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”.
“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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