I love Clarksdale.
The population as of 2000 was only about 20,000 people, but this is definitely a place I could see myself living for a little while. I do not understand it here, and I want to. Clarksdale is straight in the heart of the poorest of poor Mississippi. The most visible source of economic viability in Clarksdale is its blues history. The towns all around here are much smaller than this; I drove through some towns with signs that said things like "Pop. 623" to get here.
There is still some real fallout still going on here from the days of segregation, and a very noticeable divide in the behavior between generations. The young are like the young everywhere-- oversized clothing and endless hiphop blasting. The elderly are much different; much more reserved, with a distinct air of cautiousness.
Clarksdale has a strange sort of vibe, something is a bit off-kilter or creepy about it as a whole. It's hard to describe. The people are generally quite pleasant. I walked into a corner store today and three elderly black men were sitting amongst the remnants of their lunch. They all three immediately nodded their heads and greeted me. I heard one of them say to the others, quietly, "Now there's just what I needed to see!" The two chuckled in response. I guess my dress is shorter than they're used to around here.
Three times now I've been waiting in line behind a mother with a young black child (talking young, like six or under) and the kid gazes at me without smiling even after I wave or smile at him or her. His mom will finish her business at the counter and they walk away, and I see the child scurrying to catch up, pulling on his mom's hand and pointing at me with wide eyes.
I don't know what this means. What is remarkable about me? White? Dark hair? Different type of dress? (I have never felt like much of a sophisticated dresser, but I feel like a real city slicker here, even with wearing clothes that have been rumpled in the suitcase for a month).
But it does personify what is strange about this part of Mississippi. WHAT IS WITH THE LOOKS? There are so many very polite people, but they stare for soooo long. It makes me feel everyone is very suspicious.
I'm staying at a motel that's less than a block from the storied 61/49 crossroad. Though I did want to see this, just to say I have, staying so close to it was entirely circumstantial, as this happens to also be the cheapest motel in town. Good for me, unless the devil happens to frequent this area. Which it kind of feels he does. It probably sounds hokey but this really is a strange town. The motel, like the one I stayed in last night and the night before, is run by a married Indian immigrant couple. The office smells heavily of curry and I have the impression these couples work solely for the benefit of their children; to send their children to college so they can create a better life. I walked out of my room twice tonight to get something from the car, and both times I caught the woman exercising in the emptiness of the U-shaped building, pacing and raising her hands up and down with each step. I couldn't figure out what she was doing until I saw it was the owner's wife, but it made me nervous because she was looking so crazy.
I think I have alluded to this in a previous post, but poor country is a different thing than poor city. In the city, even in Detroit, there's almost always someone around, and behavior is more predictable. The chronic alcoholic asleep on the curb with his ribs and hipbones defining his entire silhouette and the neighborhood crackhead with his bright pink eyes tend to be predictably unpredictable in the city (at least during the day). The country has a similarly desperate tinge about it, but with less of a sense of how the truly down and out are going to behave. Though I guess the thing that really gets my heart rate up in both locales is the same-- the solitary figure slowly roving down a dark street. There is a man who thinks he has nothing to fear. The neighborhood streets are much darker here; most do not have street lights. I keep to myself as much as possible while away from the safety of shows and stores, and try to make it seem as though a man is with me. Motels are prime picking for evil minds. I've heard them talking in the parking lots at night.
In other news, I went to the Delta Blues Museum this morning, and happened to drive by the Riverside Hotel, the place where Bessie Smith died after having her arm torn off on Highway 61. It's a small, tired looking building that doesn't seem to have changed much in the subsequent decades, aside from raising their rates to $10 more a night than every other motel in the area. The museum was really fantastic and had a lot of cool artifacts, including a very nice exhibit on Muddy Waters, the highlight of which was the actual log cabin he resided in when Alan Lomax paid him a visit. They also had one of the six known copies of Charlie Patton's "Pony Blues" on display. Maybe the most valuable thing I've seen in person. Certainly the most valuable record I've been near.
I also caught a show at an art gallery tonight. I felt lucky finding a show on a Tuesday but it didn't turn out to be much of anything. I met a woman from Baltimore who travels with her husband all over the US to attend blues festivals. We had a ten-minute conversation in which she told me her in-depth theory as to how popular music is leading to the downfall of American civilization. A blues fan who's way too serious about music-- what a shocker.
She did tell me, though, of the festivals they hold in the area every so often which bring all the old, old, old folks down from the surrounding hills and into town to play. What is this secret network and how do I find them... This is the other half of the reason I think I would really like living here. I want to meet these people, and I don't think I can actually get the type of recording I'm looking for without really knowing them first. And that is going to take more than a week because they are hard to find, they are spread out all over the region, and it takes more time than it does up north to build trust.
I need funding.
The woman I met tonight warned me of the time she hugged an old black bluesman because she was so happy to meet him, and how quickly he stiffened up, not knowing how to react, as though I would do the same. Foolish... You can't do that to a man who lived through Jim Crow. She was nice enough, but geez.