Friday, July 3, 2015

Adventures in the Mississippi Delta

June was a great blues-filled month for your humble correspondent.  My birthday is in the early part of June and then there's Father's Day a couple of weeks later.  To celebrate both days, I got to enjoy two fun-filled days rambling around the Mississippi Delta over a couple of weekends.  It was pretty eye-opening because I had not been up there in a number of years, so it was cool to see what changes had taken place in the interim.

Day 1:  The weekend before last, my family decided to take me to Indianola to the B.B. King Museum for Father's Day.  It was my first visit since 2009.  It takes about two and a half hours to get there from where I live, so we set out early Saturday morning and our journey took us through Jackson through Yazoo City through Belzoni and Inverness and finally to Indianola, which is a city of about 12,000 to 15,000 residents who have no doubt seen an upswing in blues visitors since King's death six weeks ago.

The museum is just off of US Highway 49 on 2nd Street.  It was built on the site of an old cotton gin that King worked in as a teenager.  Part of the gin, one of the few still standing that was constructed from brick, is still standing and has been renovated and is used by the museum for various types of functions, such as meetings, receptions, and special exhibits.

Once you're in the museum, visitors watch a short video of King which serves as an introduction of sorts.  He visits a couple of places where he grew up and shares some memories of growing up in his warm and friendly manner.  

From that point, you step into the museum and get a very comprehensive look at King's life, beginning with an exhibit that focuses on the 1930's Mississippi that King grew up in.  You get to experience the trials and difficulties that King, and other African-Americans, experienced while growing up during that time, from his early years to his teen years working on plantations and driving a tractor.  There's an interesting look at the family that raised him after his mother and grandmother passed away during his childhood years.

From that point, you move to his days in Memphis as a deejay and musician.  There's a lot of memorabilia from WDIA, the station where King worked as a deejay, and his transformation from Riley B. King to the Beale Street Blues Boy.  There's some interesting items from the radio station, which was the first in the country formatted to serve African-Americans, including the elixir that King used to promote on his shows, Peptikon.  

There's also a lot of information about his early recording days in this area, and there are some multimedia places located through this area where visitors can read about and listen to the numerous artists from different genres that influenced King as a musician.  This is a great opportunity for novice blues fans to learn about different artists and hear different styles of music.

The rest of the museum covers the 60's through the most recent years, beginning with his relentless touring of the "Chitlin' Circuit" (complete with a replica of his tour bus, which serves as a theatre to view one of the many videos presented throughout the museum), going through his struggles to maintain an audience (due to changing musical tastes) in the mid 60's to his "discovery" by a white audience in the late 60's, thanks to the efforts of musicians he influenced, such as Eric Clapton, and promoters like Bill Graham, who booked King at the Fillmore and exposed him to a much wider audience, to his recognition as a blues icon.

As King's story unfolds, visitors also get a good look at how the world changed during this time, with the Civil Rights' movement allowing him to go places that he couldn't go before.  King was the perfect Civil Rights ambassador, with his kind and easygoing nature that appealed to fans both black and white, and you really get a sense of this during this part of the exhibit.

As you leave the exhibit, there's one more video to watch, with several supporters and musicians from different genres paying tribute to King's talent, his warm personality, and his generous spirit.  There were several points during the exhibit that were emotional, but this one was the most emotional, because this video was done before King's death to honor him and now it sounds more like a eulogy.  At this point, more than any other, I really felt the most emotional about his passing.  I understood the magnitude of it......we will probably never experience a blues artist like King again.

After a quick visit through the gift shop, it dawned on me that King was buried on the grounds, but I had not heard anything about it during our tour.  After purchasing a few items in the gift shop (some cool T-shirts and a CD that I had been looking for), I asked the lady working behind the counter where the grave was.  She pointed me to the west end of the ground.  We walked outside the building past the Educational/Cultural annex, not really knowing what to expect.

The grave was surrounded by a chain line fence with one lone wreath.  I have to admit it looked pretty lonely back there.  I knew that there hadn't been much time to do anything else and that it's all going to look very nice in the near future, but at the same time, it was a bit disappointing.  I plan to return once they get all the landscaping and construction work done to revisit it.  I'm sure it will be very nice and will serve as a fitting tribute to him when they're done.

Overall, I think you absolutely HAVE to visit the museum if you are even remotely interested in the blues.  It's a great way to spend three - four hours immersed in the history of the man and the music.  My family enjoyed it as much as I did and they learned a lot about King and the blues.

I had high hopes for the family to eat at the Blue Biscuit, located across the street from the museum.  Joe had sung its praises here a few weeks ago, but it was not to be.  It closes during the mid-afternoon and that was when we left the museum.  Disappointed, we drove back south to Yazoo City, where we discovered the excellent BBQ restaurant. Ubon's, which is located on US 49 next to a Blue Marker honoring Gatemouth Moore.  I highly recommend it if you're in the neighborhood, and be sure to sign your name on the wall, ceiling or counter-top of your choice while there.

