Jul/Aug 2013 Issue
Blues heritage is deeply rooted in Arkansas and Mississippi Delta.
Legendary Delta blues musician Big Bill Broonzy said, “Blues is a natural fact, and is just something that a fellow lives. If you don’t live it, you don’t have it.”
Roots of the Blues
Blues music was born in the hearts and voices of slaves, and later, sharecroppers as they worked in the cotton fields of the Deep South. They sang to comfort and sustain one another in the call-and-response tradition of their African heritage. The songs were not written or recorded, but passed from one musician to another through many generations.
By the 1920s, Delta blues musicians began carrying the music to mostly African-American audiences in clubs and juke joints in cities like Memphis, Chicago, and New Orleans. It wasn’t until the 1960s that more diverse audiences discovered the blues, as artists like B.B. King and Muddy Waters mesmerized huge crowds and people began falling in love with the sound. Today, it has grown into a multi-faceted genre with millions of devotees throughout the world.
Whether you are an ardent fan or just discovering the pull of this American music, there is no better way to get to know it than to visit its birthplace. A wonderful place to begin is the Delta Cultural Center in Helena-West Helena, Ark. At the center, which is divided between two buildings, visitors can spend some time in the Depot’s galleries and listen to original blues recordings in the Visitor’s Center, which also is home to the longest-running blues radio show in America, “King Biscuit Time.” The 30-minute show airs daily around noon. “Sunshine” Sonny Payne, 87, has been the full-time host of the show since the early 1950s. If you hang around after the show, Payne, who was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, may share a story with you. “King Biscuit Time” is heard on station KFFA 1360.
Overnight options here include the Edwardian Inn, an elegant 1904 mansion and AAA Three Diamond bed-and-breakfast with gracious hosts and a fantastic breakfast. Motel lodging also is available in town.
Continue your blues sojourn by taking the long, narrow U.S. Highway 49 bridge across the Mississippi River into the state of Mississippi. The river, which is featured in hundreds of songs, flows through the heart of the blues. Just past the small town of Lula, Miss., you’ll come to the storied Blues Highway, U.S. 61.
The Blues Highway
Drive U.S. Highway 61 south and stop for the Mississippi Blues Trail markers to stand in the footsteps of the blues legends and read their stories. About 20 miles down the road is Clarksdale and the famous crossroads of highways 61 and 49, where it is said that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to be able to play as he did. Clarksdale is experiencing a rebirth–thanks in large part to visitors’ interest in the blues–and there is much to be discovered here. Music just seems to ooze up from the sidewalks, and the best way to experience it is to leave your fancy duds at home, put on your dancin’ shoes, forget counting calories, and just jump in.
Ground Zero Blues Club is the place to start. Don’t be put off by the peeling paint and the row of sagging couches on the porch; this juke joint owned by Morgan Freeman and local businessman/attorney Bill Luckett is the real deal. Find a spot on the walls to sign your name and order up a cold one with a plate of something fried. Consider the fried green tomato “sammich” with “Gitback” sauce.
If it’s a Wednesday through Saturday, hang out and wait for the live music. You’ll find easy conversations with friendly locals and blues fans on pilgrimages from all over the world.
The club is next to the Delta Blues Museum, Mississippi’s oldest music museum (established in 1979). Here, you can see remains of a sharecropper’s cabin that was Muddy Waters’ home. Learn how the lives of John Lee Hooker, Son House, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, W. C. Handy and others were shaped and changed by the blues. In April, the museum received its marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
Thousands of blues fans each summer brave the Delta heat for the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival. Now in its 26th year, the festival will be Aug. 9–11. Amazing musicians participate. Last year, for the 25th anniversary, Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin) wowed the crowds.
Kickin’ Back in the Delta
When you’re ready to eat, ask anyone to direct you to Ramon’s in Clarksdale. Again, don’t judge by its humble appearance; locals rave that this restaurant has “the best fried shrimp on the planet.”
Other options include Rust Restaurant that puts a gourmet twist on regional specialties; and Yazoo Pass Restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the old F.W. Woolworth building.
Ready to rest your head? If you’d like something more trendy, try The Lofts at the Five & Dime, also in the Woolworth building. You can step into the elegant lifestyle of the plantation owner who lent the town his name at the Clark House, now a beautiful B&B. For the adventurous blues fan, try The Shack Up Inn. It may not be for everyone, but it is authentic Delta. Just kick back and listen to the insects tuning up, the rain pelting the cabin’s tin roof, or perhaps the strains of Delta blues that could be coming from anywhere.
Whether you time your visit around one of the many festivals or opt for a quieter time, there is no better way to feel the soul of this earthy, sultry music than to visit the land of its birth.
Gayle Harper is a contributor from Springfield, Mo. She is writing a book about the Mississippi Great River Road.
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