Have lunch at the place where the Delta Blues began
The tale told about blues legend Robert Johnson is that he sold his soul to the devil at “the crossroads”, considered an evil site according to rural folklore. It’s said “Muddy” Waters walked the railroad tracks near his home in the Mississippi Delta to go to Chicago and play the blues. The “crossroads”, Mississippi Highways 61 and 49, and the railroad tracks where these two events took place are just outside the doors of Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, MS.
To say one appreciates the Blues is rather an incomplete sentence as there’s a variety of Blues, such as New Orleans Blues, Kansas City Blues, Chicago Blues and Memphis Blues, to name only a shortlist of the assortment of descriptions associated with this historical music. However, most Blues historians will credit the Mississippi Delta with being the home of the Blues – the Delta Blues.
The history of the Delta Blues, so-called due to its roots in the region of the Deep South called “The Delta” by area folk, began in the sharecropper shacks of Northwest Mississippi. The Delta begins at the southernmost border of Memphis,TN and ends near Vicksburg,MS, and is a land filled with rich farmland due to its being an old floodplain, or delta, of the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers.
The first songs of the Delta Blues were primarily the passing of stories, gospels and folklore of the African-American community. Later, rock bands such as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin have credited early Blues performers like “Muddy” Waters and B.B. King as being primary influences in their musical style.
The Mississippi Delta was once home to many blues clubs, also called “juke joints” due to the omnipresent jukebox in each establishment, but over the years, progress forced their closure due to migrations to larger cities where work was easier to find. Following the Civil War, juke joints, traditionally at road intersections or crossroads, became gathering places for African-Americans to dance, drink, shoot pool and play the Blues. One thing visitors to a juke joint could count on was good southern cooking for a good price. Recognizing the need to preserve the rich heritage of the Delta Blues, actor Morgan Freeman, local attorney and businessman Bill Luckett and Clarksdale native and Memphis entertainment executive Howard Stovall developed a plan to bring a true juke joint to their hometown, Clarksdale,MS. They called it The Ground Zero Blues Club. After searching for months for a proper building,Morgan and Bill finally opted to create their club in an old building on the edge of Clarksdale, the Delta Wholesale Hardware Corporation on the back, the Delta Wholesale Grocery on the front and a cotton processing plant on the top floor.
Called simply “Ground Zero” by the regulars, this blues club fits the true definition of a juke joint. By day, Ground Zero looks like the unassuming building it once was. On the porch of the faded brick building sits an old couch and a smoker filled with pork and brisket for meals served in the diner. Ground Zero isn’t open for breakfast and on the lunch menu are Southern classic dishes like fried grits (a favorite ofMr.Luckett’s) turnip greens, fried catfish, fried green tomatoes and peach cobbler with a side of vanilla ice cream. In the evenings, the building fills with the sounds of local blues bands playing traditional Delta Blues.
Ground Zero featured in the HBO documentary “The Last of the Mississippi Juke Joints”, was chosen by Southern Living Magazine as having the best fried catfish in the South, local newspaper the Clarion-Ledger chose it as one of the top 100 nightclubs and in 2005 it was selected as one of the top 25 favorite spots in the south by Southern Living Favorites. A project to preserve the Delta Blues, this juke joint has captured the attention of Robert Plant, who performs there from time to time, as does Eric Clapton. The music performed there is pure Delta Blues. Though both Morgan and Bill are obviously busy, the love they have for Ground Zero began with two men, two shovels and many truckloads of debris.
If you’re planning a visit to Ground Zero, on the top floor of the building, Bill and Morgan have refurbished the old cotton company so there are now seven apartments with names attached reminiscent of their history with cotton manufacturing. Carrying names taken from the process of grading cotton, the apartments are given names such as “Fair Middling” or “Good Fair Middling” or even “Good Ordinary”; the apartments are available for rent, if guests don’t mind the music downstairs on the weekends. The first room at the top of the stairs, the “Good Middling”, is the one informally called “Morgan’s Apartment” due to its being designed and furnished by the wives of the owners and it’s the room in which Morgan sleeps when he’s in town.
The atmosphere at Ground Zero, and Clarksdale, is like taking a step back to a time when life was simpler, folks walked a little slower, cells phones were something read about in science fiction novels and people still waved when they walked down the street. The moment the doors close behind you as you enter Ground Zero, it’s as though the world outside never existed. People from the town and outlying areas come to the restaurant for the best Southern home-cooked meal found nowhere else but Momma’s kitchen. They greet each other like long-lost friends, always with a hug and a smile.
The menu of Ground Zero is printed on paper and not fancy at all, but there’s a chalkboard menu by the door, noticed by guests as soon as they enter. The cook, unashamed, tells anyone who will listen his recipes are passed down from his granny and has been known to add meals to the daily menu, just because he feels like it.
Make sure to try the fried grits, catfish, greens and peach cobbler – all menu items are favorites of the cook and they sell out quickly.
For more information about not just the restaurant but the rooms visit their site: http://www.groundzerobluesclub.com/.
Can’t make it soon? They give a live streaming of their weekend performances on their site (login required): https://www.groundzerobluesclubmusic.com/buttons.htm
(editor’s note: a form of this article originally appeared online at AAA’s Home & Away Magazine website edition)