Went Down to the Crossroads: A Blues Tour of the Delta

July 13th, 201210:00 am @

5


Moon Lake near Friar's Point, MS

This tour route through the delta takes you along the banks of Moon Lake, one of several oxbow lakes in the region created when the Mississippi River changes its course.

Few places in America are as interesting as the Mississippi delta.  Stretching 250 miles from Memphis in the north to Vicksburg in the south, and about 80 miles wide, the delta is a pancake flat alluvial plain bordered by the Mississippi River on the west and the Mississippi hill country on the east.  The majority of its residents are African Americans.

The delta has been called “the most southern place on earth”.  Its lifestyle is languid, its people down to earth.  Its history is one of gritty endurance.  Here cotton is king, and for more than 100 years African American workers were bonded to the land, first through slavery, and then through the unfair and manipulative system known as sharecropping.

A sharecropper's cabin at Hopson Planting Company.

A typical sharecropper’s cabin. For years African-Americans lived in cabins like these until mechanization drove them off the plantations and to the cities of the north in search of work.  They carried the blues with them.

It was out of this place there emerged a song of woe, a plaintive work chant that, when wedded to the strumming of a guitar, became a kind of music, the blues.

The blues are foundational music, a catalyst out of which other forms have sprouted and flourished.  Jazz and rock both have their roots in the blues, and it’s safe to say that modern pop music would not exist were it not for what happened here.

This region is the cradle of modern music, and as such it has an origin myth, the story of an unexceptional guitar player who became a virtuoso overnight through a pact he made with the devil, the selling of his soul for the gift of extraordinary talent. The deal was made at a crossroads the exact whereabouts of which are shrouded in mystery.

I set off with my traveling companion, Nanker Phlege, to find the famous crossroads and, in the course of things, to explore the delta region and put together a blues tour anyone can follow.

My American Odyssey logoMy American Odyssey Blues Tour of the Delta

 Day One:

Cotton fields near Route 61.

Cotton fields near Route 61 in the delta. Here cotton was king.

Old Highway 61

Directions:  Take Route 61 south out of Memphis 21 miles to Route 161 toward Walls.  Go approx. 1 mile and take a sharp right onto 1st street.  Follow it 3 blocks over the railroad tracks. It becomes old Highway 61.

Suggested musical accompaniment: 

  • 61 Highway, Mississippi Fred McDowell
  • Travelin’ Riverside Blues, Robert Johnson
  • Match Box Blues, Blind Lemon JeffersonSample tunes from the full playlist at the bottom of this page

U.S. Route 61 is one of the most famous highways in America.  But the modern 4-laner that bears this name is a pale imitator of the real deal, old Route 61, a two lane black top that meanders through cotton fields and runs along beside levees, carrying you deep into the old plantation country.  It’s this original highway that was the conduit that carried the blues out of the south and into the recording studios of Chicago, Memphis and New York, providing the foundations for jazz and rock n’ roll.  In 2005 the State of Mississippi initiated the Blues Trail, placing historic markers at various places along Route 61 and throughout the delta.  Many of our upcoming stops would have Blues Trail markers, but one definitely would not – a remote crossroads deep in the heart of the delta.

 

Malcolm Logan at the Memphis Minnie Blues Marker sign near her grave.

Here I am at the Blues Trail marker at Memphis Minnie’s grave.  Go ahead, click the picture to enlarge.

Memphis Minnie’s Grave – Walls, MS
Drive time from Route 61:  5 Minutes

Directions:  Take old Route 61 west out of Walls.  Go approx. 1.5 miles to Norfolk Rd and turn right.  Follow it a half mile.  As you go around a sharp left hand curve the New Hope Baptist Church will be on your right with the cemetery in front.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment: 

  • Me and My Chauffer, Memphis Minnie
  • Moonshine, Memphis Minnie
  • How Long, How Long Blues, Leroy Carr

Several of the most popular early blues singers were women.  Artists like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie sold thousands of records in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s by combining big voices, flamboyant stage presences and not so subtle sexual innuendos. Memphis Minnie was one of the first to introduce the electric guitar to the blues, prefiguring the signature instrument of blues based rock. She retired from performing in the 50’s and died in 1973.  She is buried in the cemetery of New Hope Baptist Church here in Walls.

 

Blues trail marker for the Abbay and Leatherman plantation.

This white brick building was the commissary on the Abbay and Leatherman Plantation where Robert Johnson grew up.

Abbay and Leatherman: Robert Johnson’s Boyhood Home – Robinsonville, MS
Drive time from previous stop: 30 Minutes

Directions:  Follow Norfolk Rd back to old Route 61 and turn right.  Go a mile to the first road on your right and turn right again.  Go a half mile and turn left.  Go about 3 miles and merge into the road approaching from your left.  Go 4 miles and turn right onto Harrah’s Casino Pkwy.  Go about a mile and turn right onto old Route 61.  Go 1.25 miles to Casino Strip Resort Blvd and turn right. Go 2 miles to the Blues Trail Marker in front of a small white structure on your right. 

