Clarksdale, Mississippi: A Town Reviving from Blues Music?

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June 1, 2015

Clarksdale, Mississippi: A Town Reviving from Blues Music?

By: Barney Pearson, guest blogger

My hometown is Clarksdale in the heart of the Mississippi Delta situated right on the Mississippi River across from Arkansas. Over the last 25 years, Clarksdale’s downtown has been victim to very dramatic changes due to severe economic downturns after companies like Cooper Tire and Rubber packed up and moved to other cities. Also, the town’s racial makeup has dramatically altered with most of the whites “fleeing” the rampant crime.  Sadly, “white flight” has taken hold with 60% of the white population disappearing. While other parts of the US have prospered, this small town has suffered a depression.

In January 2014, I visited my hometown with a friend from the east coast, who had never been to the Delta. It was so interesting to see my hometown from a different perspective.  A town that I thought had nothing left turned out to be a town rich with a unique music history and culture.

Most of Clarksdale’s downtown area has fallen victim to the Walmart Empire leaving many of the mom-and-pop businesses broke and their buildings empty. Sadly, this includes The Den Restaurant, a family restaurant owned by Laura Ryals, my mother- in-law. The business thrived for 20 plus years with plate lunches selling for $2.50 including dessert as late as 1990.   My friend was surprised to see the building had been vacant for five years with “The Den” sign still hanging outside.  Inside the door portal was an unsecured picture frame stating “Within this door walks the smartest people in the world.” Most of the interior including the booths and pictures were intact.

However, after exploring more of the downtown, I noticed most of the downtown businesses are catering to the blues music and history with hopes of attracting tourist and revitalizing the local economy.  It consists of several restaurants, juke joints, galleries, souvenir shops, and a blues museum, one of the oldest in the state. My friend and I introduced ourselves to the owner of a blues store. A frontiersman in many ways, this shop owner had such a passion for blues music that he moved from the east coast and left behind a high paying marketing job to open the “Cat Head” record store and to author of a book on the subject.  For me, it was surprising to meet someone who would sacrifice the city life and a highly paid job to own a small business in a town of about 17,000 people.  The “Cat Head” store has a wide range of music and books pertaining to the blues genre. It is a treasure for the person experiencing the blues for the first time or any diehard fan.

Another surprising find was around the corner is the Rock and Blues Museum, which opened in the Netherlands in 1997 and moved to Clarksdale in 2005.  I found it fascinating that an entire museum founded in the Netherlands moved to my hometown of Clarksdale. The museum includes displays containing memorabilia of blues music including greats Betsy Smith, Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Ike Turner.  Also on display are John Lennon, Beech Boys, Buddy Holly and other great rock and roll alumni albums and concert posters.

Finally, Clarksdale hosts the “Juke Joint Festival” which has an international appeal with visitors from all over the world.  The city comes alive with thousands of people with the chance to take a part in the festivities.  The festival is annually in April.

In the past, I had little desire to return to my hometown of Clarksdale; however, after taking a second look, Clarksdale has a rich history in blues music that I never noticed for years. Visitors flock to the town for the festivals. I notice the irony of a genre about the “blues” in everyday life has brought life back to Clarksdale.