Category Archives: mississippi delta

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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Clarksdale Mississippi – again

Clarksdale Mississippi gets a nod from me for the second day in a row, oddly, after I read this morning that a restaurant there bankrolled by the actor Morgan Freeman, who is a Clarksdale native,   is closing after ten years in operation. My meal there was about seven years ago,come to think of it, while I was doing a writing project in the Mississippi Delta and it was clear that Madidi, the restaurant which specialized in “Americanized French cuisine” (I remember it as Southern fine dining, with prices to match) would never break even in such an impoverished place. It was clearly a labor of love. Guess the cast and crew of “The Help,” which filmed in Clarksdale, also couldn’t save it from extinction. Last I heard Freeman does have another restaurant there – a popular blues bar, pool hall and restaurant called Ground Zero (see photos above).  He opened another branch in Memphis, where my son and I listened to a very good female singer a few years ago.

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where the 2012 Oscar contenders were filmed in Hawaii and Mississippi….

When we weren’t distracted by the presence of Elton John at the table next to us during a recent dinner at a Honolulu restaurant, we chatted with an older couple sitting next to us who are natives – and I asked them where some of the scenes from The Descendants had been filmed in town. They mentioned a neighborhood a little north of where we were eating.  Weeks later, a handy newspaper article offered more specifics which is good to know for our next visit to Hawaii, when I’d like to go to Kauai. The film locations on that island include: the Tahiti Nui bar in Hanalei; the St. Regis in Princeville, Kipu Rance and Hanalei Bay.

The same article mentioned the film locations for The Help and darned if I haven’t been to one of those locations – Clarksdale, Mississippi. It also was filmed in another Mississippi Delta town that I think I’ve also been to: Greenwood and another town I’d like to go to Jackson and its historic Belhaven neighborhood.

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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 (where to eat)

And now the all-important where-to-eat suggestions for E. and friends who are taking a road trip to Clarksdale, Miss. (among other places):

– Madidi (www.madidiires.com) is a surprisingly fancy and sophisticated restaurant to find in a struggling Mississippi Delta town…until you remember that the Mississippi Delta is where actor Morgan Freeman (aka Nelson Mandela in his latest film) was raised – and still lives. He has pumped money into the area – including by bankrolling this restaurant.  The food, upscale Southern,  is very good but to be honest, I’d stick with some of the lower-key places, which seem more reflective of the “real” Clarksdale.

– Ground Zero – This isn’t really “real” – it’s another Morgan Freeman effort but it’s designed to look  gritty that it passes muster. Ground Zero is a blues club that also serves food.

– Hicks Tamales and BBQ Shop – Noah and I tried several times to pick up a hot tamale here at the drive-through window but the line was always too slow (not long, just slow.) Supposed to be good though.

– Abes BBQ – We did get take away pork (I think) sandwiches from this hole-in-the-wall and some BBQ sauce to take back to Iowa. Very good (and quite different from our usual Gates BBQ sauce)

– Delta Amusement Blues Cafe – This is a small downtown working-guys cafe, basic greasy spoon with some local character.

– Uncle Henry’s Place (www.unclehenrysplace.com) – This is a very strange Southern inn about a half-hour outside of Clarksdale in a really faded town (so to speak) called Dundee near “Moon Lake.” We went here because of its history – it was a hangout of William Faulkner’s and owned at various times by the family of Tennessee Williams and Conway Twitty. The food was  rich and  pricey Louisiana fare and it was empty when we ate there (we arrived kind of late) which gave it an even more strange, faded feel.

– Ramon’s – We never made it to this place, which looked pretty low-down, but it sounded intriguing (chicken livers with spaghetti!)  when I heard an NPR report on it by Jane and Michael Stern. The onion rings on the Sterns’ roadfood.com page for Ramon’s look amazing. (roadfood.com is another good source for food during your trip although be forewarned – some places will be not-so-pretty.)

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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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