Woke Up This Mornin' - Looking for the Blues; Mississippi Delta is the Cradle of Legendary Music
Updated: Mar 15
The spicy aroma of hot tamales permeated the rental vehicle as I left Greenville, Mississippi. I had spent the morning learning about the devastating flood of April 1927, the one where the mighty river breached its levees, killing several hundred people and displacing hundreds of thousands more, most of them African Americans.
Willie Love’s 1951 recording “Nelson Street Blues” was on the SUV's radio. The song immortalized Greenville’s bustling blues and commerce scene. According to Billy Johnson, blues historian and curator of the Highway 61 Blues Museum in nearby Leland, Nelson Street in the 1940s and 50s was as important and vibrant as Memphis’ Beale Street.
That was then. Today, except for Doe’s Eat Place, a unique destination restaurant famed since 1941 for its massive steaks, not much is happening on Nelson Street. The area a couple blocks away from Doe’s is said to be a rough place at night. Driving down Nelson in daylight, though, one can imagine its exciting past and the echoes of thumping 12-bar blues booming from places such as Henry T’s Pool Room, the Blue Note or the Flowing Fountain.
Domenick "Doe" Signa and his wife Mamie first ran a honky tonk in the front part of the store, strictly for the black clientele. In a bit of reverse segregation, the white "carriage" trade arrived by the back door for tasty steaks and tamales. Tamales reportedly became an enduring Delta staple during the influx of Mexican migrant workers as African Americans began moving out of the Delta and heading north early in the 20th Century and farm hands were sent away to fight in World War II.
“Musicians played into the morning and slept until afternoon,” says Johnson. “A cab stand at the end of the street had a phone booth. Guys would hang out there and every time the phone rang, it would be a club owner somewhere in the Delta needing a band that night. Little Milton said in those days, Nelson Street was full of multi-instrumental musicians, guys that could play drums one night and guitar the next. You’d get in a station wagon and start down Nelson Street and before you got to the other end, you’d have a full band and head out to where you were going to play.”
Road Trip -- Birthplace of the Blues
American blues music, the original roots music, birthed genres that followed, from country to rock, R&B to hip hop. Blues enthusiasts seeking a fix can easily spend a couple nights in Chicago, St. Louis or Memphis, but to begin to understand this music’s origins, you must head into the Mississippi Delta -- you must get off the well-traveled highway.
Memphis is an excellent launch pad for a Mississippi Delta tour. Highway 61, sometimes called the “Blues Highway,” heads south into Mississippi. The trouble is, travelers often breeze along this now modern four-lane, typically bypassing rural crossroads, abandoned grocery stores and cotton plantations where the music began. “They might make a stop in Vicksburg and then head on to New Orleans, missing all in between,” says Johnson.
My own four-day blues quest in the summer of 2022 began a day earlier, flying to Memphis, renting a car and stopping just north of Tunica at the Gateway to the Blues Museum to collect a Mississippi Blues Trail map. From there, I drove south, directly to Greenwood and Robert Johnson’s grave site in the rustic cemetery at Little Zion Church, the location most researchers believe to be the true resting place of the legendary Delta bluesman.
Robert Johnson, goes the oft-repeated legend, sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads, giving him guitar chops previously lacking. His grave sees ample traffic, based on the litter and offerings, including empty whiskey bottles, keys and coins, left on and around the granite marker. Kinchen “Bubba” O’Keefe, who promotes nearby Clarksdale as the current Delta blues capital, observes that some go to Johnson’s grave to pay respects, others go to “commune.” I wondered what I might hear, see or smell at that cemetery at midnight.
Leland, 10 miles east of Greenville, was another blues hot spot, a rowdy railroad town labeled the “Hellhole of the Delta” in a 1908 Collier’s magazine article. Bluesmen played corners, clubs and cafes until daylight. Up to 10,000 people flocked there from surrounding plantations. The place was rife with tiger booze, crap games and kept women. “No wonder people flocked there,” according to an excerpt hanging in the Highway 61 Blues Museum.
The town is famous as the birthplace of legends such as Albert King, Jimmy Reed and L’il Bill Wallace. Riley “B.B.” King considered nearby Indianola his hometown. “Bill Wallace played that one-string style like T-Bone Walker did. He was the first person B.B. ever heard play that style. All these blues guys played their own style. Within five seconds of something coming on the radio, you know that’s Jimmy Reed. That’s Albert King. Often imitated, never duplicated. Nobody could play their style of music like they could,” Johnson says.
A walking tour of Downtown Leland includes many Mississippi Blues Trail markers, including one for Johnny Winter, whose father was once town mayor. At the Highway 61 Blues Museum, it’s often possible to hear Pat Thomas, son of blues legend James “Son” Thomas, picking his well-worn six-string and singing blues classics.
