It’s barely April and the early morning air here in the Mississippi Delta is already thick and sticky. By June, it’ll be intolerable. As I look over flat fields filled with stubble from last season’s crop, I can’t imagine hours of picking cotton under the relentless sun. Yet thousands of black slaves spent their lives here doing just that. After the Civil War, with no education, limited skills, and few options, many of them stayed on toiling under a sharecropper system that delivered its own kind of bondage. It’s no wonder the Mississippi Delta is the birthplace of the blues.
We’ve flown into Memphis to explore highway 61, the infamous Blues Highway. This road, originally a two-lane country road that’s been consumed in places by a modern interstate, was the route many Southern blacks used to escape to the North and “leave their troubles behind.” It cuts through the broad flood plain of the mighty Mississippi, rich river bottom in places 100 feet thick. This ribbon of blacktop connects a series of small farm towns, most still ramshackle, one stoplight affairs, where some of the finest blues music in the world is played.
Gateway to the Blues
The best place to begin a tour of the Blues Highway is in Tunica, Mississippi, at the Gateway to the Blues Museum. It’s located in an authentic 1895 train station that’s been lovingly restored with a $2.8 million grant from the Caesars Casino. In the past 20 years, the gaming industry has profoundly impacted this part of the Mississippi Delta. B.C.—what residents call before casinos—Tunica was the poorest county in the nation. Reverend Jessie Jackson came here in 1985 and visited Sugar Ditch, a desperately poor neighborhood of shacks along a ditch where residents dumped their trash and waste, which he labeled “America’s Ethiopia.” While he toured the area, closely followed by journalists and TV cameras, Jackson raised $3,700. Locals say after Jackson left, no one in the area ever saw any of the money.
Previously, Mississippi allowed some gambling on riverboats. Then an enterprising entrepreneur found a loophole in Mississippi’s anti-gambling law and quietly introduced legislation allowing casinos to be built—as long as they are on water. In the watery Mississippi Delta, this has proven an easy hurdle. When I visited the downstairs of Tunica’s Horseshoe Casino, I was surprised to find hatches and bulkheads just like a boat that keep the massive building afloat in the Delta’s muddy waters.
Gateway to the Blues Museum is part of the Tunica Visitor’s Center and the $10 entrance fee gives a good introduction to the blues, how it came to be and its wide-ranging influence on music in the U.S. and around the world. Like many parts of the south, after European explorers brought death and destruction to the local Indian population, farmers found white gold growing cotton in the Mississippi Delta’s rich, loamy soil. But it was an industry built on the backs of black slaves from Africa. Forced to endure backbreaking labor, they’d sing in the fields, especially call and response songs. One worker would sing a line and others sang a response. These songs of heartache and hope were called the blues.
Our museum guide tells us that blues songs almost always start with a line that states a problem that’s repeated twice. It’s followed by an answer to the problem or an expression of hope. The Oxford Companion of Music defines blues as “a three-line stanza…supported by a conventional 12-bar harmonic scheme.” But the meaning of blues music goes much deeper.
Blues music influenced singers from Elvis Presley to the Beatles and birthed both jazz and rock and roll. Gateway to the Blues Museum contains biographies and artifacts like guitars, clothing, and artwork on the lives of great Mississippi blues singers like BB King, Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Doctor Ross, Robert Johnson, Ike Turner and many more. The museum even offers sound booths where visitors can create their own blues tune. Though I try to compose a song, somehow the troubles of a middle class white woman don’t measure up to blues sung by Mississippi blacks.
From the Gateway to the Blues Museum, there’s a series of Blues Highway markers noting artists or events in the history of the blues. One of these is the story of Robert Johnson who is said to have made a deal with the devil so he could play the blues. According to legend, Johnson wanted to play blues guitar, but lacked the talent. So he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play. When he returned to his home a week later, he was a guitar phenomenon. But, of course, devilish deals are never a good deal and Johnson, who got involved with a friend’s wife, died “howling in pain like a dog.” Some believe Johnson’s ghost haunts a small cemetery off Bonnie Blue Road. Others insist he frequents the crossroads, the busy intersection of highways 49 and 61 where he struck the fateful deal.
Great Steaks, Iconic Restaurants
We bed down for the night in Tunica at the GoldStrike Casino and walk across the parking lot to the Horseshoe Casino and Jack Binion’s Steakhouse, an upscale restaurant serving aged premium reserve Angus beef. We tuck into a private dining room and dine on steakhouse classics—crispy pork belly and bacon-wrapped scallop appetizers, huge wedge salads with bacon and chunks of blue cheese, 18-ounce corn fed rib eye, and, for dessert, carrot cake. I tumble into bed tired and happily stuffed.
The next morning, we head to a Mississippi Delta icon, the Blue & White Restaurant. This former service-station-turned-eatery is breakfast central for farmers and other residents in the county. We belly up to over-sized sausages, scrambled eggs, hot-from-the-oven biscuits, and, best of all, freshly made cake donuts with thick white glaze. I buy one of their iconic coffee mugs so I can remember this memorable repast.
