Mississippi Goddamn: A Delta Blues Road Trip Part 2

Day two started by driving past Parchman Farm, which I detailed in Part 1 of this series. For obvious reasons (a prison without walls), we didn’t stick around for long. Soon enough, we were on our way to Ruleville to visit the Fannie Lou Hamer Monument. Although a departure from our Mississippi Blues Trail, it seemed an appropriate intersection with last summer’s Civil Rights Trail.

Fannie Lou Hamer was born in 1917 on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta. She was tricked into picking cotton in exchange for a few items at the commissary when she was only six.

In 1962, Fannie Lou decided to register to vote. She traveled with 17 others to Indianola, none of whom were registered that day. Because of this, she was fired from her job on the W.D. Marlow plantation and kicked out of her home. Her response to her former boss was, “I didn’t go register for you sir, I did it for myself.”

The next year, Fanny Lou became a SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) field secretary. She was arrested in a cafe in Winona, Mississippi with a “whites only” policy. Police officers had two other black prisoners brutally beat Fanny Lou while in jail.

Shortly after, Fanny Lou helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the legitimacy of the all-white Mississippi delegation to the Democratic National Convention. She frequently spoke out on behalf of Civil Rights and was known for her signature line, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Our next stop was Dockery Farms in Cleveland. Dockery Farms holds significance on the Mississippi Blues Trail as being a potential birthplace for the blues. This plantation is where blues legend Charley Patton, considered by many to be the “Father of the Delta Blues,” learned how to play guitar from Henry Sloan. Patton’s song Pony Blues, recorded in 1929, was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2006.

Just like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, Charley Patton’s year of birth is up in the air. Most sources have decided on 1891, but 1881, 1885, and 1887 are also potential years – in addition, Patton’s ancestry has also been debated.

What is known is that in 1897, Patton’s family moved to the Dockery Plantation. There he played with Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, Robert Johnson, and Howlin’ Wolf. Patton became one of the best-selling blues artists of the time.

From that list, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf were also on my list for potential best blues musician from the Delta.

Howlin’ Wolf is perhaps one of the most influential blues musicians of all time. He helped bridge the gap between Delta blues and Chicago blues. In the early 1930s, he became a protégé of Charley Patton and made a name for himself in the Delta. After a difficult time in the US Army, he moved to Chicago and began recording in 1951. Five of his songs managed to get on the Billboard national R&B charts and he was a huge influence for the Rolling Stones. Howlin’ Wolf was a performer first and foremost, using the guitar tricks he learned from Patton.

Robert Johnson, on the other hand, died at the age of 27 and his recording career only spanned seven months. While fairly well educated for the time, Johnson lived a hard life. As a child, he was bounced around to various family members. He was married twice, but both women died. His own cause of death was unlisted on his death certificate, but many assume he was poisoned. Even the location of his grave is unknown, with three markers erected at possible cemeteries outside Greenwood. Robert Johnson is one of the blues players thought to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for being the best guitar player around.

Both worthy of my top spot, but Johnson ended up in third place with Howlin’ Wolf in second. The best blues musician was yet to come.

Continuing our way into Cleveland, we stopped at the GRAMMY Museum Mississippi. Now, I pretty much lost faith in the GRAMMYs in 2018 when Ed Sheeran’s juvenile song Shape Of You beat Kesha’s survivor ballad Praying for Best Pop Solo Performance. But the GRAMMY Museum was on our list because of their Mississippi Gallery.

You’re likely wondering (as did we), why Mississippi got the second GRAMMY Museum in the world (the original being in LA), but apparently Mississippi has more GRAMMY winners per capita than any other state in the US. And, if we’re being honest, American music as we know it today wouldn’t exist without the influence of some of Mississippi’s greatest musicians: Sam Cooke, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Charley Patton, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, The Staple Singers, Jimmy Buffett, Faith Hill, and Lance Bass. Ok, that last one was a joke – RIP NSYNC.

Unfortunately for us, the Mississippi Gallery was a pretty small section in the museum. Our favorite exhibit was actually called Mono to Surround – you picked a song and it took you through the evolution of recorded sound from 1877 until today. We also really enjoyed the two special exhibits: The Sounds of Southern Rock, which fit into what we’d actually been learning about on our blues trip, and MTV Turns 40: I Still Want My MTV, because it was a total blast from the past and the memorabilia was a lot of fun. But if we’d had to cut one museum from our trip, this one definitely would have been it.