Leland also honors Ruby Edwards, a talented, ambitious entrepreneur who arrived there as a teenager just before the flood. By World War II, she had opened “Ruby’s Nite Spot,” capitalizing on the town’s Las Vegas-like demeanor. She later owned multiple venues and managed a couple dozen street vendor hot tamale carts.
Johnson claims B.B. King, who would eventually become Ruby’s son-in-law, said a wash basin backstage at Ruby's had three spigots – one for hot water, one for cold water and a middle one for moonshine. Ruby’s club, which supplied a venue for countless black artists, was vital to the Delta music scene.
Pick up the tour and head east on Highway 82, once the blues-rich Highway 10, then go a couple miles north to Holly Ridge and the grave site of Charley Patton (1891-1934), along with Lead Belly, considered one of the most influential early Delta bluesmen. Patton had African American and Choctaw heritage. The old, boarded-up store and filling station where he sometimes entertained is at an intersection less than a mile from his burial site. "High Water Everywhere" - by Charlie Patton
Northbound on Highway 49W en route to Clarksdale, detour a couple miles west on Highway 8 to Dockery Farms, Patton’s off-and-on home for three decades. Once home to more than 400 tenant farmer families, Dockery was a hub for blues musicians, attracting Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, and Roebuck “Pops” Staples. You can tour the various pavilions and the old cotton gin still resident at the location.
While Robert Johnson is usually the man tagged with the distinction (or dishonor) of selling his soul at the crossroads, the famous legend actually relates to Tommy Johnson. Tommy’s brother LeDell first described the young man’s midnight encounter with a foreboding figure at a crossroads, with the story predating Robert’s similar version. Historian Billy Johnson chuckles, saying he heard Robert co-opted that story to help him pick up women.
At Dockery Farms, I ran into Lauren Sauls, a Chicago native now living in New Orleans, who was solo trekking the blues highway on her way to a wedding in Memphis. “I’ve wanted to check out the Delta for a long time, knowing it’s where the music I love so much in Chicago came from,” Sauls says, “but I knew very little about where exactly I should go until I looked into it before my roadtrip. To be honest I wasn’t even aware that there was a Mississippi Blues Trail! But the internet quickly steered me there, and also to Clarksdale as the ideal overnight stop to hit up the blues bars.”
The Blues Trail marker system makes it easier to map out a route and go exploring. Many markers are just signs on a corner or in front of a cotton field. Sauls says the markers were easy to find in Google Maps, but a smartphone trail app wasn’t working for her. Fortunately, she researched the Blues Trail website ahead of time.
“I clicked through the markers that would be on my way and choose to avoid some that looked less like I’d be able to relate the significance of the place," Sauls says. "I did still love the marker for Muddy Water’s home – the home has since been physically moved to the Delta Blues Museum (in Clarksdale), so it’s just a field – but driving up the road and seeing the farmland spread out behind the site still gave me a sense of place.”
Some places, such as the famed Po’ Monkeys juke joint near Merigold, have closed, likely never to reopen, but Sauls said the markers helped explain the sites' significance. “I think it’s really well done. One side of each marker gives a general description, while the other side includes more detailed information and even photos,” Sauls said. "I think visiting a lot of markers along the blues highway in a day was ideal because it helped me imagine how far these musicians were traveling – and at a much slower pace!”
The flood of 1927, coupled with increased mechanization in the picking and processing of cotton, prompted a huge migration out of the Delta, usually north to cities like Chicago or Detroit. The people took the blues with them. There, the bottleneck and finger-picking styling of the original Delta blues evolved into the electrified Chicago sound. Later, increased mobilization – people used to walk to or ride farm equipment to nearby juke joints – plus competition from free entertainment and drinks in Mississippi’s burgeoning casino scene also contributed to the demise of many rural blues venues.
Today’s Epicenter of Delta Blues
The intersection of the current Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale is marketed as “The Crossroads.” A three-guitar sculpture atop an ornate lamp post graces the intersection’s center. Today, instead of “Standin’ at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride,” an alternate lyric – at least at this particular crossroads – might be, “Standin’ at the crossroad, getting’ a burger and fries.” The location is home to Abe’s BBQ, a joint famed since 1924 for its big, tasty portions of smoked pork and chili cheeseburgers.
Clarksdale is renowned for live blues. Former hotspots like Greenville and Leland are working to get their downtown areas revitalized and blues mojo working. Clarksdale is decades ahead, attracting global attention. O’Keefe promotes Clarksdale’s blues scene as far away as Brazil and Norway. International blues tourists comprise a sizable part of the crowd at some Delta festivals.
