Have you been pondering this bucket list item for a while now – a Delta Blues pilgrimage? Lovers of Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll who have paid homage to the hallowed sites marking its origins will tell you it’s a very special experience. After all it is the land that has given the world some of the most important music and musicians.
For many the dream is about driving Highway 61 “The Blues Highway” between Memphis and New Orleans. For some it’s a whistle-stop tour of the Mississippi Delta to experience the popular attractions. The Delta is a large area made up of an alluvial floodplain covering about 7000 square miles. You’d struggle to see a fraction of what this region has to offer in just a few days. So if you’re keen to see the main attractions as well as venture off the beaten path to really experience the “The Birthplace of America’s Music”, give yourself plenty of time. MusicPilgrimer’s “Ultimate Delta Blues Road Trip” is a three part blog concentrating on the heartland of the Delta. It provides valuable information and maps to help plan your trip before and while you are on the road.
I reckon October is an ideal time to go. The southern sun is slowly losing its summer punch, the festivals are a-plenty and the endless rows of cotton await harvest. Clicking on the highlighted text in this blog will take you to that feature on the musicpilgrimer.com website where you can see the location of the feature on a map as well as providing an address and contact details where available. Clicking on the photo or its caption on this blog takes you to the authoritative website or their Facebook page.
So what are you waiting for? Don’t keep putting it off and start planning your Delta Blues road trip for this year. There’s the music, history, the people and hospitality to experience. Take the slow road through the land where the Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll were born.
“Home of the Blues” and “Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll”
David Cohn wrote in his 1935 social history of the Mississippi Delta, “the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg, Mississippi.” So it’s only logical to begin your pilgrimage in the city that is famously known for its Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll history and live music offerings.
There are plenty of places to stay in Memphis but if being close to the action and central to the many attractions is paramount, the Talbot Heirs Guesthouse is the go. Very cool accommodation managed by gracious innkeepers and situated a stones throw from your nightly entertainment, Beale Street.
The preservation of this city’s rich music history is second to none. Elvis fan or not, a tour of what is one of the world’s most visited private residences is a must. You’ll need a good part of a day to take in Graceland and all of the associated Elvis museums, which can be visited as part of the Graceland tour. Save yourself some time by buying your tickets online.
Sun Recording Studio and Museum and Stax Museum of American Soul Music should be next on your “to see” list. Who knows who would have set the foundation or where the direction of popular music would have headed hadn’t it been for these two famous recording studios.
A personal favorite is the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum located at the corner of legendary Highway 61, “The Blues Highway,” and world famous Beale Street. The museum is a fantastic exhibition created by the Smithsonian Institute.
There will be no shortage of live music when you get back for an evening on Beale Street. Whether it’s the Blues or some amazing Big Band sounds at Stax on Beale, you’ll be spoilt for choice. A regular crowd favorite is Sean “Bad” Apple who’s usually in front of the New Daisy on Saturday nights. A definite highlight to the uninitiated.
Drop into the Blues Hall of Fame or check out the fashions at Lansky Brothers-Clothier to the King. W.C. Handy’s Memphis house has been converted into the W.C. Handy Memphis Home & Museum. The original location of the house was at 659 Jennette Place. If you’d like to pay your respects to some of the past greats, some of Memphis’s cemeteries have numerous interred legends. New Park Cemetery has several famous headstones, such as Blues pioneer Bukka White and you can find Sam Phillip’s gravesite at the Memorial Park Cemetery.
Being the Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll combined with the fact that this was Elvis’s stomping ground provides for many more sites to see. You can search and explore a wide variety of Memphis’s musical history on musicpilgrimer.com. If you’re looking for a personal tour with an informative and friendly guide that has extensive knowledge of this region’s music history then book in with Mike Freeman of Memphis Road Tours. Mike is well-versed on the subject of music history in the Memphis and surrounding area.
There are so many famous Memphis restaurants it’s next to impossible to try to sample them all over just a few days. Known as the “Barbecued Pork Capital of the World”, do your homework before you breeze into town but don’t leave Memphis without having tried Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous and Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken.
