1924 (at this location since 1937), and the great bluesman thought enough about tamales to write a fruity song about them. The ragtime chorus, “Hot tamales, and they’re red hot,” is one of his more uplifting reveries, though he omits any mention of Abe’s famous Comeback Sauce.

On the porch outside the Riverside, looking down Sunflower Avenue, Rat gives me a history of the hotel. “I’m working on mother’s dream,” he says, proudly. It’s a complicated story, but the long and the short of it is that Rat was born on 8th Street in Clarksdale, and then his mother, ZL Hill, moved to a little shotgun house on 4th Street, at the site now occupied by the Church of God in Christ. During the war, ZL rented a funeral home, renting the rooms to soldiers, which gave her the idea of running a hotel. “During that time,” Rat says, “we had trains, buses, everything running here, taxi cabs. Clubs on every corner just about – we called ’em cafes. Grocery stores on every corner. And churches. So you could go both sides. You could work all week, party on weekends, and go to church on Sundays.”

Before the war, the building which is now the Riverside housed the GT Thomas Afro-American Hospital, which earned its moment of notoriety on the morning of 26 September, 1937, when Bessie Smith died after an automobile accident on Highway 61. Like many delta stories, the story of Smith’s death is available in several versions. The incident inspired a play by Edward Albee, The Death of Bessie Smith, which suggests that the singer died because she was refused treatment at a whites-only hospital. The accepted version now is that Smith wasn’t turned away from a white hospital, but died at the Afro-American hospital after having her arm amputated.

Clearly, guests in Room 2 of the Riverside may prefer to concentrate on less maudlin aspects of Smith’s career, but segregation is the reason for the hotel’s historical significance. “It was only in the ’70s that segregation went out here in the State,” Rat explains. “But all the old blues singers, that’s why they had to stay here, because they couldn’t stay in the white businesses and hotels. There wasn’t but a few hotels in this town. This was the only black hotel.”

The Riverside was opened on 11 August, 1944. “Ike Turner moved in here, Robert Nighthawk moved in here, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy (Williamson) and all them, they played different towns, and whenever they came through, this is where they stayed.”

In fact, quite apart from its importance as a dormitory for the blues, the Riverside made a more specific contribution to musical history. In the basement, early in 1951, Ike Turner wrote Rocket 88, a thunderous song in praise of the Oldsmobile 88, which has as good a claim as any to be the first rock’n’roll record. As well as cranking up the rhythm of jump blues, the song had a gloriously distorted guitar sound, possibly because rainwater leaked into the amplifier on the way to record it at Sam Phillips’ Sun studio in Memphis.

Rat was a boy when much of this musical history was unfurling, but he did meet many of the musicians. “At the age of six, seven, eight years old I began to know who a lot of them were. I didn’t know they were singers at that age, but they all played with me. I grew up with all the blues singers; that’s why I love the blues.”

As I am talking to Rat, two of his guests check out of the Riverside. They are twentysomethings from Barcelona. They speak little English, but have rock’n’roll haircuts. Rat tries for some time to ascertain whether they had a good night’s sleep, but the two men show no sign of understanding what he is saying. He changes tack as they load up their rental car. “Where now?” he asks. “Memphis,” says one of the Catalans. “Elvis,” says the other.

A large percentage of the guests at the Riverside are embarked on a similar journey, trying to inhale some of the blues air from the towns up and down Highway 61. Ironically, the economic blues never left Clarksdale, even if most of the juke joints have closed, and the music is harder to find. “The town is much quieter,” says Rat. “You’d walk out of one club, into the next one in the ’50s, the ’60s, up to the ’70s, in this town. Then the jobs started playing out. Clubs started dying out. People started moving out and going elsewhere. Just like the blues singers. They started in Mississippi, they went to Tennessee, St Louis, Chicago, then they went abroad. That’s what happened. The blues spread.”

Evidence of economic collapse isn’t hard to find. There are rows of empty shops, and the establishment of the blues as a tourist currency can’t quite disguise the sense of a town which is struggling to hang on to a sense of itself. The street now called Blues Alley lies in an area once occupied by the freight train depot, and houses the homely Delta Blues Museum and actor Morgan Freeman’s club Ground Zero, a kind of town hall for the blues. Ground Zero and the upmarket restaurant Madidi represent Freeman’s commitment to his home town, and it is possible, with very little effort, to have a great night without leaving the comfort of the club’s porch. It was there that my eligible friend Tom and I were propositioned with the irresistible line: “Do you guys want to hang out on a porch and smoke dope with some weird girls?” That long night of the weird girls extended from porch, to gas station for more supplies, and on, at an absurdly late hour, to Red’s (395 Sunflower Ave) – more of a living room than a lounge, where a left-handed guitarist was squeezing the lifeblood out of a right-handed Stratocaster.

The morning after the night before, I walked around the town centre, pausing at Cat Head (252 Delta Ave), a shop specialising in outsider art, and admiring the mural of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Bessie Smith on the wall of Frank’s Liquor Store on Sunflower Avenue. I was heading back towards the Delta Blues Museum to inspect the lifelike waxwork of Muddy Waters, when a pink car drew over to the kerb and the driver - a black man in a yellow shirt and a pork-pie hat, and gaps where his teeth used to be – threw open his door. “My name is Razor Blade,” he declaimed, “do you want to hear the real blues?”

The invitation carried a faint hint of danger, but this was no crossroads confrontation. It was the middle of the month, Razor Blade explained, and he was trying to hawk his live CD. I asked Mr Blade if I could take his photograph, and he agreed, with one condition. “Not in the car,” he said. “Cos then everybody’ll see that I drive a Toyota!”

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