Clash Road Trip: Delta Blues Museum

Clash Road Trip: Delta Blues Museum
May 5, 2011
Maie Smith

In search of the roots of rock and roll, Clash embarked on a pilgrimage across America and discovered the musical foundations the country was built on.

Visit the Clash Road Trip hub page for more exclusive content.

Below you can read an interview with Maie Smith, the Group Tour Manager at the Delta Blues Museum, Clarksdale.

How long has the museum been open?

Actually, thirty-one years. We opened in 1979. Originally the museum was a part of the library. The first home for the Delta Blues Museum was out on Highway 61, which is known as 1-61. It was at the Myrtle Hall library, which was actually a black library. It was there from 1979 until 1981. The museum was progressively growing, so they moved it to the main library, which was downtown - the Carnegie Public Library - and it was there from 1981 until October 1999. During that time period there, the museum was renovated. The rock group ZZ Top were big fans of the blues - well, Muddy Waters. So, when they came to Memphis to record an album, when they finished recording at Sun Studios, they came down Highway 61 into Clarksdale, because they heard that there was a museum here. They got here and there was Jim O’Neal and Patty Johnson, as well as the man that founded the Delta Blues Museum, Sid Graves. They took them out to the Stovall Plantation, where Muddy Waters’ house was, and while they were there, they took a piece of wood from Muddy Waters’ house. They didn’t know what they were gonna do, but they were trying to figure out a way to make a plan to raise money for the museum, because the museum needed a lot of money then. So, when they went back to Texas, they came up with this idea to make it a guitar, and they would call it the Muddywood Guitar.

A lot of people think, when we say ‘the Muddywood Guitar’, it was a guitar that Muddy Waters actually owned, but it’s not; it was a guitar made from a piece of his house. This was going to be a fund-raising technique. They actually called it The Muddywood Tour - they toured around the country and all the money from the tour would go back to the Delta Blues Museum as part of a match grant that Sid Graves had written with the National Endowment that he manages. They made T-shirts, bumper stickers, pens, and all those sales would go back to the museum. They raised the money. At that time, the museum did not have a staff - the museum’s staff was also the librarians of the Carnegie Public Library. So, once they raised all this money, they had a big, huge concert in New York City. Most of the library’s staff got an opportunity to go to New York and hang out with Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Bonnie Raitt, and all these famous people. Then they came back, and whatever money was raised during this concert would also be a part of the fund-raising for the museum. Actually, the grant didn’t get approved. But Sid Graves was a driver, he would not give up, because this was his dream. So he continued to work on the grant, making corrections on whatever they suggested that he needed to improve on.

It took a while, but finally, in the latter part of 1995, this grant was approved, and Sid Graves had sort of resigned, because he had come down real bad with diabetes, so he resigned his position. But the project went on, and the beginning of 1996 is when the renovations started. I actually started working at the museum in October ’95. They didn’t tell me when I got the job that I would have to pack up the museum! We had a debate about whether the museum should close for the six-month renovation or stay open, and we the staff - at that time the museum had a staff. I was the first staff that the museum had that actually was from here - the curator was from New Mexico, another staff member was from Texas, New Orleans... So I was the only person that was actually Delta-raised. We told them that it would be crazy to close the museum during that six-month period, because we get people from all over the world, and if people come and the museum was closed, they would be very upset - they’d spent their money - plus, they would go back and tell others that the museum was closed. So what we had to do was to get a small location - we couldn’t get a place as large as the museum was - and we had to select some of our best artifacts to go into this store front, so that when people come, they wouldn’t feel cheated. Of course, we took the Muddy Waters wax figure - at that time we didn’t have the house - and we took some other very distinct artifacts. People still loved it.

