#BluesTraveling on #BlackoutTuesday: along the tracks
These are the tracks that brought Muddy Waters and so many bluesmen from Clarksdale to Chicago, bringing the blues along with them.
I began #BlackoutTuesday with a walk along these tracks. Here's a virtual tour:
We celebrate the Mississippi Delta as the birthplace of the blues. It's also a birthplace of civil rights. The two are related. It's complicated.
Many Mississippi bluesmen grew up on plantations.
Many left the plantations.
Muddy Waters was part of the Great Migration from the Jim Crow South. He was one of millions of black men and women who took that train.
The railroad transported people, music, and cotton northward. "Father of the Blues" WC Handy first heard the blues on a platform awaiting a train in Tutwiler. He writes about awaking (the train was several hours late) to hear a man playing a song about where the Southern crossed the Dog -- two railroads that crossed at Moorhead... a hub of both rail transport and juke joints, where this blues player was headed.
WC Handy's historical marker in Clarksdale is beside these tracks, on a spot where he lived. In that same spot 100 years later is Wade Walton's barbershop. Wade Walton's blues trail marker notes that along with being a well-known bluesman and barber, he was also a charter member of Clarksdale's NAACP.
NAACP, SNCC, SCLC: they all had roots in the Delta. Many here still remember when Emmett Till was murdered a few towns away. Some still remember lynching. They remember when the Mule Train left Marks nearby, and remember hearing Dr. King speak here -- on 4th Street, before it was renamed Martin Luther King St. They'll still tell you about meetings in church basements here, and the boycotts and marches that emerged. This past is connected to our present.
The depot where Muddy boarded his train is just across the street. He sat in a segregated waiting room, which later became the site of civil rights actions. At the last Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival, Storyworks presented a scene in this space, followed by a community conversation led by Dr. Francoise Hamlin. It was written by Jenna Welch and Aallyah Wright, a local journalist who also wrote "Beautiful Agitators," about Vera Mae Pigee and her activism and community leadership here.
On the other side of the tracks, you'll see a patchwork of brick buildings and empty lots. We used to have beautiful brick buildings on both sides of the tracks. They were businesses so bustling that people here still talk about how you couldn't walk down the 4th Street sidewalk on a Friday night, it was so packed. People came to the city from their homes on plantations (now sharecropping farms) to shop, catch a movie at a theatre like the New Roxy, or hang out at Messenger's or a juke joint like Red's. They'd get their hair done at Mrs. Pigee's beauty shop, or prescriptions filled at Dr. Aaron Henry's pharmacy. Many of the community's leaders and activists were local business owners; they couldn't be fired for their civil rights actions.
Many of those buildings are now gone. As sharecropping jobs were lost to mechanized farming, the Great Migration hastened. Population declined. Buildings emptied; blight crept in. This impacted both sides of the tracks. But on the south side, buildings were dismantled -- literal brick by brick. They were sold for their bricks. The bricks were more valued than the history they held.
One journalist who saw their value and fought for preservation was Panny Mayfield. As a journalist, she was invited into juke joints to photograph musicians (they often had no cameras of their own) and became close with many in the community. For years she helmed the Sunflower Blues Festival; she also founded the Tennessee Williams Festival. She worked with the community to save the Cutrer Mansion when it was on the edge of sale or demolition and in deep disrepair. She also fought to save many of the buildings that still stand -- on both sides of the tracks.
We still have two sides of the tracks here. Our community is still working on traversing them. And those buildings that may seem empty: we're working on transforming them.
The New Roxy has transformed into an amphitheater that's home to many beloved music festivals. Next door, Sean Apple's Bad Apple Blues Club is about to open: what was once a juke joint is about to become one once again. And on the other side of the tracks, across from the once-segregated Greyhound bus station, Higher Purpose Co. is now transforming the old Delta Furniture building.
Higher Purpose Co. is (re)building community wealth and supporting black business ownership. They're a nonprofit working to disrupt a system of structural inequalities, and address economic injustices. Most recently, they've launched a Black Business Relief Fund, and are supporting a new generation of businesses and community here.
Rewatch their video announcing purchase of the Delta Furniture building for their new HQ, and you'll recognize the path they walk: across the tracks, emerging on the other side.
These same tracks that took Muddy Waters from Clarksdale to Chicago.
That depot where he waited for the train, in that waiting room that eventually was "integrated"? It's now home to Visit Clarksdale and Coahoma County Tourism, which brings blues fans, travelers, business, and jobs back to our town. When you visit, you can feel it: there's deep history where you stand.
This is the birthplace of the blues. It's also a birthplace of civil rights.
The two are related.
To read more about the connectedness of it all:
Dr. Francoise Hamlin's book is for sale at www.CatHead.biz : "Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta after World War II." Buy and read it alongside "Parchman Farm: Mississippi's State Penitentiary in the 1930's." Again, not unrelated.
You'll hear many blues songs about Parchman -- not coincidentally called "The Farm." Parchman remains frequently in the news today, and has deep Delta history. If you want to understand more about roots of cotton-pickin' blues and life down on "The Farm," and also the relationship between policing, prisons, and race in our country: start there.
Several of the bluesmen you still hear playing Live From Clarksdale grew up learning the blues as they worked both cotton fields and juke joints. Listen closely to their songs and their stories. This isn't past history; it's our present.
(c) Shared Experiences USA