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Mississippi
Blues
Published:
Jul/Aug 2004

Top: The Mississippi Delta produced the greatest concentration of blues sites in the state, all accessible from Blues Highway U.S. 61. Cleveland-Bolivar County Tourism Council photo

Below: Dockery Farms, a revered site of the Delta blues, was once home to the legendary Charley Patton. Darlene P. Copp photo

Before You Go
For more information before your trip, contact:

• Mississippi Division of Tourism, 1-866-733-6477, www.visitmississippi.org;

• Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau,1-888-488-6422, or visit online at www.tunicamiss.com;

• Clarksdale-Coahoma County Tourism office, 1-800-626-3764, or visit the Web site www.clarksdale.com;

• Cleveland-Bolivar County Tourism, 1-800-295-7473, or visit online at www.visitclevelandms.com;

• Greenville-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-467-3582, www.thedelta.org;

• Greenwood Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-748-9064, www.greenwoodms.org;

• Oxford Tourism Council, 1-800-758-9177, www.touroxfordms.com;

• West Point Chamber of Commerce, (662) 494-5121, www.wpnet.org.

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

Order free information through the Reader Service Card online. Click on reader resources.

Stories and live music resonate throughout Mississippi, where work songs and field chants evolved into a true American art.
By DARLENE P. COPP

here’s no doubt about it; everyone gets the blues from time to time. But chances are that none of us endured the hardships of a black sharecropper’s life. Their field chants and work songs from the cotton fields gradually evolved into a true American form of music–the blues.

The blues flowed out of Mississippi in the early 20th century and made it around the world. It influenced rock, jazz, country and other musical styles. Music lovers from across America, Europe and Asia regularly arrive in Mississippi eager to find evidence of legendary blues singers and musicians. The U.S. Congress designated 2003 as the Year of the Blues to celebrate and create greater awareness of the blues and its place in musical history. Festivals and a tour of Mississippi for travel journalists were some of the activities held within the state.

“All in all, it was a very successful year,” said Mollie Gregory, public relations manager at the Mississippi Development Authority Division of Tourism. “We had an increased awareness of Mississippi as the birthplace of the blues.”

Gregory added that she continues to hear from journalists from places such as France, Germany, Britain and Japan and noted the interest in blues has spread around the world.

Also, Gov. Haley Barbour in April signed a legislative bill creating a permanent blues commission in Mississippi.

Mississippians are enshrining their blues heritage by opening museums, erecting statues, painting murals and launching new events. The state will soon be placing Blues Trail signs to aid blues travelers who usually begin their adventure in the Delta, a flat, alluvial plain that borders the Mississippi River and extends from Memphis to Vicksburg.

The Delta blues

The Delta produced the greatest concentration of blues sites in the state, all accessible from Blues Highway U.S. 61, now widened to four lanes through an unbroken agricultural landscape. Detours onto old Highway 61 (or following U.S. Highway 49) will take travelers through tiny towns where Charley Patton, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Son House, Howlin’ Wolf and numerous other bluesmen played on corners, at parties and in juke joints. You may find the gravesites of blues legends or arrive at the crossroads– Highways 61 and 49–where Robert Johnson is said to have bartered with the devil for his guitar prowess, according to legend.
T
he Tunica Museum will help visitors understand this fertile region that nurtured the blues. It depicts the transformation of a hardwood wilderness into a cotton kingdom. View exhibits on slavery, Jim Crow, mechanization, migration and Civil Rights.

The Horseshoe Casino’s Blues and Legends Hall of Fame has authentic artifacts and bold artwork that pay tribute to the roots, styles and adaptations of Mississippi’s homegrown music. A gallery of images from longtime blues promoter Dick Waterman enhances the exhibits.

Next door, the Bluesville Showcase Nightclub is one of several entertainment venues in Tunica casinos that often showcase musical acts like Bobby Rush, Denise LaSalle and Little Milton.

