If you believe the legend of how blues man Robert Johnson went down to the crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi and forfeited his soul to the Devil in exchange for musical talent, you shouldn’t go looking to make a similar deal; Old Scratch shut down his Clarksdale office a long time ago.
So if you’re an aspiring blues musician we’d suggest practice, practice, practice — and a visit to Clarksdale to meet some of the city’s unique characters, all of them big blues fans who know the Robert Johnson story by heart.
Here’s your introduction to these Clarksdale movers and shakers.
Marvin “Brickman” Young
Young’s nickname derives from the fact that he’s a master brick mason and designer. When he’s not hard at work on a masonry project, Brickman can often be found sitting in his work truck in the parking lot of Abe’s Bar B-Q, a Clarksdale favorite that’s located adjacent to the giant, guitar-festooned sign honoring the Robert Johnson story and marking the site of the infamous crossroads.
Brickman loves to talk about Clarksdale and if he sees you taking a picture of the sign he’ll hop out of his truck to welcome you and have a chat. Ask him anything about Clarksdale including what his preferred menu items are at Abe’s.
Sean “Bad” Apple
Contrary to his nickname, Apple is an affable guy and a talented blues man. He’s the proprietor of the Bad Apple Blues Club where he also performs on a regular basis, sometimes with backup musicians and sometimes alone.
If you close your eyes and listen though you might not think he’s playing alone; besides singing and playing guitar Apple has a percussion set-up that allows him to play drums by using his feet and kick pedals. When Apple tells the Robert Johnson story from the stage he demonstrates Johnson’s pre-Devil lack of talent by plinking on his guitar and his post-Devil ability by playing hot, sweet licks. Inevitably someone will ask Sean how he got the “Bad” moniker and he’ll tell that story too.
Edwards is the longtime booking manager at Ground Zero Blues Club, the most notorious blues club in Clarksdale that’s partially owned by actor Morgan Freeman. Always willing to chat with fans when she has a down moment, Tameal can explain things like how the graffiti got on the club’s ceiling and the do’s and don’ts of interacting with Freeman on the occasions when he comes into the club.
She can tell you about famous visitors to the club, too; Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Ashley Judd, Sela Ward, Ozzy Osbourne, television host Ty Pennington and Facebook main man Mark Zuckerberg are among the notables who’ve visited. And since she’s the club’s booking manager, Tameal can tell you about all the exciting performers set to take the Ground Zero stage.
To put it simply, Stolle is the proprietor of a store called Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, a must-visit Clarksdale attraction where blues fans will find for sale a huge selection of blues titles on CD, vinyl and DVD. The store is loaded with books about the blues too, including a couple that Roger wrote, and there are big stacks of magazines, new and vintage, on offer as well. Posters and other blues ephemera can be found and there’s a whole line of Cat Head branded souvenirs, while the walls are covered with blues-centric folk art that encompasses everything from photos to paintings to one-of-a-kind decorated guitars.
The amazing retail space is not the extent of what Stolle does though; he’s a writer of magazine articles and an editor, a music producer, a creator of web series, a radio personality, a festival creator, a tourism honcho and well, you get the idea. Stolle has a wealth of information about the Clarksdale scene and the blues in general and if he’s not too busy he’d love to chat with you. Cat Head is celebrating its 19th anniversary this year.
John “Driftwood” Ruskey is the founder and owner of Quapaw Canoe Company, an organizer of canoe adventures on the mighty Mississippi River, the vaunted waterway that flows not far outside Clarksdale. Quapaw works generally with canoes they made themselves, some of which are 29-foot behemoths, so there’s room for your whole family. And there’s no need to know how to swim; the canoes are very stable and everyone wears life vests. Ruskey’s associate Mark “River” Peoples will likely also be on board and the two will tell stories and point out wildlife as you navigate the river.
With adventures of varying lengths on offer there’s an adventure to suit every desire, whether you want to imagine yourself a modern day Huck Finn or be a serious river explorer (the late Anthony Bourdain took a 10-mile jaunt with Ruskey, reportedly with a copious amount of beer on board.) The Mississippi River has of course been name-checked in countless blues songs, and yes, Ruskey is a player himself. If you don’t want to take a canoe trip it’s still fun to stop in at Quapaw to see the ornately-carved canoes in the front of the store or purchase some Delta blues on CD.
Of all the interesting folks in Clarksdale, O’Keefe is perhaps at the top of the list. Bubba is the Director of Tourism for Visit Clarksdale, and in essence his efforts tie together all the other positive actions of those mentioned above and many other community-minded Clarksdalians. He knows the folks who run the blues clubs and the players that appear within. He knows the best places to eat and all about the city’s wealth of one-of-a-kind lodgings.
He knows Clarksdale’s history, some of it quite intimately as he himself has been involved in the restoration of historic buildings. Just about everyone greets him on the street with a wave and a hello and if you’re a visitor with questions (“Where were the original crossroads?”) you should not hesitate to approach him. Better yet, stop in at his office which is just steps from Ground Zero and the Delta Blues Museum to meet his colleagues and get information that’ll help make the most of your time in Clarksdale.
There’s live blues music in Clarksdale almost every evening, and visitors will find that this proud historic community is very welcoming. Just don’t expect to see that guy with the horns and the pointy tail.
To help plan a visit to Clarksdale go here.
*Text and photos by Kevin Wierzbicki