Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Clarksdale Historian Gives Famous Tours

Robert Birdsong: 
Clarksdale Historian Gives Famous Tours
By:Marshall Drew
“Everybody is going to learn something they didn't know," Birdsong says of his tours. "Even I learn new stuff all the time, and that's what keeps it interesting for me."

Listening to Robert Birdsong discuss Clarksdale's history is revelatory to the point of overwhelming. Stories of neighborhoods, businesses and people ranging from Hernando DeSoto to Sam Cooke fly from his lips as he hands you an impressive array of old photographs and documents. His love of history is obvious, and it is a passion he developed as a child growing up in downtown Clarksdale.

"Polly Clark [of Clarksdale's founding Clark family, lived across the street from my mother, and I would go visit Polly," Birdsong remembers. "She had hundreds of arrowheads and pieces of Indian pottery, and she would tell me stories about the Indians and the settlers. I grew up in what was the Tennessee Williams area of Downtown, so there was history everywhere you'd turn."

As a child, Birdsong also became familiar with the sounds of the delta blues, sneaking off to the black side of town in the highly-segregated Clarksdale of the early 1960s.

"By age seven, I was riding a bicycle," he remembers. "And the first instructions my father gave me were, 'Don't go across the railroad tracks!' So that was the first place I went. The blues bands played up and down Issaquena and in the clubs.

"In the daytime, I'd come to the Stag, which was a domino parlor, and I'd rack balls. Normally the black kids did the job, but I played with them, I knew them, so I was a rack boy too."

At the time, the young white boy was often chastised for socializing with local black people.

"I wasn't supposed to be over there," Birdsong says. "The police would run you off all the time: 'You know you're not supposed to be here!'"

Birdsong's love of culture, history, and blues music continued into his adult years. He joined the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival Association during the festival's early years, and he soon took notice of Clarksdale's growing status as a tourist destination.

"I'd see tourists at the Delta Blues Museum and walking around downtown," he says. "I'd ask them what they were looking for, what interested them, and I'd offer to show them around. Knowing the places downtown, I knew where to take them."

Over time, Birdsong's simple acts of southern hospitality developed into full-fledge tours. In the past decade, his tours have informed and entertained tourists, students, journalists and even Clarksdale's locals looking to learn more about their town.

So where might you go on a Birdsong Tour? Well, you'd probably start downtown, where Birdsong would tell you about WC Handy and his discovery of Clarksdale, responsible for exposing the blues to the world. You'd visit the Greyhound bus station, where millions of African Americans, including iconic figures like Muddy Waters, made their historic migration to the North in search of a better life.

From there you would head to the corner of Tallahatchie and Martin Luther King, the original "Crossroads" of Highway 61 and 49, overlooking the New World District, home to what was once known as the toughest crowd in all of the blues.

"If you could make it in the New World District," Birdsong explains, "you could make it as a bluesman."

From there you might head to the Riverside Hotel, where legendary blues and jazz singer Bessie Smith died in 1973. Then you might head to the birthplace and childhood home of rock n' roll pioneer Ike Turner. And after all these sites, you would have only covered a few blocks worth of Clarksdale's rich history.

Whether you're interested in the blues, Native Americans, or Tennessee Williams, Birdsong has a route picked out for you.

"People get a real sense of history and culture," Birdsong says of his tours. "You get to understand how important Clarksdale was and still is."

While his tours have been successful, even garnering a mention in The New York Times, they are, in Birdsong's words, "nothing that pays the bills." He still keeps his day job as a 26-year veteran of the Clarksdale Fire Department. Nevertheless, Birdsong remains passionate about his tours and exposing Clarksdale's history as well as its people.

"People are amazed by us," he says. "We’re used to the fact that people who don't know you will wave at you, but for visitors, that's incredible. It’s the people here that will always bring them back. The history is just the icing on the cake."

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