The Great River Road

Old Man River, Father of Waters, “body of a nation,” Big Muddy—by any name the mighty Mississippi cuts a mythic figure across the American landscape.

Getting the Blues

If serious blues hounds sniff around enough, they can still find the kind of swaggering, sweaty, Saturday-night juke joint that will always be synonymous with real Delta blues. You know the place: bottles of Budweiser on ice in a plastic cooler, clouds of cigarette smoke, some rough customers, hot dancing, and honest gut-wrenching blues played with an intensity that rattles your fillings. Yes, such places exist, but they don’t have Facebook fan pages or make the list of area attractions given out by local chambers of commerce.

The really homegrown variety announces itself with hand-lettered signs on telephone poles and launderette bulletin boards, if at all. They have no phone numbers and no advance tickets (usually); you have to show up to find out who, if anyone, is playing. Ask around—the convenience store clerk or the person next to you at the barbecue counter. Keep in mind that the blues are rooted in a condition of the Delta’s black community that is no bed of roses; voyeurs slumming as tourists-to-hardship will be politely stonewalled at best. Rest assured, though; with perseverance and the proper attitude (and especially for women, a companion), you’ll find what you’re looking for. Once you get there, out-of-towners needn’t worry about the reception: Blues musicians welcome an appreciative audience, period.

Weekends, again mostly Saturday nights, are also about the only time you’ll catch blues in the more commercial juke joints and clubs, simply because so many musicians have other jobs during the week. If you really want to be sure of hearing some blues, time your travels to coincide with one of the big annual blues festivals, like these:

Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival (mid-August; Clarksdale, Mississippi)

Memphis Music and Heritage Festival (Labor Day weekend; Memphis, Tennessee)

Mississippi Delta Blues Festival (mid-September; Greenville, Mississippi)

King Biscuit Blues Festival (early October; Helena, Arkansas)

 

Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival (Clarksdale, MS)

Memphis Music and Heritage Festival (Memphis, TN)

Mississippi Delta Blues Festival (Greenville, MS)

King Biscuit Blues Festival (Helena, AR)