Touring the Southern Blues Trail
From roadside juke joints to new hotels, the blues live on along the Southern Blues Trail.
The blues, the bedrock of American music, began on a vast stretch of fertile soil called the Mississippi Delta, which goes from Memphis to the Yazoo River and southerly to Vicksburg. The roots of blues can be traced to West African tribal songs, but the first seedlings grew out of this soil, rich in cotton—and rich in the misery wrought picking it.
“The blues,” Howlin’ Wolf once said, “is problems,” and for a long time the history of the blues, like problems, was covered up. But in 2006, Mississippi began to protect its history with the Mississippi Blues Trail. Today the path courses through the Delta, touching nearly every juke joint, homestead and graveyard where the blues began. There are more than 130 markers, and as the trail heats up, more are added yearly. But it’s not just history. The blues live.
Today the blues can be heard nearly everywhere. Just turn on the radio: The 12-bar blues is the skeleton for everything from punk to jazz to country to rock ’n’ roll. But a journey across the Blues Trail yields new hues and deeper richness. The path has drawn many, from folklorist Alan Lomax in the 1930s to filmmakers Roger Stolle and Jeff Konkel, whose 2008 documentary, M for Mississippi, captured the bittersweet richness of the area’s music and musicians. And as the blues have gained popularity worldwide, new hotels, restaurants and museums and modern juke joints have sprouted like morning glories along the Blues Trail.
There’s nothing like the Handy Band that played the Memphis Blues so grand. —W.C. Handy, “Memphis Blues”
In 1948, author David Cohn wrote that the Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel (rooms, from $180; 149 Union Ave.; 901-539-4000; peabodymemphis.com) in downtown Memphis. The grand lobby, with its high wooden ceilings, dates from 1925, and the fountain is home to the five famous ducks that make their stately way from the bank of elevators to the fountain, where they pass the day. Guests assemble every day at 11 in the morning to watch the parade.
Blues arrived early in Memphis, dug in deep and gave birth to rock ’n’ roll. Elvis Presley, who grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, and moved to Memphis, was influenced early on by the blues, as were Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Lee Perkins and Johnny Cash, all of whom recorded at producer Sam Phillips’s Sun Studio (sunstudio.com). The legendary venue is open daily for tours, and a number of clubs, like the B. B. King’s Blues Club and the Rum Boogie Cafe, keep Beale Street lively. Though the real work of the blues begins roughly 130 miles south, famous early bluesman W. C. Handy’s words still ring true: “Take my advice,” he sang in the 1916 classic “Beale Street Blues,” “and see Beale Street first.”
Lord, that I’m standin’ at the crossroad, babe, I believe I’m sinkin’ down. —Robert Johnson, “Cross Road Blues”
Robert Johnson, the world’s most notorious bluesman, met his end in Greenwood at the age of 27, the victim of a jealous husband. At the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church (Money Rd.; 662-455-0004), a humble wooden church set under oak trees, a small graveyard holds Johnson’s tombstone. “He influenced millions in his time,” it reads. Devotees come from all over the world to leave guitar picks, coins and bottles of beer and whiskey on his grave. At the base of the pecan tree, there’s another marker. “When I leave this town, I’m ’on’ bid you farewell,” it says, a line from Johnson’s “From Four Till Late.” “And when I return again, you’ll have a great long story to tell.” There are at least two other graves for Johnson—one in Quito and another near Morgan City, both in Mississippi—but that’s fitting for a man who was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil to learn how to play guitar.
Such bargains are unnecessary at The Alluvian Hotel (rooms, from $195; 318 Howard St.; 866-600-5201; thealluvian.com), opened in May 2003 by the Viking Range Corporation, whose HQ is in this town. The Alluvian has 45 guest rooms and five suites, plus a full spa and a cooking school at which some of the South’s best chefs, like Tyler Brown of Nashville’s Capitol Grille, give courses on barbecue and other, lesser traditions. Next door is Giardina’s (314 Howard St.; 662-455-4227), one of the Delta’s most historic restaurants. Founded in 1936, Giardina’s maintains its old Southern charm but is helmed by young chef Nick Seabergh, who serves bright, ingredient-driven cuisine such as baked oysters with Benton’s bacon.
Nobody loves me but my mother, and she could be jivin’ too. —B. B. King, “Indianola Mississippi Seeds”
The stretch of Highway 82 between Greenwood and Greenville is a 50-mile-long belt across the Delta, past planted fields and catfish ponds. Red-winged blackbirds perch on telephone wires, and armadillos (deceased) lay by the road. A little more than halfway down this stretch is Indianola, the seat of Sunflower County and the heart of the Delta.
