THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA
Jackson, Yazoo City, Cleveland, Clarksdale, Memphis, Helena, Greenville, Vicksburg, Natchez,
At the crossroads where, in the dark Mississippi night, Robert Johnson traded his soul to the devil for fame and guitar-playing genius, you can now get a Happy Meal and fries to go.
All character isn't lost in this storied land. Some things have been slow to change.
At the intersection of Routes 61 and 49, Abe's Bar B Q has been serving families, duck hunters and wanderers on the lost highway since 1924.
Among these may have included bluesmen that made the region famous, including John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters.
Jackson is a good starting point to tour the Western edge of the state where the Mississippi River forms the Deltaland.
Before leaving, grab a bite at the Old Tyme Delicatessen and Bakery on Interstate 55 at Northside Drive (Exit 100). They sport the hurried, untidy look of New Orleans restaurants and serve big tripple-decker sandwhiches, catfish and Louisiana hot sauces. They also sell Hungarian spices from their pantry.
Take Medger Evers Boulevard out of town to the north. The boulevard, named for Mississippi's Civil Rights leader who organized boycotts and registered the state's uncounted African Americans to vote, is part of the parade route during the Martin Luther King Holiday. If visiting that weekend, look in the local paper for the schedule. Medger Evers Boulevard continues out of town as Highway 49.
At about eight miles, a large mound with large trees growing on top will appear on the left and a small town on the right. The town bears the name of the group of mounds called Pocahontas. There is a roadside stop by the mound and stairs to the top. The view from the mound is historically interesting as you imagine the ancient community that once inhabited the area.
The small town of Pocahontas has a dry goods store with fuel and snacks, an interesting looking barbeque restaurant, a volunteer fire department and a crafts center.
A few miles to the north, near the town of Flora, is the Mississippi Petrified Forest to the left on a well-marked rural road. An ancient river probably carried the giant logs to their resting place in this badly erroded land.
On my visit, two women running the visitor center recounted experiences of their childhood in Mississippi, including seeing the first car bound down a muddy road into town, a horse running ahead to announce its arrival. The visitor center, with its museum of petrified wood and other minerals, sold Chinese figureens, African good luck dolls, Mexican vases and refrigerator magnets. The logo, featuring a woodpecker with a bent beak standing on a petrified log, may be worth having on your regrigerator.
Yazoo City has an interesting museum, the Yazoo Historical Museum at 332 North Main Street. Call (601) 746-2273 to get information. A side trip might take you 25 miles east to the Casey Jones Railroad Museum in Vaughn. This is the site of Casey Jones' famous 1900 train wreck.
Leaving Yazoo City take Highway 49W to Indianola, then Highway 448 to Shaw, which is on the historical Route of the Blues, Highway 61. A little historical background and some blues music will make the desolate landscape come to life.
The Mississippi Department of Tourism offers free cassette tapes featuring the state's history and culture. They can be found at most visitor centers.
Cleveland is a good place to eat or stay the night. Nearby Dockery Farms is the birthplace of the legenday Charlie Patton. The town holds an annual Blues Festival and there is the Wright Art Gallery at Delta State University to visit.
The Country Platter Restaurant on Highway 61 is appealing if you are looking for lots of down-home cooking.
Clarksdale was once the home of Tennessee Williams, as well as many legendary bluesmen. The legend of the down-and-out musician meeting the devil around midnight at the crossroads to trade an untuned instrument for eternal greatness originated here. Some say the crossroads is the intersection of Routes 61 and 49. Get a snack at a local eatery and ponder days-gone-by in this strange place.
Abe's Bar B Q is a local favorite near the intersection of Routes 61 and 49. Delta Donuts, next door, is another.
The Delta Blues Museum attracts visitors from all over the world to its location in the historic Carnagie Library, 114 Delta Avenue. And the museum has a new annex in the old railroad depot at the end of John Lee Hooker Street. It's address is One Blues Alley.
The Carnagie Library also houses the Archeology Museum of the area. And, there is the North Delta Museum twelve miles to the northwest in Friars Point. Hernando de Soto may have first laid eyes on the Mississippi River near here.
The Delta Jubilee takes place in early June. The Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival occurs in early August. And, the Tennessee Williams Festival is in October. For information on these events, call (800) 626-3764.
Rooster Records has left in search of brighter horizons in St. Louis, and with it went the record store that helped keep the town's blues heritage alive.
Continuing north on 61 toward Memphis, the highway remains low and flat as it crosses the rich delta farmland. Interestingly, this land was once wooded. It was cleared with slave labor to make way for the plantations.
Shiney new casinos with tall brightly colored signs mar the landscape near Tunica. The Delta seems more suited to the unassuming monochromatic shades of white cotton on black stems in black dirt against gray sky, as it is seen in historic photographs. Robinsonville, a little further up the road, is an imortant town in the history of Blues musicians like Robert Johnson and Son House.
Memphis is among the most culturally significant cities in the country.
The Lorraine Motel, 450 Mulberry Street, is the location of the National Civil Rights Museum. The old motel is the controverial site where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and features interactive displays on the Civil Rights Movement.
