The Mississippi Delta’s history of hard times inspired the art form of blues music. Celebrating that dark legacy may be the region’s ticket to a brighter future.
IT’S lunchtime at the Ground Zero Blues Club on a typical weekday. The air is heavy and humid, and nothing seems to be happening around the crumbling, vacant buildings that make up downtown Clarksdale, Mississippi. Outside the club, an older couple from New Zealand chats up a pair of young women from Finland; inside, a few locals order catfish plates.
At the bar is a middle-aged biker from Kentucky who has been touring the South -- didn’t much care for Memphis, he says -- but he’s decided to linger in Clarksdale to check out an off-the-radar authentic juke joint. He’s staying in the Riverside Hotel, a former hospital for African-Americans where Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” died in 1937 after a car accident.
Drawn by the legacy of the blues, these visitors aren’t far from the mythical intersection where Robert Johnson supposedly traded his soul to the devil so he could make magic on a guitar. Folks here have memorialized the Crossroads, where U.S. 61 meets U.S. 49, with a kitschy sculpture of three giant blue guitars, but there’s no sign of Lucifer, unless he’s hanging at the nearby gas stations or the Church’s Chicken.
Located in an old warehouse that had stood vacant for 30 years, Ground Zero Blues Club was opened in May 2001 by actor and Mississippi native Morgan Freeman and Clarksdale businessmen Bill Luckett and Howard Stovall. Featuring four nights a week of live local and national blues acts, the club is designed to preserve and celebrate the town’s reputation as ground zero for the blues.