Traveling the Mississippi Blues Trail

11/19/2010
celebrating history
LUTHER BROWN

Music provides an interesting window to history and culture, and perhaps no American musical form does this more clearly than does the Blues.

The Blues first appeared as a recognizable art form in the years following the Civil War. African Americans sang about their struggles and hardships, as well as their joys, relationships, travels, and even foods. In fact the link between the music itself and the entire culture that produced it is so strong that the Blues can be defined as “African American roots music and the culture that produced it.”

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The Blues is a window to African American culture and to American culture. It tells stories of oppression and exploitation during segregation and the time of share cropping. It tells stories of triumph and perseverance. It speaks of the land itself, of cotton, of toil, and of escape. And it tells tales of men and women, floods and famine, leaving and being left, loving and longing, and it is the ancestor of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, soul, much of jazz, and even contemporary hip hop. Blues is rhythmic, melodic, and poetic, and speaks in ways that are accessible and meaningful to students. It can be used to lead them into history, geography, sociology, anthropology, and poetry, not to mention music!

There is no place better to explore, learn about, or teach the Blues than Mississippi. This is the home of the Blues, the birthplace not only of Charley Patton, who is widely viewed as the “Father” of the Blues, but also of Blues greats like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. Mississippi is where many of the performers who took their music to Memphis, or St. Louis or Chicago were actually born and raised. That’s reason enough to bring a class to Mississippi, but there is now something that makes Blues learning much easier than it was just a couple of years ago, the Mississippi Blues Trail.

In 2003, then Governor Ronnie Musgrove created The Mississippi Blues Commission. The next year, this body was enabled by the Legislature of Mississippi, and today, the Blues Commission is actively promoting and interpreting the Blues through the Mississippi Blues Trail. This trail is really more of a network than a uni-directional trail. It is a collection of interpretive displays, called “markers” that resemble traditional state historic markers with a singular difference. While the front of the marker looks like the normal type seen in most states and presents limited text, the back side is graphically designed and has up to 500 words along with photographs, maps, and documents of various kinds. In effect, each marker is a chapter in the definitive book of the Blues. Each has a title and focuses on a specific event, person, or place. Each has been extensively researched by professional historians, and vetted to assure accuracy and completeness.

Collectively, the trail tells the story of the Blues as music, and as culture, bringing the people, places, and events of the Blues to life.

The first Blues Trail marker was unveiled in late 2006. As of this writing, 117 markers have been installed, and additional markers appear about once a month. Of the markers 105 are within Mississippi, and the other eight are in other states to which Mississippians moved, carrying the Blues with them. Nobody can say how many stops will eventually be created, but the Blues Commission hopes to include about 200 stops in total, making the trail into a museum that is spread across the State, and indeed beyond the State, explaining the heritage of the Blues to local citizens and visitors alike.

Planning a visit to the Mississippi Blues Trail is made easy by the web site that the Blues commission created (www.msbluestrail.org). This web site has the complete text of every marker. It is searchable in several ways, and it includes a link to Google Maps, which allows the viewer to precisely locate each marker and map out a route. There are also short videos and a “featured marker” that is highlighted each month. A calendar announces upcoming marker unveilings and scheduled live music performances. Unveilings are usually attended by hundreds of people and feature their own live performances and often include relatives of the Bluesmen being honored, if not the Bluesmen themselves. Classes are always welcome at marker unveilings.

No tour along the Mississippi Blues Trail would be complete without including stops at some of the wonderful Blues museums that provide additional historical interpretation. The Delta Blues Museum (www.deltabluesmuseum.org) is the oldest Blues museum, established in 1979. It is located in downtown Clarksdale, near the Ground Zero Blues Club (www.groundzerobluesclub.com/) where live music can be reliably found four nights a week. The museum highlights include a portion of Muddy Water’s cabin, salvaged from its former site on the Stovall Plantation, where a Blues Trail marker now stands. Many guitars, harmonicas, stage costumes, historical signs and paraphernalia are on display, all emphasizing the numerous performers who have lived in Clarksdale, and there are continuous temporary exhibits ofphotographs and Blues advertisement posters.

Clarksdale has several venues for live performance, anchored by Ground Zero Blues Club. Just up the street from that club is Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art (www.cathead.biz) which is the best place to find information about who is appearing at which venue.

Muddy Waters is credited with having said that “The Blues had a baby and called it Rock and Roll,” but most people don’t know that Rock was born in Clarksdale. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame credits the song Rocket 88 with being the very first Rock and Roll number, and it was written by Ike Turner and performed by his band the Kings of Rhythm, all from Clarksdale. The band drove from Clarksdale to Memphis in March of 1951 to record at Sam Phillip’s studio, which later became Sun Studios, and that fact leads many to think that Rock came from Memphis, which it did, but only because that was the nearest recording studio to Clarksdale. Today, you can explore the links between Blues and Rock history at the Rock and Blues Museum (www.blues2rock.com).

The Highway 61 Museum in Leland (http://highway61blues.com/) does an excellent job of interpreting the lives and times of the numerous performers who grew up around that Delta town. These range from the traditional, including Son Thomas, to the rockers like Johnny Winter, whose father once operated the cotton exchange across the street from the museum, a site now marked with a stop on the Blues Trail.

But the pinnacle of the museum world in the Delta is certainly the new B.B. King Museum and Mississippi Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola (http://bbkingmuseum.org). This multi-million dollar effort uses the life of the King of the Blues to tell stories of struggle and perseverance from cotton and Jim Crow through integration and into today’s America. Numerous artifacts accompany film loops and interactive displays, so you should count on a minimum of two or three hours at this museum.

Of course there are other important stops for any Blues heritage tour. Among these are the last authentic rural juke house, Po’ Monkey’s Lounge (http://southernspaces.org/2006/inside-poor-monkeys) in a cotton field outside the little town of Merigold, Mississippi, right next to Cleveland. Indianola’s Club Ebony (http://msbluestrail.org/_webapp_2179154/Club_Ebony) has seen performances by Ray Charles, Count Basie, B. B. King, Bobby Bland, Little Milton, Albert King, Willie Clayton, and many other legendary acts. It is still open on Sundays and often on other days, and can make special arrangements for meals. Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale is another one of the “real deal” juke joints that has been serving up authentic blues culture for the last 50 years. Red’s features older blues acts every weekend. All of these venues have welcomed visiting classes, and on occasion made special arrangements for meals and music.

Blues Festivals provide another great opportunity to see several performances during a visit. The Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival in Greenville is now the longest running Blues fest in America (http://deltablues.org/history.html). Others include the Sunflower River Festival in Clarksdale, the Highway 61 Blues Festival in Leland, and the newly re-named King Biscuit Festival in Helena, Arkansas, along with many smaller festivals across Mississippi. A visit to the Mississippi Tourism site at www.vistimississippi.org should help identify dates for these opportunities.

Learning about the Blues facilitates learning about America. It provides a window not only to music, but also to race relations, cultural geography, economics and history in general. It’s also fun, and making learning fun can make learning easier. Mississippi is the place to learn about the Blues, and the Mississippi Blues Trail, together with Mississippi’s excellent museums and Blues festivals, can make teaching exciting and rewarding.

The Delta Center for Culture and Learning (www.blueshighway.org), located on the campus of Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi, regularly works with visiting classes. These classes explore the Blues, Civil Rights, the Mississippi River, and many other issues. Classes come from across America, and range from middle school through graduate programs.

Luther Brown is the Director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning and Associate Dean for Delta Regional Development at Delta State University. He is a founding member of the Mississippi Blues Commission and is the current Chair of the Mississippi Blues Foundation.

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