Head south out of Memphis and you’re in the Delta. This broad swath of land was under an ocean millions of years ago, which left a wide, flat bed of fertile soil when it receded back into the Gulf of Mexico. This fertile land led to farms, which brought farm workers to the area, as slaves and migrant workers. These men and women worked hard and made little, living a tough life.
To escape from this stark reality, they played hard, inventing the Blues out of scraps of African musical traditions, European folk songs and church hymns. They sang of gambling their hard-earned dollars, fighting for the right love a woman, sad train rides to parts unknown and making deals with devils. They created rhythms that still make the back bone of popular music, one hundred years later.
Once across the state line, MemphisConnect grabbed a brochure at the Mississippi Welcome Center just outside Tunica. This particular pamphlet contained a map, guiding visitors along the fascinating Mississippi Blues Trail.
Scattered all over the state, the markers of the Mississippi Blues Trail tell stories through words and images, stories of the men and women who made the blues. The markers explore their times and their music, and how the places where they lived and worked shaped the music and the culture of the region. The sites are as diverse as they are numerous, from city streets to cotton fields, train depots to cemeteries, and juke joints to Baptist Churches.
In just a day of touring, we only got a taste of the huge number of markers, but the flavor was rich and delicious. In Clarksdale, we started at the Delta Blues Museum, where we explored the past and present of Delta blues. There, we saw Muddy Waters’ birth home, moved and reassembled inside the museum, as well as a few of his old and busted guitars and sharp suits. Alongside the legends, like Waters and John Lee Hooker, we explored displays featuring the current bluesmen, like the weird and wild Super Chikan.
We hit Ground Zero Blues Club for a quick lunch of greens, okra and beans before hunting down a few other Clarksdale markers. We saw Ike Turner’s birthplace, markers celebrating notable Clarksdale natives like Sam Cooke and Hooker, and the famed Riverside Hotel, which was an unofficial home of the blues, housing notables like Turner, Robert Nighthawk and Sonny Boy Williamson II.
In Rosedale, we hunted for the spot where Robert Johnson traded his mortal soul for revolutionary guitar skills. The town shows up in Johnson’s song “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Plenty of towns claim the fabled Crossroads, but Johnson mentions Rosedale too often not to think there’s a good chance the magic transaction happened there. Check out his song “Cross Road Blues” for some more clues.
A visit to Friars Point led us to the shore of the Mississippi River, where the docks still bustle with river commerce. Many jobs in the Delta rely on the river, the same today as in the early days of the blues. Robert Nighthawk’s 1940 recording “Friars Point Blues” was an early blues hit, charting before the U.S. entered World War II.
On the way back to Memphis, we had to check out one more spot. On the brochure, the one marker listed in Dockery, Mississippi is titled, enigmatically, ‘Birthplace of the Blues?’. We were led to the former site of the Dockery Plantation, founded in 1895 by William Alfred “Will” Dockery. At its peak Dockery Farms was essentially a self-sufficient town with an elementary school, churches, post and telegraph offices, its own currency, resident doctor, railroad depot, ferry, blacksmith shop, cotton gin, cemeteries, picnic grounds for the workers, and a commissary that sold dry goods, furniture, and groceries. In the early 20th century Dockery housed four hundred tenant families, most of whom were African Americans who migrated to the region in pursuit of work.
Foundational Bluesman Charley Patton spent many years living and working on the plantation, and taught guitar to players like Howlin’ Wolf and Pops Staples. Patton began recording his songs in 1929, and his tune “34 Blues” tells the story of his banishment from Dockery by plantation manager Herman Jett, apparently because Patton was running off with various tenants’ women.
Nothing proved it to be the birthplace of the blues, but the case made was strong. MemphisConnect expects similarly strong cases can be made by all kinds of locations spread across Mississippi. This is a good thing, though, because the future holds many more Memphis weekends, presenting many more opportunities for day trips into the heart of the Delta.