For local color, seek out The Hollywood in Robinsonville that serves favorites like fried dill pickles in a former plantation commissary. Further south in Clarksdale’s “Blues Alley,” enjoy a plate lunch at Ground Zero Blues Club, co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman, who also owns the upscale restaurant, Madidi, in Clarksdale.

Nearby, inside the 1918 freight depot, the Delta Blues Museum focuses on blues greats like House and Big Mama Thornton. What remains of the Muddy Waters cabin from the nearby Stovall Plantation fills an entire room. Purchase the guidebook, “Blues Traveling,” by local scholar and musician Steve Cheseborough, as well as blues tapes, in the museum gift shop.

At Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art in Clarksdale, buy blues videos, CDs, books, art and hear local musicians perform live. Owners Roger and Jennifer Stolle can recommend other places to hear live blues.

On historic Hopson Plantation, the Shack Up Inn is popular with die-hard blues fans. Located four miles south of Johnson's famous crossroads, the Shack Up Inn has added modern comforts to six sharecropper’s cabins. If you prefer refinement after traveling dusty Delta roads, sleep in the exquisitely furnished Belle Clark Bed-and-Breakfast inn, built by the founder of Clarksdale, John Clark, in 1859.

The 17th annual Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival takes place in Clarksdale’s blues district on Aug. 13–14. The lineup for this free event features Mississippi natives who play traditional blues.

Mid-Delta sites

Patton, a blues pioneer, lived at Dockery Plantation, once a home base for many great blues musicians. Blues fans love the photogenic Dockery Farms seed house on Highway 8 between Cleveland and Ruleville. In Cleveland, try the Airport Grocery for a meal, and stay at Molly’s Bed-and-Breakfast on South Bolivar, filled with sculptures by the artist-innkeeper.

Leland offers the new Highway 61 Blues Museum, the Highway 61 Blues Festival in June and downtown murals of blues legends. Just 15 miles away, Indianola hosts B.B. King’s annual June Homecoming. Since 1968, King has performed a free outdoor concert in his hometown, which plans to open a B.B. King Museum by his 80th birthday in 2005. Club Ebony is Indianola’s popular nightspot for dancing and soul-blues acts. Another standard is the Mississippi Delta Blues Festival held Sept. 18 on a grassy site just south of Greenville.

Greenwood’s downtown revival surged in 2003 with the opening of a world-class boutique hotel called The Alluvian. Nearby, a three-story building is being renovated for the Greenwood Blues Heritage Museum, café and blues club. Memorabilia spotlight Robert Johnson, as well as Mississippi John Hurt, Honeyboy Edwards and other local bluesmen.

Three possible Johnson gravesites near Greenwood keep alive the mystery of how the young bluesman died in 1938. For blues-inspired eating, try Spooney’s Bar-B-Q or Mattie’s soul food, although Greenwood-style dining is memorable at Lusco’s, Giardina’s and the Crystal Grill.

Hill Country blues

A different type of blues developed among northern Mississippi bluesmen, predominantly Mississippi Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside and Othar Turner, a fife musician. Their progeny carry on the musical tradition in recording studios, juke joints and festivals.

The bars and restaurants of Oxford, frequented by students from the University of Mississippi, often host hill-country musicians. Blues is always represented during the annual Double Decker Arts Festival in April on the Oxford Square. Square Books not only stocks plenty of blues-related books but CDs by Mississippi bluesmen, usually on the locally produced Fat Possum label. Music authors often drop in to read and sign their latest books.

Eastern Prairie blues

West Point pays homage to Howlin’ Wolf (Chester A. Burnett), born 1910 in nearby White Station, with a black granite statue in a city park and a soon-to-open museum. Its annual Howlin’ Wolf Memorial Blues Festival will take place on Sept. 3 and will feature Willie King and the Liberators. King's music reflects his work for social justice. He often performs at Bettie’s Place in Prairie Point, considered one of the best jukes in the state.

Darlene Copp is a contributor from Oxford, Miss


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