By Judy Garrison
I begin my Mississippi Blues Trail journey with few expectations and little knowledge of this part of the south. However, that’s how I like to travel, knowing little of a destination and absorbing what it has to offer with fresh eyes.
Whether you fly into Memphis and rent a car or take a road trip from home, allow Tunica, dubbed Gateway to the Blues, to introduce the trail. Located on Highway 61, the Tunica Visitor Center offers information and ticketing, as well as a museum that showcases a period in history when cotton was king and the blues told its story.
Point your vehicle south towards Clarksdale, a city that breathes the blues story. I rest my head at Travelers Hotel which provides the perfect location for the walkable downtown. Or, if you’re seeking a more eclectic stay, check in at the Shack Up Inn, located about three miles from downtown. It’s a collection of sharecropper shacks that have been updated only to provide essentials, and as they say, “the Ritz, we ain’t.”
Visit the Delta Blues Museum in downtown Clarksdale. Most impressive are the remains of the cabin Muddy Waters (father of Chicago blues) lived in as a sharecropper. What will likely excite the music lover most is that Clarksdale boasts live music every day of the year in one of its many venues. The New Roxy, located in the historic New World district, hosts local musicians in this 1940s open-air venue. Stop in at Red’s, an unassuming hole-in-the-wall, authentic juke joint that still pumps live music and cold beer. For a more modern feel with just as much atmosphere, visit Ground Zero, co-owner Morgan Freeman’s celebration of where it all began. Don’t pass up a chance to hear local Lucious Spiller.
If all this music works up an appetite, book a table at Hooker Grocer & Eatery for their unique take on Hoppin’ John. Barbecue lovers uncover authentic tamales and smoked meats at Abe’s BBQ at the iconic crossroads of 49 and 61. Continue south along Highway 61 to Cleveland, home to the GRAMMY Museum Mississippi, second only to the original GRAMMY Museum® in Los Angeles. Also, near Cleveland, visit Dockery Farms where, for some, this story began.
When Charley Patton’s family moved to then Dockery Plantation in 1900 to work as sharecroppers, it would be young Patton who would redefine the Delta’s gift. In 1905, the youngster picked up a guitar, and as B. B. King lauded, “you might say it all started right here.” Patton’s gruff, loud voice — ambiguous at times — established the grouse tone of iconic cathartic blues. In the juke joints where drinking, dancing and relaxing provided escape from the long days working the fields, lyrics and melodies captured the suffering, anguish and hopes of the sharecroppers. Many consider Patton the Father of the Delta Blues and Robert Johnson, the King of the Delta Blues. Like Patton, Johnson made rounds at juke joints to less than stellar reviews of his guitar skills. According to legend, that all changed when he took his guitar to the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale and made a deal with the devil. Afterwards, he brought the strings to life and played until his mysterious death at the age of 27. Patton and Johnson are the bookends to the original Delta blues artists.
Like those who followed — Sam Cooke, Bessie Smith, Ike Turner, Jimmy Reed, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters — their music was deeply rooted in the soil of the delta. Often considered the precursor to rock and roll, the Delta Blues helped shape American music culture. Says Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, “If you don’t know the blues, there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock’n’roll.”
From Cleveland, discover Indianola, birthplace of B. B. King, who reigns as King of the Blues. Discover his complete story at the B. B. King Museum. Get up close and personal with musicians at Club Ebony, labeled as one of the most historic African American nightclubs in the U.S. If timing is perfect, Clarksdale native Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, often said to be the next B. B. King, will be the headliner.
Muddy Waters said, “There ain’t no escape from the blues,” and after being immersed in the culture and rhythm along the trail, its fascination is indisputable. The tastes and sites of the Delta charms visitors, but nothing reveals its essence more than its musicians who continue to lament the Delta’s history through lyrics and song.