-  Suggested musical accompaniment: 

  • Walkin’ Blues, Son House
  • I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom, Robert Johnson
  • Come on in my Kitchen, Robert Johnson
Son House

Son House

Robert Johnson, one the most storied and enigmatic figure in the blues, spent his childhood here at Abbay and Leathermen, one of the largest cotton plantations in the delta.  As a teenager, he met noted blues artist Son House on this plantation and was deeply influenced by his style.  Considered a less than average guitar player by House, Robert Johnson disappeared for a time, reemerging later with a stunning competence that made House remark that he must’ve “sold his soul to the devil”.

The actual spot where that alleged diabolical deed took place has long been a matter of dispute, but Nanker Phelge and I had done our research and were confident that we could find it, although not in the place that most others were looking.

 

Lula, MS

A storefront block in Lula, MS. Today it’s practically a ghost town but in the 1920′s it was a thriving blues center, a refuge from plantation life, where Son House and Charlie Patton came together.

Son House and Charlie Patton Meeting Place – Lula, MS
Drive time from previous stop: 38 minutes

Directions:  Follow Casino Strip Resort Blvd 2 miles back to old Route 61 and turn right.  Go 16 miles to Tunica. Turn right on Mhoon Landing Pkwy (old 61 bypass) and take an immediate left onto old 61 Bypass which becomes Edwards Ave. Go 4 blocks to River Rd. Turn right, and then an immediate left onto Main St. which becomes old Hwy 61.  Go 19 miles to Lula.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment: 

  • Delta Blues, Son House
  • Pony Blues, Charlie Patton
  • On the Wall, Louise Johnson

After killing a man in self-defense and serving time at Parchman Prison, Son House moved to Lula in 1929 where he met Charlie Patton, one of the early giants of the blues.  Together they toured the area, playing bars and juke joints.  In 1930 they traveled together to Grafton, Wisconsin with Louise Johnson (whose favors they apparently shared) to record sides for Paramount Records.  The recordings, however, were a flop and Son House slipped into obscurity until he was rediscovered during the blues and folk revivals of the 1960’s.   He toured to great acclaim until 1974 when he became ill and died in Detroit, Michigan.

 

Nanker Phelge and the sheriff of Friar's Point.

Here’s Nanker Phelge and James, the sheriff of Friar’s Point. Not much happens here these days.

Robert Nighthawk’s Home – Friar’s Point, MS
Drive time from previous stop: 20 minutes

Directions:  Take Front St. south out of Lula several blocks until you come to a T-intersection.  Go right over the railroad tracks onto Moon Lake Rd.  Stay on Moon Lake Rd.  In about a half mile, you will see Moon Lake itself on your right.  Go about 7 miles to Route 1.  Go left a half mile to Seepwater Rd.  Turn right and go about 3 miles until it becomes 2nd Street in Friar’s Point.  Turn right on Kendall St. and go 1 block to 1st. St.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment:

  • Friar’s Point Blues, Robert Nighthawk  
  • When the Levee Breaks, Memphis Minnie
  • Backwater Blues, Bessie Smith

Considered an early rival of Muddy Waters for blues royalty, Robert Nighthawk made his home at Friar’s Point when he wasn’t drifting between Chicago and the delta performing with his electric slide guitar.  Along with other blues artists he often played in front of Hirsberg’s drugstore, which had once been a major gathering place when Friar’s Point was home to the old paddle wheel ferry to Arkansas.  After the ferry closed, Friar’s Point became the victim of tornadoes and floods and is today a sleepy backwater hemmed in by the Mississippi levee.

 

Muddy Waters Home Site Blues Marker on the Blues Trail

On this spot stood the cabin where a young Muddy Waters was recorded by Alan Lomax in the early 1940′s.

Stovall Plantation: Muddy Water’s Cabin Site – Clarksdale, MS
Drive time from previous stop:  15 minutes

Directions:  Take Kendall Ave. 3 blocks east to 4th St and turn right.  Go 11 blocks to the T-intersection at South St.  Go right 1 block to Oakridge Ave (McKee Rd) and turn left.  Go about 4 miles to Route 1.  Turn right and go ¼ mile to Oakhurst Ave / Stovall Rd.   Turn left and go about 2 miles to the Blues Trail Marker.  The cabin site is past the entrance to Stovall Farms.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment: 

  • I Be’s Troubled, Muddy Waters
  • Ramblin’ Kid Blues, Muddy Waters
  • 32-20 Blues, Muddy Waters

In 1927 the levee broke and the Great Mississippi Flood devastated the region, leaving many African American citizens bereft.  12 year old McKinley Morganfield took a look around the Stovall Plantation where he lived and remarked that there was nothing but “muddy waters”.  Shortly thereafter he adopted those words as his name.  Emulating the thick heavy voice of Son House and the intricate guitar playing of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters was discovered by noted folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax and recorded at his cabin here in 1941 and 42.  Emboldened by this recognition, Waters moved to Chicago where he laid down tracks for the Chess label and became a central figure in the 1950’s blues scene, an inspiration for countless rock and blues musicians from the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin.