Heading down to the Crossroads
So you’re ready to head south from Memphis to the heart of the Delta via the famous Highway 61 – “The Blues Highway”. Officially known as US Route 61 this major north-south road hugs the mighty Mississippi River from Hastings, Minnesota to New Orleans. Divided highway for the most part, there is a slower and undivided stretch in the Delta. For the nostalgic traveler there are still some sections of the now bypassed original Highway 61 known as “Old Highway 61”.
Your first leg of the road trip to “The Crossroads” – Clarksdale, Mississippi is a relatively short one (approx 80 miles) and there’s plenty to see on the way down so you’d better get an early start, y’all. Once you’ve crossed the state line and the big sign welcomes you to Mississippi “The Birthplace of America’s Music”, you’ll soon be stopping in Tunica at the Gateway to the Blues Museum & Visitor Center. The refurbished railway station is a perfect way to get information on the area as well as to check out the amazing museum offering some of the best Blues related exhibits. There’s a gift shop with a great selection of souvenirs as well as free road maps!
The Tunica area is rich with Delta Blues history. So many pioneers and legends lived and played here. Robert Johnson, Son House and James Cotton just to name a few. From the museum and information center it’s a short drive to the site of the old Clack Store which once stood here and has been immortalized by the famous Bluesman Son House, who recorded at this site. Abbay & Leatherman plantation, the boyhood home of Robert Johnson is an incredible site and don’t forget to pay homage to James Cotton’s Mississippi Blues Trail marker. Having had an early start out of Memphis it should be just about the right time to drop in at the Blue & White Restaurant for a late morning breakfast.
Once refuelled on some fried eggs and grits, keep to US 61 South until the intersection with US 49 North where you’ll take a right and head over the Mississippi River towards historic Helena, Arkansas. If arriving in Helena on a weekday, specifically between 12:15pm and 12:45pm, head over to the Delta Cultural & Visitor Center where you can experience the live broadcast of the King Biscuit Time radio show in the KFFA 1360 studio. It’s the longest running Blues radio show in the world and “Sunshine” Sonny Payne has been broadcasting this show since 1951. If you are lucky Mr. Payne may even call you to the console for a live interview. The exhibits and displays in the Center highlight the history of the KBT radio show as well paying tribute to famous Arkansas musicians. There are continuing efforts to revitalize the Cherry Street strip and its beautiful historic buildings. The very popular King Biscuit Blues Festival is held every October in historic downtown Helena. A definite festival to tick off the bucket list.
Just off Wire Road north of downtown Helena, you can pay your respects to some past legends of the Blues at the nearby Magnolia Cemetery. Robert Nighthawk, Frank Frost, James ‘Peck’ Curtis and CeDell Davis are interred here.
Head back over the bridge and take a right driving south on MS Highway 1 to Friars Point. This small town situated just behind the embankment of a levee has some very interesting Blues history. There’s an old store on 2nd Street with two wooden benches on the front porch. This was Hirsberg’s Drugstore and the front porch is known to be the place where Muddy Waters said it was the only time he actually saw Robert Johnson. Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues” speaks of his “Friars Point woman”. At the time of our visit the store was locked up and the interior looked like it had been closed up for several years.
Next stop just north of Clarksdale is Muddy’s Mound at Stovall plantation. The site where Muddy Waters was raised and worked as a tractor driver. It’s also the site where the young McKinley Morganfield was first recorded by musicologist Alan Lomax in 1941. A memorial plaque marks the site where Muddy Waters’ famous cabin once stood, which is now on permanent exhibit at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. A Blues Trail marker is also placed nearby commemorating the man who set the standard and who influenced many artists in the development of popular music. This is hallowed ground. Do take the time to reflect on the serenity of the surrounds and of the legendary Bluesman who was initially recorded here only to head north to Chicago two years later changing the course of music history. Stovall Farms are operational and private property.
Clarksdale is usually promoted as the mythical “Crossroads”. So if you’re keen to summon a demon to broker a supernatural deal then head to the intersection of North State Street and Desota Avenue. If not you’ll most likely see the three guitars on a pole identifying the intersection of highways 61 and 49 as you make your way in towards the Clarksdale’s town center.