On the way home, we stopped in at the Bentonia Blues Festival for a short visit.  Bentonia is only a few miles south of Yazoo City, so it was on the way.  Though we weren't there very long, we did get to hear L.C. Ulmer, one of my favorites, so that was pretty cool.  The music line-up was pretty fluid, with no real schedule to speak of.....just a list of artists to perform with no set times.

Many small towns in Mississippi have an annual festival of some kind with food, arts, crafts, and entertainment which consists of local singers and bands who perform country or gospel singing and maybe a dance team or two.  It's fairly small, with a few food booths, crafts tents, and t-shirt vendors around the town square.  The music stage is set up in front of Jimmy "Duck" Holmes' Blue Front Cafe.  I really like the small-town atmosphere and will be spending much more time here next summer, for sure.

All in all, not a bad day at all and a great Father's Day present.  I really enjoyed spending the day with the family, and I think they enjoyed it as much as I did, even though it was a typically hot and humid Mississippi day.

Day 2:  My brother and I share a birthday.  We were born 13 years apart, but share a lot of the same interests.  Every year, for our birthday, we try do something together.....usually we go out to eat, go to a movie, or go shopping, etc....  This year, we decided to head up to Clarksdale, MS to check out a few of the blues-related sites.  We weren't sure exactly what we would do when we got there, but we had three things that we definitely wanted to do......go to the Delta Blues Museum, go to Cat Head, and eat some good food.

It's about a three hour drive to Clarksdale from where we live, so we plugged in an iPod with a boatload of blues tunes and enjoyed the drive.  One of my favorite parts of the drive is just east of Greenwood on Highway 82, where the rolling hills disappear and the flat lands of the Mississippi Delta takes over.  It's really neat to see.  The journey took us through Greenwood up to Tutwiler (where W.C. Handy "discovered" the blues while waiting for a train) to Clarksdale.

It had been almost 20 years since I had been to Clarksdale.  Back then, the only places that I visited were the Delta Blues Museum and Stackhouse Records, the great little record store that was in a building that looked like a steamboat.  At that time, there wasn't a lot of help available to blues fans to get around.  There was a blues map available at Stackhouse, but that was about it, as far as I knew.  There was no internet, no Facebook or Twitter, and really no way for blues fans to connect on a regular basis unless they were pretty close together.

Things have changed quite a bit since then.  The downtown area of Clarksdale has several blues-related shops, music venues, restaurants......more than we actually had time to do in a four-six hour visit.

Our first stop was the Delta Blues Museum.  For many years, the museum was located in a section of the town's library.  I always enjoyed visiting because it was sort of cozy and comfortable.  There were some pretty cool displays of musical instruments, newspaper and magazine archives, and cool displays like the Muddywood guitar, which was a guitar made from a piece of Muddy Waters' cabin, a life-sized sculpture of Waters, lots of pictures and old other words, nearly everything a budding blues fan like I was could really ask for.

The museum was moved in 1999 to the old Clarksdale freight depot, which allowed for much more space than in the library.  Since then, more space has been added to the original structure.....a bigger room and a second story (which is still in progress).  The added space has allowed the museum to increase their inventory, so now they have a lot more display cases devoted to many of the region's musical legends......John Lee Hooker (some of his guitars), B.B. King (one of his "Lucilles"), Son Thomas (his old electric guitar and several of his macabre sculptures, including his "Woman in Coffin"), Charlie Musselwhite (some of his harmonicas, a pair of shoes, and other memorabilia), Son House, and multiple Stella guitars (the guitar of choice for many of the pre-war blues men, such as Skip James, Charley Patton, etc.....).  One of the coolest displays to me was one that included Big Joe Williams' famed nine-string guitar.  I remembered seeing that guitar in several pictures and a couple of album covers, and now there it was right in front of me!!

Scene inside the Muddy Waters Cabin

The new room was devoted to Muddy Waters and included the cabin that Waters lived in at Stovall Farms, well not the entire cabin, but what was left intact when the cabin was salvaged by the House of Blues and donated to the museum in 2001.  There were several plaques with information about Waters' life and music were attached to the outside of the cabin, and a musical timeline was attached to the inside walls of the cabin.  Also in the cabin was the life-sized sculpture, along with a video, and a guitar that Waters sold to a friend while trying to leave a town in a hurry (a humorous letter of authenticity is included).

One thing that I thought was peculiar was the basic absence of any Howlin' Wolf information of materials.  He was one of the few who wasn't represented very much, if at all.  I've not been to the Howlin' Wolf Museum in his native West Point, MS, so I wondered if the fact that he had his own museum there was the reason.  I didn't ask anyone about it......probably should have.

