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Clarksdale, Mississippi

Election 08 first debate, Oxford, MississippiWith fields of the rogue weed kudzu lining each side of the road, Mississippi’s Highway 6 leads from Oxford to Clarksdale.  But despite this asphalt artery being only 46 miles long, it links two towns that otherwise exist in different worlds.

Named after the English university town, Oxford is a leafy prosperous town filled with boutiques, bookshops and bars to meet the needs of students attending Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi whose alumni include writers William Faulkner and John Grisham.

Oxford shot to world prominence today when it hosted the first debate of US Election 08 between presidential aspirants John McCain and Barack Obama. After threatening a no-show, McCain arrived in town for a last-minute ambush that seemed to have Obama on the back foot for most of the debate.

Robbie and I arrived in Oxford about 30 minutes before the Election 08 debate started after a long-haul drive from Louisville, a 460 mile journey that traversed the states of Kentucky and Tennessee. We managed to find the last vacant room in town, at the Comfort Inn on Jackson Street.

Rather than attempt to negotiate the ferocious security cordon that quarantined the Ole Miss campus, we headed for the centre of town where every bar, restaurant and even the picturesque Jackson Square had video screens showing the debate.

We watched the first 20 minutes of the sortie in a sports bar, whose denizens cheered McCain and jeered Obama. Eventually, after the ambient chatter grew to overwhelm the candidates’ comments, we moved along to Jackson Square where hundreds of people watched the debate on a huge screen and cheered in a much more even-handed way.

Oxford is a well-heeled university town. Its houses are tidily painted and maintained. Public buildings, including the handsome Lafayette County Courthouse. Its Square Books bookshop is open until 10pm every night. Its street are plentifully populated by late night bars and restaurants.

After the debate finished, families disappeared to their homes while excited students hit the bars. Luscious coeds and handsome young bucks swarmed towards each other to chew the fat about the debate and line up a date for the night. Music was pumping, video screens were flashing and the booze was flowing when Robbie and I headed back to the hotel to listen to the AFL Grand Final on Internet radio. Go the Hawks!

Even the next morning, the hum of prosperity was buzzing. People lined up to buy buns, bagels and croissants at the local bakery. The Hinton & Hinton clothes shops sold stylish clothes for prices like those in Australian stores. Around the corner, an entrepreneurial guy was selling Obama tee-shirts and campaign buttons from a stand on the grounds of a derelict gas station.

Just 45 minutes after leaving the town, we arrived at Clarksdale, a hardscrabble Mississippi Delta town where the dogs are even skinnier than the mannequins in Oxford’s clothing boutiques. The bedraggled main street was largely deserted although a dozen late model cars were parallel parked at one end.

As we walked along the street, amplified guitar licks peeled into the sky from the front of a guitar shop. Beside a hall, local ladies were packing up a Saturday farmers’ market where rickety stalls offered local fruit and vegetables as well as home-made preserves.

“Where are you all from?” enquired one friendly lady. When I told her Australia, she added: “Are you all here for the Tennessee Williams festival? This afternoon, we’re having a Four on the Porch event where four different Tennessee Williams plays are being performed on four different porches.”

“You all can find programs about festival events at the Episcopal Church,” volunteered another lady.  “I can take you down there in my car to show you where it is, if you like.”

These gracious Southern ladies also told me about Clarksdale greatest treat: A restaurant and a blues bar owned by Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman. The bar was at the far end of the street, dubbed Blues Alley Lane, which accounted for the expensive cars parked nearby.

We approached the ramshackle building with trepidation, seeking any sign that the decrepit building was in fact inhabited. A man sitting on a shabby sofa on the front porch gestured for us to enter the front door.

Inside, we discovered a huge room lit by coloured light globes and gaping gaps in the timberwork. Immediately in front of us were three pool tables, lit by low-hanging lights which obscured a dining room half-filled with people. On the right, a rough-hewn wooden bar lined the brick wall under a neon Budweiser sign and a shelf a row of the beer bottles on sale. It was an exercise in dirt poor decor.

Abraham at Ground ZeroWe ordered beer and burgers and, while waited for lunch, asked questions of Abraham behind the bar. He said Morgan Freeman set up the blues bar and restaurant about eight years ago to contribute opportunities for employment to the community he came from.

Although he grew up in nearby Charleston, south east of Clarksdale, Freeman has located his bar and restaurant on the historic Highway 61, a road immortalised by the Bob Dylan album Highway 61 Revisited, which runs straight through the heart of the dead-flat Mississippi delta.

Blues musicians play at the bar several nights a week and Freeman enjoys dropping by every now and then for a meal and to listen to the music. As Ground Zero filled with its lunchtime crowd, the staff worked hard to take and fill the orders promptly. Neither of the two white waitresses parted easily with a smile, although they performed their duties punctually.

Abraham admitted trade could fluctuate a lot in the bar, depending on the day and week. Asked about the election, he admitted that while Obama had some good ideas, he had not paid a lot of attention to the campaign so far. “I bin busy wit’ work, you see,” he explained.

After our meal, we emerged from the dark bar, little was moving under the midday Mississippi sun as it slowly melted the tarseal on the street. The town appeared shabby and unattended compared to the picture perfection of Oxford, just down the road. It also lacks the prosperity, jobs and world-class education that the power-partying students of Ole Miss take for granted.

Somehow, I think neither McCain nor Obama were talking about Clarksdale when they eulogised “Main Street” America in their debate responses. Their Main Street is more like the picture-perfect esplanade that runs through the centre of Disneyland, a mythical townscape that is in another world to the deserted town in poor rural Mississippi.

Clarksdale may be the town that politics forgot, so it is heartening to see that Morgan Freeman has remembered where he came from.

Across the street, rhythmic blues riffs emanate from the shadows of a shopfront. Sitting on a step, Porter Wiley is busking for tips, amplifying his acoustic blues guitar to draw attention. Porter Wiley the bluesman

“Ah gotta CD too,” he told me in an almost unintelligible Southern drawl. “It costs $15.”

He looked at me sheepishly when I gave him a $20 and I realised he probably couldn’t make change, so I told him to keep it. I also took some photos of Porter against the empty street. Although we spoke for about five minutes, I must admit I understood barely a word that he said. 

As we pulled out town, Porter’s plaintive and perplexing voice singing over the rhythm of the blues on our car stereo, I looked at the ramshackle houses, the utilitarian school and the unkempt streets, and realised why the Mississippi  Delta is the real home of the blues. 

Comment on this story


Hi John
Great stuff! I had a friend living in Mississippi back in 2000 who was despondent because African-Americans weren’t voting and felt he couldn’t do anything about it.  Times might have changed!  I’ve just received this information.
In a CBS News poll, uncommitted voters see Barack as the debate winner. When it comes to the economy, 66% say Barack would make the right decisions versus 42% for McCain.The CNN poll results were also clear:

  • Who did the best job tonight?
    Barack: 51
    McCain: 38
  • Who would better handle Iraq?
    Barack: 52
    McCain: 47
  • Who would better handle the economy?
    Barack: 58
    McCain: 37

Denise Goodfellow, Darwin, NT

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