By: Lazelle Jones
(All photos by the author, unless otherwise noted)
From Memphis, TN south to Vicksburg, MS, and during the last week in September and the first week in October the delta blues is celebrated with music festivals, museums (where the focus is on the history of the delta blues), juke joints and Deep South culture that collectively makes this unique American music genre the rich landscape it is.
A hundred years have passed since the delta blues moved from the cotton fields to the juke joints and then on to the world stage, with stops along the way in Memphis, then Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis. Its influence is further underscoring by the impact it’s had on other music forms like Southern Rock, Rock and Roll, Country, Rhythm and Blues and Jazz. Cross pollinating and being embraced by these other root forms of American music, delta blues is a unique manifestation that arose in the rural South and today continues to morph and please those who have discovered and those who will discover they have a “sweet spot” for the sound that opens a window into the soul. For many they know not why it tugs at their heart strings, it simply does.
|In the area: Lakeport Plantation|
Not a trail to be followed from point to point, the organizers of these blues festivals and the owners of the many juke joints and museums have collaborated in scheduling events and hours of operation to create what now (in its second year) is called “Bridging the Blues.” www.bridgingtheblues.com
What Bridging the Blues does is provide a shopping list of blues related events and things to see and do that allow you to move freely about, up and down and back and forth along this 250 mile long swath of delta. Bridging the Blues is designed as a tool so you can immerse yourself in the music and the culture as you would like it to be discovered and enjoyed. That’s right, with Bridging the Blues “is all about you!”
There are three major music festivals around which Bridging the Blues is anchored but any of the dozen music festivals being showcased will hardwire you immediately to what the delta blues is all about. There is King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, AR; Delta Country Jam in Tunica, MS; and the Mighty Mississippi Musical/Highway 61 Festivals, also in MS but in the town of Greenville. Each is similar to one another but each is also unique in what they offer.
For example, King Biscuit Blues Festival offers you the opportunity to wander through Helena’s colorful 150 year old downtown area. Here inside the Delta Cultural Center (www.deltaculturalcenter.com) every weekday starting at 12:15 pm, you can be witness to one of the last true delta blues icons, Sunshine Sony Payne as he broadcasts live on 1000 watt KFFA from his studio inside the Visitors Center. Here Mr. Payne continues as he has done for the last 60-plus years to interview delta blues legends, play blues by the artists he saw perform the same songs live back in the late 1930s and ‘40s, and greet visitors who come inside to say hello.
The street scene at each music festival is pure party, with vendors, “foodie” stands, and street musicians who collectively paint a back drop for the top name blues artists that perform live on stage. One of the important reasons blues lovers come to the delta is to hear the local blues artists perform this music, for it is through these performers that the genre’s guide-on is being passed along to the current and the next generation of blues music masters. It doesn’t get any better than this!
Nowhere is the essence of any provincial culture like the Mississippi delta region more easily experienced than by enjoying the local cuisine. Case in point in Arkansas, minutes to the west of Helena in the town of Marianna, is Jones’ BBQ. Open fire, pit roasted pork is done to perfection, then pulled, then augmented with their own BBQ sauce and served on slices of white Wonder Bread, with or without slaw.
This is true local fare. Further down the Big Muddy in Lake Village, AR is Rhoda’s Famous Tamales where her daily specials draw huge lunch time crowds and her homemade pies can be enjoyed onsite or “to go.” In the delta tamales are a big deal and in the Magnolia State the tourism folks have put together a Tamale Trail that can be followed from point A to point B to point C. Check the Tamale Trail website for the listings that overlay or are near the blues festivals, juke joints and museums listed on the “Bridging the Blues” website.
Bridging the Blues also includes a host of juke joints where live local blues music (typically performed by rural black artists) can be enjoyed. For those unfamiliar with the term, juke joints are rural spots that serve cold beer and either have live performers or a juke box, or both.
|Rhoda’s Famous Half Pecan Half Sweet Potato Pie|
A cultural stew where the ingredients include only pure delta funk, Bridging the Blues is instrumental in helping make the delta blue renaissance happen. Check it out!
Po’ Monkey’s: Merigold, MS
Red’s: Clarksdale, MS
Ground Zero: Clarksdale, MS
Club Ebony: Indianola, MS
Walnut St Blues Bar: Greenville MS
BB King Museum in Indianola, MS;
Highway 61 Blues Museum in Leland, MS;
Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, MS
Tamale sellers www.southernfoodways.org/oral-history/hot-tamale-trail/
Doe’s: Greenville, MS
The Crown: Indianola, MS
The Hollywood: Tunica, MS.
Jones’ BBQ: Marianna, AR
Rhoda’s Famous Tamales: Lake Village, AR