Monday, June 17, 2013

Sleeping with Muddy Waters

Ruth really did her homework when she found a place to stay in Clarksdale, Mississippi, that was "close to the earth." We are living for the next several days in the former G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital. There are many famous ghostly memories floating around this place. The great Bessie Smith, who got her start busking street corners, reached the zenith of her career playing big halls and pleasure palaces, and now was on a back-end downward slide.

She was on her way to perform in the region and, while on Highway 61 (man, this road has some serious stories connected with it!) in an old Packard with wooden frame driven by her driver and lover, they didn't see a truck that had pulled over for a tire check and was returning back out to the road. The two vehicles collided and Bessie, who had her arm out the window, took the full brunt of the crash. The roof of the car was torn off and the driver of the truck fled the scene. A doctor, traveling with a friend returning from fishing, happened upon  the wreck and in the light of their headlights assessed the scene. Bessie's arm was attached by just a few ligaments and an artery and the doctor applied a tourniquet. Bessie had severe internal injuries to her chest and abdomen. To make matters worse, another car then crashed into the doctor's car and suddenly there were more injuries to deal with. Things get really hazy at this point as back then, due to segregation, blacks and whites couldn't go to the same hospitals or even be carried in the same ambulances.

Eventually, after quite a while of searching for help, an ambulance arrived based on a call from the runaway truck driver, picked up Bessie, and brought her to the G.T. Thomas Hospital. Bessie was probably close to death upon arriving but they performed an amputation of her arm in this room,
though she was pronounced dead at 11:30 am, on September 26, 1937, at the age of 43. Her doctor said that she would have probably died even if she had been taken to a better-quipped white hospital in a closer location. After her death, Bessie was taken to Philadelphia, and buried in an unmarked grave, until a tomb stone was paid for by Janis Joplin in 1970. Bessie was remembered again...

In 1943, Mrs. Z.L.Ratliff rented the hospital from Thomas to use as a hotel and eventually bought it and extended the building to include 21 rooms over two floors. It opened in 1944, and has remained in the Ratliff family to the present day. Up until a couple of months ago, when he died, the hotel was run by Frank "Rat" Ratliff, who was just a child when his mother began the hotel. He, and eventually his wife, Joyce, and now his daughter, Zelena (known as "Zee"), run this hotel, which has seen the blues greats such as Sonny Boy Williamson, Duke Ellington, John Lee Hooker, the Staple Singers, Muddy Waters (whose room we now sleep in),

Muddy Waters

Ike Turner, and many others. Ike Turner recorded his demo of the song, Rocket 88, widely considered the first rock n' roll song in 1951, in the basement. The hotel was for years one of the only places in the state where a black man could stay. I say man, as it was run as a rooming house for men only to avoid the kinds of "troubles" that women could bring in. It remains pretty much unchanged since its early days -- basic, clean, creaky floors, doors that have moved in their frames, plywood painted walls, not necessarily a place Mr. and Mrs. America would come to stay but a super clean, friendly, deeply historic place that, if it isn't in the National Register of Historic Places, certainly should be. Oh, and it's now co-ed...

Long dark hallway in Riverside Hotel

Still, the old creaky hotel can be strangely spooky, as you might expect from an old hospital converted to a men's rooming house. Under different conditions you might see this place on an America's Haunted Houses TV episode. What you feel instead is a warm and welcoming home away from home. John F.Kennedy, Jr. stayed here for four days surreptitiously, to find the roots of the blues and be away from the limelight.

J.F.K. Jr.

Red’s Blues Club, an original juke joint,

resides just up the street from the Riverside Hotel, and has been one of Clarksdale’s premier institutions in spotlighting local and national blues greats. Part of the Red’s experience is the location on the edge of downtown or whatever is left of a once-thriving downtown (more on this later). The front of this corner establishment, which once was a music store when town was hoppin’, is packed with old shoeshine chairs, trash cans, “stuff,” and on the street at least one, maybe two, huge truck-pulled rolling BBQ smokers. Red, a stocky black man of undetermined age, greeted us as we walked by shouting out some anachronistic racial comments which, frankly, were quite refreshing in a turnabout sort of way. I quickly saw that if someone said the sky was blue he would say it was red (pun intended) just to mess with you. Keep in mind now, that any conversation here in the south is not a simple question & answer or comment response. Everything just takes its time and course. With Red, we jived and bantered for about half an hour -- Ruth and I had to be worthy adversaries. Seeing that he couldn't “woof” us, he brought us into his club, which was closed until evening, to show some of the pictures of blues greats who had played there and write-ups on his club.

