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Music along the MGRR



Mississippi’s Great River Road:  Catching the Rhythm of the Blues.


Morgan Freeman has the blues.

Actually, to be specific, Ground Zero, the Clarksdale, Mississippi club that the actor and Mississippi Delta native co-owns, has the blues—according to many critics, some of the best blues in the country, offered up to club patrons four nights a week in a weathered storefront so authentic it wouldn’t really be a surprise to see blues legend Robert Johnson strolling out of it.  After all, it was right here in Clarksdale at the infamous Crossroads, the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, that Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil to acquire his blues genius.

That fabled transaction is only one of the many myths, legends and true stories that roll up and down Mississippi’s Great River Road, borne on the driving beat of real, true authentic blues, blues that sing out and seduce visitors in clubs and festivals and even cotton fields along this scenic byway that is not only the birthplace of the blues, but also one might say, the art form’s natural habitat.  Hugging the Mississippi River 333 miles from Woodville to Walls, Miss., Mississippi’s Great River Road was recently designated as a National Scenic Byway in part because of its historical and cultural significance as a blues destination.

“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of blues to modern music and cultural life,” Bill Seratt points out.  Seratt is president of the coalition of communities that make up Mississippi’s Great River Road.  He is also a music lover himself.  “And just as blues are essential to modern music, the Mississippi Delta and Mississippi’s Great River Road are essential to the blues.  It was here that the blues were born, and on this road that the blues migrated from town to town, plantation to plantation, evolving and gaining new practitioners along the way.”

Those origins—along with the fact that many of the greatest artists stayed and played right here, passing the art to their descendents—have drawn pilgrimages by some the biggest names in music and filmmaking to the region.  History has also spurred the creation of the Mississippi Blues Trail, a ground-breaking marker trail that explores the genre’s history in depth; approximately three dozen markers stretch the length of Mississippi’s Great River Road.

But there’s something else that draws visitors from every corner of the globe.  “It’s the atmosphere,” Seratt explains.  “It’s the rhythm of life that makes experiencing the blues here such a rich experience.”  And you can enjoy that rhythm at any tempo—whether a slow, seductive shuffle or a quick boogie woogie, Mississippi’s Great River Road is always a blast.


Get into the swing:  Woodville, Natchez, Port Gibson and Vicksburg

Start with the sweet sound of a saxophone, that of Woodville native Lester Young, who helped define Count Basie’s swing style and was a favored sideman for Billie Holiday.  Find out more about Young and other blues musicians at the Woodville Blues Trail Marker, before you head to Natchez where both triumph and tragedy shaped the genre.  Natchez’ Bud Scott never made a recording, but he made such a name for himself in live performances that he played for three U.S. Presidents.  Scott’s son, Bud Scott, Jr., died tragically in the horrific Rhythm Club fire in Natchez on April 23, 1940.  More than 200 people perished in the blaze, which seared itself onto the psyche of the African American community and onto the blues itself, inspiring countless songs and performances.  The Rhythm Club fire has been commemorated by a Natchez memorial and blues marker.

Natchez is a city rich in antebellum history, with some 500 homes, churches and other structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Here as no place else you can still see the vestiges of the kingdom that cotton once wrought.   And at the working Frogmore Plantation, get a behind-the-scenes look at the gears that drove that kingdom as well as the development of the blues, for it was in the cadences of the “work hollers” of the cotton fields that blues first found a rhythm, and it was here that many blues musicians early on toiled at their “day jobs.”

In those early days, blues gained a wider following, thanks to touring performers like the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, headquartered out of Port Gibson for more than 30 years, and now commemorated by a Blues Trail Marker.  From Port Gibson keep heading north to Vicksburg, once one of the blues’ greatest gathering places, along Highway 61 South, in the African American community of Marcus Bottom, and at the famous Blue Room where Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Dinah Washington and other headliners played.  Explore the Blues Trail markers on all these sites, along with those on the Red Tops and Willie Dixon.

Dixon wrote many of Muddy Waters’ biggest hits.  One of Waters’ big hits, “Rolling Stone,” inspired the name of the magazine and the rock group.  Speaking of rolling, after Vicksburg, you’re going to roll to the place where Waters came into the world as McKinley Morganfield.


