Traveling The Mississippi Blues Trail In Search of Music, Food, and Pickups
Mud, Sweat, and Tears
It’s agreed among all that from Memphis down to Vicksburg is the cradle of the Delta Blues Music, a genre of American root music that has left an indelible mark on country, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock ’n’ roll. However, it’s also one that, to this day, maintains its purity and continues to be embraced by music aficionados from around the world. Rising out of the mud, sweat, and tears of those who, 100 years ago, lived at the bottom of the food chain in the Mississippi Delta, this was the genesis of the Delta Blues. Gaining its legs, its unique melodic sounds and syncopations were carried to the urban industrial north, where some 60 years later it would cross the “pond” to influence the music of icons like the Beatles, Stones, Clapton, and a litany of other musicians too numerous to mention.
Along the blue-line roads that lead south from Beal Street out of Memphis are found blues clubs and juke joints where emerging talents continue to showcase the mastery of their wares. This is a landscape dotted with pickup trucks that are almost as old as the Delta Blues itself. But it’s more than just the music that draws curious visitors to the Delta. You’re immersed in provincial fare and the charming culture that’s found only here, where the bucolic beauty of the nooks and crannies tucked into the serpentine folds of the Mississippi River. The Delta Blues Music Trail offers a very genuine and unique slice of America’s experience.
First stop is Tunica, Mississippi, where the Gateway to the Blues Museum waits. This is the perfect place to begin total immersion into the world of the Delta Blues. Here, you’re given a crash course in what to see, do, and expect over the next couple of days as you journey south along the Delta. This is the perfect place to plan your stops. Should you travel the Trail in September, the King Biscuit Blues Festival (just across the Mississippi River in Helena, Arkansas) is a must-stop. If you’re lucky, local blues legend Super Chicken will be performing at the Delta Cultural Center in the Old Historic District.
If there is an epicenter of Delta Blues History, Clarksdale has got to be it, but before you get there, hit a calorie stop off Highway 61 at an original Delta diner called Hollywood Café. It’s the real deal, where genuine Delta fare is served with a hefty side of history, culture, and often live music. It’s located out in the middle of nowhere, but folks come from Memphis, Little Rock, and up from Jackson to experience the unique vibe found inside.
There are juke joints, and then there are juke joints (the word juke has its origin in African language and is thought to mean rowdy). Clarksdale has two that together cover this spectrum of music. One is called Ground Zero Blues Club. It sits directly across from the Delta Blues Museum. The other juke joint is Redd’s, about a block from Ground Zero and probably the last of the original spots that date back decades. The Delta Blues enjoyed at both places is blues in its purest form, its grittiest form, the kind of sound that harkens back to the days of Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and so on.
Dockery Plantation, south and just outside Cleveland, Mississippi, is where thousands of field hands worked and many Delta Blues performers got their start back in the day. In the early years of the 20th century, those who worked on Dockery Plantation would gather to play and entertain. Further south and just a few minutes on an old blue-line county road just east of Greenwood, Mississippi, is the Little Zion Baptist Church and cemetery, where Delta Blues giant Robert Johnson was laid to rest circa 1930. It’s said he was poisoned, killed by a jealous lover or a jealous husband of one of his many trysts. For years, folks from different towns and communities in Mississippi argued that their town’s graveyard was where Johnson was buried.
Our Delta Blues Trail adventure ends near Meridian, Mississippi, and just outside of it is the birthplace of Jimmy Rogers (1897-1933), an iconic singer and songwriter in the genres of country, blues, and folk music. Jimmy Rogers is a name well recognized along the Delta Music Trail. Today at MSU Riley Center, this man and a host of other Mississippi musicians whose roots are anchored in the black Delta mud are honored.
If you ever find yourself in the deep south with time to kill and a hunger for good food and great music, we highly recommend hitting the blues trail and stopping in at a juke joint or two.