The Mississippi Delta
The Civil War is a recent memory and blues legends loom large in the cotton fields and swamp towns of the lower Mississippi Delta.
I'm not the churchgoing type, but after a Saturday night of booze and blues in the bars of Memphis's Beale Street, getting saved seems like the only proper Sunday-morning activity. And seeing as how my dad and I are in the Bible Belt, the place to do it is a church with a good gospel choir.
My dad, Frank, is a lifelong music lover who grew up in the Deep South. Our goal on this trip is to delve into the region's rich musical traditions--particularly its role in the birth of the blues--and leave enough time for some Civil War history and home-style Southern cooking.
After a quick stop at Graceland, we slide into a pew at theFull Gospel Tabernacle, where legendary crooner Al Green has been a pastor since the 1970s. About 50 parishioners sit in front of us, the women dressed in their Sunday best and matching hats. One woman has a tambourine in her purse, and we soon learn why: The three-hour service includes preaching, singing, and dancing. "If you feel the need to kick off your shoes and cut a rug, you go on ahead and dance!" Green cries, as the crowd rises to jitterbug with the Holy Spirit.
Thoroughly exhausted, Dad and I then head south on Route 51 into the Mississippi Delta, a vast alluvial floodplain of seemingly endless cotton fields and sun-baked towns. We're going to the Delta's spiritual and musical heart--Clarksdale, Miss.
Clarksdale lies at the intersection of routes 49 and 61, where, many blues fans believe, the iconic 1930s performer Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in order to become a guitar god. The tale's origin is murky, as is the site of the crossroads itself--nobody can agree just where it's located. I later learn that this intersection can't possibly be the spot because Route 49 didn't extend this far north until three decades after Johnson suffered the ultimate bluesman's death (a jealous husband apparently poisoned his whiskey). We gobble down some messy pork sandwiches atAbe's BBQ, an institution since 1924, before moving on.
Every trip needs a quest, and the search for the crossroads seems perfect. In Clarksdale's smallDelta Blues Museum, where Muddy Waters's reassembled shack is on display, there's a map of the Delta marked with four crossroads candidates. Later, atCat Head, a store devoted to blues music and folk art, I pick up theDelta Blues Map Kit, a guidebook written by blues producer Jim O'Neal. It lists 11 potential crossroads.
That night, we drive four miles south of the Clarksdale crossroads to the historic Hopson Plantation and itsShack Up Inn, a collection of cypress-and-tin sharecroppers' shacks (updated with electricity, running water, air-conditioning, and Wi-Fi), where we luck into a late cancellation. Our shack, appropriately enough, is named Crossroads.
The man at the front desk asks if we've come for the concert atGround Zero Blues Club, a barn-like juke joint in a century-old building. The club, co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman, usually has live acts Wednesdays through Saturdays, but this is a special Sunday: Jazz singer Mose Allison is in town.
On the ride over, my father recounts how he used to buy Allison records for a dime back in grad school. The joint is hoppin', the beer is $2.50, and the music is terrific.
- Shack Up Inn1 Commissary Cir., Clarksdale, Miss., 662/624-8329, shackupinn.com, $60
- Abe's BBQ 616 State St., Clarksdale, Miss., 662/624-9947, abesbbq.com, sandwich $3.25
- Full Gospel Tabernacle787 Hale Rd., Memphis, 901/396-9192, Sundays 11:30 a.m.
- Delta Blues Museum 1 Blues Alley, Clarksdale, Miss., 662/627-6820, deltabluesmuseum.org, $7
- Cat Head 252 Delta Ave., Clarksdale, Miss., 662/624-5992, cathead.biz
- Ground Zero Zero Blues Alley, Clarksdale, Miss., 662/621-9009, groundzerobluesclub.com, cover varies
We take a slight detour on our way to Vicksburg, Miss., driving into Helena, Ark., to sit in on a broadcast ofKing Biscuit Time, which claims to be the world's longest-running daily blues radio show.
The show went on the air in 1941, initially featuring live music by blues-harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson II. Boogie-woogie piano pioneer Pinetop Perkins (a mentor to Clarksdale native Ike Turner) and guitarist Robert Junior Lockwood frequently accompanied him. It was only 15 minutes long and started just after most sharecroppers came out of the fields for lunch.