Mississippi is where the blues began, and fans from all over the world flock to experience the state's historic riches
Cleveland, Miss. - In addition to the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers, a stream of music also courses through the dark, fertile soil that nurtures the Mississippi Delta.
Drive south from Memphis on Highway 61, known as "The Blues Highway," and you can almost hear the plaintive wail of Robert Johnson grind out lyrics to his "Crossroads Blues."
Standin' at the crossroads, tried to flag a ride
Whee-hee, I tried to flag a ride
Didn't nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by ...
And yes, it's the same roadway commemorated in Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited."
If you close your eyes and set your ears to it, you can hear the voices of W.C. Handy, Son House, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and B.B. King crooning on its dusky winds.
These Mississippi musicians laid the foundation for a battalion of contemporary rockers, from Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin to ZZ Top and Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn; from the Rolling Stones to the Beatles, Keb' Mo' and Eric Clapton.
When Clapton was lead singer with the British band Cream, he covered "Crossroads" and parlayed it into a 1969 hit. All, including Clapton, have acknowledged their debt to the Delta blues.
And increasingly, people come here to learn more about the nature of this debt.
For example, a record number descended on Clarksdale recently for the third annual Juke Joint Festival, where festival music coordinator Roger Stolle sold T-shirts and CDs from his shop, Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art.
Five years ago Stolle and his wife, Jennifer, chucked lucrative corporate careers in St. Louis and moved to Clarksdale. She now teaches school, and he minds the store.
"We had a lot of out-of-town people last year, but this year I tracked it," he said. "We had visitors from 35 states, the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia, Germany, Canada and 25 Mississippi counties.
"We had festivals in St. Louis, and we've been to others in other places, but this is where it's real. There's a different pace of life. People look out for one another in a way you just don't find in big cities. And then there's the music."
Music and a fine meal
The music is well documented in the Delta Blues Museum, a converted railway station, also in Clarksdale. Not far away is Madidi, the upscale restaurant actor Morgan Freeman co-owns with his friend, local attorney Bill Luckett.
On a recent Friday night Freeman, Luckett and their wives wound their way through a full house. Freeman graciously stopped and had his photograph taken by appreciative fans. People came to dinner hoping to see him.
But as important as the food and the people-watching is, here in the Delta, conversation almost always comes back to the music. And if you love the blues and gospel sound, this is the place to be.
Yes, the Rockies are impressive and that Arizona canyon is grand; Boston's Old North Church and Philadelphia's bell strike strong historical notes.
But here historical notes emanate from nimble fingers playing a slide guitar, converting E7, A7 and B7 chords into hard-driving backgrounds for songs that sing of lost love and hard times.
True blues aficionados will tell you that other than jazz and the drums and flutes of Native Americans, this is where America's original musical forms began.
Luther Brown, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, recently gathered representatives from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the Mississippi Heritage Trust to tour the Delta. He is a leading advocate of promoting the Magnolia State's history.
Walls in his receptionist's office are festooned with posters that celebrate Delta music: the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Fest honoring Muddy Waters and Otha Turner; John Horton and the university's Special Occasion Band backing blues musician Mississippi Slim.
Brown, who has organized tours for colleges as diverse as the University of South Dakota and Brandeis University, also does customized tours.
"I try to get people to read landscape as text, not just to look at points of interest, but to see them in terms of the heritage and stories they tell," he said.
Birthplace of the blues
Down here, Ground Zero refers to Clarksdale, often called the land where blues began. And where it began is at once desolate and lovely, marked in early spring by emerging sprouts of soybeans, cotton and wheat. The landscape is dotted intermittently by large water-filled rectangles. They represent the catfish farms that help keep the state's fragile economy afloat.
"There is so much history here people don't know about," Brown says. "The world knows about the civil rights struggles here, but it wasn't always about African-Americans."
It was also about a substantial Chinese population brought to the Delta in the 1870s as agricultural workers who, in time, realized picking cotton was harder work than they imagined and decided instead to seize upon a sales niche. They started little retail grocery stores.
With economic success came the desire to attend good schools, but the Chinese, who were neither black nor white, were excluded from the white schools and disillusioned by the inadequacy of the black schools.
They sued to be integrated into white schools and took their case to the United States Supreme Court. They won. The only remnants of a Chinese presence, though, are a few hymnals and a giant wok with a 3-foot diameter once used to prepare food, all of which are still in storage but are expected to be put on display at the Charles Capps Jr. Archive and Museum at the Delta Center.
Life was a little easier for the Italians, the next immigrant wave - but not for African-Americans who had lived their lives in the Delta and wouldn't have the right to vote for another 20 years.
Practically everyone in the Delta knows the story of a man named Will Dockery, who moved to Mississippi when it was, as Brown says, still an inhospitable place, where wildlife, malaria and yellow fever were in abundance.
