|Published Mar/Apr 2007
For blues fans, Mississippi is mecca, and the music is alive in local jukes, bars, clubs and festivals.
By Michael Ream
| The sound of the wailing guitar spills over the steady drumbeat as the classic sound of the blues streams forth from the small stage. It’s a typical Saturday evening at Walnut Street Blues Bar in Greenville, Miss., where the beer is cold, the music runs late into the night and the audience needs little reminder to move onto the dance floor.
With sweat flipping off his brow, the fleet-fingered guitarist brings forth the essence of this music that originated in the nearby cotton fields and spread out across the vast Mississippi Delta. Walnut Street is one of a handful of Delta clubs in this western Mississippi city that are modern versions of the juke joints, incubators of the blues. A juke joint was little more than a small house, similar to the sharecropper shacks. People went to a juke to dance and listen to music often played by a musician who at first had little more than a guitar.
“Every other farm had one,” said Dr. Luther Brown, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss. “When you had a plantation that had 1,000 people [working] on it, [juke joints] had a ready-made audience.”
The mechanization of the cotton industry meant the end of most juke joints, victims as much of changing tastes in music as broader socioeconomic changes. Successive generations of Delta blues musicians, including B.B. King, set off in search of fame and fortune in Chicago and other big cities.
But Mississippi remains the birthplace and heart of the blues. Today, visitors can find a handful of juke joints plus blues clubs and festivals in the Delta. The Mississippi Blues Commission and its Blues Trail (www.msbluestrail.org) can help travelers locate sites and clubs. Here are some hot spots in the Delta that a blues fan should not miss.
A compact town with a population of about 20,000, Clarksdale lies about 75 miles south of Memphis on U.S. Highway 61, the famous Blues Highway that carried legions of musicians from Delta poverty to international fame and fortune, including Clarksdale native sons Ike Turner, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Today, Clarksdale works to keep the blues alive with a handful of live music venues near the center of town.
The Delma Furniss Hospitality Station, a state welcome center, is in Lula, about 15 miles north of Clarksdale.
Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art at 252 Delta Ave. is a great source of information on the blues in Clarksdale. Owner Roger Stolle can recommend good places to see live music. He is also the force behind Clarksdale’s annual Juke Joint Festival. The roots of the blues are explored at the Delta Blues Museum, 1 Blues Alley, just south of Third Street. Admission is $7 adults, $5 for children. A stone’s throw across the museum’s parking lot is Ground Zero, 387 Delta Ave., perhaps Clarksdale’s most reliable blues club, which is owned in part by actor Morgan Freeman. Freeman and his partners also own Madidi, a AAA three Diamond restaurant up the street at 164 Delta Ave. Sarah’s Kitchen, 278 Sunflower Ave., is a no-frills restaurant with good, cheap lunches and occasional live music.
At one time, numerous blues clubs were clustered along Issaquena Avenue just south of the downtown railroad tracks, but Club 2000, in the shadow of the crumbling New Roxy theatre, is the lone holdout that hosts occasional live blues shows and Sunday jam sessions. Red’s, 395 Sunflower Ave., is a club that resembles an authentic juke joint and offers live blues some weekends.
A large sign at the intersection of Highways 161 and 49 memorializes the crossroads where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his prowess with the guitar. The Shack Up Inn offers rustic lodging on the old Hopson Plantation on Highway 61 that is gradually being transformed into a showcase of Delta art and culture.
About halfway between Clarksdale and Greenville on Highway 61, Cleveland, home of Delta State University, has a quaint, college-town atmosphere that sets it apart from many other towns in the Delta.
North of Cleveland is a lively reminder of the Delta’s blues heritage. Located on a rural gravel and dirt road, Po’ Monkeys Lounge remains a classic juke joint with its ramshackle walls and rusty tin roof.
“We have a good time,” said proprietor Willie Seaberry, who has lived on the premises for almost 50 years and helps farm the 1,200 acres of cotton that start just a few feet from his juke joint’s back door. While you’re likely to hear just about any kind of music at Po’ Monkeys, and usually from a disc jockey rather than a band, the atmosphere and Seaberry’s hospitality make it well worth a visit. Po’ Monkeys is usually open only on Thursday nights.
Other possibilities for live music in Cleveland include the Airport Grocery, 3442 Highway 8 West, or Pickled Okra, 201 South Sharpe St. Five miles east of town on Highway 8 sits Dockery Farms, regarded as birthplace of the blues and bluesman Charley Patton.
The Lunchroom in the Warehouse, 229 North Sharpe St., offers soups, salads and sumptuous sandwiches, while KC’s Restaurant, 400 Highway 61 North, is a AAA four Diamond dining establishment with delicious entrées and desserts. Six miles east of Cleveland, the Old Place bed-and-breakfast (60036 County Barn Road) is in Amory.
Visitors can stop at the Washington County Welcome Center at state Highway 82 and Reed Road to gather information live music several nights a week here.
Camelot Bed and Breakfast, 548 South Washington St., offers comfortable rooms and hearty breakfasts. It’s a good deal during Greenville’s blues festival in September. Greenville Inn and Suites, 211 S. Walnut St., is less than a block from the blues clubs.
An interpretive marker that is part of the Mississippi Blues Trail can be found on historic Nelson Street, a popular blues venue in the 1940s and ‘50s. There are several markers throughout the state, which plans to develop 100 interpretive sites related to the blues over time.
Just north of Greenville is the town of Leland, which boasts several murals of blues greats along downtown walls, and is also home to the Highway 61 Blues Museum, 400 North Broad St., located in the old Temple Theatre just off Highway 61.
Born of black sharecroppers on cotton plantations, the blues is an American institution, and the Mississippi Delta is the best place to hear the music and absorb its spirit.
Michael Ream is a new contributor from Clarksville, Ark.
|The Delta heats up for blues festivals
These festivals will offer a variety of blues acts. Call or check Web sites for details on performers and admission charges. Some sites also have information on lodging, restaurants and other visitor services.
Festivals, such as the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival in Helena, are a great venue to hear the blues in the Delta region. Michael Ream photo
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