My good friend and writer John Gehring and I spent Memorial Day visiting the Mississippi Delta and Memphis, where we ventured to lots of historic musical and civil rights-oriented sites.
We left Memphis for the Delta, guided in part by the Mississippi Blues Trail, we located Memphis Minnie’s tranquil gravesite at the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church cemetery, situated on a silent flat expanse of land near the village of Marks, Miss. (See photo gallery below.) Born as Lizzie Douglas and sometimes called “Kid,” the blues woman played electric guitar and essentially rock ‘n roll in the 1930s and 1940s, decades before Elvis Presley entered Sam Phillips’ studio up the highway in Memphis.
We continued South to find the site of Muddy Waters’ old sharecropper cabin among the giant Pecan trees and fields of the old Stovall Plantation. It was here in 1941 that folklorist Alan Lomax recorded the man who'd become perhaps the most consequential bluesman of all time, born as McKinley Morganfield. After Muddy Waters finally wrangled a pressing of his recordings from Lomax, he left for Chicago to play electrified blues in the clubs and became a towering figure of course in American music.
In the town of Clarksdale, we ventured down the street from our second-floor apartment for the night to the Ground Zero Blues Club, where the house band rocked. But the real action was down the street at Red’s Blues Club, a juke joint where the excellent band that night played blistering, extended electric versions of B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” and Albert King’s “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” among others. There was no air conditioning, but coolers at the bar were stocked full of cheap icy cold beer under the watchful eye of Mr. Red himself.
The next morning, we visited the Delta Blues Museum in the old train depot in Clarksdale. The museum displays lots of guitars and clothing that belonged to bluesmen and women such as John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and Annie Mae Hemphill. The museum also houses the actual cabin (the one mentioned above) where Muddy Waters lived at the time of his first Alan Lomax recordings. It's always incredible to see.
Then we turned our attention to learning about the Civil Rights Movement. We made a somber visit to museum in the remote swamp-side community of Glendora and the Emmett Till Historic Interpretive Center, housed on the site of an old cotton gin, next door to where one of the Till's killers once lived. The small museum displays a little red wagon Till had as a younger boy, lent by the Smithsonian Institution. (In the most moving museum experience I’ve ever had, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. displays Till’s original casket, which was exhumed for DNA sampling after his death. The museum and such experiences as this is a life changing experience.)
Then we continued to the community of Money, Miss., to see the vine-covered Bryant’s Grocery, the now-eerie site where Till reportedly whistled at the white woman running the store. Till was promptly kidnapped from his uncle, Moses (or “Mose”) Wright’s home a few miles away, tortured and killed by at least two white men and tossed into the swamps funneling into the Tallahatchee River. A fan from the cotton gin at Glendora was tied around his neck.
Just down Money Road from that site is the Zion Baptist Church cemetery, to one of the believed gravesites of the great bluesman, Robert Johnson. This may be Johnson's actual resting place--because someone claimed to have witnessed the burial. I’ve been to another possible gravesite, in Morgan City, a remote community near Itta Bena. Alongside the grave off Money Road, visitors had left behind liquor bottles, candles and a horseshoe in tribute to Johnson, who died when he was just 27. (Check out Rosanne Cash’s moving song about visiting this area, “Money Road.” Also see our full concert review and exploration of Cash's album The River and the Thread here. )
Not far down the road apiece, cross the bridge over the Yalobusha River and you’re in Greenwood, one of the larger towns in the Delta but left deeply economically depressed. We stopped downtown at Turnrow Book Co., which has been called the prettiest bookshop in the nation. John perused the excellent children’s section to select gifts for his kids, and I bought an autographed copy of the new biography of Dick Waterman, who managed bluesmen Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Pete Williams and others during their career renaissance in the 1960s. The same afternoon, we passed through the tiny hamlet of Avalon, where Hurt spent most of his life and is buried.
We departed the Delta and headed for picturesque Oxford, Miss., to stroll the town square. In case you don’t know, Square Books is one of the best-curated bookstores in America, with great sections on all types of music, but especially the blues, country and soul. I even spotted a few copies of my Nashville writer and musician friend Peter Cooper’s collection of his music writing, Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music. Years ago, Peter and I worked at the Herald-Journal in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and he’s now the writer in residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In Oxford, I also found a couple of gems at The End of All Music record store, which has moved from a home on the edge of town to a groovy second-story space right on the square. I found a neat collection of 1960s Muscle Shoals rarities on vinyl.
I dined twice during this trip at Boure’, a snazzy New Orleans-influenced eatery on the square owned by the same group that owns the stalwart City Grocery restaurant nearby. For one meal, I enjoyed the Peacemaker, a po’ boy sandwich with fried crawfish, oysters and shrimp. On the second visit, John and I had Philadelphia Cheese Steak sandwiches--as in Philadelphia, Miss. But they tasted like the real yummy Yankee original to me, without the cheese sauce.
We then headed back to Memphis.
Gallery below: 1. Memphis Minnie's gravesite . 2. The other side of Memphis Minnie's headstone. 3. Mississippi Blues Trail marker at the site of Muddy Waters' former home, outside Clarksdale. 4. The band at Red's Blues Club in Clarksdale. 5. Historical marker at Bryant's Grocery in Money, with the grown-over remains of the store in the background. 6. Peter Cooper's book on display at Square Books in Oxford. 7. The square in Oxford. 8. An earlier image of Bryant's Store from a previous trip. 9. Robert Johnson's gravesite near Greenwood. Photos by Alan Richard.