Mississippi Goddamn: A Delta Blues Road Trip Part 1

When thinking about possible US road trip routes, a drive through Mississippi didn’t immediately come to mind. It wasn’t my favorite state on our last southern road trip that wound its way from Texas to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and back again. But Chandler had a good theme: Blues music.

Certainly a genre I’ve listened to a time or two, but definitely not something I’d consider myself an expert on. That said, Texas seems to be a long way from just about everywhere else, so I agreed – as long as Chandler wanted to be in charge of the itinerary. He did a fabulous job with the help of the Mississippi Blues Trail app and a number of books.

Our first stop was the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Arkansas. We had left right after school on a Thursday and made it to Benton, Arkansas before exhaustion overtook us. The next morning we drove the additional 2.5 hours to Helena. While most of our trip took place in Mississippi, Helena was a great place to start.

The center was quick to remind us that, “Delta bluesmen paid little head to state boundaries.” In December 1941, Helena radio station KFFA launched King Biscuit Time with Sonny Boy Williamson II featuring live performances of the blues. We tried to listen to the show (the longest running daily radio program in the US) in Clarksdale, Mississippi the next day, but it appears that the station doesn’t reach quite that far.

Their Delta Sounds Exhibit was a good way to dip my toes into our road trip as it gave information about Arkansas’ musicians from a variety of genres.

Our next stop was the Gateway to the Blues Museum in Tunica, Mississippi. It is located on Highway 61, which is fitting since travel has always been a popular theme in blues music. In fact, the first song recorded about this road was Roosevelt Syke’s “Highway 61 Blues,” in 1932.

This was one of the best museums on our trip for its wealth of information. It originally opened as the Horseshoe Casino Bluesville Museum in 1996, but was later put into storage as the casino expanded. In 2007, a group of citizens from the area requested a 100 year loan of the collection of over 700 items. Not only was the request granted, but the casino also donated the land that the current museum was built on.

One of the first things the museum teaches is the basic history of the blues – including its definition: “a three-line stanza…supported by a conventional, 12-bar harmonic scheme.” However, the name “blues” may come from the term “blue devils,” a euphemism for depression.

Blues music was originally performed in juke joints, which comes from the term “juking” or dancing – believed to have originated from the Gullah word “joog,” which means rowdy. After finding our way to a few juke joints, I can certainly say it’s a fitting word.

Now, the origins of blues music is contested, but one of the most famous stories is about W.C. Handy – he came up time and again on this trip. Legend has it that in 1903, he was waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi. At the tracks, he heard the first sounds of what would later be called the blues. The musician pressed a knife to the strings of the guitar, similar to the style of Hawaiian guitarists. He repeated the line, “Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog” three times. After another encounter with blues music at a dance hall years later, W.C. Handy would then take what he’d heard and use those sounds in his traveling orchestra, popularizing the foundation of the blues.

The museum then went on to talk about the advent of the radio and it’s effect on blues music. There was a fun display about the most famous of the blues musicians: Son House, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Jimmy Reed, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King.

The next displays were about the decline of blues music and its later revival through British blues (fascinating!) and folk-blues. Whereas the Delta Cultural Center was a good way to dip my toes into the history of blues music, the Gateway to the Blues was a deep dive.

Our next stop was lunch! We made our way to the Hollywood Cafe. Famous for their fried pickles, we also ordered fried green tomatoes and a side of veggies. Their fried food, while unsurprisingly heavy, was quite tasty, as opposed to the limp and overcooked veggies. But the real star of the meal was their hush puppies – and the fact that seconds only cost 50 cents.

The cafe opened as a bar in 1969, expanded into a diner, and then included music. It burned down in 1983, but was reopened in its present location – both buildings were former plantation commissaries known for hosting famous blues players like Son House, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, Leroy Williams, Woodrow Adams, Willie Coffee, and Sol Henderson.

After lunch, we made our way to Clarksdale – that’s where we’d be sleeping for the next few nights. We wandered around downtown, checking out the local street art and stopping in some memorable shops. Especially Lunatic Fringe Luthiery, Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, and Deak’s Mississippi Saxophones & Blues Emporium.

We met the owner (and likely sole employee) at Lunatic Fringe Luthiery and LOVED our time in his shop. He makes custom guitars out of bizarre materials – but he actually cares what they sound like. He performs at festivals and runs workshops for kids. I would happily adopt him as an eccentric grandfather.

Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art was another great stop – we purchased a hard to find DVD of live Muddy Waters’ performances and got a great tip about where to go for live music that night (more on that later!).

