In the Presence of Greatness

I rolled into Clarksdale, Mississippi as a blank slate. All I knew of it was that The Blues thrived there, now and in the past.  Before I left home, there had been a call from Tommy Polk, a talented singer-songwriter whose music has been recorded by artists like Martina McBride and Crystal Gayle. Tommy grew up in the Mississippi Delta, had gotten word of my journey and was calling to invite me to stay in his Big Pink Guest House in Clarksdale. I’ll meet Tommy himself farther downriver in Natchez.

On the surface, Clarksdale looks like another dusty Delta town that has seen its better days. But, don’t be fooled! Look a little deeper and it begins to show itself as a vibrant town full of stories, of masterful storytellers and a wellspring of creativity expressed in every way imaginable.  My first hour in town was spent with Pal (short for Palmer) Foster, who manages the Guest House for Tommy. As he checked me in and showed me the house, he filled my head with story after story of the cast of characters who make his hometown what it is.

When you step into the foyer of the pink brick Victorian house, Elvis sneers down at you from atop a beautiful grandfather clock. He’s there, Pal tells me, because the previous owner of the house, Virginia Anderson (whose colorful life story could be a book unto itself) dated “The King” for about three months.  Then across the interior courtyard, past the fountain complete with wooden ducks and up the spiral staircase to my balconied room, “The Stella”.  Tennessee Williams grew up in Clarksdale and the room is named in homage to Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Seriously – Clarksdale must be some kind of vortex of creative energy. It makes one want to drink plenty of tap water or suck in deep breaths of the air or absorb it in whatever way it is done! There are tales of Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty and John Faulkner hanging out together and trying to drink each other under the table. Then there is the music. I can’t even begin to do justice in this space to the musical history here. If you are a Blues fan, I don’t have to tell you. Even if you’re not very familiar with this rich, smoky, earthy, soul-stirring music that many say was born here, you’ll likely recognize names of those that lived and made music here like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Son House. The renowned Delta Blues Museum is right next door to the Big Pink and I had every intention of going there. As we know, my intentions aren’t worth squat! I was in town over a weekend and on Saturday I was sucked into the quirky, crazy, creative life of Clarksdale and Sunday they were closed. I was invited, and tempted to stay another day, but the raindrop waits for nothing and the next stop deserves its allotted time as well.  If you decide to come, stay more than two days!

One of my very favorite actors, Morgan Freeman, lives near here and is nurturing the current crop of Blues artists at his Blues Club, “Ground Zero”. I loved the story of Freeman’s answer to a question from a talk show host, “You are so successful – why in the world would you choose to live in Mississippi?” Morgan’s answer was, “Because I can.”

Music is everywhere – even at the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market, a group was playing that included a talented young boy on the drums with other, more seasoned artists.

There was also a little guy who demonstrated how talent is allowed to grow here.

He could barely reach the cymbals with his sticks, but he was serious about making some music with them. No one stopped him or pulled him away because he was following his own beat – they smiled at him and kept playing. That’s how it happens.

I could write pages and pages about all the creative people connected to Clarksdale (seriously, for whatever reason, this place just oozes with it!) I’ll tell you about two that I met.

Three or four people said, “You must meet John Ruskey”. So, I wandered into his shop, The Quapaw Canoe Company, to see if that was possible. He was packing gear and canoes preparing to take a group of Boy Scouts on a river adventure on the Mississippi. Still, he found some time to show me around and tell me a little about his work.  John has been paddling the Mississippi for more than 20 years and loves making it possible for others to do that. In addition to leading expeditions, offering classes and workshops, he makes canoes ranging from dugouts to the gorgeous 22’ wooden canoe he was loading up today. Honestly, the wood and the workmanship are so elegant, it looked more like a piece of fine furniture than something you would fill with Boy Scouts and put in the river. Although John didn’t mention it, I learned from others he is also a very talented musician, painter and writer! He even cooks for his guests on the river. I feel a trip back to Clarksdale somewhere in the future!

