April 4, 2004
BY JEFF JOHNSON STAFF REPORTER
If you're thinking of riding the blues highway, Steve Cheseborough, author of Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of the Delta Blues, says the Mississippi Delta is a compact area, so you can see everything if you stay for week. He offers this list of half a dozen can't-miss sights:
1. Memphis Minnie's grave in Walls, Miss., a short drive from Memphis. "There are many blues graves here, but this is my favorite. It's really in the middle of fields in an extremely rural setting. The headstone was provided by blues fans, so it's outsized and stands out in this little church cemetery." The Delta blueswoman was born in Algiers, La., and moved to Walls before relocating to Memphis, then Chicago. "She gets short-shrift among female blues singers and was also one of the great guitarists."
2. Helena, Ark.: "This is a real important thing. That town was wide open, as they call it. The 'King Biscuit Time' radio show is still on the air with the original announcer, Sonny Payne, broadcasting live from the Delta Cultural Center. And one of world's great festivals, the King Biscuit Festival, is held here every October. The musician most identified with Helena is Sonny Boy Williamson [II], who was musical host of 'King Biscuit Time.' This is the center of the music constellation." Robert Jr. Lockwood, Robert Johnson, Robert Nighthawk and Roosevelt Sykes all lived in Helena.
3. Clarksdale, Miss.: "This self-proclaimed blues capital of the world got on the tourism bandwagon early. You have Delta Blues Museum, a couple of clubs, the Sunflower River Blues Festival and Cat Head, a blues record and bookstore and folk art store. It's impoverished and crime-ridden, but that's true of the whole Delta. And casinos have changed the local economy. I really like Clarksdale and would recommend it. And the Shack-Up Inn and Hopson Plantation are just outside Clarksdale."
4. Tutweiler, Miss., where W.C. Handy first heard the blues in 1903 and where Sonny Boy Williamson II is buried. "It's not far from Clarksdale, and the site of arguably the birth of the blues." A mural on the Tutweiler train depot recognizes the history of the site. "These depots themselves are very connected to blues history. A lot of people played at the train stations." The mural also provides a map leading to Williamson's grave outside Tutweiler. People often leave harmonicas on this, one of the most frequently visited graves of blues legends.
5. Greenwood, Miss., "which is very important in that everything connected to Robert Johnson's death is here. He lived in Greenwood for his last weeks, playing on Johnson Street, and played his final gig at Three Forks, at the intersection of Hwys. 49 and 82, just inside Greenwood. The Greenwood Blues Heritage Museum, which is owned by Steve LaVere, is small, but he has big plans for a restaurant and performance area."
6. Poor Monkey in Merigold, Miss.: "A cool juke joint, and Thursday night is the night to go. They don't have live music, but it's the archetypal juke joint. It's a cobbled-together, wooden joint on the edge of a cottonfield. The owner changes clothes every half hour into a louder suit than he had on last time. You can arrange to have live music if you have a busload of people."