The last stop was Deak’s Mississippi Saxophones & Blues Emporium. Chandler was interested in a harmonica and Deak did not disappoint. People wait months to get a custom harp when ordered online, but when you stop by in-person, he’ll make it same day. Or, in our case, in 24 hours, because he needed to go buy veggies for his diabetic dog’s homemade meals and then had a show that night that he invited us to.

Our weekend was full of museums and next on the list was the Delta Blues Museum. This museum was bizarre. Equal parts awful and amazing, it is Mississippi’s oldest music museum (1979). It exists because of one man: Library director Sid Graves. He established the museum at the Myrtle Hall branch library and, in the beginning, it attracted a grand total of one visitor a month. In fact, Graves took the collection of exhibits home with him each night for security.

The visitor count rose when the museum relocated to the main library. It was finally moved to its current location, the old Y&MV/Illinois Central freight depot in 1999. You might not be surprised to hear that the museum needed some serious funding early on and that was provided by the rock band ZZ Top. The band’s guitarist, Billy Gibbons, had some “Muddywood” guitars constructed from fallen boards he found at the house where Muddy Waters once lived on the Stovall plantation and the proceeds went to support the museum. That house was house was later disassembled, restored, taken on tour, and eventually moved to the museum itself – it was actually one of the coolest parts!

The museum is a wealth of information on any blues musician you’ve heard of and the displays in the third room are spectacular. A disappointment of mine was that no photos are allowed in the museum – but I can honestly say there was plenty in the museum that I had no desire to photograph…like the incredibly unappealing local folk art on display or the outfits worn by various blues musicians.

I learned so much about Muddy Waters, the “father of modern Chicago blues.” Playing music by the age of 17, he was only known locally until 1941 when he was recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. Two years later he moved to Chicago to pursue music full-time and it wasn’t until 1946 that he recorded his first record for Columbia Records. Muddy became known for playing an electric guitar – chosen because no one could hear an acoustic over the noise in the clubs. He also gave his blues a little pep – focusing on post-war optimism.

There was another significant section of the museum dedicated to John Lee Hooker. There’s something about blues musicians that makes their birth dates impossible to determine – it may have something to do with the extreme poverty in Mississippi during the time. Muddy Waters was either born in 1913 or 1915 but the years 1912, 1915, 1917, 1920, and 1923 have all been suggested for John Lee Hooker. He was also known for playing blues with an electric guitar. John Lee’s step-father was a blues man and is credited for Hooker’s distinctive playing style. Hooker may have been illiterate, but he was a prolific lyricist. To evade his recording contract, he used at least 9 different pseudonyms.

After leaving the Delta Blues Museum, it felt like the race was on for me to pick a favorite blues musician by the time the weekend was over.

Before checking into our hotel, we decided to meander around Clarksdale a bit more and check out some of the Mississippi Blues trail markers. One marker was for Sam Cooke – likely my favorite musician from Mississippi (though Hayley Williams might be a close second).

Cooke was one of the first Black musicians to establish his own record label and he made headlines when he refused to play at a segregated concert in Memphis in 1961. His death on December 11, 1964 is still surrounded by controversy.

The Riverside Hotel was our first choice hotel when we were looking for somewhere to stay in Clarksdale, but we were disappointed to learn that it was closed in 2020 due to Covid difficulties and then was severely damaged in a storm.

I knew that it had been a hotel since 1944 and was home to Sonny Boy Williamson II, Ike Turner, Robert Nighthawk, Raymond Hill, Joe Willie Wilkins, James “Peek” Curtis, Johnny O’Neal, and Robert “Dudlow” Taylor while they were on the road. But I didn’t know that before becoming a hotel, it had been the G.T. Thomas Afro American Hospital and that on September 26, 1937, Bessie Smith had died there from injuries sustained in an automobile accident on highway 61.

Smith had lost both her parents by the time she was nine and she and an older sister helped car for nine younger siblings. She and her brother Andrew started performing in the streets to earn money. Smith made her first recording in 1923 and soon became the highest paid Black performer in the 1920s.

We also drove out to the site of Muddy Waters’ House after seeing the reconstruction of it in the Delta Blues Museum.

We decided to check into our hotel before eating dinner and making our way to some live music that evening. With the closing of the Riverside Hotel, we’d decided to say at the Shack Up Inn. The rooms are restored sharecropper shacks and they’ve converted the original cotton gin into a bar and lobby (cover photo).

