The Mississippi Delta is a storied region. It is the birthplace of the blues, yes, but also one of the areas in the country susceptible to extreme flooding, extreme racism, and extreme poverty. I can’t say why exactly I’d wanted to go check that area out. Perhaps it was because it’s ground zero for the only American-born music, but claiming that doesn’t quite feel right because I am not a well-versed or even well-listened blues fan. There was something in my mind that was haunting about the region. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about it, but I felt the need to explore.
My folks were supposed to meet me in New Orleans and go up through the Delta with me. What I think drew them to Mississippi was the music. I grew up with blues being played on our family stereo, so they have been fans for decades. Unfortunately, my dad couldn’t make it, so this ended up being a girls road trip.
Our first stop was Vicksburg. This was my mom’s request - she felt compelled to see this Civil War battlefield since we were going to be so close. I obliged because, why the hell not. I know just about nothing regarding the Civil War, but I guess this was an integral battle that the Union soldiers eventually won. We got there kind of late in the day and were wholly unprepared. Probably some sort of tour would have been cool, but this National Park is something like 18,000 acres and to explore it all would probably take a day. Hell, it’d probably take a week. It’s an impressive park - the preservation, statues commemorating those who died during the six month battle, and just the sheer size of it are something to see - and maybe if we’d done some sort of walking tour it would have left more of an impression on me.
We considered staying the night in Vicksburg, but ultimately decided to push on to Greenville.
So, a little about my mom. For years, decades, really, she has been clipping articles out of newspapers and magazines that pertain to travel that she might possibly be interested in at some point in her life. What that translates to is several manila file folders in her office filing cabinet organized in some way that probably only makes sense to her. She’d been clipping out articles on the Mississippi Delta and Blues Trail for awhile now, much before we’d talked about doing this leg of the trip together. For the record, this is not a criticism. It is more of a “isn’t my mom adorable?” The woman is old school and God love her for it.
It was because of her avid Garden and Gun research on the area that she knew we had to go to Doe’s Eat Place for dinner that night. It had been talked about in all the articles on the Mississippi Delta. Entering in, I was psyched. It’s some totally rundown little shack house with the kitchen spread out into two rooms and a lot of happy, fat people. Doe’s has been around since like 1941 or something. There’s a real history here and if you’re interested, google it, because it’s kind of cool. The people are known for their steaks, namely their bone-in rib eyes. They’re served at 32 oz and come with fries. I can’t tell you how stoked we were to eat one of these steaks (very), but I will tell you how disappointed we were in the steak we got (very). I’m not going to yammer on about our sub-par meal because who the shit cares about that, but basically, by the look of this place, it was going to be a real local experience and we left pretty underwhelmed.
That night, we stayed in the finest Greenville accommodations - Harlow’s Casino. My mom will probably shoot me for telling you that we stayed here, but whatever - this is real life. This place was weird. Weird in a way you expect a small town Mississippi casino to be. Everything you’re envisioning is exactly what we experienced. It was also a Wednesday, so there was an extra special air of desperation about the place. I wrote some thank you letters in the casino bar, my mom gambled at the video blackjack next to me until she got too frustrated and moved on to video poker on the floor. She got a hot machine and was more tickled than I’ve seen here in awhile. The lady does really love a good casino situation.
The next morning we drank some weak ass casino coffee and went in search of the storied Mississippi hot tamales. We decided on South Main Market and Deli, which is owned by the same folks who run Doe’s. We chose this spot because of the tamales - “Signa” tamales - the secret recipe of the family that started Doe’s and supposedly one of the best in the state. I’ve gotta say, y’all can skip these. The salad I had was much needed and far more enjoyable.
We drove around Greenville a bit and from the looks of it, it’s got a history, but like many of the little towns we came across in Mississippi, it’s fallen into disrepair and there isn’t much industry in the area to bring it back to life. It’s a shame, too, because the old buildings were really gorgeous. I’ve realized I have a real thing for old limestone brick buildings.
We stopped off in Leland, Mississippi, another cool, old town without much life, and followed the signs to the Jim Henson Museum, which was essentially the visitor’s bureau with a ton of Henson memorabilia. Jim Henson grew up in the area until he was about 10 and apparently Kermit the Frog came from Deer Creek, the creek that runs through town. Y’all, even though this was a pretty tiny exhibit - really just a few small rooms of stuff - it was rad. Most notably because there was stuff about Henson’s weirdo puppetry like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth in this little tiny deep southern town’s visitor center. Seeing a photo of David Bowie dressed up as the Goblin King prominently displayed in Leland, Mississippi’s visitor center was a sight to behold. The Muppets memorabilia room was also cool as hell - there were tons of glass display cases with all kinds of collectibles spanning from the 70s until the present. Everything had been donated over the years, some items sent from as far away as Europe.
