United States: Music by the Mississippi

By Jesse Wright

Blues artist Richard Pryor performs outside the Rock & Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Photo / AFP
Blues artist Richard Pryor performs outside the Rock & Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Photo / AFP

Clarksdale, Mississippi, isn't on the way to anywhere anymore.

Time was, Highway 61 was a main artery of transportation through the US, a bitumen shadow of the Mississippi River, running from Wisconsin to New Orleans.

The highway carried men and cargo across a nation; it brought inspiration to artists including Mississippi Fred McDowell and Bob Dylan and all of that ran right through Clarksdale.

Highway 61 still runs through the town, although these days it doesn't carry much.

Now, all the cargo and commuters zip down the Interstate 55 freeway, bypassing Clarksdale by a good 61km. Now the only people who come to town are folks on a mission.

Year round, Clarksdale draws tourists from all over the world eager to gaze across wide-open cotton fields and tread the same ground as Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker and others. The Delta town that was the hometown of so many of America's blues musicians has become the main attraction for a type of fan who buys into not just the music, but the whole lifestyle.

Clarksdale is the place to come for those fans who want to feel that same warm northern Mississippi sun, to taste the same moonshine, to smell the same hot oil and to eat that same fried catfish as the first blues musicians.

In spite of Clarksdale's distance, many of these fans come from Australia.

On any given day, walking down the streets or inside the bars, the record store or the espresso bar, one can almost count on hearing a "g'day" or a "how ya goin'?"

Inside the downtown tourist bureau hangs an Australian flag and next to that is a clock bearing the current time in Melbourne. Just how many Melbourne visitors the town gets is hard to say, but in 2008, the Clarksdale city council named Melbourne as the southernmost city in Mississippi and during the city's annual Juke Joint Festival in April, there's a special Australia night party downtown. Two cities, a world apart, share something.

"Melbourne is a big music area down there, so we get a lot of people from the Melbourne area," said Mac Crank, the director of Clarksdale Revitalization Inc, a development office that doubles as the local tourism office.

Across from the old bus station is the old Masonic Lodge, a massive two-storey rock building that had been for sale for years. Last September, Australian Adrian Kosky bought the place. Kosky spends half the year at home in Daylesford, just northeast of Melbourne, but he has an American partner from Memphis and Clarksdale seemed like a better place than most for a second home.

Kosky first fell in love from afar. In 2005, Kosky wrote a song about Clarksdale. He said he'd never been here, only read about the juke joints, and he knew about its blues history. All of that inspired his song The High Side of the Low End.

"Somewhere down in Clarksdale is where I want to be/fish fry heaven and the blues for free/someday I'm going to make it there and pay my dues/let the Mississippi River be my muse," he sang.

His passion is not unique. Considering Clarksdale's size - just under 18,000 people, there is a fair bit to do, although perhaps nothing's quite so alluring as exploring the colourful Mississippi past that seems just round every corner.

Within a single square kilometre downtown, visitors can see the home where playwright Tennessee Williams spent several youthful summers as well as the old Southern mansions that fired his imagination. In October, the Tennessee Williams Festival brings the playwright's work and his personal history to life with Front Porch plays, played out on, of course, the porches of local mansions.

Fiona Boyes, a blues singer and guitarist who grew up in Melbourne has been coming to Clarksdale for years. Beyond the sights and the sounds of Clarksdale, Boyes said, in an email interview, there's something else about the small Delta town that keeps her and her countrymen (and women) coming back, something especially alluring for Australians.

"I think the wonderful connection that Clarksdale has for many of us has something to do with a few defining elements of the Australian national consciousness," she said.

"We often celebrate the 'larrikin' for example. It's a little hard to explain but a larrikin is a person who is a 'character' - it can encapsulate someone who maybe funny, quirky - even be a little rough around the edges - but someone who is not bound by uptight society and who is not afraid to be themselves."

Check out photos of Clarksdale's vibrant music scene

IF YOU GO

Getting there: By car, Clarksdale is 1.5 hours south of Memphis, the city with the nearest airport.

The Greyhound Bus terminal in Memphis has twice-daily buses to Clarksdale. Both leave in the morning from Memphis. However, the bus station in Clarksdale isn't exactly close to downtown, and you'll need to get a taxi into town. The Jolly Cab taxi service can be reached at (662) 624-9256. If you are going to rent a car, the best place to do that is in Memphis.

Staying there: One of the most charming hotels is the old Riverside Inn, which is a few blocks from downtown but takes cash only and has no website.

Playing there: Few of the music venues have websites, but Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art has listings of events and music.

Come in August for the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, although there's live music daily.

The Quapaw Canoe Company has rentals and can help you plan a trip for whatever kind of water adventure you want and the Tennessee Williams Festival in October is a must-see for any fans of Southern literature.

The writer travelled at his own expense.

- AAP

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