Clarksdale, Mississippi is known as the birthplace of the Blues. At the crossroads of highways 49 and 61 there are even two guitars on a tower to signify it. And behind it is Abe’s, great BBQ since 1924.
And then most of the town is what we would refer to as urban squalor. A type of poor so bad it doesn’t show up on any government ledger. But there is an underlying wealth that supercedes a balance sheet that after arriving back in Southern Cal you need to experience to understand. But I’ll try.
There was a time when the color of your skin made you a desirable or a colored. In 1937 Bessie Smith, Queen of the Blues, was in a car accident and taken to the hospital in Clarksdale.
Such places were not the huge facilities they are now, this was a building about the size of a Circle K. And she was left to bleed to death because of her color. You see Whites didn’t tend to Coloreds in those days.
Fast forward to 1944 and a Mrs. Ratliff runs a boarding house/hotel for blacks in the building that once was a hospital. Her four-year-old son Frank is living with her. In 1957 she buys the building and runs it as The Riverside Hotel. Which is now run by her son. His friends call him Ratt, who I can say is a friend of ours.
This is the place Ratt runs now. From the outside it looks abandoned and like it’s falling down. Like Ratt told us, if you want a pretty face go on the highway, it’s what’s is inside that counts. A life lesson here brothers and sisters. But the inside rooms, all 32 of them are spotless.
Each individually decorated and spotless room oozes memories. And Ratt loosely runs the show, or maybe it runs him. Only rule is no drugs, and people come year after year from as far away as Japan. Leaving their guitars and other belongings knowing they are safe in their friend’s house. It is not unusual for the cops at 6am to stop by when people are still playing to visit, not harass.
When we pulled up to take a picture, Ratt and another man were on the front that used to be a porch talking. My wife, Theresa reluctantly got off to take a picture and Ratt invited us over to visit, then in for a tour.
I readily accepted, and my wife Theresa went with me. The blessings were about to begin. If you have never spent time around musicians they are different. No sense of time, playing until 6am then sleeping all day with music being their worshiped god.
We were about to step into a time capsule of history, both music and people that Graceland and Elvis would envy. You see, there are many Blues festivals each year in Clarksdale, and they all come to stay or visit with Ratt. John Lee Hooker, Howling Wolf, JFK, Jr., (John-John) Ike Turner, BB King, and others make this their home away from home.
The weekend we were there, the Viet Nam Vets MC filled the place for a weekend. Today, there is no color boundary, social boundary, or economic boundary here. Come and play, or listen but “be cool”.
The other side of traveling the south is that it is known at least incorrectly, as the Bible belt. A religion belt is more accurate; as there are so many types of Baptists we quit counting. On Sunday mornings in a church building parking lot, you will maybe see six cars there. About the only commonality I saw was that they didn’t get along. Jesus said: “you are my friends if you keep my commandment” the one to love God and your neighbor. I wonder would He even be welcome, or would he stay with Ratt, where he would be welcomed with open arms and open heart.
Church people note-we are commanded to love; start doing it. Quit finding difference and realize we have one Jesus, and concentrate on him. Pray for each other, invite each other to dinner, or maybe just to visit and fellowship.
Maybe, just maybe, your heart may be changed. Then, where you fellowship, with whom, and how you rode there won’t matter. Maybe the Bessie Smiths in your life won’t lie bleeding in the next room because of their different color or belief, or because of the different church they go to or different Bible translation they read.
Maybe just maybe, you will see Jesus for the first time-not in book or movie form but in person, as the person and the Son of God.
Keep Ratt in your prayers; his life style is a display of brotherhood, but not of salvation.
Knowing Ratt and the values his mama instilled in him, I know he has heard the Gospel. I pray that behind that toothless grin, beats the heart of a believer in Jesus the Christ. This is one book that after looking at the cover must be read. Somehow it all makes sense when we just love.
Note: the old Cream song, Crossroads by Eric Clapton was written about Clarksdale and the blues, and I’ll bet there is part of Ratt in it too.
By Mike Mohn