The Devil’s Cross­roads

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Elle Hardy

Clarks­dale’s resur­gence has been a bless­ing to blues mu­si­cians, but racial divi­sions re­main stark.

Two shad­ows loom large over the town of Clarks­dale, Mis­sis­sippi. One is cast by the devil, who, at the cross­roads of high­ways 49 and 61, gave Robert John­son his tal­ent with the gui­tar in re­turn for his soul. The other comes from an Aus­tralian flag, fly­ing atop a for­mer bank build­ing to cel­e­brate the achieve­ments of a Melbourne economist. John Hen­shall fell in love with Clarks­dale, known as ground zero of the Delta blues, al­most 20 years ago when he drove up High­way 61 from New Or­leans af­ter at­tend­ing an ur­ban eco­nom­ics con­fer­ence. “This is no bus line tour town,” says lo­cal busi­nessper­son and “de facto mayor” Kinchen “Bubba” O’Keefe. “You wouldn’t see five cars down­town. I looked up one day, and saw this man lurk­ing about – he wasn’t lost, but he was look­ing for some­where to go. We struck up a con­ver­sa­tion.” A place of in­tense poverty and in­tense wealth, bound by a vi­o­lent history, Clarks­dale has pro­duced some of the finest, dis­tinctly Amer­i­can, cul­ture. It is said the daugh­ter of Clarks­dale’s founder was the in­spi­ra­tion for Ten­nessee Wil­liams’ fa­mous char­ac­ter Blanche DuBois; the play­wright lived in the town as a child. Prom­i­nent blues and R’n’B stars such as Sam Cooke, Ike Turner and John Lee Hooker were born on its soil, along with a num­ber of ath­letes and civil rights ac­tivists. In many ways, the story of Clarks­dale, pop­u­la­tion 16,000, is the story of mod­ern Amer­ica. The town be­gan to evap­o­rate in the 1980s from what is known as the Wal­mart ef­fect: the su­per­mar­ket gi­ant and other big ware­houses suck­ing the life of the town out onto high­ways, crip­pling lo­cal busi­nesses and de­stroy­ing the com­mu­nity. Clarks­dale’s soul had been taken away, with noth­ing given in re­turn, un­til John Hen­shall came back from the near-dead. In 2006, he was in a coma in a Melbourne hos­pi­tal, fight­ing for his life af­ter con­tract­ing sep­ti­caemia fol­low­ing a gall­stone oper­a­tion. “I can still hear peo­ple march­ing across desert sands,” he says of his trau­matic coma dreams. “I re­mem­ber walk­ing down Smith Street in Colling­wood and fall­ing over at ev­ery step, in front of pedes­tri­ans and cars and trams.” De­ter­mined to write his blues odyssey af­ter see­ing the dark, Hen­shall re­turned to Clarks­dale. “There was a meet­ing in the Grey­hound bus sta­tion, which still has sep­a­rate bath­rooms from seg­re­ga­tion,” Hen­shall says. “They were try­ing to set up a pro­gram to re­vi­talise Main Street. The chair­man said, ‘We know what we want, but we don’t have a plan.’ So I put my hand up.” Hen­shall un­der­took a ma­jor study of the town, turn­ing it into a the­sis and upcoming book, Down­town Re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion and Delta Blues in Clarks­dale, Mis­sis­sippi: Lessons for Small Cities and Towns. Though he says that “the lessons from Clarks­dale should not be news”. Put sim­ply, he helped to bring peo­ple to­gether, and marry money with cre­ativ­ity. The town has trans­formed it­self into an open-air blues mu­seum, with mon­u­ments to its heritage vis­i­ble and 12-bar twangs au­di­ble on al­most ev­ery street cor­ner. It is a place cre­ated by blues lovers, for blues lovers. “Cre­ative peo­ple don’t want to sit still and build an em­pire, they want a com­mu­nity,” says O’Keefe. The late cul­tural critic Al­bert Mur­ray saw black mu­sic – blues and jazz – as a heroic force: a way of fac­ing the devil with skill, grace and re­silience. He coined the idea of the blues as a stylis­tic code for the harsh re­al­ity of life. “Stomp­ing the blues”, there­fore, was a way of over­com­ing op­pres­sion through “the ve­loc­ity of cel­e­bra­tion”.

A stomp­ing Clarks­dale might just mark the be­gin­ning of a wider cul­tural shift.

“But the blues still needs money,” says mu­si­cian Rip Lee Pryor. “It can’t sur­vive on love alone.” Clarks­dale’s resur­gence, with a cal­en­dar of fes­ti­vals and live mu­sic ev­ery night, has been a bless­ing to blues mu­si­cians, but racial divi­sions re­main stark. “The au­di­ence is white,” says Pryor. “Black peo­ple are los­ing the blues. It isn’t dy­ing out, it’s chang­ing over. But the blues will al­ways be black peo­ple’s mu­sic; this is some­thing we are born with.” Amer­i­cans of all stripes tend to have an out­sized af­fec­tion for Aus­tralians, but there’s a lot of love back the other way, too. Per capita, more Aus­tralians em­bark on the Amer­i­cana mu­sic trail than any other over­seas vis­i­tors, and it was in recog­ni­tion of this con­nec­tion, and Hen­shall’s work, that Clarks­dale raised the flag above the bank build­ing. Some have sug­gested that there is some cul­tural sym­bio­sis, an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of life on the land, the usual char­ac­ters, and an eye for beauty in even the ugli­est con­di­tions. “The strug­gle be­tween black and white ain’t go­ing away,” says Johnny Cass. The res­tau­ra­teur and for­mer owner of Syd­ney venue The Van­guard moved to Clarks­dale within three months of his first visit in 2015. “The ro­mance of mu­sic is know­ing where it came from.” Adrian Kosky, a Melbourne mu­si­cian and builder who moved to the town af­ter a num­ber of vis­its, says Clarks­dale is about “tak­ing the old and find­ing new pur­poses for it”. While Hen­shall’s work has been done on a pro bono ba­sis, he isn’t shy­ing away from the thorny is­sue that blues is so­cially demo­cratic but eco­nom­i­cally white. Nev­er­the­less, with around 35 per cent of ma­jor­ity-black towns­peo­ple liv­ing be­low the poverty line, he be­lieves that the re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion is help­ing the most marginalised, even if it is in a less cen­tralised way than he would pre­fer. “For all of this change to oc­cur, the peo­ple have to be on­side,” he says. “Many of the new jobs cre­ated down­town are held by African Amer­i­cans, and many of the new and up-and-com­ing mu­si­cians are African Amer­i­can.” Mu­sic is a re­flec­tion of the cir­cum­stances in which it is pro­duced, so a stomp­ing Clarks­dale might just mark the be­gin­ning of a wider cul­tural shift, one that can be repli­cated in small towns from the Delta to the out­back. “Maybe this is all a big dream too,” Hen­shall jokes. Even so, his blue­print for cul­tural tourism and re­turn­ing a com­mu­nity to it­self – com­plete with a cafe that sells Melbourne cof­fee – has reawak­ened the epi­cen­tre of the blues.

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