October 12, 2008

The Thrill Ain’t Gone for Blues Fans in the Delta

By Rob Sharp

A new museum honouring BB King has just opened in Mississippi. Rob Sharp reports

Various signs are pinned haphazardly to a shack of unpainted cypress wood, topped with a roof of galvanised, corrugated steel. One of them says the dress code should not be "like this", pointing to a picture of a man wearing a back-to-front cap. Another one lists a number of other rules for those who enter. These include "No dope smoking", "no beer", and a defiant, "no rap music".

This seems fair enough. There is no room for the latest fashions here at Po' Monkey's. This blues bar in the heart of the Mississippi Delta is widely considered to be one of the last surviving rural "jook joints", or the drinking dens that existed before the emancipation of slaves in the United States.

At the turn of the last century, within its rickety old walls, local African-Americans would relax after working in nearby cotton fields, on which much of the local economy was based. Punters would dance, drink and gamble to music inspired by their hardship and, over time, one of these strands of music became the blues.

The Mississippi Delta has a greater claim than most to the title "birthplace of the blues". Many of the music's legendary players - Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and BB King - grew up in the small towns that pepper the flat landscape here, essentially the fertile flood plain lying between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. At the beginning of September, one of these blues legends, BB King, celebrated the opening of his own museum, in his home town of Indianola, a small settlement of 12,000 towards the northwest of the state.

One of the best places to get good background on the region is at The Mississippi River Museum in Tunica, a short drive from Memphis International Airport, where most tourists arrive into the region. Tunica was once known for its vibrant fishing trade, hence its name, and now boasts a thriving casino culture. The museum gives a comprehensive introduction to the river's heritage, including its natural biodiversity and extensive civil war history and is genuinely insightful, while not dragging on too long.

But sometimes, such experiences can seem too sanitised; I tend to prefer something off the beaten track. So, after visiting Tunica, I drove to the nearby town of Greenwood, where I met Sylvester Hoover, a local academic, who showed off the poorer, more "authentic" side of living in the Delta. Hoover happily took me to the streets where Johnson grew up in the 1920s, and the experience was suitably humbling. The "houses" on show are tiny, and falling apart. These dilapidated buildings once accommodated up to nine people at a time, with the twin influences of the blues and church battling for their attention.

In Johnson's case, the blues famously won, and this conflict was for ever immortalised in his song "Cross Road Blues", in which he discusses selling his soul to the devil in exchange for becoming a famous blues player. It is believed by many to be discussing the battle between religion and music. Hoover can also take you to see Johnson's grave, which is located in the cotton fields just outside Greenwood. While "midnight serenades" of his music are on offer here, many will find them contrived.

Bidding Hoover farewell, I hired a car and followed part of the state authority's "Blues Trail", in which 150 markers are placed at musically interesting places across the region. I saw one of these at Dockery Farm, Cleveland, a former cotton plantation where legendary bluesman Charlie Patton grew up and learned his craft from his fellow guitarist Henry Sloan.

Information on the musicians appears on signposts here, pointing out that the likes of Patton went on to influence fellow famous bluesmen including Johnson, Bukka White, Ed "Son" House, Chester Burnett (also known as Howlin' Wolf), and Roebuck "Pops" Staples.

Finally, I drove to the King museum. Here, in Indianola, one can take in the various stages of the 83-year-old artist's life, including the background to his humble beginnings, and his time as a disc jockey in Memphis. But such exhibits are not anchored into the local culture - they could be anywhere. Like many parts of America, the most interesting features of the state are the people that inhabit it.

For accommodation, I opted for a local Comfort Inn, but I wished I had stayed in the much more authentically "blues" Riverside Hotel, in Clarksdale. This former hospital for African-Americans is where blues queen Bessie Smith died, after a car accident in 1937. Since then, it has become a regular haunt for everyone from Ike Turner to John Lee Hooker, according to its friendly owner Frank "Rat" Ratliff.

To eat, the food in this state is fried, fried and - fried. In Clarksdale, I sampled (fried) catfish at this small town's restaurant, Madidi, which is owned by the Hollywood superstar Morgan Freeman. I also enjoyed making pecan pie at the Viking Cooking School in Greenwood: musicians laid on the entertainment as I mixed together my ingredients.

The music was good. But then the quality of music remains consistently entertaining in the Delta. What else would you expect from the array of talented bluesmen here? They follow in hallowed footsteps.



Continental Airlines (0845 60 767 60; continental.com/uk) offers return flights to Memphis via Newark from 442 return between 1 November and 14 December. America As You Like It (020-8742 8299; americaasyoulikeit.com) offers a six-night BB King and the blues tour from 250 per person, based on two sharing, including three nights' accommodation in Memphis, one night in Clarksdale, one night in Indianola, and one night in Cleveland, and car hire.


Memphis and Mississippi Tourism (01462 440787; deep-south- usa.com).

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