Their website explains that the shacks have been “restored only enough to accommodate 21st century expectations (indoor bathrooms, heat, air conditioning, coffee maker with condiments, refrigerators and microwave in all the units), the shacks provide comfort as well as authenticity.” And I can attest that authenticity was valued over comfort!

But the land is peaceful, the cotton fields beautiful, and they host their own live music as well . Our only regret is that with only two nights in Clarksdale, we didn’t have enough time to see more live music, but greats such as Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Morgan Freeman, Patty Griffin, Charlie Musselwhite, and Ike Turner have all performed at the inn.

Our first musical stop of the night was Hambone Gallery. Deak Harp was performing for the first time in months and we were looking forward to seeing him in action. It would have been interesting enough, since we had just purchased a custom harmonica from him, but Deak had studied under a harmonica legend: James Cotton.

Cotton himself had studied under Sonny Boy Williamson II and began his professional career playing the blues harp in Howlin’ Wolf’s band in the early 1950s (NBD). From 1955-1965 he was Muddy Waters’ bandleader. They continued to be close and in 1977 he played on Muddy Waters’ Grammy award winning album Hard Again.

We arrived at Hambone Gallery (second photo below – the first is from Deak’s shop) and were among a crowd of 10-15 guests. Some were close friends of Deak’s who’d lived in Clarksdale for over 20 years, another (the doorman) had moved to town the previous week and was a fellow musician himself. The owner was the artist Sam Street, and there was a German couple on their 10th visit to Clarksdale. It was a great show with an eclectic audeince. Deak played guitar, harmonica, and sang, while his partner accompanied him on the drums.

However, we couldn’t stay all night, and we followed the lead from Cat Head and made our way to Red’s Lounge. There we saw Terry “Big T” Williams, with a guest performance by Lucious Spiller. Williams was born and raised in Clarksdale and definitely felt like the real deal. Godson of Big Jack Johnson (whose sign is right outside Red’s Lounge), he was just 12 years old when the Jelly Roll Kings took him under their wing and eventually took him on the road. He’s been playing music ever since.

This was a completely different musical experience. Instead of being in an art gallery, we were in a glorified shack, which I guess should be considered authentic when compared to the original juke joints. The ceiling was covered in taped up plastic bags and I won’t go into details about the bathroom. But the music was great. Williams had a full band behind him while he played guitar and sang.

At the end of his set, Lucious Spiller took over the mic and guitar. Originally from St. Louis, Lucious moved to Clarksdale in 2014 and already has a banner up in town. It makes sense, his family already had a historic marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail in Macon. Lucious himself is an International Blues Challenge award winner, as well as frequenter of KFFA’s “King Biscuit Time” radio show.

Both men were incredibly talented. The photos below are of Red’s Lounge & Terry “Big T” Williams’ set.

Later that weekend we also learned that Williams had spent time at Parchman Farm, a maximum security prison nearby.

We visited Parchman the next day as a drive by. Passersby are not permitted to stop and take photographs. Parchman, now known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary, has always been known as the “prison without walls.” Instead of a centralized building, it consists of several prison camps spread out over a large area. Each unit is surrounded by walls, but there is no fencing for the overall perimeter.

For decades the prison operated essentially as a for-profit cotton plantation. Prisoners had little access to radio or records and often sang work songs throughout the day. In the 1930s, Alan Lomax made repeated visits to record blues (including Booker “Bukka” White), work songs, spirituals, and personal interviews with inmates.

In the spring of 1961, Freedom Riders came to the South to support desegregation efforts. Many were jailed in Parchman and put to work on chain gangs. At one time, 300 Freedom Riders were imprisoned at Parchman Farm. The governor of Mississippi at the time was known for telling guards to “break their spirits, not their bones.”

In the 1970s, a federal judge found that Parchman Farms violated the constitution and was an affront to “modern standards of decency.” The prison was also forced to end the “trusty system,” where lifers were armed with rifles and set to guard other inmates.

Parchman is still rife with issues today. In 2020, rappers Jay-Z and Yo Gotti filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of 150 inmates regarding “inhumane and dangerous conditions.” In 2022, the Justice Department agreed.

After our first day on this road trip, I couldn’t help but agree with Nina Simone’s assessment: Mississippi Goddam – which is where this blog gets its title from. If you haven’t already listened to her incredible song (and the rest of her discography), I highly recommend it. We still had another day to go, but already I knew we had made the right choice to visit the land of the blues in person.

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