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Touring the Southern Blues Trail

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© R. Crumb, from R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country, Abrams Books

Indianola, MS

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.

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