I once took a road trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi, a Delta town in the northwestern corner of the state known primarily—okay, known only—as the epicenter of the blues.
My lifelong best friend Drew and I set out from our hometown in suburban Atlanta across the states of the Deep South. We drove through Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi practically all the way to the river. It’s an eight-hour trip that after Birmingham runs through 250 miles of mostly flat farmland. I remember thinking, as we passed the first highway exit in 18 miles, Clarksdale better be worth it.
We had a general idea of our mission: We would arrive in the evening and hit the town. We were bound to find bouncing clubs pumping out the sweet sounds of that familiar three-chord progression.
Clarksdale wouldn’t have the saxed up blues of the genre’s later development. This would be the country blues, the real, raw stuff—guitar, bass, drums, maybe a blues harp, and most definitely an old black local sitting with his acoustic, growling out some guttural lamentation. This was going to be the musical equivalent of watching a ballgame at Fenway before the designated hitter rule, with Yaz at the plate and Jim Rice on deck.
Clarksdale was plenty authentic. The downtown strip was lined with midcentury brick buildings that probably hadn’t been abandoned, though you couldn’t be sure. That certainly went for the Ground Zero Blues Club, the venue recommended by the travel guide at our motel.
It was in a stand-alone, two-story building with brown butcher’s paper covering the windows on the inside. The façade was white brick and had been needing a coat of paint for about 50 years. On the front porch were several worn-out couches. The place looked like it had the blues, although I found out later that it’s part-owned by Mississippi native and movie star Morgan Freeman, so this may have reflected some Hollywood creative influence.
Drew and I went in around 7:30. Some local boys were sitting at the bar, and a waitress was serving a couple of tables. We took a table in a dark corner near the stage and ordered two beers and some barbecue pork sandwiches, wondering when the music would begin. Finally the bandleader walked on stage. He announced that tonight would be an open stage night. If you play an instrument or sing, he said, come tell us what you play.
For a while, no one jumped in. Drew prodded me. I had several years’ experience playing blues guitar. That moment of awkward silence—and that prod—was my cue. Anyone could see the people needed to hear the blues that night, so I walked over and signed up.
My name was called first, and I climbed onto the stage. I strapped on the hollowbody guitar and looked out toward the audience, by now about two dozen people. Suddenly, I was on the field at Fenway, at bat with the ghost of Ted Williams hovering overhead. I savored the moment.
Then the rhythm section started up an easy shuffle in A, and the bandleader handed me a pick, and it was time to play. I’m sure my B.B. King impression (guitar, not voice) wasn’t half great, but it wasn’t half bad, either. And before I knew it, we rolled into a slow jam in E, and there I was, scaling pentatonically up and down the guitar neck like a seasoned pro.
The bandleader, at the end of the second song, asked me if I was sure I wasn’t from Clarksdale. That must be what he tells every poor sap that gets on stage, but I loved it anyway. When I was finished and went back to our table, I saw the crowd had grown, and people were clapping their hands and singing along. After a few more volunteers and several more numbers, I went back up for a final song, accompanied on vocals by a local man with considerably fewer teeth and more blues experience than I have. We jammed until he couldn’t sing anymore and my fingers ached.
Now Clarksdale is giving me ideas, and I hear there are some excellent blues clubs in Chicago. I feel another road trip coming on.