History

Roadtrip 2020 Day 3: Delta Blues Highway

Ever since I was fortunate to meet with B.B. King for an interview in his tour bus in 2010, my interest in the origins of American music grew immensely–especially in the Delta Blues region.

The proverbial “melting pot” accurately describes how the Mississippi Delta was fertile grounds to grow gospel, blues, country, and rock into the soul of American music.

Highway 61 Marker in Vicksburg, 6/24/20.

Combined with the selfish need to dive deeper into the roots that influenced Elvis Presley’s success, it was a natural like desire to want to see, feel and experience Highway 61.

Our trip exploring the legendary Blues Highway began South, right through the heart and soul of Vicksburg. The antebellum architecture, Civil War history and of course, the Blues music are just some of the highlights in Vicksburg.

Up the road about 2 1/2 hours was my favorite Delta Blues town, Clarksdale. Dodie and I agreed it was like time stood still. The 1930s-40s-50s was alive, steeped in history with rugged character to boot.

It’s no wonder Oscar winning actor Morgan Freeman co-owns Ground Zero Blues Club there because that’s exactly what Clarksdale is–the ground zero center for the Blues. It’s Blues to the bone.

Clarksdale is just forty minutes south of Tunica and is famous for the landmark that is said to be the site where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, it’s called “The Crossroads.”

B.B. King told me in 2010 the two biggest musical influences for him were Jimmy Rodgers and Robert Johnson, both absolute legends and pioneers of American music.

Clarksdale has lots of funky places to stay for music lovers and visitors. Even the Ground Zero has rooms available upstairs above the bar for overnight stays. A sign described the rooms perfectly: “…It Good.”

 Shack Up Inn is perhaps the most beloved, made up of restored sharecropper flats. It has its own restaurant and music venue and claims “The Ritz we ain’t.”

Tunica, which is home to the Gateway Blues Museum that also doubles as a visitor’s center. This museum is extremely well done and is really worth a stop. The front of the venue is constructed from a rustic train depot, circa 1895. Inside are beautiful Blues exhibits and artwork.

We found two good spots to consider for Southern comfort food. Back in Clarkddale, we saw “Baby Back Ribs and Hot Tamales” on the Crossroads northeast corner at Al’s Bar B-Q and the Blues since 1924. There is probably no better, or historic, place than Tunica’s Blue & White Restaurant. Also established way back in 1924, the Blue & White is situated right on Highway 61 and has served all the great Blues musicians over the decades.

Before we arrived in Memphis, we traveled through DeSoto County. Located due east of Tunica and just across the border from Memphis, DeSoto County is the home of Jerry Lee Lewis, John Grisham and timeless Delta traditions. Visitors will find the final resting places of blues greats, like Gus Cannon and Memphis Minnie.

A must stop for me was off the beaten path to the gravesite of Memphis Minnie.

Her real name was Lizzie Lawlars, and she rests besides her husband, Ernest Lawlars, who recorded under the name “Lil’ Son Joe.” They are buried in the New Hope Baptist Church Cemetery in Walls, Mississippi.

The headstone memorial unveiling took place on the morning of October, 13th, 1996 in beautiful fall sunshine and was recorded for radio presentation by the BBC of London.

The ceremony was next to the Memphis Minnie marker and the New Hope Baptist Church. It stands between Highway 61 and the Mississippi River, and cotton fields surround the church and the adjacent cemetery. The front of the monument has a small picture of Minnie and her birth and death dates.  

Ninety people attended, including Minnie’s sister Daisy and 33 members of her extended family, many of whom had no idea of their relative’s powerful musical legacy. Bonnie Raitt financed the memorial stone which bears engraved roses and a ceramic cameo portrait.

A plaque, one of many along the historical region, describes it best:

MISSISSIPPI BLUES TRAIL

Travel has been a popular theme in Blues lyrics, and highways have symbolized the potential to quickly “pack up and go,” to leave troubles behind, or seek out new opportunities elsewhere. Some of the most famous Mississippi artists who lived near Highway 61 included: B. B. King, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Robert Nighthawk, Sunnyland Slim, Honeyboy Edwards, Sam Cooke, James Cotton and Jimmy Reed, just to name a few.

The Mississippi Blues Trail road trip markers tell stories about Blues artists through words and images, about the places they lived and the times in which they existed—and how that influenced their music. The marker sites run the gamut from city streets to cotton fields, train depots, cemeteries, clubs to churches.

2020 Presidential Candidates flag/sign sitings, days 1-3:

Trump 36, Biden 0

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