Mississippi muse: Visiting the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale

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At top, visitors check out the graffiti on the porch and entrance to Ground Zero Blues Club. Above, vintage sign, posters and guitars adorn the club's stage. Photos by Bill Gossy

At top, visitors check out the graffiti on the porch and entrance to Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Miss. Above, vintage signs, posters and guitars adorn the club’s stage.                         Photos by Bill Gossy

By Marlene Greer, Correspondent

Driving up to Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Miss., you might think you ended up on the wrong side of town. The old brick building, with a flashy neon sign and well-worn couches on a graffiti-covered porch, has the look of a dive, and it doesn’t improve once you enter. Every inch of wall space and tabletops are covered with graffiti.

Co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman and local attorney Bill Luckett, Ground Zero Blues Club opened in May 2001 in an abandoned cotton warehouse. Vintage signs, posters, photos and even guitars plaster the walls. It’s dark, rank (smoking is allowed) and loud.

But then that’s what you might expect from a “juke joint.”

Juke joints started as hole-in-the-wall, backwoods clubs where the songs of the Mississippi cotton fields morphed into the sounds of the Delta Blues. The joints — any crumbling barn or falling down plantation building would do — were places where rural laborers came to enjoy some liquor, dancing and good music.

Clarksdale, at the crossroads of highways 61 and 49 (the location of Robert Johnson’s famous “Crossroad Blues”) in the Mississippi Delta, was at the epicenter of the Delta Blues. The city was the home of such blues legends as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner and Sam Cooke.

“The club’s location makes it unique; it’s ground zero for blues music,” Luckett said. “And the old building fits the character of a juke joint.”

Even with the graffiti. Luckett explains how it got started.

“On opening night, there was this really cute girl dancing barefoot on the bar. Morgan and I went over to her and told her if she came in again we’d reserve this spot for her. I took out a magic marker and outlined her feet on the bar. On one foot I wrote ‘reserved for’ and on the other foot I wrote her name. From there it took off. Before long we had people marking their reservation with body parts everywhere. Whole bodies are outlined on the floor.”

Visitors can catch some of the area’s best blues musicians at Ground Zero every Wednesday through Saturday. And if you visit Clarksdale in the spring, you can join in celebrating the city’s blues heritage at the Juke Joint Festival.

While you’re in Clarksdale, stop at the Delta Blues Museum across the street from Ground Zero for a look at blues history, including Waters’ cabin where he lived during his days as a sharecropper.

– Ground Zero Blues Club, 387 Delta Ave., Clarksdale, Miss. Cover, $3 to $7; groundzerobluesclub.com

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