The blues were born in the Delta, but they grew up in Clarksdale. The census rolls for this small town read like a musical hall of fame: Ma Rainey, W. C. Handy, Bessie Smith, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, Muddy Waters, Wade Walton, John Lee Hooker, Big Jack Johnson, and many others. Their achievements are described—and can be heard—in the Delta Blues Museum (662/627-6820, Mon.-Sat., $10) in the circa-1918 railroad depot at the heart of Clarksdale’s “Blues Alley” district downtown. Stroll two blocks north to the Rock & Blues Museum (113 E. 2nd St., 901/605-8662 or 662/524-5144, hours vary, $5), a more down-home display of memorabilia exploring the international impact of the blues on popular music. Both places offer free maps of the area, calendars of blues events, and all sorts of helpful information and advice. In short, Clarksdale is the best place to start your journey through the Delta blues world.

Ever since W. C. Handy traded his steady gigs in Clarksdale for a career on Beale Street in Memphis, the Mississippi Delta has exported its blues musicians to places where they receive wider recognition and a living wage, but come on a Friday or Saturday night and you’ll see that Clarksdale’s juke joints like the resurgent Red’s Lounge (395 Sunflower Ave.), along the waterfront south of downtown, can still cook up some good hot blues. Many of the most “authentic” juke joints are in dilapidated parts of town, but an infusion of cash by the likes of actor Morgan Freeman has created the more accessible Ground Zero Blues Club (662/621-9009), offering meals and music a block west of the Delta Blues Museum. If you’re in town during April or August, it would be a shame to miss mid-April’s lively Juke Joint Festival, or the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, organized by the Blues Association in partnership with local businesses and organizations and staged every August at venues around town.

The rest of downtown Clarksdale is well worth exploring for its lazy ambience and wealth of history. The old Delta Cinema (11 3rd St.), downtown, is closed for most of the year except to host events like the Clarksdale Film Festival and shows during the Juke Joint Festival. There’s also a restaurant with a connected steamboat-shaped seating area around the corner, across the street from the Sunflower River. Funky art galleries like Cat Head Blues & Folk Art (252 Delta Ave., 662/624-5992) showcase local culture and events while offering an array of hard-to-find CDs, DVDs, and T-shirts. Like the music museums listed above, Cat Head specializes in all things blues, serving as a store, a stage (with frequent free music), a record label, a clearinghouse of information, and a state of mind.

Clarksdale has plenty of fast food, but the barbecue is better: Try Abe’s Bar-B-Q (616 N. State St., 662/624-9947), in the center of town, cooking up tangy ’cue and hot tamales since 1924. For traditional Deep South diner food mixed with a surprising and comparatively healthy dose of Lebanese-Italian deli items (and fantastic chocolate cream pies), check out Chamoun’s Rest Haven (419 State St., 662/624-8601, Mon.-Sat.).

US-61, a.k.a. State Street, is also where you’ll find Clarksdale’s motels, including Comfort Inn (818 S. State St., 662/627-5122, $80 and up) at the southern end of town. More adventurous visitors might want to consider Clarksdale’s old Afro-American Hospital, where blues vocalist Bessie Smith died in 1937 after a car wreck out on US-61. Now called the Riverside Hotel (615 Sunflower Ave., 662/624-9163, $65 and up), it rents a few minimally updated rooms. For a more comfortable but still definitely down-to-earth Delta experience, spend the night in a renovated sharecropper shack at the one-of-a-kind Shack Up Inn (662/624-8329, $75 and up), on the grounds of the historic Hopson Plantation three miles south of Clarksdale along Hwy-49. The 19 wooden shacks have plumbing and power but still feel authentic, and you get your own front porch to practice your blues harp or simply take in the Delta dawn; the Shack Up also has other room accommodations, cold beers, and blues music at the on-site Chapel Bar.