Indianola is where a young man named Riley B. King worked on a cotton plantation in the 1940s. On Saturday nights, he would come to town to stand on the corner of Church and Second streets and play his guitar. In 1947, he moved to Memphis to play his blues on Beale Street and changed his name to B. B. King, but he never forgot his roots. At age 85, having sung the blues to presidents and royalty around the globe, the man known as “the ambassador of the blues” returns to the Delta every summer, as he has since 1973, to give a homecoming concert.
In 2008, the building that once housed a cotton gin where the young Riley B. King worked was transformed into the $15 million, world-class B. B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center (400 Second St.; bbkingmuseum.org), which provides a solid grounding in the basics of the blues and the Delta, using King’s life as a parable. The tour ends, fittingly, in a guitar studio.
But the blues don’t stop there. A few years ago, King bought Club Ebony (404 Hannah St.; 662-887-2264), a historic blues club from 1948 where Ray Charles, Count Basie and King himself played as young men. Although he reinvigorated the place, it doesn’t traffic in nostalgia. Club Ebony is as good a place for a juicy hamburger and a cold beer as it ever was. Although the live bands have largely been replaced with a jukebox, on Saturdays you will still find bluesmen such as Jerry Fair and Blues Crew and Jake and the Pearl Street Jumpers performing on the stage.
Forty-five minutes northwest of Indianola, off Highway 61 in the middle of a field near Merigold, is the classic juke joint Po’ Monkey’s (662-748-2254). It looks like a strong wind could blow it down—but it’s looked like that for nearly 50 years. Owned by Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry, it doesn’t have live music, but its sound system delivers a connoisseur’s selection of rhythm and blues every Thursday night.
Holly Ridge, MS
I’m goin’ away, to a world unknown. I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long. —Charley Patton, “Down The Dirt Road Blues”
There’s hardly a town here now, but there is a cemetery, and in it rest the remains of Charley Patton, whose tombstone reads “The Voice of the Delta.” Patton died young—at the age of 43, in 1934—and was buried at a tombstone long lost, but such was his legend that John Fogerty, of Creedence Clearwater Revival, paid for a gravestone to be placed on the site.
I’ve been in Texas, I’ve been on the run. I’m going to Leland, Mississippi, mama, You all know that’s where I come from. —Johnny Winter, “Leland Mississippi Blues”
This tiny town has turned out an amazing number of fine blues players, from James “Son” Thomas to Johnny Winter and boogie-woogie pianist Mose Allison. At the Highway 61 Blues Museum (307 N. Broad St.; highway61blues.com), Leland’s musical sons are enshrined in murals and exhibits. Pat Thomas, the son of Son Thomas, can be found at the museum performing every day. The younger Thomas says, “Playing the blues makes me feel good, so I’m just going to keep the good work up. I’m satisfied, and I got an 11-year-old who wants to learn the blues. He’s already got a guitar.”
Clarksdale, Mississippi, always gon’ be my home. That’s the reason you hear me set right here and moan. —Son House, “Clarksdale Moan”
Nowhere has the worldwide interest in the blues spurred greater revitalization than in Clarksdale. The town is home to two blues museums: the public Delta Blues Museum (1 Blues Alley; museum.org), in which one can find the cabin from Muddy Waters’s sharecropper days reassembled, among other exhibits; and the private, nonprofit storefront Rock & Blues Museum (113 E. 2nd St.; blues2rock.com), opened in 2006 by Theo Dasbach, a blues lover from Holland who hosts biannual blues festivals in downtown Clarksdale.
Roger Stolle, a codirector of M For Mississippi, owns Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art (252 Delta Ave.; cathead.biz), which is full of Delta blues books, albums, DVDs and CDs, some of which are produced by Stolle’s own label, Cat Head Presents. “People didn’t believe the blues could save Clarksdale, but it has provided a solid foundation,” Stolle says.
Clarksdale offers more than just music. The Lofts at the Five and Dime (121 E. 2nd St.; 888-510-9604; fiveanddimelofts.com) are six spacious new lofts above a landmarked Woolworth building. At night, venture to Madidi (164 Delta Ave.; 662-627-7770; madidires.com), a sophisticated restaurant co-owned by another native son, actor Morgan Freeman, with riffs on Southern soul food like buttermilk-fried quail accompanied by truffle-clover honey.
And after the fried quail, let the blues draw you into the night. Clarksdale is home to two of the Delta’s best blues clubs: Ground Zero Blues Club (387 Delta Ave.; groundzerobluesclub.com), also co-owned by Freeman, and Red’s Lounge (395 Sunflower Ave.), a genuine juke joint, small, hot and crowded, where you’re likely to hear some of the Delta’s greatest living bluesmen, like Robert “Wolfman” Belfour and Terry “Harmonica” Bean. Little has changed (except the cover charge) since Son House sang “I can have a good time there, if I ain’t got but one lousy dime.”