Traveling the Mississippi Delta
A land of myths and legends
photos by Cheré Coen
Driving through the country roads of the Mississippi Delta one is stuck by the dichotomy of the region. On one hand, the Deep South landscape offers a cuisine tasting of family and history, the outdoors teem with wildlife and an indigenous music that spawned much of modern music today attracts visitors worldwide. On the flip side, those vast rural acres of cotton remind us why the Delta folks sang the blues.
To truly absorb the Mississippi Delta, one has to embrace and understand both.
In Greenwood, for instance, visitors may enjoy the four-diamond historic Alluvian Hotel with its luxurious rooms and suites, learn how to fry chicken properly at the Viking Cooking School nearby and dine at the tony Delta Bistro, named one of Southern Living’s Top 100 Restaurants in the South. Greenwood was used extensively in the film The Help so visitors can pick up a free map from the Greenwood Convention and Visitors Bureau to find the 16 locations used in the movie, including narrator Skeeter Phelan’s home.
For a more rustic experience, spend the night in a sharecropper shack outside of town at the Tallahatchie Flats. The property consists of a collection of authentic sharecropper homes located on the river where Billie Jo McAllister threw something overboard in Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 song, “Ode to Billy Jo.” These old-time tenant houses that can be rented by the night, week or month offer authentic décor, from the license plate covering the hole in the floor to the old record player sporting 45s. The line of shacks exist a short drive from town but at night visitors will feel like they’re deep in the Delta countryside. During hunting season, a cache of ducks can sometimes be found lying on the front porches with mornings deserted as hunters head out.
A short walk down the road from Tallahatchie Flats lies one of Robert Johnson’s graves – and yes, there are three. Johnson blazed the blues trail in the early part of the 20th century, leaving us with some of the genre’s most important recordings during his short lifetime, many of which influenced later musicians. Eric Clapton once said, “I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson.”
Legend has it that Johnson’s ambition drove him to meet the devil near the Delta’s Dockery Plantation, where the devil tuned his guitar and endowed him with great talent in exchange for his soul. Today, visitors can easily find this “Crossroads” in Clarksdale, marked by a giant sign at the confluence of Highways 61 and 49.
Johnson died at age 27 in 1938 outside Greenwood. Because no one knows for sure where he’s buried, there are three gravesites attached to each story. In Morgan City, an obelisk headstone includes Johnson’s discography, biography and photo at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church. It’s believed Johnson was buried here in an unmarked grave with the marker later placed at the site by Columbia Records. Over in Quito, a small headstone for Johnson has been placed beside the Payne Chapel Memorial Baptist Church.
The marker at the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery near Tallahatchie Flats holds the most credence and around his grave are routinely placed items in reverence by fans, including a few empty whiskey bottles.
Robert Johnson’s gravesite at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church.
The crossroads where legend has it blues guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.
Blues lovers must include Indianola on their tour, home to B.B. King’s museum that spotlights both the famous bluesman’s career and the origin of blues. The museum is located in an old cotton gin and offers a fabulous overview of the blues, exhibits on how Delta musicians left the cotton fields to make their way to Memphis and better times and hands-on stations where visitors can perform the blues like B.B. King.
Clarksdale remains another great example of the Delta’s dual personality. Considered by some as the birthplace of the blues, Clarksdale is home to the Delta Blues Museum, great blues juke joints and actor Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club. Visitors can also experience country life as well as live music at the Shack Up Inn, where several sharecropper “shacks” were moved to the property from neighboring plantations. “The ritz we ain’t” is what owners proclaim on their web site, which sums it up well. Shacks range from the Electric Blue shack with two separate bedrooms and a shared kitchenette and private bath to the small eco-friendly “Tinth” shack that sleeps two. Live performances happen inside the Cotton Gin, which operates more like a hotel, and the Shack Up offers special events throughout the year, such as music workshops and blues jams.
Clarksdale also offers historic bed and breakfasts such as the 1859 Clark House and more high-end accommodations such as The Lofts at the Five and Dime, modern condos in the former Woodworth building. For something unique, the circa-1917 Delta Bohemian Guest House combines art and color with a slice of funk by owners Billy and Madge Marley Howell, native Mississippi Deltans and publishers of The Delta Bohemian online literary magazine.
There are several great restaurants in Clarksdale that range from barbecue and soul cooking to fine dining, plus hots spots in between such as Stone Pony Pizza. Blues lovers will adore Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, listed as “one of the 17 coolest record stores in America” by Paste magazine. Cat Head is more than a record store, however. They sell folk art and just about anything Mississippi related, not to mention sponsor blues festival and events. To round out your visit, stop by the Delta Blues Museum which includes Muddy Waters’ cabin, complete and recreated from Stovall Farms, among so much more.
Located throughout Mississippi are dozens of blues markers detailing this uniquely American history, part of the Mississippi Blues Trail. To find out markers in each region of the Delta, which in turns offers information on the blues musicians who lived there, visit msbluestrail.org.
For more information on the varied things to do in the Mississippi Delta, go to visitthedelta.com.