Spotlighting special towns across the country, Good Towns is about the character, the history, the people and the unique things that make a town a special place.
The intersection of Highways 61 and 49 is where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, setting him on a path to become perhaps the greatest blues player of all time.
At least that’s how the story goes. Sometimes, the location changes. Music aficionados know that 61 and 49 cross in Clarksdale, Mississippi, at a spot called The Crossroads. And if you believe Johnson’s musical gift was bestowed by Faustian means, you know the site by its other name: The Devil’s Crossroads.
Earl Gabriel knows the legend. A native of Ocean City, New Jersey, he discovered the blues listening to gospel years ago. Since flying into New Orleans, he has spent four days on the backroads in a rental car, working his way up the Mississippi Blues Trail.
He stands at his latest stop, perhaps his most important one, underneath the neon light of the Ground Zero Blues Club. And that’s where Bill Luckett meets him, extends a hand and welcomes him in for a bite to eat.
Birthplace of Rock ’n Roll?
An attorney, former mayor and gubernatorial candidate, pilot and aspiring actor with 12 films to his credit, Bill Luckett founded the Ground Zero Blues Club in 2001, just months before the 9/11 attack, with another local businessman and more-than-dabbling actor named Morgan Freeman (both friends have roles in John Travolta’s upcoming film, The Poison Rose). The partners converted the long-abandoned Delta Grocery & Cotton Store into the hippest music venue.
“Morgan and I became friends in the ‘90s, and one of his visits here we both looked around at the strangers in town and he asked the question, ‘Why are these visitors here?’” Luckett recalled.
Clarksdale had long been known as the home of the Delta Blues, drawing tourists and musicians often headed to Memphis, 90 minutes up the road, to play. The music, first inspired by African-American descendants of slaves, shaped American culture.
“Since we got started, it’s been a labor of love,” Luckett said. “I can’t say we’ve made any money off it. Not yet. We’re like Ole Miss football: Wait ‘till next year.”
Luckett was reared in Clarksdale, while Freeman grew up nearby and returns to recharge in between Hollywood shoots. They both understand what the blues means to the community, if not the world. And the world comes to Clarksdale. In terms of the Delta Blues, this is the source of the Nile.
Contemporary legends Paul Simon, Robert Plant, Dan Aykroyd, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Simmons have stopped by the club. Ozzy Osbourne and his son recently taped a show for Ozzy and Jack’s World Detour on stage and around town. But Ground Zero, more than anything else, serves as a tribute to the artists who paved the way.
“Rocket 88 was the first rock ’n roll song, and it came out of Clarksdale,” said Luckett, referring to the 1951 record local musicians Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner recorded up the road at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios. “In college, I listened to the (Rolling) Stones and, only years later, realized they were inspired by the Delta Blues. Even today, hip-hop stands on the shoulders of the blues. Like Willie Dixon said, ‘The blues are the root, and the other musics are the fruits.’”
The Foundation for All Music
The Delta Blues are universal now, but they originated in the Deep South long before the Civil War.
“The blues is a very distinctive African American form of expression,” said Dr. Charles K. Ross, Professor of History and Director of the African American Studies Program at the University of Mississippi. “It has its roots, I would argue, with slave-work songs. Also, you can’t take away the aspect of religious songs that African American slaves created.”
After the Emancipation Proclamation, the music continued to unfold in new ways.
“The blues became a musical form and an outlet — not only in terms of singing but in terms of instrumentals — that made it very distinctive from anything else,” Ross added.
The blues dealt with the stark realities of growing up in a Jim Crow Era, interpersonal relationships and the constant fight for equality. “It’s very secular. It touches on violence, sexuality and frustrations,” Ross added. “Without question, the blues laid the foundation for all the music that would evolve going forward – from jazz, to rhythm and blues to rock and rap.”
In Clarksdale, The Delta Blues is the town’s first claim to fame, but the local food scene sustains the caravans of curious visitors. Ground Zero offers down-home eats, drawing a steady crowd during the day, and a late-night retreat, courtesy of nicely appointed upstairs apartments for rent by day, week or month upstairs. Graffiti covers the walls of the place, with names famous and obscure providing their Sharpie wisdom from floor to ceiling.
On a sunny, but brisk winter afternoon, a quartet from Croatia stops for a bite to eat at abe’s BAR-B-Q, where the fixin’s are robust and the sauce has been divine since 1924. Down for the day from the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, the band finishes the meal and steps outside for keepsakes photos at The Crossroads, marked by iconic guitars.
After a late night of live music, the go-to for a hearty breakfast for those both budget conscious and ravenous is Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes. They open early, stay late and keep the crowds coming next door at a sports bar that draws steady crowds for pool and college football.
