San Rafael Valley, AZ ~~ Photo by Bill Haas

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Frank "Rat" Ratliff told me folks who stay at the Riverside Hotel don't want him to change a single thing about where they bunk. They like it just fine the way it is.   Old and decrepit is in at the inns, only now a'days, Riverside Hotel isn't heated by coal.

The Riverside Hotel is a two story building that was originally the G.T. Thomas Hospital, the only facility where blacks could be treated in those days.  It was sold and converted into a hotel in 1944, again, the only hotel available to blacks.  Since then, several riverside bungalows adjacent to the hotel have also been acquired and renovated. Frank and his wife do it all themselves, soup to nuts:  maintenance, decorating, cleaning, reservations, landscaping, repairs whatever is involved in owning and maintaining a hotel.  It may be funky and unpretentious, but it's immaculate, and pride of ownership is evident in dozens of little homey details. 

I spent several hospitable hours hanging out with Frank while he gave me a tour of Riverside and entertained me with its history and stories about prominent guests who've stayed with him over the years, including John Kennedy, Jr.
Each comfy room comes equipped with a microwave, mini refrigerator and TV, a place to hang your hat -- bathroom down the hall. 
Rat was embarrassed to notice (I didn't!) that the pillows didn't have cases yet and didn't want me to photograph this room.  He snatched one of the pillows off the bed -- too late.  I was speedier!
The Bessie Smith room is a virtual shrine.  She died in this room in 1937, when it was the hospital's ER, from injuries sustained in an automobile accident.  Rat has made sure Bessie lives on in people's hearts.

HOPSON PLANTATION... renowned for several things, primarily a metamorphosis that started in the mid-thirties and lasted about a decade.  By the mid-forties, Hopson was the first plantation to completely mechanize its cotton operation, from planting, harvesting, baling and ginning.  While this certainly revolutionized the agriculture industry, the mechanization was a major factor in the great migration of African-Americans from the south to northern cities.
Mail Room and Commissary 

Its other claim to fame is that you can rent a room in the loft or an entire shack at its infamous B&B (Bed and Beer) Shack Up Inn.  The shack exteriors have been meticulously preserved (tin roofs, cedar walls) as they were when they housed sharecroppers and their families. I couldn't find anyone to show me around inside, but I understand all accommodations have been renovated to include 21st century amenities, such as indoor plumbing and air conditioning!

Individual rooms can also be reserved in The Loft

It was a treat to walk the grounds and envision life on the plantation fifty years ago. The commissary is a mini museum and serves as a venue for Delta Blues bands and Pinetop Perkins' annual homecoming, and it looked like the fields were planted. Something's still going on there besides people listening to music, drinking beer and shacking up!!!
You can read James Thweatt's delightful, first-hand memoir of plantation life at Hopson and his observations leading up to the mechanization conversion at the Hopson website:   


The Blues Highway, #61, links New Orleans to Chicago. Legendary bluesmen left the cotton fields (along Highway 49) and headed north on Highway 61 to seek fame and fortune in St Louis or Chicago.  I wove my way from Natchez to Clarksdale following The Blues Highway and the Great River Road, and arrived at the Crossroads in Clarksdale, a Delta town that claims to be "ground zero" for birth of the Delta Blues, just in time for the Juke Joint Festival. Sure this revolutionary music style has changed and evolved, and the players are now wired, but some of the old masters are still very much alive and kicking ass.  It was my good fortune to hear and photograph some of them.  

...consists of his brother on drums and his wife on washboard and everything else. Check out her steel nails!  I start with Reverend Peyton because his guitar was made in the 30's, making it one of the oldest I saw during my visit.  
Reverend Peyton is as much an entertainer as a musician and likes to punctuate his songs by swinging his leg and kicking the cymbals.  Great fun, and he never misses!

...besides being one snazzy dresser (don't you just LOVE his shoes!), this dude ended his set by playing his guitar one-handed.  Kid you not!  Click to enlarge the last two photos if you don't believe me.  There's high-octane music coming out of that box!

...master of the harp, 77 years young, started playing in the cotton fields with Muddy Waters when he was eight -- the real deal.  But I was busy watching monkeys on dogs down the street  and missed seeing him play.  Wish I could clone myself.

RED'S LOUNGE... it seedy, call it authentic; Red doesn't care.  You can get beer and Bar-B-Q with the fabulous music, and the cover was only $7.00.  Beer is the only thing Red serves, and he doesn't care if you bring your own wine!

Jammin' Red's
T-MODEL FORD... in his 80's but not exactly sure how FAR into his 80's!  This fabulous bluesman played his guitar (his "Black Nanny") for FOUR hours non stop, pausing only to nip at the JD in his flask while the drummers changed places.  The young man who looks about 11 or 12 actually just turned 12 and is Red's grandson.  He was apparently born with sticks in his hand but had to quit this gig at midnight because "he has school tomorrow"!!

...because it's generally agreed Clarksdale is where it all began, this is Morgan Freeman's enterprising paean to Delta Blues.  Freeman and his partner converted this century-old railroad depot into a really, really popular, barn-sized juke joint with a full bar, a down home menu and local (mostly) blues music.  It was here I was treated to...

...huh?  His backup band is all girls!!  With his daughter on the drums.  Aside from the exuberant, danceable blues music, Super Chikan's guitars are works of art! Check them out in the "Guitar" segment below.  And the musical rapport between Super Chikan and La La was especially captivating.

...By day, La La is a helpful, low-key, knowledgeable clerk at Cat Head Blues Music and Folk Art store.
By night, La La is a fiend!  She rips, slashes and churns her keyboard either as a solo attraction or partnered with Super Chikan and his Fighting Cocks!  Either way, you get your money's worth!


T-Model Ford's Black Nanny

Super Chikan's play things

More around town; they were everywhere!

I finally learned how to create a link in Blogger! If you're interested, here are some "You Tube" videos for some of the local Delta Blues Bands I mentioned here. CAVEAT: While this type of music may not thrill you, it's still pretty entertaining to watch these guys with the sound turned down!!!!