Rocknuts Road Trip Part 3: The Mississippi Blues Trail



As mentioned in part one of my road trip chronicles, I headed into my vacation with the intention of at least seeing Memphis and parts of Arkansas, and from there it was anyone’s guess where I’d wind up. I actually decided to make my way to New Orleans (where I skipped out a bit on musical attractions) sometime after Arkansas, and along the way I got the idea of heading north up the famous Highway 61 through the Mississippi Blues Trail after leaving The Big Easy. It was at this point where the vacation began to feel like a true musical pilgrimage.

For those who may not know, the Mississippi Blues Trail is a set of over 200 historical markers scattered throughout the state of Mississippi and elsewhere around the world. Tracking them down can be a wildly entertaining scavenger hunt in its own right while guiding you along the path of some of the most historic sites in modern music. As you can see by the map below, most of the markers are located in the Mississippi Delta, the fertile region located in the Northwest corner of the state.

A map of the Blues Trail Markers in Mississippi (via http://msbluestrail.org/)

It is here where you can find the roots of the blues, a genre of music born from the harsh conditions of the Delta. The roots of the blues of course are also the roots of rock n’ roll, which is why this is a spiritual place for any hardcore rock and/or blues fan to visit.

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With so many markers and historic locations along the blues trail, one has to pick and choose which ones to visit, unless you want to take days if not weeks to find them all. Many of the markers are simply that — markers only, with no nearby attraction to accompany them. But on occasion there are some great attractions in the vicinity, and I was able to find a few of them on my day trip through the Delta.

The grave of blues legend Robert Johnson (maybe…)
Greenwood, Mississippi

The Blues Trail Marker for Robert Johnson

The first stop on this tour was the grave of the legendary Robert Johnson, or at least the one that seems to be the most accepted of his three claimed grave sites. No one knows for sure where Johnson is buried, and as a result there are three different sites in Mississippi that bear his name. It’s at the one I visited where the Blues Trail marker is placed — the one that also seems to be the most accepted location for his grave.

Hopefully it is the location of his actual grave, and I don’t say that just because this is the one I chose to find. I say it because it feels like a suitable, peaceful resting place, underneath a tree in a small graveyard next to the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church on a rural road just outside of Greenwood. As you can see above, fans who have visited this site have paid tribute with coins, guitar picks, and other items.

The Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church

This at first felt like a wild goose chase that was made frustrating by my GPS losing its signal while driving through Greenwood, but it was worth it to finally find the grave and pay my respects. There was a heavy, somber feeling standing in front of this grave site, and I came away wishing I had the time to find the others.

From there, the journey moved from a resting place to a possible place of birth for the whole blues scene.

Dockery Farms

This turned out to be an odd experience, although I’m not sure it was intended to be. The historic Dockery plantation, where Charley Patton lived and numerous legends performed, is vital to the early history of the blues and is located within a reasonable distance of Johnson’s grave in Greenwood. The site has been kept up, as you can see in these photos, but still has an old-time feel. When pulling into the parking lot I muttered the words “Now this is cool,” although very quickly things got weird.

Visitors are allowed to take a tour of the site on their own, and at the time I was the only person there. There’s a sign on the door to the cotton gin that invites visitors to enter, although the door on this day was padlocked shut. Behind the gin is a stage where you can press a button that plays blues music across the entire farm, which I proceeded to do, and sure enough a loud blues song blared throughout the grounds. There’s also a refurbished old gas station, in the back of which is a door that supposedly leads to restrooms. I opened the door and walked in the building only to be greeted by a security alarm I most likely triggered.

A really cool restored gas station… that I think I set off security alarms in

So picture if you will this deserted tourist attraction on a remote highway with blues music playing over the loud speaker while a security alarm is going off in an empty building. It was actually creepy, almost feeling like I had encountered a haunted farm out of a Scooby Doo episode or something. That said, this is indeed a cool locale and a must-stop on the blues trail, and it seems like it’s in the process of being fixed up even more to become something even better.

The Dockery Blues Trail Marker

The Grammy Museum
Cleveland, Mississippi
Pros: Slick presentation with some nice memorabilia and a focus on the importance of Mississippi
Cons: Not very big
Score: 3 out of 5

The Cleveland, Mississippi Grammy Museum

The next stop was the Grammy Museum in Cleveland, which turned out to be a decent attraction if you have the extra time but if not, it might be worth choosing another spot. There are some things worth seeing in here, including some information on Mississippi blues as well as outfits worn by Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, and Taylor Swift, along with instruments belonging to Bob Dylan and others. I took a bunch of pictures of the inside of the museum only to find out afterwards I wasn’t allowed to do so, so out of respect for that I won’t post them here.