Then, at the end of June, we moved back into our renovated location. At the same time, the city of Clarksdale had purchased this building, which is an old freight train depot. They renovated it, but it took a while - I guess because they were taking some short cuts. The other train station, they were renovating that, and when the roof fell in on that one, they kinda backed up and looked at things. So the renovation on this place was not finished until 1998, but we still stayed where we were. At one point the museum was in two locations: we had a photo exhibit in here, and the museum itself was still in the library. So then, they chose a board of directors for the Delta Blues Museum, because in the past the library board was also the museum board. No-one knew what they were doing, so we packed up the museum - we were supposed to move in September ’99 - but when they packed up, they realised they did not have a security system in this place, and you could not move artifacts in without security. So we were packed up for a whole month! So whenever someone came into the museum, we would pull out artifacts and show them! (Laughs) Because, you know, it would not be a defeat. We were hanging on. Before we moved over here, it was free to see the museum, so no-one would feel like they’d lost money or anything. They got a true feel for the museum though, because you could see the things up close, not behind cases or whatever. So, we moved over here on the first of October, and there was a festival coming up in a week and a half, which was in Helena, Arkansas, so we had to hurry up and put up artifacts, set up the gift shop, all of that, in a week and a half! We didn’t have a director at that time - I was all they had, so I was like the acting director, the gift shop manager, the tour person...I was wearing a lot of hats! But it was fun. So, we moved over here in the October, then they found a director in June 2000, and he was here until March of 2003, then Shelley [Ritter] came aboard July 2003 and she’s been here ever since. So I’ve worked under three directors since I’ve been working at the museum, and this coming month will be fifteen years for me.

This building, being part of the freight railroad, obviously holds importance...

Yeah, it was important because a long time ago blues musicians, when they travelled, they didn’t have money. So they rode the freight train, or they worked on the railroad- they’d catch that train and they’d ride into Memphis, and if they wanted to go to St. Louis, they’d catch another train if that train wasn’t going to St. Louis. Because they were on there with the cargo, because they couldn’t afford to buy a ticket. Unlike Muddy Waters; he was able, when he left here, to go down to the other train station and buy a ticket and go on to Chicago. So it seemed like the perfect home for the Delta Blues Museum, since we are preserving, perpetuating and informing people about the blues - why not put it at ground zero?

Where have you collected the artifacts from?

Well, most for the artifacts that we have, family members of musicians have come and donated them to the museum, or sometimes the director will go out and search, and maybe if the price is right we’ll buy some artifacts, but most of our artifacts are donated to the museum, or loaned. And then we also get travelling exhibits too - we get two or three travelling exhibits per year.

Clarksdale is world famous for being the centre of the blues. How thriving was this city back then? Was it a hotbed of music?

Yes, very much so. Back in the Twenties, Thirties, Forties, Fifties, Sixties, and even into the Seventies - the blues now is on this side of the tracks - but when the blues was really booming it was on the other side of the tracks, which was in the black neighbourhood. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays... that section over at Issaqueena at that time was called 4th Street - 4th Street is called Martin Luther King - people worked in the fields chopping cotton, and on the weekends they’d go shopping - they’d ‘go to town’, as they called it. And they had ice cream stores over there for the kids, so there was something for everyone to do. You could walk along and people would be playing on the streets, or they would go in to the clubs or the jook joints to listen to music - the one place that the kids were not allowed! (Laughs)

Has the town been kept alive by people coming from all over the world to this museum?

Yeah. I think that, and also with our arts and education programme, because we are training the younger generation to carry the torch on. So when the older generation die, we’ll have young men and young women to continue the tradition as it started. We also sometimes have musicians that have become famous come by and give back a little bit by helping the young kids to learn to grasp this great art form

Who are some of your famous visitors?

We’ve had Charlie Musselwhite. We have had Pinetop Perkins, Sam Carr, who’s now dead. And some of the ones of the younger generation include Super Chikan, and we’ve had people like Robert Plant come and visit the museum. Paul Simon. We’ve had a lot of famous people. And then we’ve had musicians who’re not famous, but they’re true blues musicians.

We’ll be driving around the Clarksdale area later, following the blues trail. Which are the most rewarding to see?

I think one of the most exciting things to do is in the Delta they have put up Blues Markers for musicians. We have the Muddy Waters [marker] here, we also have Sam Cooke, because Sam Cooke was from Clarksdale, and we just put up Ike Turner’s this past August, and Son House, and in a little town called Friars Point they put up Robert Nighthawk’s. That’s interesting to follow their trail - we have a met to tell you where they all are. Right here in Clarksdale, we have a marker for WC Handy, who’s considered a father to blues. It’s over down from the old renovated Greyhound bus station, and then on the same side there’s a little building there, which was the home - well, actually it was a barber shop - of the one-eyed blues musician by the name of Willie Walter. He was known for the harmonica but he played guitar and piano, but he could also take the leather strap and a razor - because he gave straight razor shaves - and he could stroke the razor up and down the strap and make music with it. People would come around just to see him demonstrate the razor on the leather strap. People would come from all over the world to come. He died in January 2000. The tour guide books are very slow in updating, so people are still coming to see Willie Walter. A lot of people come wanting to go to the crossroads, to know the exact spot where Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul. I wasn’t even around, so how would I know? (Laughs) It’s a myth.

