Lonely Planet: Get schooled in the history of the blues

Lonely Planet: Get schooled in the history of the blues
April 9, 2009
By Adam Skolnick
The Salt Lake Tribune

Follow this route to listen to blues legends howl their sad enlightenment while shrouded in a smoky red glow. And to pay homage to Mississippi Delta Highway 61, the birthplace of the blues music that has saturated northern Mississippi for almost 100 years, and just so happens to be the origin of rock 'n' roll.

In the flat land that stretches out on either side of Highway 61, American music took root. It came from Africa in the souls of slaves, morphed into field songs, then found its way into the brain of a mythical sharecropping troubadour waiting for a train. Clarksdale is the hub of delta blues country. It was here, at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49, that Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil and became America's first guitar hero.

Clarksdale is a useful base for your trip. Stay at Shack Up Inn, a B&B (that's bed & beer in this case) and an antique-kitsch paradise. Another option, the Riverside Hotel lacks style points but it has history, with Sonny Boy Williamson and Ike Turner having stayed here.

Have breakfast at The Crossroads. Peeking out above the trees on the northeast corner of Highways 61 and 49 is the landmark with three interlocked blue guitars, and just behind it is Delta Donuts, with an ancient coffee maker on permanent percolate and cases of delectably warm doughnuts stuffed with chocolate and vanilla cream.

The Delta Blues Museum, set in the city's old train depot, has arguably the best collection of blues
memorabilia in the delta, including Muddy Waters' reconstructed Mississippi cabin. The creative, multimedia exhibits also honor B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton. The Rock 'N Roll & Blues Heritage Museum is a private enterprise launched by a Dutch expat who amassed an incredible collection, then bought a defunct Clarksdale movie theater in order to show it off.

Clarksdale has a number of tasty dining rooms (none serve health food). Sarah's Kitchen is the juke joint of restaurants. It's only open for lunch Thursday to Saturday, and there's no menu, but you will love Sarah's ample portions of soul food. And Abe's has been nestled just off the crossroads since 1924 -- the ribs are sensational.

Wednesday through Saturday, live music sweeps through Clarksdale like a summer storm. Ground Zero has the most professional bandstand and sound system, and a consistent lineup. But it will never compare to Red's, a funky, smoky, beat-up juke joint run with in-your-face charm by Red himself. Sometimes he brings in legends, and he'll fire up his enormous grill outside on special occasions.

Helena, Ark., a depressed mill town 32 miles north and across the Mississippi River from Clarksdale, was once the home of Sonny Boy Williamson. He was a regular on "King Biscuit Time," America's original and still-running blues radio show. Hosted by Sunshine Sonny Payne since 1951, the show begins weekdays at 12:15 p.m. and broadcasts out of the Delta Cultural Center.

You can hit several historic blues sites by driving a loop south from Clarksdale to Tutwiler, Indianola and Leland, and returning to Clarksdale via Highway 61. Sleepy Tutwiler is where W.C. Handy heard that ragged guitar man in 1903, inspiring him to write the original popular blues song in 1912. That divine encounter is memorialized along the Tutwiler Tracks. The mural also provides directions to Sonny Boy Williamson's grave.

Indianola spawned B.B. King. The old train depot was being transformed into the B.B. King Blues Museum at the time of research, so check when you come through. King now owns Club Ebony, the club that gave him his first steady work.

From Indianola, go west on Highway 82 to Leland, which has a terrific blues festival. Visit the Highway 61 Blues Museum, which showcases local folks like Ruby Edwards and David "Honeyboy" Edwards.

The Holmes family opened The Blue Front in Bentonia during the Jim Crow period, when blacks weren't even allowed to sip Coca-Cola, and welcomed delta blues artists like Percy Smith and Jack Owens. It still opens in the evening, but live blues blooms here only during Bentonia's annual festival.

Cruising for blues

Getting there » Follow Highway 61 south from Memphis to Clarksdale. Take Highway 49 south to Greenwood and Bentonia. Double back to Highway 82W to Indianola and Leland, and then head north up Highway 61.

Where to eat

Abe's » The slow-burning tamales and melt-off-the-bone ribs are dynamite; 616 State St., Clarksdale, 662-624-9947.

Delta Donuts » Forget calories, just eat; 610 N State St., Clarksdale, 662-627-9094.

Sarah's Kitchen » This underground soul-food kitchen is a local favorite; 278 Sunflower Ave., Clarksdale, 662-627-3239.

Where to stay

Riverside Hotel » An aging hotel with a bluesy backstory; 615 Sunflower Ave., Clarksdale, 662-624-9163; from $75.

Shack Up Inn » Snooze in an old sharecropper shack done up retro-chic. 1 Commissary Cr., off Highway 49, Clarksdale, 662-624-8329; www.shackupinn.com; from $75.
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