Jukin’ and jammin’:  Rolling Fork, Greenville and Cleveland

At Rolling Fork, see the small cabin where the huge talent Muddy Waters made his first wail before you move on to Greenville, where the bright lights of Nelson Street once drew African Americans from all over the Delta, to clubs like the Casablanca.  Today, Greenville’s blues draw people from all races and all over the world, to walk the Walnut Street’s “Sidewalk of Fame” lined with portraits of blues greats, and to groove on the blues at clubs like the Walnut Street Blues Bar.

Chrisman Street in Cleveland was another hotspot where the Harlem Inn and the Coconut Grover drew headliners and revelers.  And at Dockery Plantation, Charley Patton, the man known as “Father of the Blues,” taught a generation of bluesmen, from Howlin’ Wolf to Robert Johnson to Roebuck “Pop” Staples.

It was also in Cleveland that W. C. Handy first realized blues’ commercial potential when he saw musicians showered not just with praise and applause, but with coins.  That was all the way back in 1905; today Po’ Monkey’s, one of the last great rural juke joints, is still hoppin’.  Po’ Monkey’s is a must-stop to experience high cotton, blues style.

From Po’ Monkey’s, it’s a hop, skip and a jump up to Clarksdale.


You never know who you’ll meet in Clarksdale.

Morgan Freeman and his partners named their club Ground Zero for good reason.  Many people believe that it was in Clarksdale that the explosion of the blues detonated.   Certainly, the roll call of names associated with Clarksdale is enough to send shivers down a blues lover’s spine:   Muddy Waters, Ike Turner and Sam Cooke all lived here; the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith, died here in a room at the Riverside Hotel.   Here is where Robert Johnson may or may not have sold his soul for musical genius at the crossroads of Highway 61 and 49.  Nowadays, downtown Clarksdale offers another kind of crossroads in Blues Alley, the musical mecca where Ground Zero shares the street with the fascinating Blues Museum and with a restored train and bus depot.  Clarksdale is also home to the Blues2Rock Museum and several other great clubs.  Clarksdale looks like the blues, feels like the blues, blues today and blues yesterday when bluesmen hung out in their “off hours” doing the dozens and rolling dice.

You may want to roll some dice yourself, here in Clarksdale, or head north to the Casino Capital of the South where it’s sure bet you’ll hear some terrific blues.


Where Son rose: Tunica and DeSoto County.

It was an impromptu jam session at Tunica’s Hollywood Café that helped inspire Marc Cohn’s hit “Walkin’ in Memphis.”  That was years before the casinos arrived, but even now the Hollywood Café is a popular place to stop, and there are plenty of great blues clubs here as well.  There’s also a lot of great history in a city sitting on famed Highway 61, where Tunica’s Son House influenced both Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters.  It’s easy to believe that Hardface Clanton, proprietor of a famous establishment offering blues, bootleg liquor and games of chance, would feel right at home nowadays in this casino capital.  In his own time, Clanton was so beloved his funeral had to be held in the local gymnasium to accommodate the crowds.

Blues pioneer Memphis Minnie was not so fortunate.  Despite her blazing talent, she died broke in a Memphis nursing home.  However, she was elected to the Blues Hall of Fame in its first year of balloting, and the headstone that marks her grave was paid for by Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, with donors such as Bonnie Raitt and John Fogerty.  Today, there’s also a Blue Trail marker in her honor.

Memphis Minnie was just one of the more than half dozen DeSoto musicians who went on to make their mark in bigger cities such as Memphis.  In fact, Beale Street owes DeSoto a big debt for such talents as Jim Jackson, Robert Wilkins, Dan Sane, George “Mojo” Buford and Gus Cannon, who is also buried in DeSoto County.  The wail of Big Walter Horton’s harmonica still echoes in music history, through performances and recordings with everybody from Muddy Waters to Jimmy Rogers to Fleetwood Mac to Johnny Winters.  Horton’s Blues Trail marker is another important highlight.

Your own trail here on Mississippi’s Great River Road can end here in DeSoto County—or, more likely, it’s only a temporary stop.  Soon you’ll be singing the blues and wanting to roll this road again.

“It’s a unique experience,” notes Bill Seratt.  “It’s the same every time, and yet different every time.  That’s why visitors enjoy coming here for the music again and again.  Taking in the blues on Mississippi’s Great River Road is great way to relax and recharge.”

For more information about attractions, accommodations, dining and more, see Mississippi’s Great River Road on the web at  www.msgreatriverroad.com




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