"This Ain't Just a Blues Place" (CNN, 2017)
Sometimes you don't need to see a thing to hear or feel it. It's like that with the blues. It's like that with blues places. And, it's like that with Clarksdale, which is often confused for both, but, if you listen to the folks who live there, is sometimes neither.
In this essay for CNN's Explore Parts Unknown series, I reflect on the tension between black residents of Clarksdale, Mississippi and the town's robust blues tourism economy. On one hand, Clarksdale's status as a blues place is unquestionable. It is a matter of historical record. On the other, black residents know that the town can be so much more than that.
Here's a selected Excerpt:
"You hear it before you see it, especially on nights like this, which is the first of the Juke Joint Festival. For the next four days Blues Alley along the downtown square in Clarksdale, Mississippi, will come alive with blues concerts, sidewalk shows, street vendors, and any number of blues jamming sessions.
I am walking to the Delta Amusement Cafe, a small blues club in the heart of the Alley, where, according to the festival schedule, I am sure to hear some of the region’s best hill country blues. I am reminded of an earlier conversation with local blueswoman Rosalind Wilcox: “Hill country is, like, you on the front porch, the sun is going down, ’til midnight or later hear that thump. The Pentecostal Church is really up in there because that thump, the drums, you know. It calls up all those rhythms that come all the way from Africa.”
From a distance, sounds from the Alley pepper the night air—the faint wail of a single guitar string, the indistinct echo of laughter, the pulse and smack of drums—creating a chorus wrought with energy and excitement. Closer, it is a party, a festival. From the flickering neon lights of the Ground Zero Blues Club to the dull entrance of the New Roxy, small groups of blues enthusiasts mill about, grinning, walking in dance, all chasing some unknown fancy."