Live music is available seven days a week, including many mornings and afternoons, but two venues anchor the nighttime scene: Ground Zero, co-owned by Morgan Freeman, and Red’s Blue Club. Ground Zero is a larger, comfortable venue with top blues acts. Red’s is stripped down, like much of the music, with no stage and a capacity of about 40 people when its standing room only. Still, some big names find their way to that small stage. Red neon casts its glow on everything and everyone. This throwback juke joint has $10 covers (usually) and $4 beers. Forget wine or liquor. Red Paden opened his place about 45 years ago. He usually sits out front, keeping an eye on things. “I was hanging around the blues since I was about that big,” he says, holding his hand low. He knows his club is a magnet, attracting people looking for an authentic juke joint experience.
Sauls says reflecting on the history of the blues was important to her as she traveled – the locations, the musicians’ lives, and the role the blues played in all music that followed.
“Seeing pictures of Led Zeppelin partying at Red’s and hearing the crowd at Ground Zero call out how far away they’d come from – Ireland, I think, won that night) was so cool,” Sauls said. “I’m glad the trail and Clarksdale are so actively keeping the blues alive.”
Keeping the blues alive took a bit of a cultural shift. By the late 1950s, blues music might have been seen as fading away. Many musicians migrated to bigger cities and, owing largely to the segregation of the early 20th Century, blues audiences were comprised of mostly black people. Performers traveled in old buses or vans, playing gigs at venues along what was called the “Chitlin’ Circuit.”
Not that the blues weren’t reaching white audiences. They were. For example, Tupelo-born Elvis Presley borrowed heavily from the blues and gospel in becoming one of the earliest rock and roll phenoms. In 1956, his first mega hit “Hound Dog” was an adaptation of the same song recorded four years earlier by Big Mama Thornton, a black woman from Alabama. British rockers began hearing white artist versions of the blues and then began delving into the black artist roots of the music, discovering artists like John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters.
A significant turning point where black blues artists were finally recognized by white audiences came in 1968 when legendary promoter Bill Graham booked B.B. King, a Chitlin’ Circuit road warrior, to perform at the Fillmore West in California. The crowd, almost all long-haired white kids gave King multiple standing ovations, bringing tears to his eyes. From then on, King’s bookings were to diverse mixed audiences. The blues were finally heading mainstream. The original artists were being discovered and uncovered, variously ripped off and idolized.
Clarksdale’s annual Juke Joint Festival, held each April, attracts thousands to the streets and clubs. Smaller festivals are held throughout the year. There is always something musical happening. Brooke White and her family were in Clarksdale from Hot Springs, Arkansas, when I visited. A guitarist and vocalist, she and her husband are in rock band together. “It’s magical here. The people are so warm and welcoming,” White says. “It’s a place where you can come and everyone welcomes you with open arms. It’s, honestly, one of the best places in the country. You come initially for the music, but then you feel the greatness of the town and the people here; you want to come back…you’re going to come back – every time!”
The Delta According to Chilly Billy
While clubs and live music rule the Clarksdale evening, the Delta countryside’s beauty and history beckon. One superb way to get a fire hose dose is to book a half-day driving tour with Chilly Billy Howell’s Delta Bohemian Tours. The tour takes you from Clarksdale to Friar’s Point
Howell waxes philosophical at Muddy Waters’ old homeplace on Stovall Farms, where Waters once entertained field hands. Describing why so many incredible blues artists came from such a small area, Howell acknowledges oppression was a large part. But he also attributes it to living in pastoral, bucolic areas, without the ability to be overstimulated.
“People had the time and inclination to use their creative gifts,” Howell says. “After you got off work, there wasn’t much to do but make whiskey, make babies and make music, and they did all three rather proficiently.”
Howell maintains that this “slowdown” is part of the Delta’s charm. “So many artists, musicians and writers have come from here, the most recognized, influential blues musicians were all from the Delta - Johnson, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Charlie Patton, Son Thomas,” he said. “Mississippi has more Grammy winners than the next five states combined. It’s the pace of life and the fact that we’re all bat-crap crazy,” Howell says. “Put that together and you get why so much is created here.
“A lyric from one of Son Thomas’ songs is engraved on back of his gravestone. ‘Give me beefsteak when I’m hungry, whiskey when I’m dry, pretty women while I’m living and Heaven when I die. He wanted it all. That’s the southern man’s mantra,’” Howell says.
Keeping It Alive
So, when visiting the Delta, don’t day-trip from Memphis. As Billy Johnson advises, get off the main highways, visit the many crossroads, look at the empty stores and expansive cotton fields, close your eyes for a second and imagine the place 100 years ago, then work forward. Poverty and injustice were often the twin sibling muses for songs connected to the blues. As you visit the places that were centers of gravity for the blues up to and past World War II, eat in the local restaurants, stay in local hotels, visit the small museums, and talk to the residents who remember and are proud of the heritage of their small communities. These are the people keeping it alive and working to revitalize long-struggling, impoverished, rough-around-the-edges towns. Relish and learn from the stories that contributed so much to the music we love.