Our next stop along US-82 was Indianola, Mississippi to check out the B.B. King Museum. I was pretty blown away by this museum. I will admit, my expectations were low, but I was proven wrong and this is an excellent place to visit. Not only is it an incredibly in-depth history of B.B. King, who is probably the most famous blues man to come out of the Delta, but also a really incredible history of the area, the time period in which he grew up, and the blues scene itself. It traces his entire career up until a few years ago and, now that he’s passed, they will be adding on another piece that chronicles the end of his life. He’s also buried there and they plan to build a remembrance garden around his gravesite. I learned a lot and have a far deeper appreciation of him as a musician and a man.
We drove around Indianola a bit, saw some of the fabled juke joints in the area (though it was still the afternoon, so they weren’t poppin’ off yet), and checked out another cool ass old town that’s fallen down.
That night, we stayed in Greenwood, Mississippi, which I think was our most favorite place of the Delta haunts, though I’m not sure if it was because of the town itself or the luxurious accommodations my mom graciously put us up in. We had dinner at Lusco’s, which is another famous steakhouse in the Delta, and this place made up for our mediocre dinner the night before in spades. We sat in this cute little private dining room, ate some incredible fried Gulf shrimps and went to town on one of the best rib eye steaks I’ve ever eaten in my life. It was goddamn magical.
Greenwood is the home of Fred Carl, Jr., who founded Viking Range. The company is headquartered there and Carl has done a lot for his hometown to make it a spot for tourism. In 2003, he opened what I expect to be the only fancy boutique hotel in the area, The Alluvian, and then a few years later, built up a spa and the Viking cooking school. We stayed at The Alluvian while we were there and it was a highlight of the trip with my mom. I’ve been sleeping on dirt grounds, pebbles, the sand, in spare bedrooms, on air mattresses, in casino hotel rooms, etc, so staying in a swanky hotel, complete with a bar with and excellent bourbon selection was a dream.
Greenwood is, by far, the most revitalized town of the area, which isn’t saying too much really, but, with the Alluvian Hotel and the Viking influences, it’s become somewhat of a destination spot for folks. There’s a great bookstore, TurnRow Books, just a few blocks from the hotel, several home stores that cater to the monied Southern set, and a few higher quality restaurants in the area. As far as a hot shit spendy restaurant, I can’t imagine you get any better than Lusco’s, but for a more casual atmosphere, we checked out Crystal Cafe on our way out of town for lunch the next day. This place was the business. The night before, we’d stopped by after gorging ourselves on steak to see if we could pick up a piece of their pie for dessert later on. They were out of coconut, though, so we decided to wait until the next day. On our way out of the restaurant, there was a woman and her older mother who were visiting from Mobile and having their picture taken in front. They asked us to join in (goddamn, The South and your friendly people, I love you). We got to chatting with them and they were both from Chicago. The daughter had moved down to Mobile at some point several years back and her mother moved down not long ago after she’d reached the age where she needed family close by. While we were talking about living in the South, the daughter said that “people down here feel human.” That made an impression on both my mother and me. And it’s true.
The South has always held an enchanted quality in my heart. I’m not exactly sure where that is rooted, but I imagine that growing up in Los Angeles with two Texans who hated every second of the City of Angels for at least the first decade probably had something to do with it. It’s likely half the reason L.A. never made an imprint on my soul and why I still, to this day, consider Austin more home than anything else. And I felt that human quality while I was in the South. Everyone is lovely. Everyone is friendly. Folks give a shit about you and they genuinely want to know how your day is going. They’ll chat with you about whatever and will listen, even if it’s a story they’ve heard a hundred times. So, yes, in a lot of ways, it does feel more human down there. Though, this is solely the experience of a white woman and I recognize that.
Cut back to the conversation with the mother and daughter in front of Crystal Cafe - an older woman walked by, interrupted us and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know you, but I love your dress.”
After our luxurious night at the Alluvian, we drove north on 49 East to Clarksdale. This was the town my mom was looking forward to the most as it was supposed to be the music hotspot. We stayed at the Shack Up Inn (http://www.shackupinn.com/), which was a cool concept - old shacks from around the area were transported to this piece of land and then converted into small bungalows. There’s all kinds of stuff to look at - random odds and ends , but I will have to admit it wasn’t as rad as the Airbnb Lesley and I stayed at in Opelousas. The AC was cold, though, and I was a big fan of their little screened-in porch.
Our first night in town, we headed to Red’s Lounge, one of the last original juke joints of the area. It’s been around for decades and is known as THE place in Clarksdale for an authentic blues experience. My mom and I showed up a little after 9, which, in retrospect, was a rookie mistake. Showing up at the time of the show is never a good look, but for some reason, not knowing how these things work in places that aren’t New York or Austin or any big city, I lost my feel for the appropriate time to arrive at a show. We walked into a relatively empty room with about seven white people sitting nervously along the bar. Foreign tourists. I think I correctly guessed there were at least two or three Germans, two Australians, and another group of unknown origin. This should have been my first clue. There was also another older hippie couple with a tiny bottle of Crown Royal in it’s precious velvet purple sack sitting on their table. We sat down. I’m sure we looked nervous, too. I mean, it was weird. Nothing was happening. Red, the owner, was sitting alone by himself just kind of waiting. On what, I’m not really sure. Maybe for the band to show up, maybe for more folks he recognized to come in. But basically, we were in this ancient spot with God knows what kind of storied history (if these walls could talk…), Red, and a bunch of tourists. It just felt off. It felt like we were all there because it was written in some tourist manifesto and we were just hungrily awaiting our authentic blues experience. It was kind of a gross feeling. Like back in the day, Red was really doing something and then blues fell out of favor, the powers that be recognized they could monetize the history of the area, and now what was presented to us was a shambled version of their blood, sweat, and tears. I don’t blame Red or what he’s doing. Not in the least. It seems that it’s something that is out of his control. Honestly, since I was there, I felt partially responsible. I felt like I was part of the machine. And that's not a feeling that sits well with me. When the band did show up, they ended up being more of a cover band of sorts and not really very bluesy. More folks streamed in through the night and it diversified some, but I couldn’t shake that feeling that we’d all just paid $10 to try and be a part of something that has been capitalized.
