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Maybe it was natural to try to market it, turn the 1872 customhouse into a museum, get a big grant to repave the center of town with cobblestones and fake streetcar lines, peddle the old glory days of the big river town and hope no one asks how it died. There is lots of history here, all fascinating but not pretty. So some residents aren't sure that the buses will ever come rolling in or the hotels ever reopen. "You ask the average person on the street what Cairo needs," says Mayor James Wilson, "and they'll say a McDonald's and a Wal-Mart."
"It's time for us to be movin' on," sings blues musician Keb'Mo', even as he preserves the art form that most perfectly captures the agony of the past and the promise of making something lasting out of the pain. The Delta town of Clarksdale, Miss., is trying to find its way by re-engineering its cash crop: the blues, with a new museum honoring such hometown heroes as Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. The history of the music is the story of the people who invented it and the suffering that created it. Without black work gangs to clear the thickly wooded Delta plain and sharecroppers to pick the cotton, there would have been no plantation economy; without African Americans to sing the work songs and field chants and slide their knife blades and bottlenecks across the strings of diddley bows and mail-order guitars, there would be no Delta blues. And without the blues, there would be no rock 'n' roll to conquer the world and help sell all those burgers and jeans and Fords and Chevys. The poorest, most oppressed people in America created its richest cultural legacy, and that, of course, yields all kinds of lessons for anyone willing to listen closely.
"Are you going to find anything good to write about?" people ask again and again, as though they are aware of how things must look to a bunch of outsiders and know that much of what is great and sweet and honorable in these places never makes headlines. The Cairo deputy fire chief will tell you how many people appear in an instant, out of nowhere, when a windstorm sweeps through town and smashes a block of homes. Anyplace you have good friends is a place worth staying. Here and elsewhere, there are big groups of people--ministers and teachers and store owners and bureaucrats--who are prepared to give all their time and muscle to putting things right, making a place better. To the outsider, it would seem so much easier just to pick up and move on. Trying to stay, and to change, is an act of faith.
--With reporting by Mark Coatney, Mitch Frank, Andrew Goldstein, Desa Philadelphia, Timothy Roche and Josh Tyrangiel