Myth or not, music loving travelers know to flock to the Mecca of the Delta Blues for its historical connection with the genre. Clarksdale also boasts to have live music seven nights a week, which when combined with some genuine Delta hospitality provides pilgrims with the perfect oasis for the experience of a lifetime! Do plan on stayin’ a while.
Your first port of call should be Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art. This is really the epicentre of all things Mississippi Delta Blues and the spot to orientate yourself before exploring. Proprietor Roger Stolle runs an impressive shop featuring a full selection of Blues CDs, videos, DVDs, books and collectibles. Roger can also give you some friendly tips to help you get the most out of your stay in the Delta. The Cat Head website is also packed with information and is one of the go-to sites when planning your pilgrimage. Cat Head’s famous Delta Blues Music Calendar is the best reference site for live music schedules and venues in Clarksdale and the surrounding region.
While there’s a variety of accommodation to choose from do keep in mind it all gets booked up very quickly and well in advance of the festivals. Whether you’re heading in for one of the festivals or not, consider staying at the Delta Bohemian Guest House. Proprietors Madge and Billy Howell are well known for their charm and hospitality. “Chilly” Billy as he’s known also conducts private tours. The Delta Bohemian Tours specialize on the Mississippi Delta. With an impressive and growing list of testimonials, you can’t go wrong hiring this Clarkdale native to take you around on a customized Delta experience.
If you’ve done your pre-pilgrimage research you’ll know that one of Clarksdale’s most sacred and historic Blues sites is the Riverside Hotel. It was originally an African American hospital where the legendary Bessie Smith passed away here after being injured in a car accident. In its heyday as a hotel the Riverside was often accommodation for an impressive list of the traveling musicians. Credited as the first Rock ‘n’ Roll record ever recorded, it is known that Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston would rehearse Rocket “88” at the Riverside Hotel before it was recorded Sun Studios in Memphis. The Riverside has been honored with a Blues Trail marker and can be booked for accommodation.
There are Blues Trail markers a plenty in Clarksdale commemorating this town’s foundations to the Blues. Many don’t realise how many legendary musicians who were born here. Son House, Willie Lee Brown, John Lee Hooker, Jackie Brenston, Ike Turner and Sam Cooke, just to name a few. Or some of the other Blues greats who lived or worked here – W.C. Handy, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Many have been honored with markers and keep an eye out for the Clarksdale Walk of Fame where plaques are scattered throughout the town center. Clarksdale’s first Walk of Fame marker was dedicated to Sam Cooke and is located at the New Roxy Theater. If it’s some shelter you need from the daytime heat, make your way to the Delta Blues Museum where there’s an excellent collection of exhibits and memorabilia showcasing the Delta’s Blues history and heritage. It is here you can see the remains of the cabin from Stovall Farms that Muddy Waters lived in. Other notable museums in town are the WROX Radio Museum and the Rock and Blues Museum.
There’s good reason for the locals to boast about their town’s festivals and live music scene. You can rest assured you’ll find live music somewhere in Clarksdale on any night of the week but you’ll get the most bang for the buck around festival time when multiple venues are are offering entertainment. Whether it’s the Ground Zero Blues Club, the Bluesberry Cafe or Stan Street’s Hambone Art Gallery, you’ll be sure to find a venue to relax and enjoy some of the Delta grown music.
Many tourist seek the authentic juke joint experience and it doesn’t get anymore authentic then spending an evening at Red’s Blues Club or if you plan to be in the Delta in October for the many festivals, you can experience the Juke Joint Chapel in all of it’s glory as well as stay at it’s accommodation offering at the Shack Up Inn. Again check the Delta Blues Music Calendar for dates and times for all live music events.
Stay tuned for part two of the Ultimate Delta Blues Road Trip where we’ll take you to explore deeper into the heart of the Delta.
NB “Sunshine” Sonny Payne passed away a few weeks after this posting. May he rest in peace.