A Delta Bohemian Rhapsody
On the road with Clarksdale’s coolest couple,
“Chilly” Billy and Madge Howell, the Delta Bohemians
Interview & Photo by Casey Hilder
Clarksdale, Mississippi, is the stuff of legends. From bluesman Robert Johnson’s Faustian bargain at the Crossroads in the ‘30s to the modern-day river-riding exploits of John Ruskey and the Quapaw Canoe Company, there’s something about the not-so-sleepy Coahoma County city that lures the creatives, the eccentrics and the entrepreneurs.
Billy and Madge Howell serve as equal parts historians and tour guides for the myriad of visitors who come to Clarksdale seeking food, fun and a little bit of Delta hospitality. The couple’s joint venture combines a blog, tourism service and two bed-and-breakfasts all — under the banner of their shared nicknames about town: The Delta Bohemians.
Click Magazine: How did you guys get started?
Billy Howell: We’re both originally from Clarksdale. I stayed out West for about 25 years after getting my theology degree and swore I’d never come back, but sometimes life grinds on you and coming home doesn’t sound like such a bad deal. That was nine years ago. When I came back I met my current wife, who grew up just a county over.
CM: What was it like coming back home to Clarksdale?
Madge Howell: Clarksdale is my home. I’m a Delta girl with roots and family here, but I’ve lived in a lots of other places. Like Billy, I spent lots of time living in different places around the country. I’ve gone to lots of extremes in my life, but at the end of the day, I’m a Delta girl.
BH: It was like the elephant’s graveyard. I had changed career fields every few years and the last thing I did before this was teach. Now, I manage the Clark House and the Delta Bohemian Guest House, as well as give tours.
CM: Can you share a little about the Clark House?
BH: John Clark was a 16-17 year-old kid whose dad was a real prominent architect in England. In 1839, he took a consignment to renovate a post office in New Orleans. The father promptly caught yellow fever and died, and the son ended up heading north to what is now present-day Clarksdale. He cleared about 101 acres in what is now downtown after figuring his way around the lumber monopolies that controlled the land around the Mississippi River. In 1859, he began construction on this home without slave labor and finished after the Civil War, which technically makes it an Antebellum home.
CM: What are your duties as the manager of these inns?
BH: Clarksdale doesn’t have a singular boutique hotel, but we have a lot of really eclectic places to stay overnight. This is technically not a bed and breakfast because we don’t serve a hot breakfast in the morning, like most places in the city. I serve a continental breakfast, check in folks, all that stuff. But, basically what the Clark House offers as far as a distinctive product is the oldest house in Clarksdale, pretty clutter-free, clean, and full of history. And hopefully I make a difference acclimating guests and guiding them around.
CM: How did you start giving tours?
BH: The Clark House management gig really seemed to dovetail pretty well into the tourism business. I’m always looking for extra cash, I have a bunch of kids to pay for! Madge really helped facilitate me doing the tourism stuff and I found it really easy to connect with some of the people. I used to do it for free until I realized it could be a viable business. I’ve come to realize that connecting with people down here on a relational basis really makes their stay more memorable.
MH: We produced a documentary on Clarksdale for the site. It was a very spontaneous, quirky thing that drew a lot of attention. I shot it on a little Lumix camera in a day. We’re not documentarians or videographers, but so many people have mentioned it on their visit.
CM: What is the average Delta Bohemian tour like?
BH: It’s a customizable experience. I’ve gone from an hour or two up to 14 hours for those who really fall in love with the city. A normal tour starts with a history of Downtown Clarksdale, we sweep through the Tennessee Williams district, show off a few scenes where The Help was filmed, check out a few eclectic overnight stays and, of course, we hit every live music place in town. Our calling card here in Clarksdale is “A town of 17,000 with live music every night,” so that’s a must. I usually take them by Cathead Blues Store, Red’s Blues Club and John Ruskey’s place if he’s out. We take a look at the Riverside Hotel, the Shack-Up Inn, Muddy Water’s Stovall Plantation and a little more. That can be about a three-hour tour. But the main thing with these is that they’re relational. I don’t claim to be an expert in anything, but I know just enough combined with enough hyperbole to spark some interest.
CM: Where did the name “Delta Bohemians” come from?
MH: Billy and I were getting married here in Clark House and it was a lively, eclectic wedding. There was live local musicians and we surprised everyone with a pirate theme.
BH: A very reverent pirate theme. We had a priest and everything, but he was wearing an eyepatch during the ceremony.
MH: People already knew we marched to the beat of our own drum. And one night not too long after we were married, Billy tells me he has two words ringing in his head: “Delta” and “Bohemian”. So we have these words kind of bouncing around, figuring out what to do with them. A website, maybe? We came up with some taglines — quirky, upbeat, literary — things like that. So we launched a website called The Delta Bohemian in 2011 featuring our own unique brand of content. Local articles, musings, photos, and that sort of thing. I remember being in a meeting with John Ruskey and I remember him saying “You know, a good blog can be a pretty powerful thing.” John doesn’t say much, so what he does say usually sticks with you.
BH: Our tagline is “celebrating the constancy and diversity of the Mississippi Delta” and as a guy who studies a history, I know the Delta is rife with duality, paradoxes and irony. Delta Bohemian is as redundant as it is oxymoronic. That’s what we’re tapping into here.
Billy & Madge Howell’s
10 Rules for the Juke Joint
1. BE YOURSELF AND GIVE OTHERS THE FREEDOM TO BE THEMSELVES! Lighten’ up and get loose. Your infectious, free spirit
2. CHECK OUT SOUNDS AROUND TOWN IN CLARKSDALE. Roger Stolle of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art releases this listing of events going on in Clarksdale from Thursday-Wednesday and changes weekly.
3. TALK TO FOLKS next to you, they are probably from some really cool place and are likely desirous to make connections also. Many have met lifelong friends from sitting or standing next to someone in a juke joint.
4. DANCE when and where you want to, and don’t get pissed off if someone is dancing in front of you! It’s a juke joint, not a performance venue! Musicians feed off our love and dancing makes blues performers happy and a happy musician makes for a happy reveler, and the beat goes on…
5. TIP the musicians, bartender, waiter, server, etc., but feel no obligation to buy anybody’s CD (unless you want to) or to tip some fool who dances one number “just for you” and then asks for a tip. Just say, “I don’t think so, Dude,” and go on ‘bout yo business!
6. VIDEOTAPE WITHOUT PERMISSION and don’t be obnoxious with a smart phone or camera. If taking a quick pic, turn the backlight on the smart phone down as low as possible, as the light often irritates the hell out of folks. If you are not sure of what’s cool, just ask somebody, they might know.
7. DON’T WHIP OUT YOUR HARMONICA and get to thinkin’ you’re bein’ a blessin’ to folks, unless you have permission from the performer and or the house to do so! PERIOD! Unless it is open mic or jam night somewhere, then it’s cool!
8. BLUES MUSICIANS MIGHT NEED TO TAKE CARE OF SOME “BIDNESS”, so don’t monopolize their time by telling them about your latest venture. Definitely speak to them, buy their product, but just be sensitive if they look like they need the break.
9. TAKE A TOUR prior to enjoying the nightlife, which oftentimes includes serendipitous encounters with local characters, acclimating you to the juke joint scene providing a more thorough knowledge of the history and environmental factors informing the blues.
10. TELL FOLKS ABOUT CLARKSDALE It matters!