Tag Archives: clarksdale

Shack Up Inn/Cat Head in Clarksdale, Helena/Arkansas and Hot Springs

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Shack up inn

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Hot Springs bath house

This trip has been very hit or miss, with places I am glad we went and others I could do without. Sadly Hot Springs is a miss. Haven’t been here in 28 years and it seems down at the heels and sort of spooky. We are staying at a spiffed up motor court and although the owners have done a very good job of tarting it up, the neighborhood is shabby, with a very unspiffed up motor court (Dame Fortune, which we found via airbnb) a stone’s throw away and some shuttered old hotels.  It’s also at a busy intersection so lots of loud cars and motorcycles. (I’m getting fussier in my old age…) The famous old baths downtown look faded and the crowd is a bit rough.  Dinner was at Deluca’s Pizza, which was good except for the service and the weird glamour shot photos on the walls.

 

We did have an interesting day, driving backroads through the cotton fields of the Delta and the still-dying towns. Helena, Arkansas, which I have visited twice before, is still desperately poor, although there are valiant efforts at redevelopment.

Helena chef

In a food shop downtown, a nice chef whipped us up some sauteed shrimp atop a baked potato seasons with rosemary and garlic. We ate it outside, sitting on park benches atop the levee, looking out at a loading dock on/near the Mississippi River. We drove back roads to Hot Springs…another America, Trump’s America, faded towns and worn-out  places.

The day began with a visit to the Shack Up Inn, a collection of old shotgun shacks and cotton bins converted into lodging in a field south of town. Noah and I stayed in one of the shacks almost 10 years ago. The place has grown — there’s now a suburb (“Shackville”) adjacent to the original cluster and a new funky office/store/restaurant/ music venue. A very small wedding was taking place during our visit. We also stopped in at Cat Head, a blues music and folk art store run by a passionate and very knowledge blues fan originally from Ohio. The town still looks pretty bombed out and the black neighborhood in particular is very poor but it still seems to draw lots of blues fans, especially foreigners. I was sad to hear that Rat, the kind man who owned the famous Riverside Hotel died. He gave us a very memorable tour of the hotel 10 years ago. (He was an older man then.)

We also drove through to Friars Point and Lula, two desperate towns just north of Clarksdale en route to Helena. No change there that I could see.

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Greenwood, Money, Cleveland, Merigold, Clarksdale : Mississippi Delta

Great drive here from Birmingham. We took the longer more backroads route from Birmingham through Tuscaloosa back into Mississippi. It was technically maybe 2 hours longer than using the interstate but seemed much shorter because there was so much to see: one small church after another (picture a neighborhood street but lined with churches not homes); vast fields of cotton; big new McMansions, the occasional old beauty and many tumbledown shacks and trailers (although not as many as I remember from my last trip here 10 years ago).

Greenwood is a well-heeled town with an elegant looking spa hotel on the main strret, a great book store (Turn Row which I liked better than the more famous one in Oxford), an excellent local crafts/gift shop next door with excellent local pottery. We had a stylish lunch at the surprisingly sleek and contemporary Delta Bistro, which has white walls with colorful contemporary art. We ate surprisingly light  fried green tomatoes dotted with chunks of crabmeat and excellent jalapeno catfish cakes with “comeback” sauce akin to a spicy Russian dressing. The  famous Italian restaurant in town, Lusco’s, is open for dinner only. It gets rave reviews!

Heading north to the tiny town of Money, we drove over the Tallahatchie bridge (made famous by the Bobbie Gentry song) and drove past the gracious-living old home where “The Help” was filmed. (The lady at the gift shop tipped us off.). Then we stopped at an old church where blues legend Robert Johnson may be buried (“may” being the key word) and the crumbling weed-strewn wall of the remains of the drug store, Bryant’s, where the Emmett Till tragedy began. (There are very helpful historical signs in these lonesome spots).

Onto the bigger city of Cleveland where we dropped in at the famous meat market/restaurant which was setting up for what looked like a good dinner, with the tables at the opposite side of the room from the meat counter. My favorite t-shirt was in a shop next door (“Jesus loves this hot mess”) plus some “fighting okra” gear (apparently the real mascot of Delta State). (Later read that Trump has opened its first small town hotel in Cleveland. Ick.)

Next a quick stop in the worn but interesting town of Merigold where we sound the famous pottery shop (after passing by it twice) on a residential street. We were excited to find the famous juke joint Poor Monkey on the other side of Highway 61, a wooden shack with hand painted signs on the edge of a field along a tree -lined dirt road. The sign said it was open for music on Thursday only (this was a Thursday) but we soon found  out that the owner died almost exactly a year ago and the place is closed indefinitely.

Delta Bistro, Greenwood

Robert Johnson believed to be buried in Money, MS

We stayed at a remarkable airbnb in Clarksdale, an elegant old White House run by a bohemian and charming Southern belle who grew up on a “farm” nearby. (We’re guessing it was a plantation from the presumably inherited furniture and photos inside the White House.)  We stayed in  a beautiful old room with a well-appointed bed, old faded lamps, and three of four walls were windows.  The other two rooms weren’t occupied and the owners live elsewhere so we had this huge house to ourselves. The ground floor had an eccentric mix of old to-the-manor-born furnishings and contemporary art and photos of the belle during her modeling and design days in NY City.

Our loquacious host, sent us to a great place for dinner that we never would have found otherwise — Kathryn’s on the Lake, about a half hour outside of town on Moon Lake. Very unassuming on the outside, just a plain lakeside building, inside it had knotty pine walls, taxidermy, local art and red and white checked oilskin tablecloths. Clearly a favor of locals, four good old boys sat in one corner, another big family in another. The food was outstanding– steak filet, onion rings, a squash casserole, Kentucky Alexander (yes, I will be dieting when I get home) and excellent service.

