CLARKSDALE TO DEESON
The day started with Bill’s voice bellowing through the doors and walls asking if we were up, around 7:12am.
“Yeah,” I screeched back at him with toothpaste in my mouth. “Come see me at the office on your way out of town,” he said. Mental note and plan made, later to be unmade, as you will see…
Our breakfast date with Kinchen “Bubba” O’Keefe started just at 8am. We had already entered the establishment—Yazoo Pass—ordered, and seated ourselves, much to Bubba’s alarm as he had hoped to buy us breakfast after forgetting our appointment to meet the day before. As you’ll find out in the coming paragraphs, he very much made up for his delinquency on Sunday with an amazing tour of Clarksdale, Mississippi on Monday!
As we talked over breakfast, Bubba was constantly greeting folks as we ate—this would become an ongoing theme throughout the day. As the conversation progressed passed the origins of the names “Bubba” and “Kinchen,” we soon learned that he’s been involved in Clarksdale’s redevelopment for over 15 or 20 years through projects like The Lofts at the Five & Dime building, Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Arts, and Travelers Hotel amongst other projects. He had left the city for some time, doing construction management on strip malls and other projects, but soon felt like he was “just another car on the interstate in Jackson, Mississippi.” He just wanted to come back home and be close to his mother and her parents. But when they first came back, he and his wife would go over to Oxford for shopping or activities and come back at night and it was dark and dark and dark and quiet. And honestly, he says, “I set out to make a fortune,” in festivals, bringing something through tourism to Clarksdale, but it turns out he learned so much more and has thrown himself into the community in a way that he doesn’t know if he’ll get out what he’s put in.
We drove around and around, with detailed and colorful descriptions of almost every property on every street. “All the buildings that look bad are mine. I ran out of money trying to fix them up but they looked worse than that when I got ‘em. But they’re photo ops. I mean where can you find a building with the toilet still on the wall on the second floor….” But in the same breath, he describes three or four other buildings that he’s invested in and turned around. Seems you have to start somewhere, and he sure has started.
In fact, modestly he takes us over to Travelers Hotel—giving all the credit to Chuck and Anne who run the place now. But a little bit of googling shows that Bubba himself had a huge hand in getting this interesting project off the ground. Travelers is more than a hotel. It’s a sustainable living concept for creatives. Come live in Clarksdale, take care of the hotel a few days a week, have a place to stay, AND have a space + time to create your artwork the rest of the week. This is something very very hard to come by in a major urban center where cost of living has skyrocketed. They might have borrowed the concept some from folks in Brooklyn, but they’ve put it into practice in a place where it really can flourish—the Mississippi Delta, where creativity seeps through the backwaters into the very lifeblood of the community.
Next we drive over to Auberge Clarksdale Hostel, the “Mississippi Blues Hostel” that a young couple has established as a sister location to one set up in New Orleans (Auberge NOLA). The space is quite stunning, actually, a little unexpected for a hostel, and the focus is on “social experiences” while traveling. They have three bunk rooms and three private rooms, and while the privates are consistently booked up and not so much the bunks, the owners are holding on to their philosophy of hostel travel—hoping that the individual traveler, looking for social experiences out on the town, will find their way to Clarksdale soon.
Bubba then brought us over to Abes BBQ to meet Pat Davis and Lucille where they have a Lebanese tradition of grape leaves and fried chicken—at least as goes Lucille’s plate for breakfast. Abe’s is advertised as a BBQ joint, but it seems some Lebanese classics slip in (off menu) here and there. Unfortunately we were still too full from breakfast and too close to running out to Deeson to delight in some of the fare from Abe’s… maybe when we are heading back upriver.
We took the road out to The Shack Up Inn next. Bubba wanted to be sure we knew these weren’t slave quarters, but more the tenant farmer shacks that have been converted to lodging. The point here is to provide an experience and engage others in the history of this region, he says. We toured one of the shacks—the Cadillac—and for my tastes, I prefer Travelers, but I can see why some might like to rough it a bit with mismatched towels and a rustic sink, old beat up piano in the bedroom to offer ambience. Your out in the cotton field most literally, farm implements just alongside, so there’s no getting around authenticity here.
From there we stopped off briefly at The New Roxy to see the open air approach to figuring out a venue when your building’s roof is gone. It’s an amazing space with so much character and potential. She’s only open intermittently, mostly for festivals and special events, but the space is a great feature on an underdeveloped side of town.
Bubba brought us to his office for some handouts, a water, and bathroom break before a couple more stops to end our tour. One at the Paramount Theatre with another caved in roof making for quite a spectacle with pigeons in full bloom. And on to Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Arts, where Roger greeted us and shared his story of a journey from Dayton, Ohio to St. Louis, Missouri, and finally landing in Clarksdale where he could live out his love for the Blues. He gave up a job in advertising, but dove into a “mission,” he says, for music and the Delta.
Without people like Bubba, Roger, Chuck, and so many others, I’m not sure Clarksdale would be what it’s become in the last twenty years or so. Is it stemming the population decline, not sure yet. Is it growing tourism, definitely. At some point, hopefully these two concerns will meet, and the locals will connect with the out of town interests, finding a mutual investment in this place that holds so much wealth, so many riches in its people and its culture—not just from the past, but in the present.
We finally launched out of Clarksdale. It was already after noon and the heat of the day was intensifying. Our destination was Deeson, Mississippi. The population of Deeson was 100 in 1900 and there’s no census information after that. It’s just a name on a map nowadays, but we did manage to connect with one local resident, Andrew Long. He stopped me at the intersection where I waited for Tom and asked if I needed his assistance, and I apologized saying no, we’d figured out other plans. I wish we’d taken the time to talk more. Perhaps another time….
We drove the Relay van to nearby Cleveland, Mississippi for dinner and sleep. On the way, we passed through Shelby and other small towns that seem to be facing the same challenges as most of these small Delta communities. We sat at Hey Joe’s and reflected on the day over a cold beer and hot wings. Finally our night came to an end, one more time, 84 days in.