Aren’t there three suggested sites of his burial?

Yes, they have three locations, but you’re not 100% sure whether either one of them are. But the one in Greenwood, they think they’re 99% sure. The wife of the grave digger was still alive, and she said that her husband dug Robert Johnson’s grave, which could be true, but Robert Johnson is a common name, so it could have been any Robert Johnson that died in 1938, but we won’t argue with the lady. (Laughs)

You must get visitors here from all over the world?

Yeah, we do. During the peak of our tourist season, in one particular day we can get ten countries, three continents. Some of the places where most of our international tourists come from is Australia, Japan, Belgium, Germany, England, Spain, Poland...all over! What really blew me away was when we got people from the Middle East! (Laughs) I remember, this would have been about maybe ten years ago, we had a whole bus load of men come in from the Middle East - it was during the time when the Persian Gulf war was going on - and it kinda freaked me out, because we had a busload of drunk Middle Eastern men coming into the museum, and I didn’t know what they was up to! (Laughs) They was harmless, but they didn’t look harmless when they was getting off that bus! (Laughs) It’s unique to see how people react when they come. I remember when we was still in the library, we had these two guys that came from Johannesburg, South Africa, and they came into the museum. I was like standing there and I was like, ‘What’s wrong with these crazy men?’ They were like I was some kinda queen, I don’t know what they thought! But they was so happy; they had been saving their money to come here, and they finally did. That was the thing that was a little disappointing; the image they had of the Delta Blues Museum in their mind was so huge, so they thought we had several floors of the museum. I said, ‘No, but there’s a lot of information back there’. They came on the bus - they rolled a Greyhound bus from Memphis to Clarksdale - and then they walked! They were dedicated fans! They walked from the bus station to the museum - the bus station was out on the highway.

We stayed last night at the Riverside Hotel.

Oh, that’s a neat place. Did he tell you the history of it?


I bet he did! (Laughs) Mr. Ratliffe can talk!

We really fell in love with that place.

Yeah, cos it’s the blues hotel! You didn’t stay in the room that Bessie Smith died in though, did you? He showed you the room though, didn’t he?

Yes, you can’t stay in that room.

No, you cannot. What is so odd - more and more now they’re doing it - but before, our tourism was not promoting his business. They didn’t want tourists to go there; they thought that something bad would happen to them, but that’s not true. It’s not fancy or anything, but it’s clean. You do have a communal bathroom... But it’s great history. Most tourists... Like, when we have festivals, he’s over-booked, because people want to stay there. It’s close to downtown, to the blues scene where all the clubs are... You didn’t go to Red’s last night did you?

No, we went to Ground Zero.

Who played last night?

Harmonica Terry.

I know him.

It was a good night. We left our mark.

You wrote your name on the wall? You know, my name is on that wall somewhere - I didn’t write it, someone else wrote it! I was mad when my friends put my name on the wall, but it was up real high so I couldn’t remove it. But it’s the same in the bathroom - they even write on the commode! (Laughs) There was a tour group came to the museum and they had lunch at Ground Zero, so they invited me. We went over there and I was telling them that you could write your name, so they went over to the counter and got a marker and they were climbing the walls writing on the blinds because the space had run out - they wrote on the tablecloths! But they’ve put new tablecloths in there a couple of times since, because after a while no-one wants to eat at a table with pen marks all over it.

We wrote on the pool table.

I guess you’re safer writing your name on a pool table.

Has that been the trend since it opened, to leave your name on it?

I think people want to leave their autograph because Ground Zero is like the beginning of Blues Alley, and it’s Morgan Freeman’s club, so they feel they need to leave a piece of them there.

We kind of hoped that Morgan Freeman would have been there last night.