Fueled by food and needing to burn the edge off, visitors can wander a tightknit downtown. Just a few blocks away, they’ll find Ronnie Drew.
He’s the mop-top proprietor of Bluestown Music. He started playing the guitar professionally at age 16. A half-century later, he’s back doing what he loves, and blues lovers from all over the world seek him out.
“Guitars, speakers, amps,” Drew said, showing off the inventory. “Anyone that plays the guitar stops here. If they need it repaired or just need a good instrument, they come to me.”
Once upon a time, Drew had a “real job” as a banker. “But every time the bank got bought out, I’d have to learn another computer system,” Drew said. “Playing guitar was my hobby until I decided my hobby was better than banking.”
A Vox Beatle Amp, five feet high, sits in the storefront. It’s just like the original the Fab Four used to blow away crowds from Hamburg to the Hollywood Bowl. Even by today’s standards, it’s pricey. But back then …
“You could buy a new Cadillac for what they cost,” Drew said.
Photos of famous visitors line the wall, including musician Tom Waits, The Office and Jack Ryan star John Krasinski and the incomparable Elvis Costello, who bought a guitar right here on Delta Avenue.
Deak’s Blues Whistle
A block up the street, Deak Harp sits behind his desk polishing his newest instrument, ending a 15-hour labor of love from start to finish. He’s from New Jersey originally, met bluesman James Cotton in Chicago and came down to Clarksdale 28 years ago to explore the town and decided he’d found a home.
“James Cotton was like my stepdaddy,” said Harp of the legend who first gained renown on the blues harp for the Howlin’ Wolf band in the ‘50s before joining Muddy Waters’ band. “I was intrigued by the mystique of the blues and The Crossroads, and he first showed me around. Now Clarksdale is my base. They pay me a lot of money all over the world, but I always want to come back home to my shop.”
Back from a tour playing the Chicago and Delta Blues on stops in Switzerland, Australia, and Chile, he’s gearing up for April’s Juke Joint Festival by expanding his inventory at Deak Harp’s Mississippi Saxophones & Blues Emporium.
He calls the “saxophones” the custom-made “Deak’s Blues Whistle.” He takes Hohner Marine Band harmonicas, refurbishes and personalizes them, then plays like he made a deal at The Crossroads of his own — as the Osbornes learned during their Clarksdale trip – for his vistors. The song, of course, is The Devil Made Me Do It.
“It’s in Our DNA”
As night falls, the Ground Zero Club heats up. Despite the festival in Memphis, the venue is nearing capacity as LaLa Craig and her band – bassist Seth Hill, drummer Lee Williams and borrowed lead guitarist Walt Busby (of The Blackwater Trio) – deliver musical fire. As Craig sings, accompanying herself on an electric keyboard, the dance floor fills.
From a table, Javier Sanchez-Monedero and his girlfriend, Elena Ruiz Peralta, nod their heads to the rhythm of the music while their smiles spread the width of a zip code. Sanchez-Monedero plays the alto sax for a blues band, Al Raso, back home in Spain and recently played the Blues Cazorla Festival, which claims to be the nation’s pre-eminent music event.
“I love to play, and my girlfriend loves to listen to music,” Sanchez-Monedero said. “We had to come to Mississippi to hear where the blues came from, so we rented a car in New Orleans and drove. We love the freedom here.”
This old warehouse is truly an international destination. In fact, GZBC is ranked one of the top three best live music clubs in the world by Celebrated Living Magazine. The others? Café Carlyle in New York and Preservation Hall in New Orleans.
The prestige doesn’t matter to Mr. Tom. He’s a local, a regular, who has his seat against the wall a dozen feet from the stage. He has been showing up Wednesday night through Sunday since the club opened 18 years ago. A visiting artist was so taken by Mr. Tom that he asked permission to paint the man’s profile on the side exterior wall.
“I thought he’d take a week, but he did it in a day,” Mr. Tom says. “I love it. I love this place. There’s nowhere else like it.”
Omar Gordon is a Clarksdale native, too. As LaLa & Element 88 launch into their second set, they invite him onstage to jam. He first picked up a guitar 10 years ago. Now, he’s channeling Robert Johnson’s ferocity on stage, shredding with his instrument as he sings his original song, The Struggle:
Times are hard, and there’s nothing else to do
You’ve gotta get off your behind, and get a job or two
One thing I know, you’ve got to get out the struggle
“It’s just different here,” Gordon said, relaxing during the next break. “The blues, it’s what we are and who we are. This Mississippi music, it’s in our DNA.”