The Mississippi Delta Roadtrip: The Blues and More
Mississippi Blues Trail identified over 500 sites and installed over 400 markers. You can pick up a map or get the app -- some are definitely off the beaten path so it will be a definite help when you begin to tour the area.
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Tunica: The Blues Starts HereThe Blues Trail really begins on Highway 61 in the town of Tunica at the Gateway to the Blues Museum, a must-stop for anyone interested in this uniquely American music.
The Gateway to the Blues Museum which opened in 2015, is a fascinating primer on the Blues. Mississippi Bluesman Preston Shannon talks about what makes the blues unique musical form, and Blueswoman Eden Brent pays homage to Abie "Boogaloo" Ames and what he taught her about The Blues. There’s information on the importance of W C Handy and why he is called the Father of the Blues. End your visit by creating your own blues music along with Memphis Jones. The museum will email you the results of your foray into the Blues.
Tunica is chocked with Blues Markers including two standouts. Located on Highway 61, the Highway 61 North Tunica marker highlights the importance of this piece of musical migration history. It was the major route northward out of Mississippi. The original road began in downtown New Orleans, moving through to reach the major Blues town of Clarksdale, and then on to Tunica in Mississippi, Memphis, Tennessee,then north to the Canadian border.
You can enjoy history, and food in the other major site, the Hollywood Cafe. Pianist Muriel Wilkins performed at the Hollywood for years, and she and the Hollywood were immortalized in the Marc Cohn's bluesy gospel hit "Walking in Memphis" which is based on his experience joining in with Muriel to sing Amazing Grace in 1985.
Stop by a enjoy their downhome feel and their exceptional fried green tomatoes and onion rings.
There's another important stop in Tunica which has everything to do with the Mississippi River and its importance to the Delta. Tunica RiverPark is an architectural gem, its starkly modern and geometric features offering a strong visual contrast to the green flowing river below. RiverPark includes the Mississippi River Museum and a 48-foot overlook. In season you can take a riverboat cruise or enjoy the nature trail. The River Museum is a complete and fascinating introduction to the history, nature and culture of the area. The exhibits on the second floor should not be missed, including the history of the oldest independent all-black community in the Delta, as well as Civil War and the story of the importance of cotton to the economy and life of the south. Go up to the third floor for expansive river views.
Combining both music and history in Tunica, the Tunica Museum charges no admission and was started by the people of the town to showcase their history. One unusual aspect is their inclusion of the impact of gaming on the economy of the town.
Food with a sense of history can also be enjoyed at the Blue & White on Highway 61. This landmark restaurant opened in 1924 and is justly famous for its deliciously light and fluffy donuts and their hearty breakfast all day long. But they also have a full menu to meet every taste.
As for lodging in Tunica, we stayed at Gold Strike Casino with excellent food, relaxing lounges, and upscale rooms. The Chicago Steakhouse offered not only great steaks but their lobster bisque was a knockout winner. You won't go wrong with anything on that menu. But there's a total of three restaurants and two bars including one with n extensive collection of small batch whiskeys.
ClarksdaleIf there can be one place that is the heart and home of the Blues, it's Clarksdale.
The yearly The Juke Joint Festival takes place in April and draws Blues lovers from around the world. Ground Zero Blues Club is the Clarksdale destination for Blues with live music every Wednesday through Saturday night. Food is traditional Southern and drinks come in plastic cups. The feel, from outside to inside, is gritty, but the music is pure and true. Hambone Art and Music also has live music -- it's the gallery for owner Stan Street's paintings but also a music venue. The town's former Illinois Central train depot has been transformed into the Delta Blues Museum. They have a full program of rotating exhibits but their permanent collection is fascinating while the funky and informal Rock and Blues Museum is packed full of music memorabilia from the 1920s through the 1970s.
Clarksdale also has Robert Johnson history. The crossroads at Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale is immortalized as the location where Robert Johnson made his deal with the devil, trading his soul for astounding guitar ability. By the time he was 27, Johnson was dead and the fate of his soul unknown. But even his death is filled with legend. It is said that he died howling like a dog -- it's probably the height of unhappiness to have your soul grabbed up by the devil. But another more likely theory is that he was poisoned by the husband of his lover. The place of his burial is also under dispute -- three different cemeteries are in contention.
Indianola and BB KingThe Blues reason to visit Indianola is the BB King Museum. Riley B. King was born on September 16, 1925 near Berclair Mississippi (where there is a Blues Trail marker), but he always considered the town he moved to as a teen, Indianola, to be his hometown.
The Museum tells the story of the man who once picked cotton and became one of the best (and most beloved) blues musicians in the world.
The exhibits go through his life in detail -- early years, Beale Street in Memphis, his guitars all named Lucille. There's moments of lightness but one standout is about the dark reality of life on the road during the era of segregation. His second wife remembers bringing canned food for when they couldn't find a place which would serve them.
King also related a story about how he was able to get permission to use the white-only rest room (and the only rest room) at a gas station. As the man was starting to fill up his 130 gallon bus tank King was told that the bathroom was "out of service" King replied "Well then, stop pumping." The bathroom was then suddenly pronounced probably in working order.
There's also plenty of musical samples of King playing to complement the text and images.
You can also take a walking tour of Indianola using the guide available through the BB Museum.
For lunch stop in The Crown -- comfortable and elegant but this is the south, so enjoy their delicious catfish in any of several ways. They're also known for the phenomenal desserts.
GreenwoodThe final stop on this Delta roadtrip is the town of Greenwood. Movie history, Blues history, and some of the best cooking ranges in the country make this town a triple winner.
For Blues fans, the area known as Baptist Town, named after the church, is another part of the Robert Johnson legend. According to his death certificate (reproduced on the Mississippi Blues Marker). Robert Johnson (1911-1938) was living in Greenwood at the time of his death and died nearby. But exact location of the burial site is as controversial as the man himself. Three places vie for the title of final resting place. Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, just north of Greenwood, is considered the most likely. Click for a list of the possible burial sites
Many scenes from the movie "The Help" were filmed in and around Greenwood. In the movie the maids lived in Baptist Town while Skeeter's home and many other The Help sites are scattered throughout the rest of Greenwood.
Those who love to cook should also visit Greenwood. It's home to Viking ranges. They have their main factory, their beautiful boutique hotel The Alluvian with great food, and drinks in Giardina's, a cooking school and spa.
You can even continue your "The Help" themed trip by signing up for the Viking cooking class Southern Specialties from Hit Movie "The Help". Or any of their other delicious classes.
One place for a great dinner is the Delta Bistro. James Beard-nominated Chef and co-owner, Taylor Bowen Ricketts offers up eclectic dishes that make this one of the area's finest restaurants. Standouts included potato chips with 3 dipping sauces, including a yummy the artichoke dip. Don't miss their fried green tomatoes in spicy remoulade. And their crab soup brings creamy and taste to a new level with a hint of smoky on top.
If You GoFood and lodging are plentiful throughout with local restaurants and all the familiar hotel chains. For two weeks in th fall the Blues are featured in Bridging the Blues with events across the region. For more information on the cities see Tunica Travel, Visit Clarksdale, Visit Greenwood and BB King Museum-Indianola
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author