Remedy in Blues

Down the Mississippi Blues Trail, cathartic sounds tell a story of overcoming in spite of it all

Story by Judy Garrison

Photography by Seeing Southern Photography

The delta changes you. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.

The blues highway drew me to Mississippi like a Southerner to good BBQ. Its music, rhythms and flavors led by reputation as being a one-of-a-kind, intense, and simply, a world unto itself. From its dusty back roads, surrounded by hundreds of cotton fields as far as the eye can see, to the renaissance of small towns thriving as entrepreneurs take back their community from decay, the heart of the delta beats loudly.

Locals will tell you the delta is not easy— heat, poverty, pain—but its story of overcoming in spite of it all has been like cream rising to the top. And its blues has been its cherry.

When youngster Charley Patton picked up a guitar in 1905, and with his gruff voice, told of life on the plantation, it was the beginning of what still drives music today. Juke joints popped up throughout the delta, and sharecroppers spent evenings listening to the soundtrack of their lives. The blues mirrored their suffering, anguish and hopes.

Considered Father of the Delta Blues, Patton started what would be a string of blues artists rising to the top. Robert Johnson, Sam Cooke, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, B.B. King. And then, “the blues had a baby, and they named the baby rock and roll.” The Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones credit the delta blues for their foundation in music. 

Today, the heartbeat of the blues pounds as loudly as ever. In Clarksdale, there’s live music every night at Reds or Ground Zero or another juke joint. In Cleveland, enjoy your authentic delta tamales with a side of local music. In Indianola, Blue Biscuit and B.B. King’s Club Ebony will keep you swaying to that cathartic blues sound.

01. He’s made harmonicas for the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and Dan Aykroyd. Deak Harp, so aptly named, plays his harmonica and guitar for anyone who passes by his Clarksdale shop, Deak’s Mississippi Saxophones & Blues Emporium. He is also known for hosting a great block party during every festival that comes to Clarksdale.
02. Her name is Mhairi Bell Moodie, and she is standing at the Crossroads. Legend has it that in 1937, singer Robert Johnson lacked certain guitar skills. In the dead of night, he came to the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar mastery. On Moodie’s journey from Scotland to the blues highway, from Chicago to New Orleans, she stopped at the Crossroads retracing her father’s steps when he played the guitar along the blues highway in the 1960s. Her father, who died months earlier, left his diary as a roadmap for her travels.
03. The sky’s the limit for New Roxy – literally. Located in the New World District of Clarksdale, New Roxy is a work-in-progress for owner Robin Colonas who came to Clarksdale as a blues tourism and ‘I kept coming back.’ In 2008, she purchased the abandoned four-brick wall structure (no roof) and today, has breathed new life into this venue that once hosted W.C. Handy, Sam Cooke, and Ike Turner.
04. For the more modern juke joint, step into Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale. Locals like Big A are a common sight, more than likely, playing to an audience from around the world. Ground Zero is Mississippi native Morgan Freeman’s gift to Clarksdale, the place where blues began.
05. Charley Patton’s family moved to Dockery Plantation in Cleveland, Mississippi, in 1900 to work the farm as sharecroppers. B. B. King said, ‘you might say it all started right here.’
06. Like boiled peanuts are to Georgia, so are the tamales to the Mississippi Delta. Usually simmered rather than steamed, these gritty, corn-meal textured spicy creations offer some history to the region. Many speculate as to their origin, but it has been a staple in Delta communities for generations. When in Cleveland, stop at the Delta Meat Market for some of the best.
07. To be immersed in the blues is to learn about the king. The B.B. (Baby Blues) King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola celebrates the life of the King of the Blues. Born Riley B. King, he grew up in the 1940s as the blues began changing the musical landscape. His big band style was made even more famous by his legendary Lucille, named for the guitar he rescued from a burning building in 1949. The fire was caused by a fight over a woman in the club, Lucille.
08. He has been called the next B. B. King. Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram lights up the stage at Club Ebony in Indianola. A Clarksdale native, Ingram arrived on the music scene in 2019 and, at 21, took the blues world by storm. Built at the end of WWII, Club Ebony is one of the South’s most important African American nightclubs, hosting talents like B.B. King and other legendary blues artists.
09. It’s the writing on the wall that gives it character. Located in Clarksdale, the Shack Up Inn states explicitly, the ritz we ain’t. In the mid 90s, a group of men purchased one sharecropper’s shack and quickly learned it to be a profitable venture. Now, a collection of sharecropper’s shacks (both old and new) sits on the land that was Hobson Plantation can easily afford the most unique overnight stay of your journey.
10. Local Lucious Spiller can always be found on a stage around Clarksdale. His guitar prowess and charismatic sway just suck you in and hold you until the last note. An authentic, hole-in-the-wall, not-sure-if-I-want-to-go-in, grab-a-beer-from-the-cooler juke joint is Red’s, located in the heart of Clarksdale.
11. Meet me at the Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi

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