Highway 61 Revitalized

Clarksdale: building a future based on its storied past.



There are two doorbells beside the entrance to the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, Mississippi. One right above the other, neither looks new. The top doorbell is painted red. A hand-scribbled sign next to the buttons explains what could happen next. "Top red bell to see Rat," it says.

Common sense will instruct you to ring the bell below the red one, the bell that will not, apparently, bring a rodent into view. But common sense, hardy traveler, will get you nowhere in Clarksdale. It might even get in the way of a good time. 

Ring the top bell, the red one, and see Rat. Short for Frank Ratliff, Rat's a living, working piece of history and shares freely of his stories whether you're at the Riverside for its overnight accommodations, or just passing by.

If you choose to stay at the Riverside, Rat explains, you could sleep in the room where Ike Turner composed some of the earliest rock-and-roll songs. Perhaps it will be the room where John F. Kennedy Jr. spent four days in 1991. Maybe the Martin Luther King room will be yours. It would be a challenge to find a room among the 23 at the Riverside that had not housed a famous tenant. "In the '50s all the blues singers, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, Pops Staples, and Sam Cooke slept here," Rat says. "This was the only black hotel in Clarksdale during segregation — they had to stay here."

The most storied of the Riverside's rooms goes back to the days before Rat's mother, Z.L. Ratliff Hill, bought the place in 1944, when the modest brick structure and its small rooms served as the African-American hospital for the area. In 1937 entertainer Bessie Smith, known as the Empress of the Blues, performed in Clarksdale, and after leaving for a show in Memphis, got into a car accident on the highway north of town. An ambulance from the white hospital refused to treat her or transport her, so she bled on the roadside until the black ambulance could take her to the Riverside. There, in the surgery preparation room, Smith took her final breath.

"I usually don't rent that room," Rat says. "It'll be the last one that I rent out. This place fills up for the festivals, and somebody ends up in it then. They don't know until they get here that they're sleeping in the Bessie Smith room."

So the surprises begin, and Clarksdale is full of them. It's the unofficial capital of the Mississippi Delta, as paradoxical a place as you'll find anywhere. Clarksdale's loudest proponents admit that the region is not unfairly referred to as America's Third World. Yet it has birthed and inspired some of our culture's finest arts, from the blues of the early and mid-twentieth century, to the literary masterpieces of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.

Clarksdale attracts a steady stream of international travelers and documentary film crews, and, most surprising of all, a Hollywood icon makes his home in the area to escape the rat race. In Clarksdale, you can see both the mansion that inspired Tennessee Williams' depiction of Belle Reve, the family home of Blanche DuBois, in A Streetcar Named Desire, and the one-room cabin where bluesman Muddy Waters honed his craft on the way to international fame. And if Morgan Freeman is neither on Broadway or the movie set, you will likely encounter him out at his blues club.

The Cat Head's Meow

Roger Stolle represents the powerful draw of the Delta, and the best of its future prospects. For all the charm of Delta folk and the magnetism of Clarksdale, they never had much of a plan. The town's word-of-mouth reputation — still mystifying to some locals who voice their wonderment anyone would want to hear an old man play his gitah — kept the pilgrims coming from afar to visit the Delta Blues Museum or catch the annual Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival.

Stolle moved to Clarksdale from St. Louis in 2002 and brought a new concept with him: promotion. Stolle allows that his interests tend to obsess him. The rich blues scene and the presence of active folk artists pulled him south with increasing frequency beginning in the mid-1990s. "It started with a few mind-blowing experiences," Stolle says, "and then every vacation, every long weekend, and some regular weekends — any excuse to come down, I took it to make folk art and blues trips down here."

He came South with a vision, the embodiment of which can be seen at his Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art shop downtown at 252 Delta Avenue. "I'd been in marketing and advertising, working between creatives and management in retail," Stolle explains. "I try to apply those marketing experiences here."

Cat Head, recognized by Paste magazine as one of the coolest record stores in the country and named in a popular travel book as one of the 1000 Places to See Before You Die, elevates the retail experience to something more like visiting a hands-on museum. Around the racks of CDs, books, and magazines — few of which are available at your neighborhood bookstore — the old cotton factor building, with its long plank floors, 15-foot ceilings, and flaking wall paint, is teeming with Southern visionary art, made by untrained but inspired hands.

