The Oxford American is billing it as The Most Southern Weekend On Earth.
On July 9-10, lovers of Southern culture will gather in Clarksdale, Miss., to listen to music, attend interviews, eat, drink, dance and generally have a good time. You can register for the weekend by going to www.oxfordamerican.org.
If you don’t stop along the way, you can make it from west Little Rock to downtown Clarksdale in two and a half hours. Believe me, I know. I made the trip every week during the almost four years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority.
The name of the weekend is based on James C. Cobb’s excellent book “The Most Southern Place On Earth: The Mississippi Delta And The Roots Of Regional Identity.”
Here’s how Amazon describes Cobb’s book: “‘Cotton obsessed, Negro obsessed,’ Rupert Vance called it in 1935. ‘Nowhere but in the Mississippi Delta,’ he said, ‘are antebellum conditions so nearly preserved.’ This crescent of bottomlands between Memphis and Vicksburg, lined by the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers, remains in some ways what it was in 1860: a land of rich soil, wealthy planters and desperate poverty — the blackest and poorest counties in all the South.
“And yet it is a cultural treasure house as well — the home of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Charley Pride, Walker Percy, Elizabeth Spencer and Shelby Foote. Painting a fascinating portrait of the development and survival of the Mississippi Delta, a society and economy that is often seen as the most extreme in all the South, James C. Cobb offers a comprehensive history of the Delta, from its first white settlement in the 1820s to the present.”
For those who are intrigued with Delta culture, as I am, I can highly recommend Cobb’s book.
And for those who want a true Mississippi Delta experience, I can highly recommend a couple of days in Clarksdale.
The Most Southern Weekend On Earth will begin on a Friday night at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero with performances by Robert Belfour, Jimbo Mathus and Kevin Gordon. Tickets for Friday night are $20.
Saturday events include:
— An 11 a.m. Mississippi Delta hot tamale talk and tasting moderated by my friend Amy Evans Streeter of the Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss. When you have a chance, go to www.southernfoodways.com and check out some of the oral histories Amy has done. The 11 a.m. event will be at Delta Amusement Cafe at 348 Delta Ave.
Delta Amusement owner Bobby Tarzi is a true Southern character.
In an article last October in the Hattiesburg American, Jamie O’Quinn wrote: “Our group met early for breakfast the next morning at the Delta Amusement Cafe. Here owner Bobby Tarzi not only took our order, cooked and served, he also showed us how to play Tonk, the card game the locals play at his diner on their lunch break. As we made our way out to attend the workshop session at the Cutrer Mansion, I was met outside the diner door by local icon Puttin Hatchett, who showed me a few quick dice tricks while stopping periodically to return greetings from passersby on the street.”
Reading about Tonk and dice tricks, I’m reminded of this February 2008 story in the Press Register at Clarksdale: “On Friday night, the public integrity division of the Mississippi attorney general’s office conducted a raid on the Delta Amusement Cafe. … The raid was conducted in conjunction with the Mississippi Gaming Commission.”
Like I said, it’s a colorful place.
— A 1 p.m. interview conducted by OA editor Marc Smirnoff with writer Peter Guralnick, who’s considered on the top music writers in American history. Guralnick’s books include “Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm And Blues And The Southern Dream of Freedom” and “Last Train To Memphis: The Rise Of Elvis Presley.” The interview will take place at the Delta Blues Museum (www.deltabluesmuseum.org).
— At 4:30 p.m., the first OA Independent Beer Tasting and Contest at Rust, a fine restaurant along Delta Avenue.
The weekend concludes with performances at Ground Zero on Saturday night by Mose Allison and True Soul Revue. Tickets are $30 for Saturday night.
While on Delta Avenue, be sure and visit Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art Inc., which I’ve mentioned in previous posts.
Here’s how owner Roger Stolle describes the place on his website at www.cathead.biz: “Cat Head is a six-day-a-week store that features a full selection of blues CDS, DVDs, books, magazines, T-shirts, artwork and collectibles. It’s kind of like shopping in a juke joint, I like to say. It’s the kind of store I always dreamed of finding but never did. It has become a base of operations for other blues projects and a clearinghouse of information about area musicians, juke joints and festivals.
“The cool thing is that Clarksdale has a lot to offer. Great blues music four or five nights a week, every week — plus killer festivals a few times a year. Wonderful musicians, artists and characters live and work here. Since I moved here, I’m sure at least a dozen others have as well — from the Netherlands and all over the United States. … Because we’re part of the ‘roots music corridor’ that runs for Memphis to Chicago, we get tourists from all over the United States, Europe and Asia every single week. They come in search of the land where blues began, and when they finally reach the blues mecca of Clarksdale for the first time, and they drop by Cat Head, I know they’re hooked.”
Ground Zero is a great music venue, created to look like a juke joint, complete with old couches and chairs on the front porch of the former cotton sorting facility. But if you want a real juke joint experience, you also need to head to Red’s Lounge a block over on Sunflower Avenue.
Stolle writes: “Sure it looks closed and/or scary, but it’s actually just a big ol’ wonderful house party. It’s open some weekday nights and all weekends with live blues some weekends and special events during festival time. If you come to Clarksdale, you simply must visit Big Red at his killer juke. Regulars include T-Model Ford, Robert Belfour, Big T., Lightnin’ Malcolm, Wesley Jefferson and Big Jack Johnson.”
I earlier mentioned the Cutrer Mansion. It was the home of Blanche Cutrer, on whom Tennessee Williams based the character Blanche DuBois in “A Street Named Desire” and Carol Cutrere in “Orpheus Descending.” For years, the home was owned by the Catholic Church and used as a school. It’s now the Cutrer Cultural Arts Center, operated in association with Coahoma Community College, and is available for workshps and conferences
Williams is also thought to have used the house as a model for Belle Reve in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and as a model for Big Daddy’s house in “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.” Drop by and look at the house when in Clarksdale.
You should also find some time to hang out in the Delta Blues Museum either before or after the 1 p.m. Saturday interview. The museum includes the remains of the cabin from Stovall Farms where Muddy Waters lived during his days as a sharecropper and tractor driver. You can also find a guitar made from a plank of wood from Waters’ cabin and used on tour by ZZ Top.
Many of its people are poor, but the culture is incredibly rich. Just don’t expect the South as told by Disney. This time of year, it’s hot, dusty and gritty in Clarksdale. There are rundown buildings and burned-out homes. It’s real, which is why I enjoy it far more than an amusement park. This is not “Blues Land” complete with rides and a water park. It’s a struggling town where people live, die and try to hold onto the good parts of their past while battling to overcome racial divisions that remain deep and wide.
Yes, Clarksdale just might be the most Southern place on earth.