Finally, in the pure magic of following Serendipity, I was granted an opportunity to meet Marshall Bouldin III. I’m almost hesitant to write about the afternoon with him in a few paragraphs, because the experience deserves much more. But, here goes. Mr. Bouldin is a nationally-known portrait artist whose work hangs in museums and the private collections of presidents, governors and astronauts. It’s an illustrious career that has filled and blessed most of his 87 years, but impressive as that is, it is not what makes the experience of meeting him so potent. My new friend, Pal, has known him all his life and still says it feels like “an audience with the Pope” when he visits him. There is such a strong Presence about him – such a sense of wisdom and goodness, that I immediately wanted only to be quiet and listen. He talked about art – what it is and is not – and he talked about his life filled with art and blessings. He gets up every morning, excited to get to work and see what problems or ideas will appear. He hopes to do something new or better or different, always reaching toward perfection and always knowing it isn’t something that can be grasped. He talked about the act of creating art and how on one level it requires a perfect balance between the right and left side of the brain. But he also talked about how inspiration comes through us. “It ain’t me”, he said, “I’m just here playing, doing what I enjoy, what I think God wants me to do. I’m the most fortunate man in the world.”

When I told him Pal had loaned me the beautiful book about his life and work printed by the Mississippi Museum of Art, he got tears in his eyes as he described the book being created and presented to him as a surprise. I told him how it had inspired me at this point in my journey. After 68 days of what sometimes feels like a marathon, it was a point where I needed to be reminded that my only job is to say thank you for this moment and to keep doing what it seems God wants me to do. I felt blessed, renewed, inspired and honored to have met this great man.

About Gayle Harper

Travel Photographer and Writer
This entry was posted in MS - Clarksdale and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to In the Presence of Greatness

  1. This has to be one of my favorite posts.


  2. Mike Jungers says:

    Your portrait of Mr. Bouldin is incredible. It looks and feels like one of those paintings we have seen in a museum of art by one of the Masters. Clarksdale feels like a very culturally rich environment, a perfect landing spot for you and your raindrop!

  3. Vickey Henson says:

    How fortunate you are to have spent time with these inspiring people. I bet your little raindrop is just swelling with the information you have gleaned for her. It certainly sounds like a place I would want to return to. Happy traveling little raindrop.

  4. John Ruskey says:

    Gayle, wonderful to meet you, look forward to next time! May the river be with you! You seem to be glowing with light yourself. Also, I wanted to share with you — there was a beautiful short doc made about the creative process & Clarksdale you & your reader’s might enjoy — Mr. Bouldin is the star of course — its called “Creative Crossroads, and can be seen on the vimeo website:

  5. Patty Killelea says:

    Thank you Gayle….this is wonderful article about Clarksdale and all its colorful people…Tommy Polk is a friend of mine…..We are lucky to have his talent here in Natchez.

  6. Cheri C. Hardy says:

    Hello Ms. Gayle, I am so glad you got to meet my dear friend Marshall. I no longer live in Clarksdale but I use to deliver his mail and then I began to house sit for him and Mel (when she was still able to travel). They had a great dane and another dog so I took care of them and Cellie Bo, the great-dane, took care of me! It was a wonderful experience. Marshall and I became great friends. That friendship will continue till death. I have so many stories I could tell you. Especially the one about the time I decided to clean house for them and oil the furniture for a surprise. I don’t think Mel likes me as much as she use to. And the time Morgan Freeman came over to a cocktail party (we already knew each other) but we got into a pretend argument in front of everyone. Mel was not amused. I love her though and Marshall very much. Marshall always keeps a picture of me and Cellie Bo in the front room and I drew a picture for him one day as a joke but he keeps it by his bed and says he looks at it everynight. How special is that? I can’t draw yet this amazing man keeps my doodling by his bed. All their sons are brilliant in their own right. Great fellows. Raised very well by their Mom and Dad. Well I did not mean to go on and on. But I miss Marshall and I am so glad that everyone that meets him realizes what a treasure he is.

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