But he wasn’t there, was he? I think he was there last weekend - your timing is off! (Laughs) They don’t do that at his restaurant; it’s real fancy, you know? It’s the same street Ground Zero is on but it’s like a block up, on the opposite side of the street. It’s upscale, so you don’t go writing on the walls.

How much do you love Clarksdale? Will you be here forever?

I don’t know about that one. (Laughs) I like my job, so that’s what kept me here. Originally it wasn’t what kept me here. When I finished school and I got my Masters, I was going to move to Atlanta. This girl and I that was going to be room mates, she got engaged, so that kinda messed up my plans. My mother didn’t want me to go because she didn’t want me going by myself. Then, my mother became ill after I decided to stay for a little while, because I came here and got a job and I said, ‘I’m just gonna be here for a short period of time’, but a short time turned into fifteen years! But I’m an only child and my mom was ill, so I stayed to help her. She died three years ago, but by then I had found my niche. I mean, when I took this job, I took this job because my student loans were due, so I came... Because when I was in college - I went to the University of Mississippi and I was a journalism major but I worked in their blues archive - so when they hired me, they didn’t hire someone just fresh off the street, they hired somebody that already had five years experience in the blues. Plus, I grew up here too.

What you guys are doing here is an amazing thing, and it makes our vacation so much better to come down here and see people who are actually dedicated to preserving the blues. There’s a real difference between America and Britain when it comes to preserving their history; we went to Chicago and a lot of places have gone, and it’s good to see that some things are still alive.

Well, we’re working trying to...and most of the Delta towns... At first, it was hard work to get the town to realise that agriculture is no longer the big thing, that tourism is the thing, and in order to make tourism big, you got to preserve the area. And what they had is the blues. People come for the blues. Each town has blues history, so why don’t you try to build on that. Like a little town south of here called XXXXXX, which is known for blues because that’s where WC Handy was to catch a train when he heard an old man playing the guitar with a knife, and he was the one to introduce the blues to the world. That was 1903, but the blues was way before then, but nobody knew about it, because it was just in a little circle among the black people - it was their way of communication because they weren’t allowed to congregate. That’s why blues is call and response - you send out a message and somebody responds back. That’s why B.B. King, when he plays, he doesn’t sing and play at the same time - he’s playing or he’s singing. Have you noticed that? Call and response. And Sonny Boy Williamson II also lived in XXXXXX (Tuttweil?) - he was a well known harmonica player, and he’s buried there, so that’s also history. Plus there were other musicians that weren’t even known, they was just regular old guys playing, but it’s there. And like in LELAND, Mississippi, which you take a different highway - you take Highway 61 instead of 49 - lots of blues there, and they also have a museum there now. We’re considered the big dogs, but there are other museums that have sprung up since we came along. That museum has been around about ten years, and they have a festival every year too. We’re a part of the city, but it’s a private museum - it’s owned by a person. Then Greenville, Mississippi, they are trying to get together to start a museum. See, that would be something to tie in, so when the tourists come in, they have more than a couple of places to go; they can spread the whole Mississippi Delta or Mississippi Arkansas Delta. And then Greenville and Greenwood, there was a museum there - I don’t know how often it is open; it’s supposed to be a Robert Johnson museum but I don’t know what happened. The guy that owned all the rights to Robert Johnson moved from California to set up there. He’s hated by a lot of people.

Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to us. I think we should go and look around the museum now and pay our respects elsewhere.

Yeah. So you’ve already been to Riverside? You should go and check out this store called CATHEAD, it’s a folk music store. Also, there’s another museum here, it’s called The Rock And Roll Museum. The guy’s from Holland, but he’s got a nice collection. He’s got the Hambone Blues Gallery, which is next to the Rock And Soul Museum; check that out. There’s this country store called Miss Dells; you might want to check that out, it’ll kinda give you a feel of the past. And like I said we’ve got the markers - we’ve got the Sam Cooke and the Ike Turner, and as you know the Blues Trail marker is one block over, right on the corner of Third Street and Yazoo. On this side of the street is John Lee Hooker, and the other side of this street is Yazoo. They named that little section when we moved over here John Lee Hooker, because they was sorta hoping that John Lee Hooker would come back home before he died, but he didn’t make it.
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