I didn’t dislike this museum, and it was nice to visit Cleveland, which is actually more of a college town (home to Delta State University) than a blues town. If I had to do it over, however, I might have chosen instead to visit the B.B. King Museum in nearby Indianola.

From there it was on to the final destination of Clarksdale, the town in the Delta most associated with the blues due to its history of being a thriving blues location and how many artists were either born in the area (John Lee Hooker, Son House, Sam Cooke, Junior Parker, Ike Turner, to name a few) or passed through there (Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, to name a few). Whereas Greenwood and Cleveland felt more like a mix of old and new, Clarksdale is much more gritty and authentic and feels very much like hallowed ground for the blue.

An old theater on the streets of Clarksdale

One of the streets of Clarksdale, with a Robert Johnson mural on one of the buildings

There’s a rich blues history in Clarksdale and a number of blues sites to see here, with the ones I checked out listed below. Among the sites of interest in Clarksdale I didn’t stop in to see is the Riverside Hotel, which I only had time to see in passing. The first on the list was The Delta Blues Museum, which was the attraction in Clarksdale I wanted to see the most.

The Delta Blues Museum
Clarksdale, Mississippi
Pros: An authentic feel with plenty of information on Delta Blues legends, and Muddy Waters’ house!
Cons: A little small
Score: 4 out of 5

As was the case with the Grammy Museum, there were no photos allowed in here, which is unfortunate since it would have been nice to show you the museum’s main attraction — the remains of the cabin where Muddy Waters once lived. Visitors can step inside the cabin, where Waters stayed when he resided at the nearby Stovall Plantation.

The museum also has a fine collection of tributes to Delta Blues artists, including Johnson, Patton, Son House, and harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite. It’s not a huge place and can be taken in with a 90-minute visit or less, but it’s a vital piece of the Clarksdale experience. There’s some cool stuff in the gift store as well.

The Delta Blues Museum marker

Ground Zero Blues Club

Right across the street from the Delta Blues Museum is the famous Ground Zero Blues Club, a famous locale that is co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman, who used to live in Clarksdale. The club’s niche is to create an authentic blues club feel and present blues artists with a place to play.

I stopped in for dinner and to hear a couple songs from a New Orleans band performing there whose name I unfortunately don’t remember and didn’t make it a point to write down. The band was pretty good, the food was okay, the service was slow. But it’s a place you should at least take a look at when in the area.

The scene at the Ground Zero club

The Devil’s Crossroads

As you probably know, legend has it Robert Johnson acquired his musical ability after a meeting with the devil at a local crossroads, during which the devil tuned his guitar and made Johnson a master in exchange for his soul. This party-pooping article from NPR will explain to you why it’s not true, but it was a story used to explain why Johnson got so good at his craft so quickly and has endured as one of music’s most powerful legends.

Johnson sang of The Crossroads in his music, and even though it isn’t known exactly where The Crossroads of legend are located, there’s a Crossroads monument in Clarksdale at the intersection of U.S. highways 49 and 61. There’s no air of mystique here, however, just a traffic light, a nearby barbecue, and a bunch of cars with drivers looking at you as you attempt to take photos. But it’s still cool to be there, and is another requirement during your visit to Clarksdale. I regret to report I came away with no additional musical talent, just the sun in my eyes and a bunch of crappy pictures that were mostly unusable.

Muddy Waters home site

The last stop was to make the short drive to Stovall Farms, where Muddy Waters lived and was recorded for the first time by Alan Lomax. There’s not much there now, just the farm itself, a lovely field, some nearby houses, and a couple of markers:

With that, the visit to the Delta was complete, and it was on to Tupelo to see the boyhood home of Elvis discussed in part two of this feature.

I’d love to head back to the Delta and to Clarksdale someday to find more markers and see more sites. It’s truly sacred ground for music fans and blues fans in particular, and Western Mississippi can make for a lovely drive, particularly some parts of the Pines region. I recommend all Rocknutters make a journey like the one I had, and to give yourself more time to do it so you can see more sites and soak in more of the atmosphere. That includes Nashville and certain areas of rural Tennesssee, which I left out of this feature because I just didn’t get the chance to see enough of the music sites there. That, as well as the Mississippi Country Music Trail (yup, there’s one of those too) would be a great trek for Country music fans. Hopefully you will get a chance to vacation there someday, and that you will use this feature to help point you in the most rockin’ direction once you do.

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