Feeling the Blues in the Mississippi Delta

Photo credit: Josephine Matyas

“The blues is a feeling, man,” declares Mississippi guitarist King Edward over a bar table at Hal & Mal’s in Jackson, where his soul-inflected blues guitar leads the Blue Monday jam. “Blues tells a story about all the life that you lived – you got the blues all around you all the time.”

By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones

And life in Mississippi – the life from which the blues emerged – was particularly harsh for the slaves who sang in the fields or in prison to distract themselves from the brutality of their existence, and consoled each other on the Sabbath Day. It’s this fusion of reflection on the real world with longing for the next that Mississippi bequeathed to the world – and which became the basis for rock ’n’ roll, soul, Motown and much of 20th-century popular music as it migrated to Memphis, Kansas City, Chicago and eventually the rest of the planet.

The Delta region – bordered by the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers – was one of the richest cotton-growing areas in the nation before and after the Civil War. Like all great art forms, the blues is shrouded in myth and lore – at every stop we heard the story of Robert Johnson’s pact with the devil at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, in which he sold his soul for mastery of the blues guitar.

But the truth is that the blues emerged spontaneously in multiple little communities and “juke” (rhymes with book) joints where slaves and sharecroppers gathered to drink, dance and blow off steam.

In the 1960s, the blues were picked up by British musicians who fused it with their own traditions and sent it back to the New World in bands like Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin and The Animals. “The Europeans saved the blues,” muses Ronnie Eldridge, an amateur blues historian who has made the Delta his home for decades. “It was a dying form when rock ’n’ roll picked it up. Europe threw a life jacket to the blues.”

man-playing-guitarLong dismissed by polite society, the blues is now getting the recognition it deserves. Across Mississippi are detailed markers of the Mississippi Blues Trail that tell the story of powerhouses like Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, Howlin’ Wolf and Sam Cooke who defined the music, giving it legs for its journey into the mainstream.

“The people of the Delta,” it is said, “fear God and the Mississippi.” In Greenville, a documentary at the 1927 Flood Museum on one of America’s greatest natural disasters gave us a look into the brutality of plantation existence. No comparable disaster had ever so transformed the life and circumstances of that land.

But the real reward is in driving between these little communities – many of them considerably smaller than at their pre-Second World War peak – and checking in on original juke joints like Po’ Monkey’s in a cotton field outside Merigold. It’s not elegant, but it’s real.

In the Delta, elegance is hard to come by, real is not. Real is what we find at Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale where it’s blues only on Friday and Saturday nights. Tight and smoky, with a low ceiling and red-neon glow, Red’s is about the music, not the décor. Another authentic juke joint is the cinder block Blue Front Café near Yazoo City, home ground for the haunting, eerie Bentonia-style blues.

These places don’t host the numbers they did their heyday: the interstate highway system has diverted people around these centres of blues culture. But they’re worth finding – and the Delta is worth contemplating for the blues purist, and even for those who just from time to time know the feeling.

DON’T MISS

BB-KingThe B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola is one of the best multimedia museums you will ever see on any historic figure living or dead. Impressively stocked with Riley B. King’s personal reflections and archival material, the museum is built onto an old cotton gin where King worked picking and driving a tractor.

The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale features a tribute to another giant from the region, Muddy Waters – considered “the Father of Chicago Blues.” The shack where young McKinley Morganfield lived on Stovall Plantation has been reconstructed inside the museum and a plank from the original structure was made into a guitar and donated to the museum by ZZ Top guitarist and historian of the blues, Billy Gibbons.

Blue-BiscuitThe Blue Biscuit in Indianola, right across the street from the B.B. King Museum, hosts live blues and features local cuisine. The pulled pork is exceptional.

Cat Head Blues & Folk Art’s owner Roger Stolle moved to Clarksdale with a mission to keep alive the traditions of the Delta Blues. A published author on the blues, he organizes the annual Juke Joint Festival.

A little more mainstream for the modern blues traveller is Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club also in Clarksdale.

 

highway-61Highway 61 Blues Museum in Leland is a modest tribute to local blues musicians but definitely worth a visit. Blues Trail plaques and murals mark the historic significance of both Highways 10 and 61.

Dockery Farms in Cleveland claims to be the home of Charley Patton and incubator of the Delta Blues. Plantation workers taught each other their music at Dockery. According to B.B. King, “you might say it all started right here.”

Ubon’s outside Yazoo City may not offer live music, but their award-winning pork ribs and beef brisket are to die for. Five generations of the Roark family stick close to the original recipes. “Best funeral a dead pig could ever have” according to a sign outside the kitchen.

 

Who’s writing

This is an experiment in creating a lifestyle: Taking her expertise (travel writing) and his experience (as a professional musician and freelance writer), stirring it together and seeing what happens. Add a camper van (a 20-foot Leisure Travel Class B, for those who need the specs), an easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby), a window of six weeks and a yearning to follow and write about the great music trails of the Southeast United States. There’s a file full of maps and a GPS nicknamed “Hal” (we prefer the maps).