 

Ike Turner record

Ike Turner was deejaying at WROX when he wrote and performed Rocket ’88, considered to be the first rock n’ roll record.

WROX Museum
257 Delta Ave.
Clarksdale, MS 38614
(662) 627-6820
WROX website

Driving time from previous stop: 13 minutes

Directions from previous stop: Continue south down Stovall Rd. / Oakhurst Avenue 7 miles into Clarksdale.  Oakhurst Ave. becomes Riverside Dr.  Go to 2nd Street and turn left.  Go two blocks to Delta Ave and turn right.  WROX is in the middle of the block. 

-  Suggested musical accompaniment: 

  • Three Ball Blues, Robert Nighthawk
  • Troubles and Heartache, Ike Turner
  • Rocket 88, Ike Turner

In the 1940’s and 50’s WROX radio broadcast from this building, bravely breaking the color line of segregated southern radio by featuring African American deejays and African American music.  Robert Nighthawk hosted a show here, as did Sonny Boy Williamson.  Ike Turner, popularly known as one half of the 60’s duo Ike and Tina Turner, was deejaying here in the 1950’s when he wrote and recorded the tune widely considered the first rock n’ roll song, Rocket 88, which was released in 1951 and shot to the top of the charts where it remained for five weeks.  Ironically, Turner was not credited as the composer on the record, which was attributed to Jackie Brenston, the lead singer.


Roger Stolle of Cat Head Delta Blues in Clarksdale

Roger Stolle of Cat Head is one of the blues evangelists of Clarksdale. Image credit: Cat Head Delta Blues.

Cathead Delta Blues and Folk Art
252 Delta Ave
Clarksdale, MS 38614
662-624-5992
Cat Head Delta Blues website

Walking time from previous stop: 1 minute

Directions from WROX:  Go across the street.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment: 

  • High Water Everywhere, Charlie Patton
  • Mississippi Bo Weevil Blues, Charlie Patton
  • Who’s Been Fooling You, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup

Clarksdale is blessed with more than a few blues evangelists, praising the glory of the art form and spreading its virtues to all who will listen.  Among them is Roger Stolle, author, film maker, festival organizer, and owner of Cat Head, a store devoted to the blues.  Cat Head sells everything from DVD’s to oil paintings, knick-knacks, videos and T-shirts, all of it blues related.   From time to time the store even hosts live music.  But the real treat is picking Roger’s brain.  He is always willing to talk the blues and can provide guidance for visitors seeking the best of what the delta has to offer.

 

Frank "Rat" Ratliffe on the front porch of the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, MS

Frank “Rat” Ratliffe sits on the porch of the Riverside Hotel. If you love the blues, you’ve got to check this place out!

Riverside Hotel
615 Sunflower Ave.
Clarksdale, MS 38614
662-624-9163
Trip Advisor reviews of Riverside Inn

Drive time from previous stop: 3 minutes

Directions:  Go down down Delta Ave one block to 3rd St and turn right. Go one block to Sunflower Ave and turn left.  Go 1½ blocks. The Riverside Hotel is on your right.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment:

  • Me and My Gin, Bessie Smith
  • Death Letter, Son House
  • Mama Died and Left Me, Howlin’ Wolf
Muddy Waters room at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, MS

This was the room where Muddy Waters stayed at the Riverside Hotel. In fact all the rooms were once inhabited by famous blues artists from John Lee Hooker to Ike Turner.

If you are a fan of the blues, the Riverside Hotel is an unforgettable experience.  Owned by Frank “Rat” Ratliffe, the 30 room hotel, which has been in his family since the 1940’s has been home to John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner and C.L. Franklin, father of Aretha.  The seminal rock tune “Rocket 88” was written and rehearsed here, and Bessie Smith died here in 1937.  The furnishings are original and the interior has changed little.  Staying here is like staying in a little slice of rock and blues history and Rat is a wonderful host with plenty of stories to tell and all the time in the world to tell them.  A rare sampling of something authentically American.

See the 6 min. YouTube video of Frank “Rat” Ratliffe and the Riverside Hotel


Garlic and butter grilled shrimp at Lady at the Levee restaurant in Clarksdale, MS

Garlic and butter grilled shrimp at Lady at the Levee Restaurant and Bar in Clarksdale

Lady at the Levee Restaurant and Bar
313 Sunflower Ave
Clarksdale, MS 38614
(662) 627-3395
Lady at the Levee website

Walking time from the Riverside Hotel:  8 minutes

Directions:  From the Riverside Hotel walk 3 blocks north on Sunflower Ave

-  Suggested musical accompaniment:

  • Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues, Skip James
  • Fixin’ to Die Blues, Bukka White
  • Shake ‘em on Down, Mississippi Fred McDowell
Lady at the Levee interior

Lady at the Levee

For Joyce Ordway-Moore, Lady at the Levee is a labor of love.  Carrying forward a family legacy of southern cooking from her mother, Sarah, who ran the popular restaurant Sarah’s Kitchen in Clarksdale before her death in 2009, Joyce focuses on a flavorful delta cuisine featuring levee catfish, fried butterfly shrimp, and bacon wrapped chicken topped with creolaise.  The exposed brick walls of the former seafood warehouse display photos of blues artists, and the friendly, down home atmosphere is ideal for relaxing after a long day of exploring the Blues Trail.