I really struggle with this concept.
Clarksdale arguably is the epicenter of blues, or at least was back in the day. For a time, it was a decently-sized town. There was an industry of some kind. I won’t go into the particulars of it only because I don’t want to go down the Google rabbit hole to find the hard facts, but one of the women I spoke to mentioned that her father used to work at a Wonderbread factory that closed down several years back. I got the impression that there were at least a few factories in the area back in the day that provided some economic stimulus to the area, but that Clarksdale has really struggled since those jobs have been moved elsewhere. I understand the need to bring in money of some kind to help the community. Morgan Freeman is from Clarksdale and he, along with the mayor, Bill Luckett, have definitely done a few things over the last 15 years or so to help revitalize the local economy, the most well-known being their blues club, Ground Zero. So, there is that side of things - the side where folks are trying to keep a once-somewhat thriving community afloat by bringing in a few new streams of revenue. The other side of the coin, though, is that it almost feels like a zoo. Tourists come and pay their “admission fee” to gawk at local culture. This is not a new concept by any stretch - hell, I had this same sentiment when I was traveling around India and tourists of all kinds have been doing this for decades. But, I guess it just feels disingenuous. I felt wrong for coming to look.
After some debate, my mom and I did end up going to Freeman’s blues club the next night. It feels like a small town version of a House of Blues with all kinds of “funky” shit on the walls as decoration and a proper stage set up. It’s definitely the glossy club in the area; a more white-washed experience. The band was much tighter and the music was better for sure. But, it’s still not the original. It’s a distorted xerox. And that really only furthered my original sentiments about the region.
The highlight for me of our time in Clarksdale was happenstance. My mom and I drove south one day to check out some more of the famed Highway 61. After getting back into Clarksdale, we stopped by the Riverside Hotel, which is probably one of the more famous destinations in town. It used to be a black hospital back in the day and when Bessie Smith was involved in a serious car accident on Highway 61 in 1937, she was brought there and that is where she died. When we arrived to check out the historical plaque, there was a Japanese film crew finishing up with a woman outside. I heard a commotion, turned around, and saw that she had taken a bad fall trying to get in the door. I ran over to help her out and sat with her a bit while she got her bearings. She introduced herself as Zee Ratliff, the owner and manager of the hotel. After she was able to walk again, she offered to show my mom and I around. Back in the day, when her father ran the hotel, it served as the place to stay, and sometimes boarding quarters, for several famous black musicians who came through the area - Ike Turner, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Nighthawk, Muddy Waters. JFK Jr. stayed there back in 1991. I mean, this place is the real deal. You can stay in these folks rooms, like THE room that Bessie Smith died in. That’s cool, but also, whoa man. Weird. They still have boarders who stay in the hotel, but it’s mostly a place tourists come to stay while they’re in town. We really should have stayed there instead of the Shack Up Inn, but whatever - you live and learn. Zee couldn’t have been more of a sweetheart, either. These are her roots, her family heritage, and she believes strongly in continuing its legacy. It is instances such as these where I am very much in favor of the area’s tourism. It keeps families like these alive, doing what is in their blood. The same could be said for Red and his juke joint, so unless he has a problem with it, then why should I?
The Delta was by far the most thought-provoking and challenging area I’ve yet visited and, to date, this was probably the most difficult post to write. It's an area that was once prosperous and full of life, though partially at the cost of those folks who worked that land either as slaves or later, as sharecroppers who were usually taken advantage of. Truthfully, I had a lot of white guilt surface while I was traveling through this area. And, really, you should. Some fucked up shit went down in the Delta over the course of hundreds of years and still does. We’ve progressed as a people since, but you can’t shake such rooted behaviors in a generation and the disparity between white and black neighborhoods in these towns is drastic. It was hard to see that, but I am glad I did. This isn’t a disparity that is unique to the Delta - this stuff plays out everywhere. In other places, though, it might not be as in your face and sometimes you need a very real experience to be reminded of where we still are.
In closing this out, I’d just like to note that I’ve been listening to D’Angelo’s ‘Black Messiah’ as I’ve finished writing this. It was not on purpose, but when I realized the coincidence, I can’t help but think maybe there was a subconscious motivation.