It was a very nice experience and there were a lot of interesting items to see.  Judging by the additional space that's been added, they will have even more exhibits in the future.  We talked to some of the folks working in the gift shop and they told us that they were trying to add to their collection to fill the second floor.  As it is, it's still a pretty good stop for blues fans and takes an hour or two to explore completely.

While there, I picked up a couple of CDs.....a collection of the Mississippi Sheiks (one of my favorite pre-war blues groups) and a copy of Taj Mahal's first CD.

From there, we visited the famous Abe's BBQ at the crossroads (Highways 61 and 49).  Abe's has been a part of Clarksdale since the mid 20's, and is a favorite stop for many visitors.  This was my first time to visit, but not my last.  They serve BBQ pork and beef, hot tamales, and ribs and what I had (beef brisket sandwich) was great!  Abe's has a website that you can visit to check out their menu and you can even order their delicious BBQ sauce online.

We visited Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, Inc. next, which is just a couple of blocks from the Delta Blues Museum.  The best way that I can describe Cat Head is that it's the "Bass Pro Shop" for fans of Mississippi blues.   If you're a blues fan, I assure you that there's something in Cat Head that you will want, from CDs to DVDs to books to arts and crafts items to clothing and caps to photos and art.

I have known Roger Stolle for about ten years, via the internet......even interviewed him a couple of times at FBF, but had never met him in person, so I finally got to do that.  We had a nice visit and general discussion about the state of blues in Mississippi, improvements in the tourism aspect over the years, and his upcoming internet program with Jeff Konkel, Moonshine & Mojo Hands.

I was finally able to get one of the things that I've wanted for a long time.......a Cat Head baseball cap.  I also picked up a pretty cool-looking Cat Head t-shirt and a CD that I have been trying to locate for nearly twenty years.....The Wesley Jefferson Band:  The Delta Blues Live at the Do Drop Inn.  If you're a blues fan, you must stop by Cat Head if you're in Clarksdale.  You can visit Cat Head's website and see what they have to offer, but that's only the tip of the iceberg.....come and see for yourself.

I almost forgot to make our last stop, and boy, would I have regretted it.  I had heard from several people about how cool the Rock & Blues Museum was, and that I didn't need to leave Clarksdale without visiting.  Just a couple of blocks from Cat Head, the museum features music memorabilia from the 20's through the 70's, and in the process it shows how all American music has its roots in the blues.

I can't begin to describe the items included in the museum, but it includes albums, 45's, 78's, tons of pictures, guitars, outfits, videos, old radios and record players, and other memorabilia.  There's a Clarksdale room featuring many of the blues legends from the area.  From there, the museum traces the history of modern pop, rock & roll, rockabilly, and blues. Every time, I rounded a corner, my jaw dropped.  There was something else even cooler on the next aisle than the previous aisle.

Theo Dasbach, who was born and lived in The Netherlands, owns all of the items in the museum, amassed over a lifetime of collecting.  He originally opened the store in his native country in the mid 90's, but moved it to Clarksdale in 2005.  Dasbach loves everything about the blues and the musical styles that were influenced by it.  He's also a performer, having released a couple of CDs in the past few years as Theo D the Boogieman.

Theo D "The Boogieman"
As we were walking out, we passed the lady working behind the counter, who was talking to a man standing nearby.  She asked me, "Did you enjoy the museum?"  I told her that I loved it and was glad that we stopped by.  She pointed to the man she was talking to and said, "Well, here's the owner of the place."  We talked for about thirty minutes about the Clarksdale scene and blues in general.  I think I met the biggest blues fan of all on Saturday, and his name is Theo Dasbach.  I actually got goose bumps listening to him talk about how much he loved the blues.

During the discussion, it came up that I reviewed blues CDs at Blues Bytes, so he ran out to his car and brought me a copy of his latest CD, Blue Boogie, to review in a future issue.  I will have more details about it in a few weeks here, and later at Blues Bytes, but let me tell you that it's a really entertaining and diverse set of blues and boogie.  He wrote all the songs and he sings and plays a mean piano.

There wasn't much music going on that night in town, the 15-year-old blues guitar phenom Christone "Kingfish" Ingram was playing much later that night at Red's, but we had to get back home.  We drove back through the Delta, listening to the blues and taking in the atmosphere.

Ground Zero Blues Club

Clarksdale is making a great effort to help put the Mississippi blues on the map, and it seems to be working pretty well.  There's so much more here for blues fans to take in than the last time I was here 20 years ago.  This is due to the efforts of many of the city's residents, such as Stolle, Dasbach, Clarksdale Mayor Bill Luckett, who, with Morgan Freeman and Howard Stovall, owns the the Ground Zero Blues Club, Jeff Konkel with his Broke & Hungry record label and the documentaries, Red Peden, and so many others in town that I've yet to meet, but am looking forward to seeing when we go back to the Juke Joint Festival next spring.


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