 

Red's Lounge in Clarksdale, MS

Red’s Lounge is a rip snortin’ juke joint that serves up gritty downhome blues with a side of sass.

Red’s Lounge
395 Sunflower Ave
Clarksdale, MS 38614
Trip advisor review of Red’s Lounge

Walking time from Riverside Hotel: 5 minutes

Directions:  From the Riverside Hotel walk 2 blocks north on Sunflower Ave

 -  Suggested musical accompaniment:

  • Baby, Please Don’t Go, Muddy Waters
  • One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer, John Lee Hooker
  • Smokestack Lightin’, Howlin’ Wolf
Singer at Red's Lounge in Clarksdale, MS

At Red’s Lounge random audience members get up and let rip.  The atmosphere is electric.

No blues trip to the delta can be complete without a visit to a genuine juke joint. For those who want the safe, sanitized version, Ground Zero Blues Club is a block away, but for those who want the real thing, Reds is the place.  Run by the cantankerous Red, whose been known to throw folks out who show up wearing Ground Zero wrist bands, this rip snortin’ joint serves up gritty downhome blues with a side of sass and a whole lot of good times.  The bar is makeshift at best, serving only bottled beer, and food is non-existent – unless Red decides to fire up the smoker out front. The ceiling leaks, even when it’s not raining, and bedsheets do service as window curtains, but smiles are everywhere and it’s a strong person who can resist the urge to get up and dance to the nightly blues performers who exhilarate visitors with their passion and intensity.

 

Day Two:

Yazoo Pass Cafe

Yazoo Pass Cafe is a surprisingly spacious cafe offering a full breakfast menu in Clarksdale.

Yazoo Pass Café
207 Yazoo Ave
Clarksdale, MS 38614
(662) 627-8686
Yazoo Pass Café website

Walking time from Riverside Hotel: 15 minutes

Directions: From the Riverside Hotel walk 4 blocks north on Sunflower Ave, turn right on 2nd Street and walk 2 blocks to Yazoo Ave.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment:

  • Blues Before Sunrise, Leroy Carr
  • Little Red Rooster, Sam Cooke
  • Early Morning Blues, Muddy Water

A cup of coffee at Yazoo PassIn many ways Clarksdale is a pathetic town, run down and blighted, trying to claw its way back from the brink of extinction on the strength of its history.  I walked the streets on a Saturday morning and saw empty storefront after empty storefront.  I had almost given up on the idea of finding coffee when I stumbled on Yahoo Pass, a surprisingly spacious and modern café with all the amenities you’d expect in the most up-to-date Starbucks.  Fresh pastries, quiche, a selection of top quality roasts, comfortable furniture, a relaxing atmosphere and a full breakfast menu.   Once I had fueled up, my morning blues were over.


Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, MS

Housed in a renovated railroad depot this museum features the actual cabin where Muddy Waters recorded for Alan Lomax in 1941.

Delta Blues Museum
1 Blues Alley
Clarksdale, MS 38614
(662) 627-6820
Delta Blues Museum website

Walking time from previous stop: 5 minutes

Directions from Yazoo Pass:  Walk south on Yazoo Ave 3 blocks.  Turn right at Blues Alley.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment:

  • How Many More Years, Howlin’ Wolf
  • I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man, Muddy Waters
  • Boom, Boom, John Lee Hooker
Delta Blues Museum, Clarksdale, MS Blues Trail

Delta Blues Museum

Housed in a former railroad depot, this museum devoted to early blues pioneers leans heavily on artifacts and images to underline the importance of the blues in American culture.  Eschewing a chronological approach in favor of spotlighting individual talents, the museum provides interesting, in depth examinations of selected artists, and houses the actual cabin where Muddy Waters met Alan Lomax and laid down the tracks that lifted the blues to national prominence in the 1950’s.

 

 

Theo Dasbach at the Rock & Blues Museum in Clarksdale, MS

Here is Nanker Phelge with Theo Dasbach (right) at Theo’s Rock & Blues Museum.

