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.

Clarksdale

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 whose achievements are described—and may be heard—in the Delta Blues Museum (662/627-6820, closed Sun., $7) in the circa-1918 railroad depot at the heart of Clarksdale’s “Blues Alley” district downtown. The museum offers maps of blues landmarks around town and around the state, a calendar of blues events, and all sorts of helpful information. In short, this is the best place to start your journey through the Delta blues world, especially if you can arrange to be here for one of the annual blues and culture festivals, like mid-April’s very lively Juke Joint Festival.

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 Clarksdale’s juke joints (like the resurgent Red’s Lounge) 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 from the Delta Blues Museum. If you’re in town during August, it would be a shame to miss the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, organized by the Delta Blues Museum and staged 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, still shows current releases in a 1920s theater and helps host the Juke Joint Festival. There’s also a steamboat-shaped store around the corner, across the street from the Sunflower River. Funky art galleries like Cat Head Blues and 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.

Clarksdale has plenty of fast food, but the barbecue is better: Try Abe’s Bar-B-Q (616 State St., 662/624-9947), in the center of town, cooking up tangy ’cue and pork-filled hot tamales since 1937, or the upstart Dreamboat BBQ (232 Sunflower Ave., 662/645-2501), housed in a historic riverboat-shaped stand, right downtown. For a surprising (and comparatively healthy) dose of Lebanese-Italian food (and fantastic chocolate cream pies!) amid the pork palaces, check out Chamoun’s Rest Haven (419 State St., 662/624-8601, closed Sun.).

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, $65 and up), on the grounds of the historic Hopson Plantation 10 miles south of Clarksdale. 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.

 

Clarksdale

Ground Zero Blues Club (387 Delta Ave.)

Delta Blues Museum (100 Blues Alley Ln.)

Cat Head Blues and Folk Art (252 Delta Ave.)

Shack Up Inn (1 Commissary Circle Rd.)

Riverside Hotel (615 Sunflower Ave.)

Comfort Inn (818 S. State St.)

Dreamboat BBQ (232 Sunflower Ave.)

Abe’s Bar-B-Q (616 State St.)

Chamoun’s Rest Haven (419 State St.)