I came to the Delta in search of an authentic juke joint. The kind of place you read about in magazines but aren’t sure really exists. The kind of place you pull up to and wonder whether it’s safe to get out of the car. The kind of place where you can get lost in the blues for hours.
I got a recommendation for a juke joint called Red’s from the guys at Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art. They said it was on the street I drove in on, which I found strange because I didn’t see a thing on my way in. I drove back the same way, carefully checking out what amounted to a lot of abandoned buildings until I hit the end of the block. Nothing. I turned around and drove back up the street, beginning to think I was the victim of some sort of inside joke Clarksdale plays on tourists.
As I was sitting at a stop sign, I looked to my right and was drawn to a couple of old smokers sitting outside a presumably condemned building. Next to the smokers was an old refrigerator, some trash cans that hadn’t been emptied in a while and some extra plywood- probably leftover from boarding up the windows. When I drove forward just a bit, I noticed that the refrigerator was blocking a sign that said “Red’s Blues Club”.
My first thought was “are you shitting me?”, quickly followed by “this is fantastic”.
I parked my car and walked over to the front door. In front of the building was a guy looking for something on the floor of his car. When I got closer I asked him if Red’s was open. He responded “it can be”, at which point I knew I was talking with Red himself.
Red was probably 55-60ish. He had a stocky build and wore sunglasses, an open shirt and a white hat. I imagine this was his signature look. He told me to go inside and that he’d be in as soon as he could find his keys.
Walking into Red’s, I knew I’d found exactly what I was looking for. It was only about 5:30, but it might as well have been midnight inside. Red’s has no windows, and the only light comes from beer neons and some red rope light in the shape of music notes along the walls. R.L. Burnside was blaring from the house speakers.
The place is tiny, maybe 20x40, with a giant fan roaring in the corner in an attempt to make up for the poor window unit’s valiant but feeble attempt at beating the oppressive Delta heat. When Red walked in, he went behind the counter and brought out two 24 oz Budweisers, sheepishly acknowledging that his keys were in his pocket the whole time.
He walked over to the wall and asked if I knew who was in the picture. Thankfully I recognized John Lee Hooker, and my correct answer earned me some sort of “tourist with a clue” status.
For the next hour Red and I sat and talked about the blues. He told me about all of the people who had come through his joint. Mostly they were names I’d heard of or seen on compilation records but wasn’t really that familiar with-T-Model Ford, Junior Kimbrough, Big T, Lightnin' Malcolm, and Big Jack Johnson.
Our conversation was intermittent. We’d talk for a while, then sit in a silence for a few minutes. But it didn’t seem awkward. I was just soaking everything in, figuring that when Red wanted to talk he would. Every now and then he’d pop up and take me over to another picture on the wall, pointing out Carlos Santana in one of them and Buddy Guy in another.
After a couple of beers, I told Red that I was doing a bbq tour of the country. His head perked up- I’m assuming his eyes opened a little wider as well but couldn’t be sure. Red kept his sunglasses on the entire evening, inside and out. I told him I went to Abe’s but was disappointed. Without saying a word, he pointed his head towards the door, and we walked back out front.
In one of those “it doesn’t get much better than this moments”, Red opened up one of the smokers on the sidewalk to reveal a pork shoulder covered up in foil. Are you kidding me? He took off the foil to reveal a beautiful dark brown hunk of barbecue goodness. Red’s doesn’t serve food, so he was just doing this for himself. And luckily me.
“Go inside and get the knife and white bread”, he barked in my direction. I went inside and found a huge grill knife that hadn’t been cleaned in years sitting next to a half loaf of Wonder Bread. Not wanting to come off as the city-boy patsy that I am, I took the knife out as is and proceeded to slice into the shoulder.
Sitting out on the sidewalk, sweat running down my face, eating smoked shoulder on white bread with the owner of a Delta juke joint. That’s good living.
Just when I thought life couldn’t get much better, Robert “Wolfman” Belfour pulled up and started getting ready for his evening show. To be honest I’d never head of the guy before, but he looked exactly how you would hope a blues musician would. Sixty-nine years old, Mr. Belfour had salt and pepper hair, and wore glasses and a suit. He had an easily inducible laugh that revealed a kindred spirit and a lifetime of stories.
Red told him that I was looking to get educated about the blues, and after he set up he told me to pull up a stool. Smoking a Doral and drinking a Bud Light, he started with telling me that he grew up watching his father play the guitar with a pocket knife for a slide. Once older he’d work during the day and play at nights on the weekends. Back in the old days, before there were clubs, he said they just went to somebody’s house where there was gambling and liquor. They’d give you $5 and all the liquor you could drink. Drunk on homemade white whiskey, he’d play until the sun came up, when everybody would walk home.
He talked about playing on Beale Street back when “Beale was alive”, his eyes lighting up as he took his own trip down memory lane. He threw out names like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, friends and influences of his through the years. I just sat there in silence, drinking deeply from all of the stories he was telling.
After forty-five minutes and a couple of beers, a few more people strolled in, and Mr. Belfour decided it was time to play. And play he did. For almost four hours straight, he sat up on stage and played the best solo blues show I’ve ever seen. He told me earlier that he never learned chords, which meant he played only notes on the guitar. All I can say is wow. In between songs he would conduct his own, much cooler version of VH-1 Storytellers. There’s a clip or two of him on YouTube that I’d recommend checking out.
At one point I decided to walk down the street to Ground Zero Blues, Morgan Freeman’s club that he opened a few years back to revitalize his hometown. Red had mentioned it in the afternoon, saying its “popular with the white tourists”. Had I not just come from Red’s, I would have thought that Ground Zero was great. I was after all a white tourist. It was much bigger and had a full band of really skilled blues players playing the familiar blues favorites.
But you can find a place like that in most cities in America, so I decided to head back to Red’s after two songs. On the way back I could see why most people might not go to Red’s. Not that it looks nice during the day, but once the sun goes down it looks like a real hellhole from the outside. And if you couldn’t hear the music playing, the only indication that a show was going on was a sheet of paper with “Tonight: Robert Belfour, $5 cover”.
I walked back in and took my same bar stool. Red welcomed me back with an “I told you so” look, sliding another 24 oz Budweiser down the bar to me.
Sometime after 1 in the morning, Mr. Belfour finally stopped playing. After a few minutes he walked over to the bar. I thanked him for everything and he said “hope you enjoyed it son”. Before I could respond Red belted out “I told you he’s good”.
Possibly the understatement of the year. After walking back to my hotel through the outskirts of Clarksdale (which I do NOT recommend doing by yourself at 2 AM), I couldn’t go to sleep for a couple hours. I just sat there thinking about all of the stories I heard and how cool the day/night was. For a dive bar loving, blues listening, barbecue eating idiot like myself, it just might have been the perfect day.