So, what song is stuck in your head right now? Chances are (no, not the Johnny Mathis song) that whatever it is, it has ancestors from Mississippi. As the Muddy Waters song goes, the blues had a baby and they named it Rock & Roll. That kid also has cousins from The Magnolia State, with names like Country, Pop, Rap, R&B and Soul. The delta region of Mississippi was the cradle for all of those babies.
So we figured we'd take a little trip through the heart of The Delta, down The Mississippi Blues Trail, to see what rocked that cradle.
The "Trail" is not an actual path or route, but a collection of about 120 markers, like those historical marker signs we see in most every state, that highlight significant places and people in the history of The Blues. The first signs were placed in 2006, and when the project is finished in a few years there will be around 200 of them. Obviously we couldn't see them all. But traveling south from Memphis along The Blues Highway, U.S. 61, we certainly found our share.
DID ROBERT JOHNSON REALLY MAKE A DEAL WITH THE DEVIL?
Our first finds were near Tunica, with the official visitors center for the trail and markers for Son House and Robert Johnson.
Johnson is sometimes called "The Father of The Blues," but the elder House was a mentor to him (does that make him the grandfather?) and perhaps the source for the legend of the crossroads. The story goes something like this:
A young Robert Johnson was hanging around the locally renowned bluesman Son House and the elder musician told the kid he needed to do some serious practicing if he was going to be any good. Johnson disappeared for a while, when he returned House supposedly said that he must have made a deal the devil at the crossroads to get so good so fast.
This crossroads has generally been assumed to be the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, but just before he passed away Son House indicated that it was somewhere else, adding a bit more intrigue to the story. Ah, something else to add to our quest.
CLICK TO ENLARGE PICTURES (and more, including the marker for Harold "Hardface" Clanton!)
IT'S ALL THERE IN BLUE & WHITE
Before we left Tunica, we figured a stop at The Blue & White Restaurant was in order. A fixture on Highway 61 since 1924, no doubt many a bluesman fed his howlin' wolf of hunger here, so we walked in and parked our butts at the counter.
Huge portions of typical down home food came out the kitchen window on old fashioned blue plate china, but what really caught our eye was their signature dessert... The Donut Tower. Two hot caramelized donuts filled with ice cream and topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Don't see how anyone could have the blues while stuffing this thing in their face.
We ordered the standard model, but our very friendly chef "Pooh Baby" informed us that there are a chocolate (both the donuts and the ice cream) and a strawberry/raspberry version as well. Too late to change our minds, we had already devoured the bulk of our tower.
Pictures of the original Blue & White added to the mystery of the crossroads when we noticed that the current route of Highway 61 is not the same as it was back then. The cafe moved to the new 61 in 1937, which meant that we could blaze on by the junction of the "new" 61 and 49 a few miles south and head further on down the road to the old crossroad, which is a main intersection in Clarksdale.
CLICK TO ENLARGE PICTURES (and more, including the marker for James Cotton!)
SHACKIN' UP IN CLARKSDALE
Clarksdale is home to one of the most unique inns we've ever encountered, The Shack Up Inn. This collection of sharecropper shacks on the old Hopson Plantation look like they haven't been touched in decades, but inside each one is fixed up into a comfortable little cottage.
Guy Malvezzi was great about showing us around and telling us the story. A few years back a couple songwriters started hunkering down in a shack down here to get away from it all and write. Their idea started catching on and soon Guy bought up a bunch of authentic sharecropper shacks, moved them here, fixed them up and started renting them out. Fast forward a few decades and one of America's coolest accommodations is going strong.
After our night in a shack we were ready to absorb all of the Blues history we could, and Clarksdale has a ton. What better place to start than The Crossroads? A big sign marks the spot of the alleged devil deal but we had our doubts.
CLICK TO ENLARGE PICTURES (and more, including the marker for Muddy Waters and W.C. Handy!)
WAIT. WHAT? THERE ARE TAMALES IN MISSISSIPI?
What we didn't have any doubt about was the grub at Abe's BBQ right there on the infamous corner. Finding killer BBQ in these parts was no surprise, but we did learn something new when we ordered up some tamales.
Turns out the traditional Mexican dish is hugely popular in The Delta and has a long history here. The origin is a bit of a mystery that dates back over a hundred years, either migrant farm workers, soldiers returning from the Mexican-American War, or the original natives introduced the idea of corn meal stuffed with meat. Since corn meal and pork are staples of The Delta diet, the idea stuck.
Known as either Mississippi or Delta Hot Tamales, they differ from the Mexican variety in the spices, amount of meat (more), and the coarseness of the corn meal (also more). They are so popular down here at that they were immortalized in the famous song "They're Red Hot" by Robert Johnson in 1936.
CLICK TO ENLARGE PICTURES (and more, including the markers for Sam Cooke, Ike Turner and Wade Walton!)