Rock & Blues Museum
113 E. 2nd Street
Clarksdale, MS  38614
901-605-8662
Rock & Blues Museum website

Walking time from previous stop: 3 minutes

Directions from Cats Head:  Walk north on Delta Ave a half block and turn right on 2nd Ave.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment: 

  • Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie, Pine Top Smith
  • Hound Dog, Big Mama Thornton
  • Hound Dog, Elvis Presley

Another one of Clarksdale’s blues evangelists and one with a museum all his own is Theo Dasbach.  His storefront museum, a remarkable collection of early 78 recordings, vintage phonographs, performance contracts and fascinating memorabilia, rivals the Delta Blues Museum as the best museum in Clarksdale.  Laid out in chronological order, the museum guides you seamlessly through the history of the blues and early rock and roll, culminating in the psychedelic era of the late 60’s.  Theo is a knowledgeable and enthusiastic curator who has spent a lifetime gathering these artifacts and communicates his keen interest in the subject by providing guided tours through his impressive collection.


Clarksdale crossroads.

Clarksdale claims Robert Johnson’s crossroads is the intersection of Rts 61 & 49 and have erected this sign to prove it. But we beg to differ.

The Crossroads (Tourist Version)
Hwys 61 & 49
Clarksdale, MS 38614

Drive time from Riverside Hotel: 3 minutes

Directions:  Take Sunflower Ave south 2 blocks to State St. and turn left.  Go 5 blocks to Desoto Ave. (Rt 49) and turn right.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment:

  • Clarksdale Moan, Son House
  • Highway 49, Big Joe Williams
  • Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil), Robert Johnson

Since the location of the actual crossroads has never been conclusively cited, and since Clarksdale is keen to develop tourism around its blues history, it makes sense to claim “The Crossroads” as this hectic intersection of Hwys 61 & 49, the two principle highways in the region.  They have even erected a sign touting this as the place.  But a sign does not a landmark make, and the bemused tourists standing around this triangle of trampled grass, which is littered with empty liquor bottles and discarded guitar picks, seem less than moved.  If you are seeking a true blues experience, drive right on past this spot since the actual location of the crossroads is likely quite a bit south of here at a place Nanker Phelge and I were eventually headed.


Hopson Planting Company and Shack Up Inn

At the Hopson Planting Company its easy to imagine yourself back in time.

Hopson Planting Company and Shack Up Inn
1 Commissary Circle
Clarksdale, MS 38614
662-624-8329
Hopson Planting Company and Shack Up Inn Website

Drive time from the previous stop: 4 minutes

Directions:  Drive 3.5 miles south on Route 49.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment:

  • Boogie Chillin’, John Lee Hooker
  • That’s All Right, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup
  • Eyesight to the Blind, Pine Top Perkins

Hopson Planting Company and Shack Up Inn, Clarksdale, MSAt the Hopson Planting Company just south of Clarksdale it’s easy to imagine yourself on a 1940’s era cotton plantation.  Sharecropper’s cabins that serve as lodgings for the Shack Up Inn surround a central lawn.  (Yes, you can stay in them.) The adjacent barn looks like it’s stacked high with cotton bales but is actually a live music venue.  Walk the grounds and you come across a vintage pick up truck, an antique gas pump, and and couple of old tractors like the one that Pinetop Perkins drove here in the 1940’s while playing with Robert Nighthawk’s band. Later, he became a mentor for a young Ike Turner who nudged the blues toward rock n’ roll and, along with delta bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, helped inspire a polite young man from Tupelo who turned the sound into a global sensation.


Train tracks leading out of Tutwiler, MS where W.C. Handy first heard the blues.

A lone figure follows the tracks out of Tutwiler. While W.C. Handy was waiting for a train here in 1903, he heard the “weirdest music” he had ever heard.

W.C. Handy Train Depot – Tutwiler, MS
Drive time from previous stop:  15 minutes

 Directions:  Drive south on Route 49 for 12 miles.  Just after the junction with Route 3, turn right on Tallahatchie St. and follow it 4 blocks to Engler St. and turn left.  Go over the tracks.  Look for the Blues Marker in the park to your left.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment:

  • Where the Southern Cross the Dog, Woody Mann & Bob Brozman
  • Yellow Dog Blues, Louis Armstrong
  • The Yellow Dog Blues, Bessie Smith

Tutwiler is considered the birthplace of the blues because it was here in 1903 that orchestra leader W.C. Handy heard a “lean, loose-jointed Negro” playing “the weirdest music” he’d ever heard.  Handy was waiting for a train here at the depot that used to be here when he was struck by the music and asked what it could be.  The song was called “Goin’ Where the Southern Cross the Dog”.  Handy adapted it as “Yellow Dog Blues” and published it in 1914 whereupon it sparked America’s first blues craze.  It was followed by “Memphis Blues”, “Beale Street Blues”, and “St. Louis Blues”.  Handy’s effervescent blues formed the foundations of jazz, but in the delta the original form sank back into obscurity only to be rediscovered forty years later when it became the inspiration for Elvis and so many others.


Malcolm Logan at Sonny Boy Williamson's gravesite near Tutwiler, MS

Here I am at Sonny Boy Williamson’s gravesite. Notice the harmonicas placed all around it in homage.

