The aim of my little road trip in the American Delta was one, and one only. New Orleans was too far away for the time I had, and Memphis was just going to be an interesting, if overestimated, drive through. Where I really wanted to be was Clarksdale, the legendary home of blues, the town sitting between the Mississippi and the crossroads of the highways 49 and 61.
That junction is mostly known as the Devil’s Crossroads, and it’s where – according to the legend – Robert Johnson sold his soul to His Satanic Majesty. You can’t get more blues than that, oh wait… Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker are from here! The list of names connected to this city is impressive and so is their display in the Delta Blues Museum, an air-conditioned mecca for the lovers of this genre. And when I talk about air-con I mean it: even by the american standards the temperature in there was insane, so that the girl at the counter had an electric heater next to her, while my car parked outside was roasting at 35°C (or whatever 90-95F is).
That said it’s rather understandable that my expectations bar was set quite high. I was expecting music being played in every bar and in every corner of the streets, and people hanging out with guitars and harmonicas to spontaneously set up a jam when they met as their way to greet each other.
However, as in most of the other towns I crossed, the streets were deserted. The heat surely wasn’t inviting but this looked more like a ghost town that just a siesta. I parked the car for a quick patrol but, having not found a bar open, I headed to the gas station for a soda.
“Are you driving a burgundy Malibu?”
How did he know? How did the guy manning the dusty petrol station in an empty-looking town know which car I was driving, even when I parked it few blocks back?
He smiles, probably noticing my uneasy look, probably listing me amongst the guys who have seen too many movies and too little America. “Y’know, we see so few people here that when a newcomer arrives all the town knows”. He proceeds telling me that the last foreigner he’s seen was another italian guy, two weeks before, and that there’s not much to do in town outside the Juke Joint and Deep Blues festivals. That much I figured.
I sat on a bench, sipping my root beer, when the first people appeared. They came as the sun slipped behind the trees and stopped hammering down on tarmac and concrete. A middle aged man, a silvery bush of hair on dark chocolate skin, walked past with a smile “good afternoon how are you?”. Well, I am really fine thank you, that friendliness surprised me off guard. He walked on and, just as I was wondering what had just happened, another couple – mother and school-age son – came towards me, warmly greeted, and kept on walking. Every single person who walked past me was smiling and saying a couple of words, I never felt happier or more welcome.
There was a stark contrast between the liveliness of these people and the state of abandon of the buildings, promising blues shows that happened not less than one year before. There was a stark contrast between some of the simple wooden houses, and the modern and recently refurbished blues museum (courtesy of Billy Gibbons’s cash flow). But contrast seems to be the very description of the States, or at least the part I had visited thus far.
Clarksdale was beautifully disappointing, and surprising in many subtle ways. All the fabled musicians playing blues on their porch, as I found out at the museum, died a few years before my arrival, and the excessive heat prevented me from visiting one of their eateries for some sweaty deep-fried meat dish. But meeting those people, seeing those places and breathing that sticky air made it worth the miles I drove there on the never ending highway 61.