Next on the agenda is the Tunica Museum, another institution bankrolled by the local gaming industry. Set in a new brick building, this museum tells the history of Tunica County from pre-historic times to the age of casinos. The exhibits, populated by donations from local residents, include 75 life masks of local blues masters created by a blind artist.
Built in 2003, Tunica RiverPark and Museum is a museum that traces the history of the Mississippi from its earliest days to present. Soaring three stories above the banks of the wide, brown water, the modern building resembles a huge boat with sharp angles, porthole-like openings, and plenty of windows.
On the second floor is a fascinating exhibit of one of the earliest submarines that takes visitors below the surface of the muddy water. Long a transportation highway, the current-filled Mississippi is a graveyard for vessels. But the nearly zero visibility in the silty water makes recovering these shipwrecks nearly impossible. Early diving bells were an attempt to recover cargo and vessels in the shifting sands. Then we take the elevator to the third story observation deck that juts toward the river, where we hungrily snap photos.
At the Hollywood Café in the little town of Robinsonville, we lunch on Southern specialties—hush puppies, crispy onion rings, fried catfish, fried pickle chips, coleslaw, turnip greens, fried okra, French fries and big glasses of frosty sweet tea.
Tennessee Williams, Muddy Waters, BB King
Then it’s onto Clarksdale, a town just a few streets long with small, whitewashed storefronts. This is the undisputed heart of the blues’ birthplace. It was here on the front porch of a small cabin that the music of Muddy Waters was first recorded, an event that introduced Mississippi Delta blues to the world.
The Delta Blues Museum, a sprawling converted freight warehouse along the rail line, celebrates the heritage of dozens and dozens of local blues musicians. Along with records, clothing, guitars and other personal effects, the museum boasts part of Muddy Waters’ hand-hewn cabin.
Another luminary who lived in Clarksdale is writer Tennessee Williams. His plays were often set in Clarksdale and his colorful characters were based on area locals. The town celebrates this literary heritage every October with the Tennessee Williams Festival that includes mini-plays acted out on the porches of the town’s historic homes.
We stop in at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Blues Heritage Museum, a downtown storefront museum run by a Norwegian who is so in love with blues and rock and roll, he moved to Clarksdale and opened this homage. Based on the owner’s personal collection, the museum offers a hodgepodge of records, instruments, old radios, posters, and more.
We’re fortunate that it’s the Juke Joint Festival, a local celebration of blues music that was played in roadhouses called Juke Joints. Everywhere we turn, musicians—both white and black—belt out smoky blues sounds on street corners, in front of businesses and in clubs. Thirst drives us next door to Stan Street’s Hambone Art and Music where the beer is ice cold and the music couldn’t be hotter. The proprietor, a musician and artist, plays drums with a bassist and a lead guitarist who is full of soul. He belts out blues tunes one after another; the band’s only pay a few dollars in the bucket when it’s passed. Before I leave, I purchase one of Stan’s small, colorful paintings that’s a vibrant as the blues music.
Hunger sends us a few blocks up the street to Ground Zero Blues Club, co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman. This cavernous, graffiti-filled space serves hot fried foods and even hotter music, turned up to an ear-splitting volume.
The next morning, our last on the Blues Highway, finds us in Indianola, where the movie, “The Help” was filmed in two of its historic homes. It’s also the site of the BB King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, a world-class showcase of the late master bluesman’s life. Like many blues musicians from the area, BB’s beginnings were modest. There’s even a large cotton bag he used as a youngster to pick cotton.
We easily spent a few hours absorbing video footage and artifacts, including King’s Emmy’s and other awards, photos, instruments and even one of his touring buses. We come away with a broader view of the struggles, triumphs and humanity of this great musician. And perhaps just a little better understanding of the blues and the importance of this all-American form of music. —Story and photos by Bobbie Hasselbring, Editor realfoodtraveler.com
IF YOU GO
Mississippi Blues Trail msbluestrail.org/
Gateway to the Blues Museum www.tunicatravel.com/things-to-do/the_blues/gateway
Tunica RiverPark and Museum www.tunicariverpark.com
Rock ‘n’ Roll Blues Heritage Museum, Clarksdale www.blues2rock.com/Blues2Rock/Home.html
Delta Blues Museum, Clarksdale www.deltabluesmuseum.org
Juke Joint Festival, Clarksdale www.jukejointfestival.com/
Stan Street’s Hambone Art and Music, Clarksdale www.stanstreet.com
BB King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, Indianola www.bbkingmuseum.or
PLACES TO EAT/STAY
Gold Strike Casino, Robinsonville www.goldstrikemississippi.com/
Jack Binion’s Steakhouse, Horseshoe Casino www.caesars.com/horseshoe-tunica/restaurants/jack-binions-steakhouse#.VXiai0YXEsQ
Blue and White Restaurant, Tunica blueandwhiterestaurant.com
Hollywood Cafe, Robinsonville thehollywoodcafe.com
Ground Zero Blues Club, Clarksdale www.groundzerobluesclub.com