Sonny Boy Williamson Gravesite – Tutwiler, MS
Drive time from previous stop: 5 minutes

Directions: Take 2nd Street south from the railroad tracks 4 blocks to Bruister Rd and turn right.  Go ¾ miles to the junction of Prairie and Gibbons.  Stay straight ahead on Prairie ½ mile.  The cemetery is on the right around a slight curve to the right.  The church that used to be here is gone.  Walk back through the undergrowth to a clump of trees where you’ll find the gravestone.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment:

  • Your Funeral and My Trial, Sonny Boy Williamson
  • Help Me, Sonny Boy Williamson
  • One Way Out, Sonny Boy Williamson
Sonny Boy Williamson

Sonny Boy Williamson II

Along with Ike Turner, harmonica impresario Sonny Boy Williamson was one of the few delta blues artists who bridged the gap from 50’s era bluesman to 60’s era rock contributor.  Recording in the 60’s with the Yardbird’s and The Animals, Williamson also opened for Led Zeppelin.  Irascible and outspoken, Williamson was nevertheless lauded for his astonishing harmonica skills.  As the harmonicas that litter his gravestone attest, he continues to be a source of inspiration for players everywhere.


Chain gang

Parchman Farm is the quintessential southern work camp.

Parchman Farm – Parchman, MS
Drive time from previous stop: 8 minutes

Directions:  Return down Prairie Rd./Bruister Rd. to 2nd Ave.  Turn right and go a half mile to Route 49.  Turn right again.  At split of 49E and 49W, you want 49W, which is on your right.  Drive 8 miles to Parchman Farm.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment:

  • Parchman Farm, John Mayall & The Blues Breakers
  • Grinnin’ in Your Face, Son House
  • Penitentiary Blues, Blind Lemon Jefferson

Although you can’t really get out of your car here and start wandering around (it’s still a functioning prison), you can slow down and take a look at one of the most storied prisons in America.   Resonating in films from Cool Hand Luke to Oh, Brother Where Art Thou, Parchman Farm is the quintessential southern work farm and has been home to Stokely Carmichael, the Freedom Riders, Son House, Bukka White, and Vernon Presley, father of Elvis.  The work chants employed by black prisoners working on chain gangs here formed the basis for the vocal styling of Son House and was picked up on by Robert Johnson.   Sam Cooke, who lived in nearby Clarksdale, was no doubt thinking of Parchman Farm when he wrote his 1960 hit “Chain Gang”.


Robert Johnson's gravesite at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church outside Greenwood, MS

Robert Johnson’s gravesite at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church outside Greenwood, MS

Robert Johnson Gravesite – Greenwood, MS
Drive time from previous stop: 56 minutes

Directions:  At Parchman Farm turn east (left if you are heading south) on Route 32 and go about ten miles to 49E and turn right.  Go 32 miles to Rt. 82 and turn left.  Go 1½ miles to Park St. and turn left.  Follow Park St. four blocks to Grand Blvd. and turn left.  Follow Grand Blvd. through an upscale neighborhood and out of town about 2½ miles (it becomes Money Rd.) to the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church.  Johnson’s headstone is surrounded by trees near the back of the cemetery to the left of the church.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment:

  • Hell Hound on my Trail, Robert Johnson
  • Love in Vain, Robert Johnson
  • Love in Vain, Rolling Stones
Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson

Like practically everything else about Robert Johnson, the site of his grave is a matter of mystery and controversy.  After being claimed by two other communities, his actual gravesite was plausibly claimed by his sister to be here at the Little Zion Church outside of Greenwood.  It makes sense since Johnson died near here when a jealous husband allegedly poisoned his bottle of liquor.  In agony Johnson was said to have crawled around the floor, howling like a dog, a fittingly horrible death for a man believed to have been haunted by the devil.  Like his gravesite, the exact location of the crossroads where he made his diabolical deal is a matter of debate.  But Nanker Phelge and I were not discouraged.  We had done our homework and felt confident we were closing in on it.


Where the southern crosses the dog in Moorhead, MS

Where the Southern crosses the Dog, a unusual railroad juncture with a significant place in the history of the blues.

Where the Southern Crosses the Dog – Moorhead, MS
Drive time from previous stop: 27 minutes

Directions:  Return to Rt. 82 via Grand Blvd. and Park St. and go 21 miles to Moorhead.  Turn left at Route 3 and follow it 5 blocks to the railroad tracks in the center of town.  Look for the Blues Trail Marker.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment:

  • Mystery Train, Little Junior Parker
  • Special Streamline, Bukka White
  • Bring it on Home, Sonny Boy Williamson

This the place that inspired the song that W.C. Handy heard at the train depot in Tutwiler, and which he turned into Yellow Dog Blues.  Here you see the actual spot where the two sets of railroad tracks cross at an unusual right angle.  The Southern is still a working rail line, but the Yazoo Delta Rail line, nicknamed the Yellow Dog, is long defunct.  The blues boasts a long list of train songs, songs that symbolize longing and the prospect of escape from a life of hard labor.