By 1865 Dockery had cleared enough land to establish Dockery Farms, on Mississippi 8 between Cleveland and
Ruleville. The plantation was once a powerful economic force, with an estimated 2,000 workers. In a time when company stores sold everything from smoked hams to coffins, Dockery's plantation was no different.
He had a huge seed house, a railroad terminal, an on-site physician, company currency and two churches. But he had something else: Among his workers were Charlie Patton and Willie Brown, famed musicians who taught the likes of Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker.
Jimi Hendrix allegedly learned from Patton how to play the guitar behind his back.
"To this day, there are websites all over Europe about Dockery Farm," Brown says. "There's one in Korea where the only English on the site are the words 'Dockery' and 'Mississippi Delta Blues'."
Robert Johnson even sang about Dockery Farm.
Stories abound about Johnson, usually described as the king of Delta blues - quite an honor for someone who died at 27 and recorded only 29 songs. Stories also hold that a jealous lover poisoned Johnson, a serious drinker and womanizer, but the poison didn't kill him. Johnson contracted pneumonia several weeks later and died.
Another tale says Johnson got his remarkable playing prowess after making a deal with the devil "down at the crossroads" of U.S. highways 61 and 49, a reference to those who called blues "the devil's music."
From there we journey on to Rule-ville, with fields of beans on one side of the bus and fields of corn on the other. Here lies famed sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer, co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In 1964 she stunned the Democratic National Convention's Credentials Committee with her chronicle of abuses prospective voters were subjected to at the time. The televised proceeding reached millions of viewers around the world. Once asked why she took such risks with her life, she uttered her now-famous reply: "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Our ride now takes us now past one of the few remaining Rosenwald schools in Mississippi. The schools take their name from Julius Rosenwald, early chairman and partner in Sears, Roebuck & Co. and a prominent philanthropist.
The Rosenwald rural school building program was a major effort to improve the quality of public education for African-Americans in the South in the early 1900s.
In 1912, Rosenwald gave Booker T. Washington permission to use some of the money he had donated to Tuskegee Institute for the construction of six small schools in rural Alabama. By 1932, there were more than 4,000 schools throughout the South, and 557 were in Mississippi. This is the only brick building that remains.
On to Mound Bayou, founded in 1887 by former slaves. Here blacks could always vote - their votes were never counted outside of the community, but they could vote. At one time the town had two hospitals, staffed by physicians, surgeons and nurses from the all-black Meharry Medical College in Washington, D.C.
Only Taborian Hospital, built in 1942, remains, and it no longer functions as a medical facility. The hospitals were among many amenities in this historic community, including a public swimming pool and a zoo.
From there, on the road to what appears to nowhere, we come to Merigold, just north of Cleveland, and are in front of Poor Monkey's, quite possibly the best-known juke joint in Bolivar County. The original term, "jook," comes from the Nigerian Wolof tribe and means "wicked."
For those unfamiliar with the term, a juke joint is a social gathering place where blues music and dirty dancing reign supreme. Bring your own booze; the proprietor provides glasses if you're lucky, but more than likely you'll get plastic cups, ice and soda.
Poor Monkey's Lounge - or, more authentically, "Po' Monkey's" - has been featured in National Geographic, Lonely Planet and The New York Times. Little Milton recorded a song about the joint. Japanese films crews have filmed it.
Visitors from places as diverse as London and Brazil have managed to find this oversized tar-paper shack, raised up a few feet to keep away the Sunflower River when it floods. Nearby sits a dark blue Silverado pickup. The sticker on the rear bumper reads, "Drive it like you stole it."
Po' Monkey's curious edifice is covered with hand-painted notations informing patrons of the $5 cover charge, and admonishing them, among other things, that no dope smoking and no loud or rap music are allowed. Hours are 8:30 p.m. to 1:45 a.m.
This is about as authentic as it gets, right down to a recommendation that you check before you make the drive. If the owner doesn't feel like opening up, well, no dirty dancing tonight.
Mimi Dossett, a member of the Clarksdale Heritage Commission and the Mississippi Trust for Historic Preservation, says heritage tourism is growing, and Po' Monkey's has helped put the Delta on the map.
"We're trying to get people interested in the history and culture of Mississippi," she says. "So many people only know the bad things, and we aren't saying people should overlook the civil rights history or anything like that. We're just saying there's a whole lot more."
Terrence Mosley agrees. Mosley is a member of the Jackson Historic Preservation Commission, and African-American.
"I'm from Mississippi, and I love my state," he says. "And I'm seeing parts of the state I'd never seen before. I remember my father telling me about Mound Bayou, and how empowering it was to know a place like that existed so long ago. That there were wealthy black people that long ago.
"We have a problem with people not having enough appreciation of our history. It's especially sad that people appreciate our heritage more abroad than we do here. And I'm not talking about black people. I'm talking about all people."
