The Blues Highway through the Mississippi Delta

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We left New Orleans heading north along the Mississippi River and stopped in Natchez, Mississippi. I have read a bit about the history of the town and I enjoy Greg Iles’s books, many of which are set in Natchez. I expected some life on a Friday, but it was a chilly and damp February afternoon and the town was deserted. We walked through the Hotel Eola, which was ghostly and tattered and beautiful.

Melrose Plantation at the Natchez Historical Park

Melrose Plantation at the Natchez Historical Park

Rosie's beer garden in Natchez, Mississippi

Downtown Natchez, Mississippi

Old House in Natchez, Mississippi

The next day we picked up the Blues Highway (Route 61) and drove into the heart of the Mississippi Delta, past endless cotton farms and stray dogs and fields of birds.

Empty cotton field in winter in the Mississippi DeltaBirds taking over a field in The Mississippi Delta

We took a right in Cleveland, Mississippi and stopped at Dockery Farms.

Dockery Farms Gas Station in Cleveland, Mississippi Sign for Dockery Farms

In the 1920s Dockery Farms was a 10,000-acre cotton plantation complete with a town for the sharecroppers. On Saturday nights the workers, including Charlie Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, Pops Staples, and Howlin Wolf, would get together and put on a show.

Birthplace of the Blues at Dockery Farms in Cleveland, Mississippi Birthplace of the Blues at Dockery Farms

When you press a button on the info placard, haunting blues music plays from speakers all around the empty buildings. We were the only ones there; the music echoed nostalgically around the corrugated metal. It didn’t take much imagination to see plantation workers from all around gathering at night on the stage. The sounds made my heart ache, it’s so full of plaintive emotion and the dreary weather made it all the more evocative.

Across the street and past the cemetery, is a crossroads where legend has it Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.

Cemetery between Dockery Farms and the Crossroads The Crossroads in Cleveland, Mississippi

Robert Johnson was a frequent visitor to Dockery Farms and longed to play like Charlie Patton, who dismissed him for his lack of talent. One night Johnson left Dockery Farms and came to the crossroads at midnight with his guitar, a figure approached him, took his guitar and tuned it. After that he played like a master and became one of the greatest blues musicians of all time.

The Crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil

At the crossroads Pearson got out his guitar, tuned it, and started playing. The dogs at the nearby farm got closer, but the devil didn’t appear.

Pearson at the real The Crossroads The Crossroads in Cleveland, Mississippi

We passed through Clarksdale, ‘the birthplace of the blues’, where the tourist crossroads are. The exact location of the crossroads where Robert Johnson met the devil is disputed, though most agree that Clarksdale wasn’t it and that the sign is there to lure tourists to the only city around.

Crossroads sign in Clarksdale, Mississippi Clarksdale, Mississippi
The Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi and the BBQ joint across the street.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be working. I researched Clarksdale and all of the cool juke joints and music venues it has, we made the drive into downtown and sadly couldn’t find a place that was open at 4pm on a Saturday. Most places looked like they were permanently closed. So, we continued up the road to Memphis, ‘the home of the blues’.

Clarksdale, Mississippi

I found Mississippi a sad place; maybe this is unfair because it was February, rainy, and unseasonably cold. I hope my feeling would be different in the summer when the sun is out, the farms are active, and other people are traveling the ‘Blues Highway’ (and I plan to find out). But I didn’t get the impression that the state was hibernating, I got the feeling it was dead and rotting. This isn’t a condemnation, Mississippi isn’t a bad place; the people we met were friendly and kind. I liked Mississippi, but I felt its pain. Something there just felt broken.

Downtown Clarksdale, Mississippi

I’m not a sociologist and I’ve spent only a few days in the state, so I can’t pretend to understand what created or perpetuates the complex racial, political, and financial issues in Mississippi; what keeps it the poorest state in the US. But unlike other southern states Mississippi feels like it’s living in its past rather than celebrating and atoning for it.

New Orleans and Memphis are alive with the spirit and passion of blues music and the jazz and rock that were born from it. But in the Delta you can just feel the blues.

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3 Comments

  1. Beth March 13, 2016 at 6:37 am #

    Man, you people totally missed it! There’s a terrific blues joint right in Clarksdale called Ground Zero Blues Club. It’s owned by Morgan Freeman but this ain’t no Disney replica or House of Blues! It’s the real thing with great music, good food, & a highly diverse crowd: White, Black, Hispanic, & Asian when I was there, young & old, tourists & locals, farm boys & sorority girls. It’s right by the Delta Blues Museum. Don’t see how you could have missed these! They’re pretty well advertised & right near the heart of town. Go back. You won’t regret it. Go to the museum during the afternoon & to the club at night. (Helpful hint: blues joints aren’t typically open yet at 4 pm!)

    • Julie
      Julie March 13, 2016 at 8:21 pm #

      Beth,
      You’re right we totally missed the cool spots in Clarksdale. We were only there from 3:30 to 5pm–which is the exact wrong time to be there–too late for the Museum and too early for music. Ground Zero Blues Club looked awesome and was open but no one was there–probably because of the time of day and the season. We will have to go back with your tips in mind!
      Thanks.

  2. Beth March 13, 2016 at 6:54 am #

    p.s. Also check out the Shack Up Inn; didn’t make it there myself but wanted to! Live music, food, & lodging in really cool-looking old buildings on a former plantation. Big names have appeared there.