I go to Clarksdale Mississippi because I love the blues. Clarksdale is the home of Muddy Waters (and after seeing the fields in winter, I understand where he got the name) and the town has had past run-ins with such bluesmen as Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, and John Lee Hooker. Now, Clarksdale is a dilapidated downtown with boarded up shops, an old greyhound station, a few tourist locations and the generic rural sprawl of Walmart and Churches Fried Chicken. In other words, Clarksdale still has the blues, strong as ever.
And it is filled with characters, even at the touristy bar Ground Zero. The thin little white guy with giant ears and a cowboy hat with the sides folded up who is wearing a bright red shirt covered in old cars, and of course jeans and boots. He is on one side of the dance floor and at first I think he must have something wrong with his legs, that he has braces under those jeans, because of the way he is standing and moving, but then he walks smoothly off when the music is done – that's just his dance stance, knees turned in and bent and stomping like he's about to fall. Then he gets on stage as one of the singers and speaks with an Australian accent. There's another man who has only half a face – the other half is shrunken like it never had any bones and the skin just wrinkles in on itself like a withered orange. I try not to look at him any more or less than I would look at anyone else, but it's not easy. There's a thick waisted white woman with a half-hearted purple Mohawk dancing close and slow with a man 50 pounds thinner than she is. There's a very small, very old black woman in a pink sweat suit who gets on the dance floor whenever it is empty. She stands in the center and, barely moving, gyrates her hips in a manner that is somewhat suggestive, but she is able to fill the dance floor. She turns toward the tables spattered with tourists and waves her hands until we are all up dancing around her. And of course, there are the two blond college girls who all the locals ply with liquor until they make fools of themselves dancing all up on each other while the local men smoke and drink at the bar, disdaining the stage, and leering at the girls.
I drive my truck around the countryside of Clarksdale taking photos of winter fields filled with water, an old burned out tractor, and shacks where people still live in conditions you don't expect to see in America. I visit the farm where Muddy Waters grew up. I stop at the hotel where Bessie Smith died. I turn up the blues real loud and listen to the music that congeals this group of misfits – the Australian cowboy, the half-face man, mohawk girl, and the gyrating old lady, and me, some middle class white girl who is wandering through.