At night, we went to Ground  Zero for blues. Not the best. It was open mike night and the talent was spotty but interesting to see who gave it a go. The pros on stage were good. A weathered old black guy named “razor blade”, willowy white girl playing guitar, a white middle aged guy from England also on guitar (and particularly good!) and a young black guy on drums. We were struck again by how many Europeans were there as well as some very drunk Aussies. We were hoping to go to Red’s (a more “authentic” juke joint) but it didn’t offer music on Thursday. We did find out that unlike in the past, blues can be found almost every night in Clarksdale now. The city seems to have made a concerted effort to do this, which is good news and useful for the future. Red’s, for example, has music on Wednesdays, as well as the weekend.

 

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Clarksdale, Miss/Ms.: songs/albums inspired by

I got to wondering how many songs have been written about Clarksdale – after reading about Robert Plant’s Walking into Clarksdale album – so I did a quick search on itunes. I found 50 songs with either Clarksdale in the title of the song or album (most were song titles) -and they had great titles like

Stranded in Clarksdale

Clarksdale Moan

Crying Down in Clarksdale

Down Around Clarksdale

Slow Night in Clarksdale

Clarksdale’s Burning

No We Ain’t From Clarksdale

Clarksdale’s Waiting  for me.

The performers included Elvis Costello whose Clarksdale Sessions songs were recorded at a studio in Clarksdale, Son House, and Jelly Roll Morton. I couldn’t find a recording of Robert Plant singing Walking into Clarksdale but I did find a good cover by Nanette Workman. Also enjoyed Charlie Musselwhite’s Clarksdale Boogie, and Super Chiken (a local favorite) singing Clarksdale.

Might be fun to download a few of these for your trip – I think I will next time.

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Clarksdale, Miss.: takemewithyou (what to do/see)

Some helpful reader reminded me it’s Miss. not Ms. for Mississippi. So I stand/blog corrected. This is the final installment of takemewithyou suggestions for E. and friends as they head to Clarksdale this spring. Things to do:

– Listen to the blues, of course. Ground Zero club is an obvious choice. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon and Ground Zero wasn’t open just walking around the largely deserted town, we chanced upon some musicians playing inside the little Bluesberry Cafe at 235 Yazoo Avenue.

They all seemed to be locals who knew each other but couldn’t have been more welcoming so we got some sodas and listened to some blues and boogie piano  played, oddly, by a middle-aged white guy from the Netherlands (aka Theo D. “The Boogie Man”) who moved to Clarksdale to open a storefront rock and roll museum (which we didn’t get to: http://www.blues2rock.com/Site/Theo_D.html) ; and a older black man who sang with a weathered voice. A local favorite, Super Chikan, was there but we didn’t hear him, alas.

One woman sat down with us, carrying a photo of another tourist who had visited the cafe recently – Paul Simon. That Paul Simon. Clarksdale is that kind of place.

– The Delta Blues Museum is, as promised, very low-tech but that’s part of the charm. In a former train depot, it has Muddy Waters’ childhood cabin, among other blues items. I got to talking with the woman behind the front desk who told me how Robert Palmer (the Robert Palmer) often takes her out to eat when he visits. Palmer put out a 1998 album with Led Zeppelin buddy Jimmy Page called “Walking into Clarkdale” (with a song by the same name…some lyrics below.)

– The Mississippi (i.e. River.) – One thing that surprised me about is that it’s hard to see the river at all from lots of Delta towns which are often miles from the river, which in turn is hidden by levees. If you have time, drive about 1 hour northwest to Helena Arkansas, another struggling Delta town with lots of blues history that has fixed up its worn downtown and has a riverwalk atop the levee.

For more ideas check out the NYTimes’ 36 Hours in Clarksdale piece from 2006.

Here’s lyrics from Robert Plant’s song:

When I was born I was running
As my feet hit the ground
Before I could talk I was humming
An old railroad sound
Things didn’t get much better
When by the age of five
They found me walking into Clarksdale
Trying to keep my friends alive

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Clarksdale, Miss. – takemewithyou

More suggestions for E’s roadtrip as she heads from Memphis two hours south to the Mississippi Delta and the “Home of the Blues” – Clarksdale, Miss. Here’s some of the highlights from my trip there with my son in 2008:

Where to stay: The Shack Up Inn (but then you know this already Em) is one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever stayed.  Some Ole Miss grads run this unusual “inn” that includes six shotgun shacks that have been moved from their original out-in-the-field location to a spot just south of downtown Clarksdale.  Once home to sharecroppers, they’ve been gussied up – most importantly with indoor plumbing and kitchenette added. Each has a lot of character – there are also rooms in a converted cotton gin on the grounds. European travelers in particular love this place. Fun fact: the shacks are on the site of the Hopson Plantation – home of the first mechanical cotton picker (circa 1941).

Another option is the Riverside Hotel, in town along the river, which has provided lodging for many famous blues musicians including Ike Turner  (and was a brief hideaway for, of all people, John F. Kennedy Jr.). Even if you don’t stay here, you definitely should drop by and introduce yourself to the owner, a very nice man named Rat, who, if he has time, will take you on a tour of the old place, filling you in on the history.  He’ll even show you the room where blues singer Bessie Smith died, in 1937, when the hotel was a hospital for blacks.

For more info (and a photo of Rat) see: http://www.ratpackstlouis.com/riverside_hotel.htm.  Rat is very used to visitors – and couldn’t have been more generous when we dropped by! So don’t be shy.

More tomorrow on what to see/do/where to eat.

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