Later that evening we returned, upon the advice of our hotel manager, to Red’s to listen to a 15-year-old blues guitarist, a 14-year-old drummer, and an “old” bass player. Let me start by saying that this young man, “Kingfish” was his moniker, was one of the finest guitar players I have ever seen, and this is not a light statement. He could have stood up on stage with Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton, and just go down the list from there.  

When he first walked in, plugged in his guitar, amp, and a couple of effects pedals, then played a quick riff to check out his fingers and tuning, I looked over at Ruth and said, sight unseen, “This is going to be good.” So, do you think you have some latent skepticism when someone says, “Go see a couple of kids play the blues?” Yeah, we did…so we listened for an hour and a half and the kid hit every fret with every string in every possible blues, rock, rhythm, riffle, country, whatever style you can imagine, with the presence of an 80-year-old. He made his guitar sound like a violin, played with his teeth, played with both hands making chords, chopping, slicing, -strumming, drumming, -trilling, sustaining, -bending, picking, and rarely repeating musical patterns. 

You hear some great players and soon tire from monotony, but Kingfish kept everyone wanting more and did it with style.  He even did this, mind you, while in the same room, with a bright-as-daylight, 50-inch TV, showing two guys beating each other to a pulp, boxing, while Red dispensed beers out of a cooler behind the "bar." This was a juke joint! When they finally took a break and we went out for some smoked pork rib tips, I asked Kingfish if he had a CD. He said he only had YouTube videos and would come out with a recording soon. I am including a taste of him here at 13-years-old for you to keep an eye on and say you knew him when! OK...I'll give you one more taste of his music from a video taken at  the Juke Joint Festival recently.

Just up the street, around the corner, about a quarter mile away sits Ground Zero Blues Club, 

an oasis in the midst of the blight of downtown Clarksdale. It is co-owned by Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett, the mayor of the town, and was named as one of the "top one hundred bars and clubs in America." During our visit to cool off with a beer at the bar, we witnessed loads of mostly young, hip, well-heeled people, smartly dressed, wandering through taking pictures big-eyed, of the interior, the walls of which are covered from floor to ceiling with graffiti. This is the place where the big names come and has a full service bar and kitchen. There are a slew of blues clubs and bars in town and this stands at the pinnacle of them all in "status."  

Now I did emphasize that last word with purpose, and we did walk by late one night and saw people crowded at the front door waiting to get in or be checked in with their wrist bands, but this is not necessarily the "real deal," as a street person and musician claimed. The closest to the earth of the blues we had seen so far was Red's, where some of the folks at Ground Zero might be a little uncomfortable hanging out. Red has a way of finding a person's hot buttons and pushing them to their un-comfort level, the music there can be impromptu, someone standing at the bar might jump up and either sing or play or be called up to join the musicians. People at Ground Zero can watch, sing, dance, and be served by smiling, friendly servers in their "Great America Music Hall" comfort zone.
Inside Ground Zero Blues Club-Clarksdale, Mississippi

Speaking of comfort zones, when we first arrived at our hotel next to the river, our check-in assistant, Jesse, warned us that, "You have no need to cross over to the other side of the river. There's nothing you need to see over there." Ruth and I looked at each other in a pregnant pause. The next day, I found the D&T Supermarket with the words large on the wall stating: "Any five-pack from the freezer, $17.99," went in and the Chinese man behind the counter looked at me and immediately asked, "You're not from around here are you?" He called his wife out, went to check on a price, and soon we were having a cultural exchange in quick time. I asked them how having a store there in an obviously super poor downtown was like. They smiled and said it was a doable business and wished me well with the reminder that I should steer clear of the "other side of the river"...did we go there?!

Downtown Clarksdale beauty

1 comment:

  1. I am pretty sure you went over the fence my friend. I base this guess on historical knowledge! Love to you both, Dd