The story of a dirt poor boy hailing from the rural cotton fields of back roads Mississippi to become one of the finest musicians in history is well known. Riley B. "B.B." King, born to a sharecropper and his wife in Itta Bena, Miss., was an American blues singer, guitarist, songwriter and record producer.
By the end of his career, he was ranked among one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. Throughout his life, however, he called the nearby city of Indianola, Miss., home where proud Mississippians erected a museum in his honor and boasted of the many times he had returned, spent time, parked his tour bus out back and just became one of the regular folks, or tried to.
But then King died in May of 2015 and, hearing that news, I thought back to the film I watched nearly alone in the museum auditorium. King's instantly recognizable guitar playing, dipping and soaring as frame by frame shows his life story, is a tribute to all those who created something good, even great, from the unrelenting, undulating Mississippi Delta.
The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, a $14 million facility dedicated to King and the blues, is a fantastic way to spend an afternoon in this otherwise aimless town. It is bright, new and filled with artifacts documenting his 60-year career.
Mississippi has so many famous native sons and, maybe, some not so famous except to music historians, and some daughters, too … that the Blues Trail was created with now nearly 200 interpretative markers spread over the state related to the birth, growth and development of the blues.
To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi. - William Faulkner
We traveled it last spring … finding charm, barbecue and some soul-stirring music. Landing in Memphis and heading south, we discovered a new Elvis attraction in DeSoto County, the farm where he and Priscilla spent their honeymoon. Elvis’s Circle G Ranch (rumored to be named for either Graceland or Elvis’s mother, Gladys), just south of town in Horn Lake, Miss., was purchased recently by a group of developers who intend to renovate the entire site. Elvis draws millions to Memphis each year, and now those millions have a reason to return.
We traveled on to Tunica. The casino industry changed what was once the poorest county in the state to a money-producing economic engine. In a short time, nearly a dozen casinos sprang upward from the black soil into a mini-version of Vegas. Highly recommended is a stop at the Gateway to the Blues Museum – a fun and educational way to begin the Blues Trail.
Southward through the flat, boundless cotton fields, observers note Mississippi's endless farmland offers both the hope and futility from which sprang the musicmaker King, along with hundreds of others.
The land is so flat and endless it is no wonder the inhabitants felt the merciless oppression of heat, poverty and racial discrimination would lead to nothing. But it was from that combination that musical marvels sprang, from the putrid dust and destitute conditions, to a commonality of faith in God, each other and, for some, wealth and celebrity.
Hundreds of markers comprise the Blues Trail, which covers the state (msbluestrail.org). We stopped, for example, along Norfolk Road, on the way to nowhere special and walked to a tree where a large blue (get it?) plaque filled us in on the life and legacy of Memphis Minnie, a premier artist of the '30s and '40s.
While there are several cities that anchor the Delta, it is Clarksdale where all blues seekers travel. Clarksdale, located at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 (“the crossroads”) and the surrounding Delta region are known as “the land where the blues began.” Home to festivals and music events one after another, Clarksdale is just the right mixture of things to do and nothing to do. You can find plenty of people busily taking it all in and just as many sitting for hours, watching them. It is also the childhood home of Tennessee Williams. On the streets are impromptu strumming and music oozes from many doors. Artsy, eclectic hippies wander among the Bermuda shorts-wearing crowds, kids dart in and out and visions of chess pie and collard greens can be satisfied at many local dives and mom and pops.
Do visit Clarksdale's two museums: the Rock ‘n’ Roll Blues Heritage Museum began life as the per sonal and private collection of Theo Dasbach, a former Dutchman/blues enthusiast who could contain himself no longer in The Netherlands. He moved to Clarksdale and set up a rave shop...now filled with so much blues memorabilia it would take days to study it all. Since 1999, the Delta Blues Museum has been located in the historic Clarksdale freight depot, a Mississippi Landmark Property. The former freight area – about 5,000square feet of ground floor space – is devoted to permanent and traveling exhibits. There is a large outdoor stage and the museum offers a variety of exhibits and live performances throughout the year. A must.
Clarksdale is also home to the Ground Zero Blues Club, a venue/restaurant owned in part by actor Morgan Freeman, and features a huge dining hall/concert space. It reminded this visitor of Austin's famed Armadillo World Headquarters. The idea is to BE there, to lay claim to being part of the action, thereby ensuring your place in musical history. Names of hundreds of thousands of visitors are scribbled onto every imaginable surface. While the food is suitable, and the view is obscured from the back of the room and the sound level overwhelming and the tour bus groups squeeze into the room in large chunks, the staff is efficient and the cool factor is high.
We ended our trip in Greenwood, Miss., known for being the filming location of the movie, “The Help,” as well as home to the Tallahatchie River, paid homage to by Bobbie Gentry in her famous ballad “Ode to Billie Joe.” Greenwood is also where Robert Johnson died at age 27. Virtually unknown during his lifetime, today he is considered a master blues man. His premature death has been attributed by some to his “making a deal with devil to sell his soul for success.” Drive yourself around (greenwoodms.com/index.aspx?NID=305) to check out the various locations used in the movie, “The Help.”
Notable Places in 'The Sip' to Dine:
The Blue and White in Tunica has been dishing up southern favorites like chicken fried steak, catfish, fried chicken, grits and an amazing breakfast since 1924. blueandwhiterestaurant.com
The Crown in Indianola is a family-owned and operated delight serving catfish Allison, homemade chicken salad and their famous dessert table where patrons help themselves to all the desserts they care to have. thecrownrestaurant.com
Delta Bistro in Greenwood features a modern décor set in a historical building and the award-winning cuisine of James Beard-nominated chef and co-owner, Taylor Bowen Ricketts. deltabistropub.com
The Hollywood Cafe in Tunica. 'Home of the fried dill pickle since 1969' is one of its claims to fame. Others are the ribs, real burgers, great bar and charm, charm, charm. Don't be daunted by the hapless exterior. John Grisham was a regular here and mentioned it several times in "A Time To Kill." thehollywoodcafe.com
The Velvet Cream located in Hernando. Known as “The Dip,” it is a walk up burger (dozens of varieties) and ice cream joint, famous as the hang out for all locals. dipmenu.com
Brussel’s Bonsai Nursery
Brussel's Bonsai has little to do with Mississippi blues, but it is a fascinating place to stop for a visit. Located in Olive Branch, it is the country's largest supplier of bonsai trees. Greenhouses with more than 175,000 square feet house a multitude of trees ready to be shipped over the world. The facility also host an annual gathering of bonsai enthusiasts for lectures, networking and sharing the appreciation for the art. brusselsbonsai.com