Rev. Anthony Nollie, a Clarksdale resident until his death two years ago, glued Mardi Gras beads, gold-spray-painted clamshells, and costume jewelry to ski poles, bed posts, or the thin aluminum medical canes you see in drug stores. He sometimes referred to these canes as "story sticks." They lean against the wall near a collection of John Toney's primitive drawings, reminiscent of ancient Aztec art. Local renaissance man James "Super Chikan" Johnson, who can be heard playing blues in many of Clarksdale's finer juke joints, makes what he calls "chikantars," playable basses and guitars fashioned from painted gasoline cans and cigar boxes. Johnson's Grandma Moses-like paintings hang in the store, brightly depicting features of Delta life, such as cotton fields, shiny tractors, and shade trees.

Stolle's shop owes its name to another regional folk artist, whose work Stolle encountered on one of his "any excuse" trips. While killing time in a Leland, Mississippi, gift shop years before moving to Clarksdale, Stolle saw two of Pat Thomas' signature clay cat head sculptures peering up at him from among the trinkets. The heads spoke to Stolle, on some level, and he named the shop, in part, to honor the work of Thomas.

As Stolle explains, there is more to Cat Head than the store. "The whole concept of Cat Head isn't just to sell stuff," he says. "The idea is to promote from within. I write a column for Blues Revue magazine, do a spot on XM radio, a show with WROX [blues satellite radio station], some bookings [for Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale and Memphis], and recordings, trying to do everything that I think can be used to promote Mississippi blues."

Ground Zero

The Ground Zero Blues Club breathed new life into an old cotton building at the edge of downtown Clarksdale beginning in May 2001. "We opened without big dreams," club co-owner Bill Luckett, a prominent Clarksdale attorney, explains. "We just wanted to offer blues music to the tourists who come in to see the Delta Blues Museum and ask where they could hear live music."

One of Luckett's partners admits to other motives. "We wanted someplace to take our wives dancing," says Morgan Freeman, the Academy Award-winning actor who spent part of his childhood in the area, and moved back in the early 1990s.

The club has been featured in National Geographic Traveler and Southern Living, and appeared on CBS TV's 60 Minutes.

Freeman says that Ground Zero's impact on local music and tourism has surprised him. "It wasn't my goal to stimulate economic development. My goal was just to get back home and get comfortable. Economic development, all that stuff came after I started hanging out with Bill and seeing possibilities," he says. "It's been amazing. The blues club is world-renowned."

"Ground Zero serves a function of providing live Mississippi blues every week between Wednesday and Saturday," says Stolle, who books the shows at the club. "It isn't a juke joint, but it has the feel of a Mississippi blues club. You won't find any place like it in other cities."

Brave New World

Plenty of people not named Morgan Freeman have opened blues clubs in Clarksdale, and not coincidentally have failed to garner the same fuss accorded Ground Zero. Going back to the early twentieth century, most impresarios of the nightlife set up on the south side of the railroad trestle that runs along Edwards Avenue, in the African-American section of downtown Clarksdale known as the New World.

W.C. Handy, in his autobiography Father of the Blues, recalled the New World's special function from his days as a bandleader in the Delta in 1903: "It was the local red light district...but that was neither here nor there to the men with the horns and fiddles. What was important was that the rouge-tinted girls, wearing silk stockings and short skirts, were among the best patrons [my] orchestra had."

Handy explained that these ladies were to the blues what the Medicis had been to Florentine Renaissance art. They paid for the blues to be played, and the idea that one could get out of the cotton field this way caught on, thus the staggering number of prominent blues musicians from the area. The sounds of "boogie-house music," as Handy describes it, slipped through the perpetually drawn bordello shutters and wafted across Issaquena and Yazoo avenues, and over to Tallahatchie Street.

I strolled under that railroad trestle and up Issaquena and into the New World on a sizzling summer Wednesday, early afternoon, past eerie, dark, abandoned buildings. A dry breeze completed the ghost-town effect, and a rolling tumbleweed would have surprised me less than what I encountered next.

