“I learned, in my legal work, that there were some people from Europe who were interested in starting a blues club in Clarksdale,” Luckett says. “I asked myself, ‘Does it take people from Amsterdam or London to show us the way?’ ”
The partners’ investment was a rare vote of confidence in a ¬community that’s seen a steady exodus of talent and wealth for decades, and Luckett admits he and his partners have had their share of doubters.
That comes as no great surprise; Clarksdale, like much of the Delta, has long been in a state of decline. There’s evidence of great wealth and gripping poverty, and not much in between. The never-ending hard times endured by many in this region gave birth to the blues and shaped our national culture.
The Delta, which stretches about 200 miles south of Memphis, is actually not a delta but an alluvial plain on which the Mississippi River and its tributaries have deposited some of the richest topsoil in the world. Through the years, it has remained one of the nation’s best growing regions, with cotton still a dominant crop, especially in northwestern Mississippi. That agricultural legacy, though, also explains the poverty; cotton production used to be labor intensive, and most of the heavy work -- the chopping and picking -- was done by humans. When production was mechanized, starting in the 1940s, the jobs began to disappear. Millions left the Delta to find employment in Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago. Those who stayed struggled to eke out a life in a land that offered very little.
In places like Tunica County, Mississippi, situated about 40 miles north of Clarksdale, more than half the residents lived in third-world conditions well into the 1980s. Rev. Jesse Jackson called Tunica “America’s Ethiopia,” a label that stung -- and stuck. It was common for national politicians to come to the Delta and leave a few sound bites and little else in their wake. But back in 1985, Jackson wasn’t far off the mark: Housing conditions for some people were abysmal, with open sewage running in ditches, and children were going to bed hungry.