B.B. King Museum, Indianola, MS

B.B. King

BB King Museum – Indianola, MS
400 Second St.
Indianola, MS 38751
662-887-9539
BB King Museum Website

Drive time from previous stop:  12 minutes

Directions:   Follow Rt. 3 five blocks back to Rt. 82 and turn left.  Drive 9 miles into Indianola and turn left at Sunflower Ave.  Turn left at Main Street and go two blocks.

 

-  Suggested musical accompaniment:

  • Don’t Answer the Door, B.B. King
  • How Blue Can You Get, B.B. King
  • The Thrill is Gone, B.B. King

The newest museum in the delta region, the B.B. King Museum opened here in King’s hometown in 2008 and has been receiving rave reviews ever since.  Incorporating a cutting edge use of interactive videos, high quality film presentations and compelling static exhibits, the museum brings into focus King’s early struggles – such as the fact that he lived alone from the age of 9 to 14 – his years working at a cotton mill, and his subsequent rise to fame.


Malcolm Logan and Tom Bingham of The Gin Mill in Indianola, MS

Tom Binghham, proprietor of The Gin Mill, and me after a cold beer and hot tamales.

The Gin Mill – Indianola, MS
100 Pershing Avenue
Indianola, MS 38751
662-887-3209

Walking time from previous stop: 1 minute

Directions:  The Gin Mill is adjacent to the B.B. King Museum.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment: 

  • Cotton Crop Blues, James Cotton
  • Cotton Pickin’ Blues, Big Joe Williams
  • (Hot Tamales) They’re Red Hot, Robert Johnson
Hot tamales

Hot tamales.

Right next door to the B.B. King Museum is a 1920’s renovated cotton warehouse that serves as an art gallery and bar/restaurant with live music on weekends.  The Gin Mill offers lunch and dinner, as well as pickled okra and Mississippi hot tamales.  Yes, I said hot tamales.  Oddly enough, the delta region has a long tradition of eating tamales, a food normally associated with Mexicans and Native Americans.  Several theories speculate why, but my favorite hypothesizes that they may be a holdover from the Mississippian culture of mound-building Native Americans who inhabited this region before whites (and blacks) arrived in the late 18th century.


Dockery Plantation, Dockery, MS Blues Trail marker

A drying shed at the Dockery Plantation where Charlie Patton and others used to perform.

Dockery Farms – Cleveland, MS
Drive time from previous stop: 35 minutes

Directions:  Take 2nd Street left a few hundred feet to Unger Ave and go north 1 block to Main Street.  Turn right and go five blocks to 49W. Turn left and go 20 miles to Route 8.  Turn left and go 5 miles to Dockery Farms (look for the barn with the Dockery Farms sign on your right).

-  Suggested musical accompaniment:

  • A Spoonful of Blues, Charlie Patton
  • Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues, Charlie Patton
  • Future Blues, Willie Brown
Charlie Patton

Charlie Patton

If you are looking for a single place that can be considered the birthplace of the blues, this is it.  Back in the 1920’s this 10,000 acre cotton plantation functioned like a company town for the sharecroppers who lived and worked here, providing a general store, post office, school, churches, boarding houses and a railroad terminal.  On Saturday nights the workers gathered for informal musical entertainment put on by the most talented among them.

A favorite was Charlie Patton whose gravelly voice, deft guitar playing, and clever showmanship made him the central figure in a group of musicians that included Son House, Willie Brown and Tommy Johnson.  Robert Johnson, who received his first guitar at Dockery, was a frequent visitor.  Howlin Wolf came to Dockery as an itinerant worker and adopted Patton’s gritty, booming singing style.  John Lee Hooker, who lived at Dockery, owes a clear debt to Patton and Son House.  In fact, the influential ripples that went out from this place shaped musicians from Muddy Waters to B.B. King, from Mick Jagger to Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin.


Malcolm Logan at Robert Johnson's crossroads

Here I am at the crossroads.

Robert Johnson’s Crossroads – Cleveland, MS
Drive time from previous stop: 3 minutes

Directions:  Take the road out from Dockery Farms, cross Hwy 8 and keep going.  In about 1/3 of a mile you’ll come to a crossroads.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment:

  • Down the Dirt Road Blues, Charlie Patton
  • Cross Road Blues, Robert Johnson
  • Crossroads, Eric Clapton
Robert Johnson's crossroad's devil.

A dark figure approached and took the guitar from him.

The idea that Robert Johnson met the devil at the intersection of Hwys 61 and 49 in Clarksdale is just too lame to consider.  Yet that’s where most tourists go.  At that junction cars go whisking by and you are within site of a couple of fast food joints.  Kind of hard to get in the mood to meet Satan.  The location south of Dockery Farms not only feels more authentic, being that it’s out in the middle of nowhere, but it’s also more likely to be accurate.