Staff writer Ellen Sweets can be reached at 303-820-1284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are several conventional hotels waiting to house you in the Delta, but plan carefully. If there is an upcoming festival, rooms can be scarce. Ditto football games (Delta State University in Cleveland is not too far away, and Southerners take their athletic events very seriously).
If, on the other hand, you'd like to go rustic, check out the Shack Up Inn, which is not at all what it sounds like. It is a compound of modernized shotgun houses saved from destruction by an enterprising quintet that has created almost a cult following among musicians. Each of the houses formerly housed sharecroppers. Some are even named for the workers known to have lived in them. It is not unusual to find amateur and professional musicians hanging out on a front porch (each house has one), playing whatever they have and singing songs from another time.
The Brown Palace it ain't, but boy, is it fun.
Rates for hotels, motels and B&Bs listed below range from $50 to $150 a night.
Days Inn, 900 S. Davis Ave., 662-846-6649.
Holiday Inn Express, 808 N. Davis Ave., 662-843-9300.
Comfort Inn of Cleveland, 721 N. Davis Ave., 662-843-4060.
Molly's Bed and Breakfast, 214 S. Bolivar Ave., 662- 843-9913.
Best Western Executive Inn, 710 State St., 662-627-9292 (93 rooms).
The Big Pink Guesthouse, 312 John Lee Hooker Lane; contact Claire Drew, 662-645-1815, or Tommy Polk, 615-385-4345, for reservations or information, or e-mail email@example.com.
Budget Inn, 420 State St., 662-624-6541 (40 rooms).
Comfort Inn, 818 State St., 662-627-5122 (74 rooms).
Econo Lodge, 350 State St., 662-621-1110 (50 rooms).
Shack Up Inn/Cotton Gin Inn, 001 Commissary Circle, 662-624-8329, shackupinn
Southern Inn, 1904 State St., 662-624-6558 (38 rooms).
Bridgewater Inn, 501 River Road, Greenwood, 662-453-9265 or 662-453-6479, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. 1910 Greek Revival mansion on the Yazoo River.
Isle of Capri Casino, 777 Isle of Capri Parkway, Lula, 800-789-5825, isleofcapricasino.com/lula/. Gaming and restaurants.
The Columns of Tunica, 1120 Hickory Lane, Tunica, 662-363-3659, e-mail innkeeper@TheColumnsOfTunica.com. Turn-of-the-20th-century renovated colonial revival mansion.
Madidi, 164 Delta Ave., Clarksdale, 662-627-7770. Fine dining.
Poor Monkey's Lounge, Merigold. There is no address and no telephone number. Ask around in Clarksdale; everyone knows how to find it.
Ground Zero Blues Club, 0 Blues Alley, Clarksdale, 662-621-9009. Sandwiches and sides. Live music Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Mississippi 2006 summer music festivals
May 20: Down from the Hills Heritage
Music and Folklife Festival, Union County Heritage Museum, New Albany, 662-538-0014
May 27: Fun on 61, Hollandale, 662-827-5545
June 2: B.B. King Homecoming, Indianola, 662-887-4454 or 877-816-7581
June 2-4: Elvis Presley Festival, Tupelo, 888-273-7798
June 3-4: Highway 61 Blues Festival,
Leland. Visit highway61blues.com, 662-686-7646 or 800-467-3582
June 2-4: Medgar Evers' Homecoming, Pickens, 601-201-1445 or WMPR 90.1FM, 601-948-5835
June 15-17: Juneteenth, Natchez, Columbus and Meridian, 662-329-5871
June 16-17: Jubilee! Jam, Jackson, 601-353-9800
June 17: Music and the Mounds, Winterville Mounds, Greenville, 662-334-6484
July 1: Claiborne County Blues Cruise Thru History, Port Gibson, 601-437-3461
July 3-4: Mississippi John Hurt Gospel & Blues Fest, Avalon, 662-299-1574
July 8: Duck Hill Grassroots Blues Festival, Duck Hill, grassrootsblues.com, 662-809-7004 or 662-565-2478
Aug. 11-13: Sunflower River Blues and
Gospel Festival, Clarksdale, 662-624-5648, sunflowerfest.org
Aug. 13: Cat Head Mini Blues Festival, Clarksdale, 662- 624-5992
Aug. 25-26: Otha Turner Family Picnic, Senatobia, 662-562-7606
Sept. 1: 11th Annual Howlin' Wolf
Memorial Blues Festival, West Point, 662-494-2921
Sept. 2: The Mississippi Jazz and Heritage Festival, Greenville, 662-247-1471
Sept 7-9: Mississippi Gulf Coast Blues and Heritage Festival, Pascagoula, 228-497-5493
Sept. 10-17: Delta Blues Week, Greenville, 800-467-3582, Wayne Andrews, 870-338-8798
Contact the Cleveland Tourism Council, email@example.com or 800-295-7473.