A sound floated past, as if from a car driving by with the stereo loud and windows down. Perhaps it was a heat-induced hallucination, or my imagination — filled with thoughts of local natives John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters droning their blues in these boarded-up cafes 70 years ago — playing tricks. The sound of a lone electric guitar picking the town's ancestral music grew louder, and pulled me to the door of one of those crumbling structures, an old movie theater. The door hung open a crack, spilling daylight and blues out onto the sidewalk, shaded by the theater's marquee that still bears the name: New Roxy.

I pushed the door and saw the gutted inside of the theater, only the original brickwork, the screen, and the balcony remaining. A few twisted metal seats and a rusted out-safe are the only furnishings left. Seventeen-year-old Omar Gordon sat awash in the sunlight shining through the holes in the roof, playing his guitar, while construction workers busily prepare the space for its rebirth.

Robin Colonas, a Seattle, Washington, native is on a mission to protect the New World from further decay. "I was charmed and horrified at the South," Colonas says. "I chose to buy in this part of town so that one less building would fall down."

Two have a better chance at survival thanks to Colonas. She and her business partner Matthew Holden are turning an old store across from the New Roxy into a hostel, and opening the New Roxy as a multi-purpose arts venue. "We don't want to gentrify it so that people in this community aren't comfortable taking part."

Colonas hopes that the same tourism push that's helped Stolle, Luckett, and Freeman on the other side of town will bring local and out-of-town visitors to the New Roxy and the New World. "There are still white people in this town who are afraid to walk under those tracks," she says, gesturing back towards the trestle. "But tourists love it over here," she says, citing a visit by Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant to the neighborhood the previous night.

For all the New World's picturesque disrepair, the neighborhood includes Clarksdale's most consistent juke joint, Red's, located at 395 Sunflower Avenue, featuring live blues most weekend nights. The sign outside reads LaVerne Music Center, and hand-painted warnings implore "No Drugs" and "No Standing Outside." Inside, the neon beer signs and sagging ceiling complement the raw sounds of Robert Belfour, Super Chikan, and other regular entertainers.

A Playwright Named Tom

Clarksdale's annual Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival brings visitors to the town by the thousands. Lesser-known is the annual Tennessee Williams Festival, held around town September 26-27 this year.

Williams spent his childhood in Clarksdale, where his grandfather Walter Dakin rectored St. George's Episcopal Church. Williams, known simply as Tom to locals, and his mother and sister lived in the church rectory at 106 Sharkey Avenue.

The flamboyant personalities and lavish lifestyles of Clarksdale's elite show up throughout Williams' work, explains Panny Mayfield, who handles public relations for the festival. "So many of the names he used in his Delta plays were real people here," she says. "We probably couldn't have a festival here 25 years ago, because so many of them were still walking around."

The model for Belle Reve, Blanche DuBois' ancestral home in A Streetcar Named Desire is locally known as the Cutrer Mansion, located at 109 Clark Street. The festival features one-act porch plays, Williams' work staged here in the neighborhoods that inspired the playwright.

This year the British Broadcasting Corporation will film a documentary about the festival, which honors the memory of the last member of the Williams' clan, Tom's brother Dakin, who died in May. Dakin referred to himself as a "professional brother." Though successful in his own right as an attorney, he proudly wore the Williams mantle, and his performances of his brothers' work mystified and delighted festival goers. "He used to dress up as Blanche DuBois," Mayfield says. "We'll miss him."

The Moon Lake Casino, which figured prominently in The Glass Menagerie, operates as a bed-and-breakfast and fine dining restaurant north of Clarksdale under the name Uncle Henry's Place.

Back to the Future

Stolle answered the call of the Delta, but knows that outside influence could be a mixed blessing for Clarksdale and its heritage. "My whole thing is to shore up the great elements that we already have," he says. "I don't think that diluting the culture here, or trying to sell something that isn't the culture here, is beneficial to the whole picture. Hard Rock wouldn't come to Clarksdale anyway, but something like that would be the kiss of death — look where Beale Street's gone." 

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