Robert Johnson was known to frequent Dockery Farms as a young man.  He was itching to play like his heroes, Son House and Charlie Patton, who dismissed him as a hack.  But then Johnson disappeared one day and when he resurfaced a short while later he was an astounding talent.  The story went that he had gone down to the crossroads at midnight and was playing there when a dark figure approached and took the guitar from his hands.  After tuning the guitar, the figure handed it back.  From that moment on Johnson

The devil at the crossroads.

The dark figure tuned the guitar and when he handed it back Johnson could play like a master.

could play like a master.  Johnson never denied the story, and in fact many of his songs refer to encounters with the devil.  But did it really happen?

In all likelihood the story is apocryphal and stands as a metaphor for the hard drinking and womanizing ways of a wandering blues man.  But it sure has legs.  Musicians from all over the world continue to ask the question, “Where did Robert Johnson meet the devil?”  The easy answer, for those who don’t want to wander too far, is Hwys 61 and 49 in Clarksdale.  But the real answer is more probably the dirt road that runs south out of Dockery Farms until it crosses another dirt road smack in the middle of the cotton fields, smack in the middle of the Mississippi delta, the heart of the blues.     


Trees reflected in the water near Mergold, MS

Trees reflected in the water near Merigold, MS

Return to Clarksdale – Conclusion of the Blues Tour
Drive time from previous stop: 42 minutes

Directions:  Take Route 8 west from Dockery Farms six miles to Rt 61 and turn right (north).  Travel 33 miles to Clarksdale.

-  Suggested musical accompaniment: 

  • Key to the Highway, Big Bill Broonzy
  • Key to the Highway, B.B. King and Eric Clapton
  • Key to the Highway, The Rolling Stones

We didn’t wait at the crossroads until midnight to test the validity of the tale. Besides, to conjure the devil one has to wait alone (and I had Nanker with me), and one should possess at least a rudimentary ability to play, lest Beelzebub consider you not worthy of his time.  So we headed back to Clarksdale to wind up our blues tour with a second night at the Riverside Hotel.  In the morning we headed back to Memphis.

Moon over an oxbow lake in the Mississippi delta

Moon over an oxbow lake in the Mississippi delta.

Few regions of America have such a feel of authenticity about them.  In an increasingly homogenized world it’s rare to find a place with a unique culture that has not yet been co-opted by corporate marketers.  The delta remains genuine, but perhaps not for long.  The resurrection of the delta depends on attracting tourism, and, sadly, most tourists prefer the safe, sanitized version, rather than the one with the rough edges.  So it’s a fair bet that time will give us more faux versions of delta culture, like Ground Zero Blues Club or the ersatz version of the crossroads at 61 & 49.  If the past is any indication of what will happen in the future, these will eventually choke out the real deal.

But for now those seeking a genuine delta experience can still find it.  The delta is looking for more tourism and it deserves it.  If you love music, take a couple of days and immerse yourself in the Mississippi Delta.  You’ll find yourself in a unique place, the most southern place on earth.

Map of the Blues Tour of the Delta

Blues Tour Map of the Delta

Click to open interactive map

 

Went down to the crossroads playlistSample Tunes from the Playlist “Went Down to the Crossroads: A Blues Tour of the Delta” in the I-Tunes Store

Instructions:  Go to the I-Tunes store.  In the I-Tunes store search window type “Went Down to the Crossroads” and press enter.  Scroll down until you see the panel for Playlists in the sidebar on the left side of the page.  Click on the playlist to open it.  Hover your mouse to the left of the title of any song until you see a blue arrow.  Click on it to listen to a 30 second sample of that song.

 

Tour Itinerary Icon

Other Tour Itineraries on My American Odyssey

 

Houses of Horror Houses of Horror: The Serial Murder Sites of Chicago and Milwaukee
 Where is Tara  “Where is Tara?” Atlanta’s Gone with the Wind Legacy
Photo Finish  Photo Finish: A Perfect Spring Weekend in Lexington, KY
 Palm Springs, CA American Oasis: A Perfect Winter’s Day in Palm Springs, CA
 Vital Circuit  Vital Circuit: A Tour of Silicon Valley Historic Sites

 

My American Odyssey Route

Previous stop on the odyssey: Stanton, MO  //
Next stop on the odyssey:  Pigeon Forge, TN

My American Odyssey Route Map

Click image to access interactive map

 

About the author:  Malcolm Logan is a freelance writer who specializes in US travel and US history, designing driving tours, seeking out interesting destinations and exploring US adventure travel.  He can be reached at malcolm.logan@rcn.com
 Image Credits:  All images by Malcolm Logan and Nanker Phelge, except for…  Son House, Public Domain; Muddy Waters & Son Sims, Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee University; Parchman Farm, Public Domain; Robert Johnson, flirck; B.B. King, Heinrich Klaffs; Charlie Patton, UWG Center for Public History; Dark figure; Ryan Jorgenson; Moon Over Oxbow Lake, Tyler Olson