The nearby Arcade Restaurant at 540 South Main Street has been around since 1919, boasting it is Memphis' oldest restaurant. Sitting in a booth where a scene from Mystery Train was filmed, the poor diner service becomes a necessary part of the experience. Don't rush out; the train doesnt stop at Central Station anymore
You'll discover that Beale Street is not what it once was; it is a whole lot shinier, and pricier. The Center for Southern Folklore, at 209 on the fabled street, is worth visiting. They aim to preserve the area's great past by putting musicians who don't have billing at B.B. King's on a small stage for a small audience. I found 84-year-old Mose Vinson knapping in his chair preparing for his show later that night.
The W. C. Handy House Museum, at 352 Beale Street, takes you back to the turn of the century when W. C. Handy helped make "Blues" and "Beale Street" household words.
Sun Studios can be found a few blocks northeast of Beale Street at 706 Union Avenue. Just walking on the floor of the little studio is interesting when you stop to consider who performed here -- Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rufus Thomas, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich and the performer for which the city is most remembered, Elvis Presley. Be sure to see the people lining up for the Graceland tour south of town on Elvis Presely Boulevard.
The historic Peabody Hotel has hosted music groups from gospel to punk ensembles, but the ducks that live in the hotel fountain and ride the elevator are the current daily attraction.
The Chucalissa Museum is operated by the University of Memphis Department of Anthropology. The mound site features a reconstructed 15th century Indian village and a museum with exhibits on history of prehistoric and modern Indian culture. You can also learn about archeological work in the field. The site is located at T. O. Fuller State Park southwest of Memphis on Mitchell Road. Call (901) 785-3160 to find out about special events at the park.
Get to West Memphis by crossing the mighty the Mississippi River on Interstate 40 bridge. Take Highway 79 to Marianna, Arkansas and 1 South to the junction with Highway 49. This route offers a solitary panarama of the soggy delta farmland. Take Highway 49 East.
In Helena, Arkansas the Delta Cultural Center can be found downtown in the historic 1912 Missouri Pacific rail station. The downtown has wear-with-all character and the surrounding area is slowly being revived as the city's Antebellum, Edwardian and Victorian homes are brought back to life. The Phillips County Museum is at 623 Pecan Street.
Annually, the city puts on the King Biscuit Blues Festival on the second weekend of October.
Cross over the Mississippi River and join Highway 1 South. This route travels through open fields and old farm towns close to the great river. Friars Point is the place where Hernando de Soto may have first laid eyes on the Mississippi.
Stovall's Plantation, where Alan Lomax recorded Muddy Waters, is several miles to the south.
Just north of Greenville you'll see the Winterville Mounds State Park. A museum exhibits artifacts of the Indian culture that constructed and inhabited several large mounds on the site. To get information, call (601) 334-4684.
Rejoin Highway 61 at Onward, Mississippi and pass through the Delta National Forest.
Vicksburg is a city overflowing with heritage making it worthy of an extended visit. Most known for it's National Military Park, which preserves the history of Grant's seige of Vicksburg, the city offers many great museums including the Southern Cultural Heritage Complex and the Jacqueline House African American Museum.
Many historic homes and mansions are preserved and be sure to drop in on the Biedenharn Candy Company Museum and Museum of Coca-Cola Memorabilia if you can control yourself in this turn-of-the-century soda fountain and candy store.
Port Gibson is a good point to leave Highway 61 and get on the Natchez Trace Parkway, operated by the National Park Service, which maintains the historic route as a commercial free, reduced speed zone.
Heading south you come to the Emerald Mound, second in size only to Monks Mound at tha Cahokia site in Illinois. The mound covers eight acres and could accomodate two football fields. The Mississippian culture inhabited the site between 1250 A.D. and 1700 A.D. and it may have been part of a larger civil structure.
There are more than twelve major mound sites within 25 miles of the Emerald Mound. There are secondary mounds atop the main structure making an effective lookout over the area's heavily wooded terrain. Exploring the mound sites along the Natchez Trace, it becomes obvious that the old route was established well before the Spanish, French or English visited the Mississippi Valley.
Natchez, about ten miles south, is the southern-most point on the Natchez Trace, the point at which merchants and boatmen left the Mississippi to travel over land to the east before the invention of the paddlewheel steamboat.
The Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, a small mound site and musem, features exhibits about the historic ceremonial center of the Natchez Indians, who were driven from the area by French settlers in 1729. The gift shop sells Seminole dolls, woven baskets and other-hand crafted items. The prices are relatively high, but the procedes help support the artisans and the museum.
The Natchez Trace is an easy drive along a scenic route to Jackson. There are several historic sites alond the way including Historic Jefferson College and Rocky Springs, where only the church remains. The pioneer town was devastated by war, disease and floods.
Ridgeland, a suburb of Jackson, holds it's annual Pioneer and Indian Festival in October. The two day event features Choctow dances and storytelling, as well as Celtic and Southern music performances.
/Stay tuned, more to come.
Geography and Cultural History
Mississippi Musical Heritage
Sidetrip to Meridian
--Mark D. Lacy
Also, see the King's Road and Southeast Arizona.