Clarksdale, Mississippi - According to local legend, there was a young man named Robert Johnson, working as a sharecropper in the Mississippi Delta in the 1920's. This young man, an itinerant musician, had the dream of becoming the best blues guitarist of all time, and he would do whatever was necessary to realize that dream. One evening, he went to the nearest crossroads at midnight, where he was met by the devil himself. The devil took his guitar, tuned it, and handed it back. From that moment on, Robert Johnson was the top guitarist in the land. He bested his mentors, sounded like an orchestra unto himself, and all it cost him was his eternal soul. While assuredly a fictitious account of the origin of Johnson's talent, these legends are the stuff the Delta is made from.
Robert Johnson didn't live long after his supposed encounter. Some say he was poisoned by the jealous lover of a woman he pursued, but no one really seems to know. He cut only a few records and was only captured in just a handful of photographs. Today, he exists more as a legend than he did as living person. He assumes his place in a vast menagerie of world-class musicians, artists, authors and playwrights who called the Delta home.
The Delta, a sort-of triangular region of alluvial floodplain between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, is a captivating place full of faustian folklore and a deep agricultural heritage. It is also a land somewhat stuck in time, for better or worse. The Delta is one of the richest cultural areas in America, and also one of the poorest economically. The poverty rate is three times the national average, and a large portion of the population have no bank account, transportation, or access to the internet. But the Delta is also a land of opportunity, with a citizenry that is hungry for change and optimistic about the future; and this is where we introduce you to the Delta Arts District and Yazoo Yaupon...
Not long ago, I was contacted by Oliver Luckett, a tech mogul and serial entrepreneur who had recently moved back to the Delta from Iceland to be close to his father, Bill Luckett. Oliver had researched Yaupon, and wanted to investigate including it in his vision to revitalize his old hometown. He explained his concept of the Delta Arts Districtas a collective of artists and entrepreneurs who would "elevate Mississippi products through rediscovery." The emphasis on community collaboration, native products, and creativity had me totally intrigued. So, off I went to the Delta and I think a piece of me might stay there from now on...
There is something really special about the place. When you drive down from the bluffs that support the city of Memphis, the land flattens out dramatically. The sky appears lower thanks to an optical illusion. The vastness of the cotton fields is occasionally punctuated by low bayous, decorated with huge and ancient cypress trees. Then there is the blues. Oh man, the blues reign supreme in the Delta. I went to college in New Orleans, a city where music is an integral part of life. I was briefly, (and often drunkenly), introduced to its excellent jazz clubs and surreal dive bars. Music is definitely a part of the life and culture; it is les bons temps that give the Crescent City its unique soul. But the blues scene in the Delta is an omnipotent force. Juke joints and harp shops are often the only businesses on the main drag. Blues is still generational here. It's cultivated and cherished, passed on from one generation to the next. It is a true cultural keystone of the entire region. The area around Clarksdale, MS is the ancestral homeland of artists such as Muddy Waters, BB King, Robert Johnson, Son House, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, and scores more.
The Delta, and Mississippi in general, is also a land that is confronting a troubled past and making strides to build a brighter, more equitable future. The most famous example of this is the State's recently-adopted flag, which replaced one that was made up partly of the confederate battle insignia. The new state flag, called "The New Magnolia," was the result of public pressure across a bipartisan front. It was as if the state knew it had to move forward in a new way. This flag, along with the the musical heritage of the Delta, and the legend of Robert Johnson, was an inspiration for a massive mural by artist Devin Liston, which now resides on the side of the iconic Ground Zero Blues Club, which is owned by Bill Luckett and his longtime friend, Morgan Freeman. The mural is aptly named Midnight at the Crossroads, and serves as the label art of one of the first Yaupon blends to come out of the Delta Arts District, Delta Chai.
Mural Edition Delta Chai Yaupon, featuring art by Devin Liston.
In the last few weeks, the evolution of the Delta Arts District and its breakout Yazoo Yaupon brand has been swift. The entire community around Clarksdale seems to have taken a keen interest in the developments taking place there. The mural serves as a rallying point around a greater purpose of remarkable transformation in a community that deserves it more than any other I can think of.
The Yazoo Yaupon brand, for example, is a partnership with Meraki Roasting and Griot Arts, a career readiness program that invests in local youth. The Meraki students have a direct role in formulation, preparation, processing, and packaging of Yazoo Yaupon products, which provides them with critical job skills they can use for a lifetime.
The same emphasis on creativity and ingenuity that inspired the mural was also the inspiration for the first Yaupon farm in Clarksdale, which took shape rapidly in the form of a Yaupon maze; installed in the likeness of a ceremonial Yaupon drinking vessel unearthed at the Cahokia archeological site. The maze is another example of community involvement in which dozens of locals lent a hand to help install almost 1,400 Yaupon trees...What a feat!
Yaupon trees ready to be unloaded at the new Yaupon Maze in Clarksdale, MS.
The completed Yaupon maze from 300 feet, the maze is made of almost 1,400 trees, and spans nearly two acres of land generously donated by Bill Luckett.
Those of you who read these posts and support Yaupon Brothers know that we will always be a Florida company. But, we do believe that Yaupon is a force for good anywhere in the world, including Mississippi where Yaupon is also native and has been consumed for millennia by indigenous people. Want to keep up with all that's going on? Make sure you follow Delta Arts Districtas they grow and continue to do awesome things in the Mississippi Delta. You can also find Yazoo Yaupon products here and here.
Thanks for reading, and don't forget to dream a little bigger.