Afterward, we drove around and visited some more quick stops on the Mississippi Blues Trail. These included signs/locations about W.C. Handy and John Lee Hooker, as well as closed juke joints – Po’ Monkey’s and Club Ebony.

Po’ Monkey’s was founded in the early 1960s and was one of the last juke joints in the Mississippi Delta. It closed down in 2016 after the death of its operator Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry. The shack was originally a sharecroppers’ quarters made of tin and plywood, held together by nails, staples, and wires – meaning there’s not a lot left of it today.

Club Ebony, on the other hand, was built just after WWII and showcased legendary acts such as Ray Charles, Count Basie, B. B. King, Little Milton, James Brown, Ike Turner, Howlin’ Wolf, and Albert King. Club Ebony was a part of the Chitlin’ Circuit, a group of nightclubs that showcased Black performers during segregation. When the owner, Mary Shepard, retired in 2008, B.B. King purchased the venue to keep it alive. Unfortunately, it didn’t survive the pandemic.

Our final museum on this road trip also ended up being one of the best: The B.B. King Museum, located in Indianola. This was easily the best funded and most thought-out blues museum we went to. It started with the history of the Delta itself, all the way back to slavery and sharecropping. Workers said their days lasted “from can to can’t,” meaning they worked until there wasn’t enough light to see what they were doing. While often sung in leisure, blues was shaped by labor – originating from call and response songs, field hollers, and work songs used to coordinate movement.

The museum listed all of the influences that lead up to blues music: Sliding guitar lines, jazz influences, and wide-open spaces in country blues. It followed the music through its future permutations: rhythm & blues, rock & roll, jazz, country, and hip-hop.

There was an incredible wealth of anecdotes about B.B. King himself, including the origin story of Lucille (the name of his guitars). In 1949, a fight broke out at a juke joint in Twist, Arkansas. A barrel of kerosene was knocked over and the room went up in flames. B.B. ran back inside to save his guitar, but chose to name it Lucille after the woman who had been the cause of the fight in order to remind himself to never do anything so risky again.

We learned more about the Chitlin’ Circuit, which originally stretched from New Orleans to Chicago and later branched out across the Southeast, along the Atlantic Coast, and eventually to the West Coast.

B.B.’s career stalled in the early 1960s as rock & roll became the music genre of choice, but he kept to the Chitlin’ Circuit and was a huge success again by the mid-1960s. B.B. was once the busiest entertainer in the blues, playing 342 dates in 1956. During his crossover success in the 1970s, he appeared in more than 90 countries.

By the end of our visit, it was clear to me that B.B. King was the answer to the question of my favorite blues musician.

That night we returned to Clarksdale for some more live music. The first was a coincidence. Stone Pony Pizza had been on our list of places to eat in Clarksdale – as two vegetarians, it wasn’t a long list. But Stone Pony had a hand-tossed Mediterranean pizza that sounded promising and a veggie burger for Chandler. Well, I guess we had looked at an old menu, because the veggie burger was no more – but the pizza was pretty good.

While we ate, Mississippi Marshall was performing. Born and raised in the Mississippi Delta in the 1960s, he’s been playing music professionally with his family since he was 11. First, with his father, and now, with his grandson, Grayson Ackerland. We got a hilarious story about him recently opening for season 5 American Idol winner, Taylor Hicks.

But the main entertainment for the night was at the Ground Zero Blues Club. The club is co-owned by Morgan Freeman, Howard Stovall, and Eric Meier. And yes, it’s the same Morgan Freeman that you think it is. It opened in 2001 and, in the style of juke joints, it’s in a repurposed, un-remodeled building that stood vacant for 30 years. That said, it was a hell of an improvement over the previous night’s establishment, Red’s.

That night we saw D.K. Harrell perform and, while he neither lives in nor was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the Louisiana native’s talent blew us away. At only 24, he seems surprisingly young, but it didn’t take more than a song to understand why he was the Jus’ Blues’ 2022 King of the Blues award recipient for preserving traditional blues heritage. He deeply embodied B.B. King during his performance.

If we were a little younger – or had different personalities! – we would have gone out for more live music. Clarksdale, we had learned, was indeed one of the best places in the world to see live blues music.

It’s hard to believe how much information we jammed packed into just two days. I learned so much about blues music and would recommend this road trip to anyone – whether they’re a long-time blues fan or a newbie like me.

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