Four Delta Blues Museums (and One Flood of '27 Museum)
Check websites for operating hours, admission fees and other details of any museums, hotels or restaurants.
B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, 400 Second Street, Indianola. 662-887-9539. Highlights: This is an incredible museum, a destination all on its own. King’s reconstructed home studio with one of his Lucille guitars. Superbly-crafted displays, including the challenges of life on the “Chitlin’ Circuit’ and how the blues broadened to wider, whiter audiences. It's B.B. King’s final resting place. King helped design and construct many exhibits, as well as many recorded video narrations.
Delta Blues Museum, 1 Blues Alley, Clarksdale. 800-626-3764
Highlights: Muddy Waters’ reconstructed cabin from Stovall Farms. Rotating exhibits feature various Delta artists. Famous guitars, including collections of John Lee Hooker and James “Son” Thomas – plus a collection of Thomas’ somewhat ghoulish folk art (including “Woman in Coffin”) that features modeling clay and natural materials. Sadly, no photos were permitted.
Highway 61 Blues Museum, 307 N. Broad Street, Leland. 662-686-7646. Highlights: Personal collections by important Leland blues artists. Pat Thomas, son of blues legend Son Thomas, regularly sets up and plays at the museum. Proficient in all of his father’s songs plus many others, Thomas offers a personal glimpse of growing up in the world of the Delta blues. Curator Billy Johnson dishes local blues history and folklore.
Gateway to the Blues Visitors Center and Museum, 13625 Highway 61 North, Tunica. 888-488-6422. Highlights: The best, first stop on Highway 61 when taking a trip into the Delta out of Memphis. Exhibits include an outline of how 12-bar blues music is created, including an opportunity to record and email you own song. Artifacts, guitars and artwork from numerous Delta bluesmen.
1927 Flood Museum, 18 South Hinds, between Main and Washington Avenue, Greenville. 662-334-2711. Tours only by appointment. $5. Kids under age 6 free. Group rate available. This museum is located in Greenville's oldest downtown structure. The April 21 flood was one of America's worst natural disasters ever. View actual flood artifacts and photographs illustrating the flood’s impact on life and death during the four months Greenville and the Mississippi Delta were inundated. Includes a 12-minute documentary film.
Stay and Eat!
Here are some recommended accommodations and restaurants when touring the Delta Blues scene. A variety of small cafes and restaurants are in all of the towns. Eat local – avoid the chains. Catfish and Fried Green Tomatoes are often on the menu. We looked at Doe’s in Greenville earlier in the story. Another place not to miss as you’re beginning or ending your tour is the Blue and White Restaurant on Highway 61 in Tunica, just a few miles from the Gateway to the Blues Museum. The portions are huge and the Sunday buffet ample. Breakfast is available all day. Try a Mississippi Catfish Hoagie or the delicious Southern Fried Chicken.
Hotel 27 – Greenville
Greenville's only Boutique hotel, Hotel 27 is owned and operated by Main Street Greenville. It sits on Walnut Street, in downtown at the base of the massive levee now protecting the town. The rooms are spacious and there is a quaint breakfast area where continental breakfast is available. The property has a gorgeous courtyard that is the gathering scene for many special events, including the city’s annual Delta Hot Tamale Festival in October. For reservations, please visit www.Hotel27.org
Shack Up Inn – Clarksdale
This place is crazy unique for those looking for an experience. The Shack Up Inn features restored sharecropper (not slave) shacks or tenant houses and converted grain bins as the accommodations. There are 52 units available. The sprawling property surrounds an original cotton gin that is now converted to the lobby, bar and a "Juke Joint Chapel" stage area. Music is regularly on the schedule. It’s located just three miles from the Highways 49 and 61 crossroads in Clarksdale. You must be age 25 or older to book a reservation. No kids allowed. They have a 2-night minimum stay on weekends: Usually Friday/Saturday nights, but you can book Thursday/Friday, or Saturday/Sunday nights.
As their website notes, the “corrugated tin roofs and Mississippi cypress walls will conjure visions of a bygone era. Restored only enough to accommodate 21st century expectations (indoor bathrooms, heat, air conditioning, coffee maker with condiments, refrigerators and microwave in all the units). I stayed in the Gunny Shack, which was very comfortable and even included an old out-of-tune piano. The property also has cheap loaner guitars on a first-come, first-served basis. Pretty cool. It books well in advance of festivals and events. Call 662-624-8329 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.