In all my travels, I haven’t spent a ton of time investigating small towns.
Growing up, my family trips consisted of resorts and cruises, metropolitan areas and islands. We focused on major tourist spots, and amenities that were family-friendly.
I should mention, I completely understand this approach, now that I have to juggle my wanderlust with my body’s predilection for breeding. I don’t mess around on those rare occasions when I’m managing my little people outside of their comfort zone of home. Identify “fun”, experience “fun”, return to base, drink heavily. Surefire family vacation success.
When I have been able to travel adults-only, I have broadened my horizons and tried to find less touristy destinations, but in general still prefer the more “exotic” wandering choice of international travel. While I certainly have passed through many small towns in my experiences abroad, they tend to simply be a part of the collage of the country and its culture. I didn’t know enough to spot how “small town” Ireland is different from “life in the city” Ireland, for example. It was all just, Ireland.
My point is, when identifying travel destinations, small towns haven’t been high on the list.
Then came the Super Summer Southern Sizzler Tour, or more specifically, Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Clarksdale is small. Super small. Small, as in, everyone knows everyone, and in my memory, it spans about six blocks each way.
And so very, very town. On the surface, it seems like a ghost town, but there is life here, if you stick around for awhile, and let it reveal itself to you. We learned over our two days here, that this is absolutely a community. The townfolk are Clarksdale’s heart and soul. But isn’t that what “town” is all about?
Here’s how small town this small town is:
There is a general store / pharmacy. A bank. A record store. A couple musical instrument stores, advertising that they provide guitar lessons. One deli/smoothie restaurant that looks out of place in its “franchise” appearance. Three cafes (all of which have a stage for local music, and each cafe takes a “turn” at being the one with a band that night). A few clothing and knick-knack shops here and there, with handmade signs letting passersby know that they are open for business. Everything else is boarded up, though. Attractive — blues and reds and yellows and greens — but shuttered. Abandoned.
On our first day, we checked into our (amazing) bed and breakfast and got to know the proprietor. Called the Chateau Debris, every wall was a collector’s dream. There was seemingly no end to his autographed posters of famous jazz and blues artists, an entire room dedicated to John Lennon, a separate area where he had every type, size, and variety of guitar and other stringed instrument sitting out on proud display. Meanwhile our room (the Bordello), was wall-to-wall, gorgeously framed paintings in the nude tradition. Completely blew us away.
The owner let us know he was renovating a couple other bed and breakfasts, and that Clarksdale was making a comeback — at which point he indicated a stack of brochures on a chair for “nightlife”, to make our stay a little easier to enjoy. (This is how we found out about the three venues, and how they were trading off who did a show each night.) He apologized on behalf of Clarksdale for our midweek timing — they would have more music on the weekend. Apparently we were also missing out on the blues festivals that Clarksdale hangs its hat on (it is, after all, the supposed location of the famous “Crossroads” story, where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil, in exchange for playing a mean guitar).
He was full of hope, small town pride, and friendliness. Welcome to my town, his every movement seemed to say.
That first night, thanks to his very helpful direction, we enjoyed homemade pasta at the BluesBerry Cafe, met the owner, enjoyed the band. We were one of maybe 15 people in the place. This count included the staff, and the owner. Oh, and the band.
The next day, we explored the neighborhood (all six blocks of it). We spotted maybe four other people walking down the street.
We stepped inside a record store — yes, actual vinyl sales — and chatted with the store owner, who was excited to hear that we were from Detroit.
We found our way to a harmonica store, where THE harmonica designer of the U.S. (seriously, musicians like Mick Jagger got their harmonicas from this guy, and he had the magazine covers on his wall to prove it) gave us a private concert in exchange for buying a couple of beers to enjoy during his performance.
For our final evening of entertainment, we headed to The Hambone, which at one point may have been a clothing shop, and was now renovated as a gallery, cafe, bar, and music venue. Of course, we were nearly the only people to get there early. The owners of course wanted to meet us and show us around to the backroom where they indulged in whittling, drawing, painting, sculpting, and pottery. And when we shared our stories with them about our day, they of course knew every single one of those people (and in fact told us, with a touch of disappointment, “Well darn, you’ve already met all the cool folks in town!”).
We sat down at our table when it was time for the music to start, with a clear view of the front door next to the stage. And who should walk through that front door, in a steady stream, but nearly every single person we had met and seen in our two days in Clarksdale. I mean, everybody. The other shop keepers, the other band, other people walking down the street … clearly, anybody who was anybody was going to be at this concert. (Admittedly, the show that night was terrific – we understood why nobody wanted to miss it).
We checked out of our room the next morning. It was time to continue on to our next adventure.
I recall sitting on a chair just outside that out-of-place smoothie joint where we had a final light brunch, gazing down the empty street, with a few boarded up doors, and cardboard signs on most of the rest of them pronouncing “Closed this week for the 4th of July!”. I reflected on how Clarksdale was, in every possible way, such a small town. The smallest of smalls, and the towniest of towns. What a tiny, enclosed little world, compared to my own.
And I remember thinking, I don’t want to go.
It happens sometimes. Typically I like to see as much as I can see, and experience as many new places and people as possible. But once in awhile, as every wanderer knows, the people you meet will win a spot in your heart, and make you want to pause all of your flurrying, and stay awhile. Every now and then, there are places that will sing to you.
And oh my, how Clarksdale did sing.
Other stops on our Super Summer Southern Sizzler Tour:
6 thoughts on “Small Town Blues (Clarksdale, MS)”
Love the hambone photo.
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Fantastic shots, and yet another incredible entry! Needless to say, I am immensely enjoying your series on the Super Summer Sizzler Tour. I am suitably impressed that you were able to boil Clarksdale down to a single awesome entry. I feel like I would struggle mightily to get it down into one concise entry. The seemingly endless unique encounters; the history; the music; the art; the community; the pure magic dichotomy of a “Ghost Town with a Pulse”. A complicated, quaint, and totally unique experience, and you captured it all beautifully. Well done!
I remember when we were shooting the neighborhood, I stepped off the curb, and into the street, to get a better shot of one of the dozens of awesome street murals. Now, I’ve been harassed by a few cops in my time (I know, shocking), so when I noticed the police car (one of maybe four vehicles we saw on the road all day), pulled a u-turn behind me, and started pulling up next to me, I stepped back on the sidewalk, and prepared myself to be dressed down for my artsy, and touristy behavior.
Much to my surprise, the uniformed gentleman in the car, having easily pegged us as the two tourists in town, rolled down his window, smiled broadly, shook our hands, and introduced himself to us as the Sheriff of Clarksdale. He asked where we were from, and officially welcomed us to town (as you said – every part of his demeanor was proud to welcome us to his town). As I recall he gave us some tips on places to see, and people to visit, before giving us each an awesome City of Clarksdale pin, with the mile markers for the infamous Crossroads. I immediately attached that pin to my camera bag strap, where it remains to this day. A super cool gesture, from a guy proudly representing a super cool town.
Well played, from start to finish, Clarksdale. In my own wanderings, I don’t usually make too much room for “going back” (so many places yet to see), but I would very much enjoy re-visiting Clarksdale somewhere down the road. Perhaps on the weekend next time. It would be cool to see what it looks like when they are “busy”.
We heard about Clarksdale from the advice of a friend of ours – I’m happy to pass that advice along to anyone who might be reading this now. If you’re anywhere within a hundred miles of this charismatic town (especially if you’re into Jazz/Blues, or just a fan of live music, and/or art in general), take the detour to Clarksdale, and (if possible) book a room at the Chateau Debris – You will not regret it.
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