Taking a roadtrip to Mississippi to learn about the blues… it’s like a post from Things White People Like, but it is indeed what this white girl did. I don’t remember when I first heard Delta blues music, but it was likely as a part of some “history of rock ‘n’ roll” documentary I watched as a music-obsessed pre-teen. What I do remember is being immediately drawn to the emphasis on rhythm and the guttural vocal delivery. In the intervening years, my relationship with the blues was an on-again-off-again affair until the time I realized that all the music I really loved, the music that spoke to me the most, drew heavy influence from the blues, especially the Delta blues. The Black Keys, A.A. Bondy, the Gutter Twins, the Felice Brothers, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (obviously), etc., have all paid tribute to various Delta bluesmen – from T-Model Ford to Skip James to Mississippi John Hurt – and allowed the echoes of these Mississippi artists to inform their musical paths.
Delving into the music that influenced the artists I love, I found even more artists to love (and I may be developing an unhealthy fascination with Skip James, but that’s a story for another time). This slow-growing love for the blues was a significant factor in deciding to spend a week in the hill country and delta area of northern Mississippi.
I’ve heard more than one Northerner say it after a trip “Down South”: It’s a different world down there. While this is true, it’s not necessarily in the foreboding way many Northerners unfamiliar with the American South take it. Sure, it seems like racism and homophobia are still extreme there (though one has to keep in mind the old saying “Squeaky wheel gets the grease” and realize the stories we often see in the news are there because they are news, not of the norm) and there seems to be a lot more crazy there (or the same amount of crazy as there is in the rest of the country, just more out in the open, more accepted), but there is also more friendliness there (Southern hospitality is not a myth, and conversation with strangers is a regional pastime) and much more sweet tea. Mmm, sweet tea…
An aside: Having family in Alabama and Louisiana, I can tell you that you can’t judge one Southern state based on another. Just as Ohio and Minnesota are both considered Midwestern states but are fundamentally different in character and terrain, so, too, the South.
Our roadtrip itinerary was very casual and, honestly, only half-informed. I knew that if I was going to be in Oxford, Mississippi, for a week, it would be a crime not to make a day-trip to Clarksdale. But the only things we knew we’d be doing for sure upon hitting the small town were visiting the Delta Blues Museum and eating.
(In retrospect, I wish I had known about Memphis & the Delta Blues Trail, a music-lover’s travel guide written by Justin Gage of Aquarium Drunkard and his wife, Melissa. I will be picking up a copy for my next trip down.)
We stopped at Ground Zero Blues Club, the painstakingly “run-down” restaurant/club co-owned by Morgan Freeman, just because it was conveniently located a short walk from the Delta Blues Museum. My capsule review: It’s alright. It’s a little try-hard in terms of creating atmosphere, copying Taylor Grocery’s decorating technique of letting people write on the walls (actually, people have written on every available surface – I’m surprised our dinnerware wasn’t covered in magic marker scrawls) and playing a requisitely bluesy selection of background music (on a sound system that began breaking down halfway through our meal). The food itself was only okay, though travel companion Cam fell in love with the fried pickles.
After lunch, we hit the Delta Blues Museum where I spent twice as much time as my travel companions. This is something everyone who visits a music-centric museum with me should be aware of: I will read every placard and muse over nearly every exhibit. Don’t make any plans for the rest of the day is what I’m saying.
The Delta Blues Museum is as humble as the Delta itself. One floor, one room, with an attached gift shop. Many of the exhibits consist of clothing. A jacket from Little Milton, a snazzy suit from Pinetop Perkins, Charlie Musslewhite’s shoes. There are a number of guitars on display, but most of them don’t appear to have been owned by anyone “of note”. Some excellent photography of the musicians and places of the Delta lines the walls. At the time of our visit, the photographers’ work on display were William Ferris, Nathan Miller and a third photographer whose name I have forgotten and is not listed on the museum’s website.
This is not to say the museum is without some very interesting “artifacts” (it seems odd to tack that word to remnants of a breathing art). Some highlights include a bag of flour emblazoned with Sonny Boy Williamson’s (Rice Miller) visage from the height of his popularity in his spot as host of the King Biscuit Time radio program and sculptures created by James “Son” Thomas. But the museum’s undoubted pièce de résistance is the one room left of the cabin in which Muddy Waters was living when he was recorded by Alan Lomax.
It’s kind of a shock to come upon, just sitting there at the far end of the museum, not roped off or enclosed behind glass. You can run your hand over the wood, feeling the splinters come away against your palm. You can walk inside it and sit down to watch a short documentary on Waters while a slightly discomfiting life-size sculpture of Waters stares at you from a small stage and Billy Gibbons’ Muddywood guitar, which Gibbons (ZZ Top) had made from one of the floorboards of Waters’ cabin, sits in a case off to your right.
All of these “accessories” were added when the House of Blues took up the cabin and sent it on tour. And while it wasn’t quite as terrible as I had feared from reading about the display beforehand, it is still a typically gaudy and unnecessary move from the House of Blues. A placard on the cabin notes that it will eventually be returned to its original home on Stovall Farms outside of Clarksdale (without all the schmaltz, one hopes).
Videotaping and photography are prohibited in the Delta Blues Museum, so here’s a clip of Muddy Waters and his band play “Got My Mojo Workin'” to satisfy the visual quotient for this post.