ROCKIN' BLUES IN CLARKSDALE
Bellies filled, we were ready to take on Clarksdale. Home to Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, The Delta Blues Museum, The Riverside Hotel, The Ground Zero Blues Club, and one of the funkiest dives anywhere, Red's Lounge.
But of all of the attractions we took in, The Rock & Blues Museum was our favorite. The idea here is to show the progression of The Blues and how it gave birth to so much of our current music. This is accomplished by using a most amazing collection of records and memorabilia laid out as a timeline.
From some of the earliest 78s ever made, to almost every classic from any baby boomer's teenaged 45 and LP collection, to disco and then modern pop, this place is a trip down memory lane that anyone who's ever owned a good old vinyl record can get lost in. Curator Theo Dasbach, who collected most of this himself, gave us an in-depth overview. But seriously, we can't even begin to list the treasures displayed here, it would take page after page and we'd still leave something huge out.
CLICK TO ENLARGE PICTURES (and more, including a picture of a Diddly Bo, a concert contract rider for Muddy Waters and the marker for WROX Radio!)
PO' MONKEY'S - A REAL JUKE JOINT
That night we were in luck, one of, if not the last rural Juke Joint still going happened to be open. About twenty miles outside of Clarksdale, literally sitting on the edge of a cotton field, Po' Monkey's is only open Thursday nights.
Juke joints were extremely influential in the spreading of blues music and used to be everywhere across The Delta. With the rise of recorded music, the jukebox became the entertainment of choice, and joints sprung up for nearby folks to hear the latest songs, have a few drinks, and dance the night away.
Willie Seaberry, known to one and all as Po' Monkey, met us at the door and, since we were early enough to beat the crowd, gave us the lowdown on the joint.
Back in the early sixties, when Po' Monkey was still a teenager, he turned his house, an old sharecropper's shack, into a juke joint. Not much has changed since then, other than the myriad of stuffed monkeys people have stapled to the walls and ceiling and a DJ serving up tunes instead of a box.
When we asked the inevitable question, "Why do they call you Po' Monkey?" He said they always had, since he was a kid, then grinned and added, "Look at this face!" After chatting, we shot a few games of pool, quaffed a couple cold ones and soaked up the R&B soundtracked ambiance before heading back to our sharecropper shack.
CLICK TO ENLARGE PICTURES (and more!)
DID WE FIND THE ACTUAL CROSSROADS?
The next day we were ready to investigate the crossroads legend again. The plot thickened as we learned more about the deathbed proclamation from Son House. He claimed that the real crossroads couldn't have been at 61 & 49 because it was too far from the river, and everybody knows that the devil hangs out near the water.
We had already checked out a possibility along Highway 49 near the tiny town of Lula, but the consensus seemed to be that the deal must have gone down in Rosedale, at the meeting of Mississippi State Routes 8 and 1.
So we rambled out of Clarksdale on a lonesome little road, past the site of the cabin where Muddy Waters lived, toward Big Muddy, Old Man River. The intersection in Rosedale isn't marked with any fancy sign, or anything at all for that matter, but somehow this spot felt more right.
Still we weren't overly inclined to believe any of the stories. After looking into it, the less mystical explanation seems to be that Johnson may have simply gone off to the woodshed. Meaning he hid out somewhere while he worked on his playing. The place most often named was across the river, Helena, Arkansas.
When Johnson returned to Mississippi, Son House was so impressed he made his devil deal statement. Johnson figured the story couldn't hurt his reputation, so he ran with it. Makes sense, but it's not nearly as much fun, so we're not calling it either way...
CRAVING KING BISCUITS
But the explanation did give us a good destination for our final stop on our Blues Trail tour. Helena has played a huge role in the history of The Blues, as a town where many of the musicians came to play, but mostly as the place where Blues found a home on the radio.
Back in 1941, on KFFA, King Biscuit Time, named for the sponsor King Biscuit Flour, began its run and has since become the radio show with the largest number of broadcasts ever. Everyday at 12:15, to coincide with worker's lunch breaks, The Blues is still sent out across The Delta.
At first this was the only station anywhere playing live Blues, with Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Lockwood, Jr. performing in the studio, and what was known at the time as race records, but the show's popularity inspired other stations to follow.
These days the show is broadcast from a studio in The Delta Cultural Center, so that the public can come in and watch. We made sure to be there a few minutes early and when we arrived "Sunshine" Sonny Payne was already behind the mic getting ready, just as he has done for over sixty years.
He was more than cordial and happy to greet us and answered questions from all of the visitors. Then with the signature phrase "pass the biscuits, 'cause its King Biscuit Time!" the 16,405th show was underway.
CLICK TO ENLARGE PICTURES (and more, including the markers for Helena, Rosedale and Lula!)
Figuring there was no way we were going to top that as a finale to our Blues Trail tour, we knew it was time to head even farther down south to dodge the cold up north.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com