An hour from the music Mecca of Memphis along the US-61 is an unassuming town known as Clarksdale, Mississippi. The county seat of Coahoma County sits on the Sunflower River and is known as the birthplace of NFL player J.T Gray of the New Orleans Saints. It feels like almost any other small city in the United States, with a minor claim to fame and a degree of civic pride, but Clarksdale is different. Why? Because it also claims to have brought blues music to the world.
Some might feel it is a spurious claim – the blues started across the southern states after the American Civil War, and no single city can claim to have been the birthplace of the music. However, there is no denying Clarksdale’s influence on modern blues.
Deal With The Devil
One of the classic stories that make Clarksdale so influential in modern blues is Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil. Several of Johnson’s songs have become blues standards, performed by musicians long after his death. Popular artists such as Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan have all cited him as an influence, and the legend goes that he got his ability by making a deal with the devil.
Working on a plantation close to Clarksdale, Johnson is said to have taken his guitar to a crossroads at midnight, where he met the devil. The devil tuned his guitar, played him some songs, and took his soul in exchange. Having previously shown little inclination or talent, Johnson could suddenly play a new type of music, never heard before.
The crossroads upon which this momentous occasion/legend was performed is still marked today. What is even stranger is Johnson’s death, just a few years later. It remains unexplained, and was wholly premature for a man of only thirty eight years. Did the devil come to take what he was owed? It is, of course, unlikely that Johnson did deal with the devil, but that hasn’t stopped him, and Clarksdale, from becoming part of the blue legacy.
If the devil is in Clarksdale and offering out blues talent, then it could explain the vast array of great musicians that have come from the city. Sam Cooke was born and raised in Clarksdale, and he’s one of a huge list of famous names heralding from this corner of Mississippi. Son House, John Lee Hooker, Junior Parker, Ike Turner, Eddie Boyd, Muddy Waters, Earl Hooker, and Lil Green are just a few more who have called the city home. These are influential artists; so much so that the founder of the National Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame, LaMont Robinson, said Cooke was the greatest singer ever to sing.
These are names that appeal to every blues musician in the world, from the United States to Canada, Europe to Australia. Their music has influence not only the blues but other genres as well. One only has to look back to Robert Johnson and the people he influenced. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones said, “I’ve never heard anybody before or since use the [blues] form and bend it so much to make it work for himself,” and that wouldn’t have been possible without Clarksdale.
It isn’t just the artists that have come from Clarksdale that make it what it is today. By trading on its history, it has become a place where the blues continues to flourish, where people come and gather on a yearly basis. Clarksdale thrives on its heritage; the International Blues Challenge is sponsored by Visit Clarksdale, and locations such as the Delta Blues Museum and the Juke Joint Festival all continue to attract visitors. By bringing blues fans to the area, the city ensures the legacy lives on. It also acts as a magnet for aspiring musicians, which helps the notion of it being a blues town become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Indeed, an association with Clarksdale, even today, is seen as something of a badge of honor. Florida-based singer-songwriter Bacon James pays homage to the city on his website, by writing a fictional bio that suggests he, too, is from the area. It’s a clever way to acknowledge the role the city has played in the development of blues over the years, a homage of sorts to its ongoing influence. A not-so-subtle reference of a grander nature was made in 1998 when Robert Plant and Jimmy Page titled their album ‘Walking in Clarksdale’. Even artists not directly associated with the city, like Bacon James and Robert Plant, can find a way to demonstrate their understanding of its importance in blues history.
Clarksdale’s legacy lives on, not just through tourism or hidden references to its past, nor the legend of Robert Johnson. 24-year-old Clarksdale resident, Christone (Kingfish) Ingram, is a Grammy Award Winner, picking up the gong for Best Contemporary Blues Album at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards. He is very much the new blood in blues music, but hailing from a city so steeped in blues history that it must be hard not to pick up a guitar if you live there.
Feature specially submitted to livemusicnewsandreview.com
Submitted by: JBostic
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