Delta Bohemian Tours
By Julian Rankin
Photography by Rory Doyle
Cell service is weak in the Mississippi Delta, but the characters are strong. Madge and Billy Howell of Clarksdale have built their business on that truism. The idea for the enterprise, Delta Bohemian, came to Billy from God. The two words encompass the grit, adventure and personality of this most Southern place. The husband and wife team hosts blues tourists and culture-seekers from across the world, but neither is like any hotelier or tour guide you’ve met before. They proudly defy labels, but one thing is certain: from the moment a visitor arrives on the doorstep of the columned Clarksdale White House for an overnight stay, or sits down in Billy’s red Jeep for a jaunt through local history, the traveler has found a trusted friend.
“It’s important to me that people that are coming here connect with someone that’s from here,” says Madge. “Someone who can show them Southern hospitality and what makes us so unique and real here in the Delta.”
Delta Bohemian is emblematic of the Clarksdale paradox, a town experiencing a modern cultural renaissance while holding fast to its historic past as the crossroads of the blues. The Delta Bohemian brand celebrates both the constancy and diversity of the Delta, epitomized by a year-round live music circuit at up-and-coming local venues and timeless juke joints alike. Madge and Billy, Delta natives with their own global adventures under their belts, reconnected and married in 2009. They had a pirate wedding in town at the historic (and very traditional) Clark House that blew neighbors’ minds and set the tone for their individualistic perspective. The Delta Bohemian began as a humble website of stories giving tourists an authentic road map to a region that can otherwise seem a conundrum. It evolved from there to include the Clarksdale White House B&B and Delta Bohemian Tours, an expression of Clarksdale’s “come as you are” mantra.
“I relish the things we have in common but I also relish the things that make us different,” Madge says. “It’s okay to be friends with people that aren’t just like yourself. Go do something different. Meet someone new every week. And it’s all spontaneous. We don’t do anything very planned.”
The two produced an impromptu Clarksdale documentary with their friend and blues harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite. The film opens with Billy sitting in a folding chair in the middle of the railroad tracks surrounded by overgrowth. “If you’ve been here, you’ll get it,” he says of the Delta outback’s rural magnetism. “You’ll come for the blues, but you’ll come back for the people.”
The couple bought and renovated the historic Clarksdale White House on Second Street and filled it with Mississippi artwork and local color. Up and down the staircase, Madge displays a collection of stunning black and white photography from her years as a model in New York, Texas and Memphis. She does it, she says, because of the men behind the shutter, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Lucian Perkins and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Berke Breathed among them.
A picture of Madge as a child was taken by celebrated Southern artist William Eggleston. Madge is in tune with what legendary street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson dubbed the decisive moment. “I live my life very much in the present,” she says. “And this is where I’ve found myself. I get to connect with people. To show them a quirky personal home of mine. I like giving them a home to come into that they feel comfortable in.”
The house sits at the intersection of time and place. Madge has loved it since she was a child. The structure retains its turn of the century charm while the interior is a dynamic cacophony of lush furniture, blues ephemera, rustic Southern accent and deft design. Each piece has a story. A painted portrait of family friend Morgan Freeman plays off the antique sideboard which, in turn, resonates against an antlered deer skull – the meat from which Madge and Billy have stored neatly in their freezer.
Delta Bohemian Tours was born in response to guests’ repeated queries about where to go and what to see. Billy, like a silver-tongued flatland-Sherpa, gives a raconteur’s unauthorized history lesson that includes: playwright Tennessee Williams’ former home (and the real-life inspirations for some of his iconic characters like Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire); the Riverfront Hotel where John F. Kennedy Jr. once stayed and where Ike Turner wrote and rehearsed “Rocket 88” prior to recording the groundbreaking record in Memphis with Sam Phillips; the real story of Robert Johnson and the devil at the crossroads; and everything in between.
“Any day is a beautiful day to go riding in the Mississippi Delta,” Madge tells a soon-to-be-guest on the phone, her dog Dandy on her lap. “Because it’s like no place else you’ve ever been.” Billy has given more than 200 tours over the past two years. It's never the same tour twice.
“Everything in the Delta is subjective, including time,” says Billy, driving past a misty cotton field on the way to Muddy Waters’ home at Stovall Plantation. Large-scale corporate agribusiness now accounts for the majority of cultivated farmland, whether cotton, soybeans, corn or wheat. But in the creative economy, Clarksdale – and by extension, the Delta Bohemian - resists the monoculture of chain stores and packaged experiences. On his tour, Billy stops by the Shack Up Inn and Hopson Commissary, where one can find accommodations in refurbished sharecropper shacks and retrofitted grain bins. He points out Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, run by transplant and blues promoter Roger Stolle, as integral to the music scene here as the venues that host the musicians. Levon’s Bar & Grill has music on Sunday afternoons, Madge and Billy instruct, and at night, you can’t beat Red’s Lounge and the iconic Ground Zero Blues Club.
Every building here seems to have been a half-dozen things over the last century. “We had about 150 Jewish families here up until about the '70s,” Billy says, passing the former synagogue, now owned by an African-American congregation. Billy stops at the late bluesman Wade Walton’s barber shop, now only open for festivals. “Wade used to do four things out of this building: he cut hair, cooked barbecue, he was a civil rights activist and he played guitar, harmonica and percussion on a razor strop.” Billy laughs reverently.
New developments in Clarksdale emerge at a steady pace, more often than not, preserving the historically-rich real estate through partnerships with local entrepreneurs. Case in point is the New Roxy, once a thriving theatre that now hosts blues concerts in the open air. On the way out of the historic New World District, so integral to generations of Clarksdale’s black and immigrant communities, a hand-painted Habitat For Humanity sign calls out: “You be the Change.”
People wave. Billy waves back. He turns off the avenue and pulls his Jeep down the hill to the banks of the Sunflower River. This is Quapaw Canoe, the revolutionary endeavor of John Ruskey, pioneer, boat builder and philosopher-artist, who’s so at home on the water he ought to have gills. No one knows as much or cares as much about the waterways of the lower Mississippi as Ruskey, who uses the river as a tool to teach young and old about the power movement, creativity and exploration of the natural world.
Back at the Clarksdale White House, a couple from the Northeast sits in the common area flipping through coffee table books, at home as if this were their own living room. On the wall above the sofa, Madge proudly displays maps of America’s waterways by John Ruskey. They are hand-painted and inexact compared to a surveyor’s atlas, referenced primarily from his personal experience in the Mississippi wild. They are not unlike the drawn maps that Madge places in each bedroom for her guests, her personal rendition of of Coahoma county’s must-see sites, with roads that she admits aren’t to scale. But what difference does it make, as long as you know where you’re going and where you belong?
If Madge and Billy are the standards, then a Delta Bohemian is his or her own cartographer. Someone who moves with grace through and in harmony with life’s changing currents. Their personal eccentricities make sense in Clarksdale, a perfect fit like the winding tributaries, creek beds and esoteric footpaths carved into the Delta land so long ago.