Mississippi Blues Journey
During October 2010 I spent a week in Clarksdale Mississippi at the famous Hopson Plantation; Shack Up Inn, just south of where Hwy 61 crosses Hwy 49, to explore many of the sites on the Mississippi Blues Heritage Trail within a 70-mile radius. I covered Tunica just a short distance from the Tennessee border, south to Greenwood and Indianola and west to Helena Arkansas. The travel book that I used as a guide was, Blues Traveling, The Holy Sites of Delta Blues, by Steve Cheseborough. This is an excellent guide and a must-have for travelers to the state and surrounding areas interested in all things “blues”. It led me to more than historical sites; it led me to meeting many wonderful people who call Mississippi home and many people who share my interest and passion for the music, it’s history and it’s creators.
The Mississippi Delta region is one of five regions in the state. It is a hundred mile long and thirty mile wide stretch of alluvial flood plain starting in the north at the Tennessee border just a little south of Memphis down south to Vicksburg, between the Mississippi River and the Eastern Hill Country. This area is considered by many to be ground zero for the genesis of the blues genre. It’s a great place for music fans to visit and experience live music. It attracts people from around the world who want to see first hand where so many great itinerant blues artists honed their skills and shaped the music.
While there I attended the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival, which was called the King Biscuit Festival for many years before some legal savvy money men secured the copy write to the name and tried to sell it back to the Festival Committee for some ridiculous price. One of the highlights at the festival, which included appearances by blues greats such as BB King, Taj Mahall & Charlie Musselwhite, was the announcement that the traditional name has been returned to the event. The reaction from the estimated nine thousand blues fans on hand was deafening. The festival had 70 acts playing on three stages over a three-day period, all for only a $25 pass.
This three-day festival held in Helena at this time of the year; the week leading up to Columbus Day, has been going on since 1985. It is one of the many blues festivals held around the country and is considered by many blues fans and artists as one of the best. It runs from Thursday to Saturday. This is an excellent time to visit the area because you can find live music everywhere. All the music venues in Clarksdale offer up great blues acts and on the Sunday there is an annual one day festival held at the Hopson Plantation just a stones throw from the famous crossroads where south-west bound HWY 61 crosses South bound Hwy 49. The festival honors a local artist who at the age of 97 is still performing the blues – Pinetop Perkins.
It was at the Shack Up Inn on the Hopson Plantation that I chose to return after staying there in January for one night. I booked the Electric Blue shack, located close to the commissary. A plantation commissary was a place to buy goods and congregate on weekends and hear some music. The shack had both a front and back porch with two bedrooms and a kitchen in the middle with a bathroom. They called these structures “shotgun shacks”. I will leave it up to your imagination as to why.
Mississippi is a living and breathing outdoor/indoor blues museum; in Clarksdale alone there are over 20 sites a blues fan would find of interest; during my short stay I went to all of them, some of them more than once.
You start by going to the famous crossroads where myth has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to master his skills as a guitarist in the early 30s. Next a must see is the Delta Blues Museum which houses “all things blues”, including the sharecropper shack that Muddy Waters was living in on the Stovall Farms Plantation just out of town west of the Sunflower River. It was there that Allan Lomax in 1941 first recorded Mr. McKinley Morganfield for the Library of Congress. It was after hearing how good he sounded on the record that Lomax sent him that Muddy decided to catch a train from Clarksdale to Chicago ultimately becoming a very successful Chess Studios recording artist and a catalyst for attracting great talent to the label.
The Delta Blues Museum souvenir shop is a particular delight to blues fans & hounds alike because they carry numerous CDs, DVDs and books one would have a hard time finding anywhere else.
While there, I purchased a brick that will be added to their planned museum expansion project. It will read White Rock Blues Society Surrey British Columbia.
As you track down the many historical blues sites one thing will become very apparent. The people you talk to are beyond friendly, they treat you like a lost relative. Theo Dasbach a Danish immigrant who owns the Rock & Blues Museum reopened his doors for me at closing time to give a private 20-minute tour, telling his wife Cindy their shopping trip will be delayed a few minutes. Next-door, painting artist Stan Street who owns the Hambone Art And Music invited me back later that evening to a jam. I met Nathan James, lead guitarist for James Harman the LA Blues man we featured at the Rhumba Room in June and Watermelon Slim a great harp player just to name a couple of artists. It was a high-energy jam with beers and shots of southern bourbon at $2,00 apiece. I learned that night that Stan is an accomplished musician and can wail like the best of them on that Marine Band instrument. Even I took a turn with the pros. It doesn't get any better than that, we’re talking day one here remember. We are thinking of having Stan come for a visit next July and put a band around him for a show in White Rock.
Part 2 to follow.