I like music: country, rock, classical, gospel, and jazz—you name it.
But I love the blues — live blues in particular. And not just any blues will do. I want Mississippi Delta blues, played in a Mississippi juke joint that looks like it’s seen better times, and sung by people who know something about hard work, hard times, hard-hearted women, and the men who love them.
So every once in a while I feel the pull of the Mississippi Blues Trail. The trail is an outdoor museum of historic sites that rambles through the state, with markers showing up in small towns, cities, beside railroad tracks and along rural roads, and in cafes and juke joints. Explored one area at a time, the trail offers a menu of mini-trips for blues fans.
My favorite stop on the trail is Clarksdale, with at least one evening spent at Ground Zero Blues Club. I may have a fried catfish BLT or a burger there or, if I’m in the mood to splurge, I’ll have an early dinner nearby at Madidi’s. I can make a meal of their shrimp and grits appetizer and the beet salad, followed by the banana brulee or bourbon pecan pie.
Once I’m in the door at Ground Zero, though, I don’t want to leave. In addition to the music, it’s a great place to meet people from just about anywhere. Last time I was there I chatted with a young woman from England about the camera she was using to photograph the performers in the low light (it was a Nikon 700 with an f/2.8 zoom lens).
The best way to find out just about anything related to blues in the area, including who’s playing where, is at Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art in downtown Clarksdale. If you can’t stop by, browse their web site. It also includes information about local blues museums and events, including the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival, August 6-8 in Clarksdale.
A number of Blues Trail markers are in the area, including one at the Riverside Hotel, which once served as the G.T. Thomas Afro American Hospital, and where blues singer Bessie Smith died after a car crash in 1937. Look also for the “Crossroads” sign at the intersection of Highways 49 and 61. It isn’t historic, but it reminds blues fans of the legend often associated with Robert Johnson’s 1937 recording of the Grammy Hall of Fame song “Cross Road Blues.” It’s supposedly where Johnson made a deal with the devil for the ability to play music.
THURSDAY AT PO MONKEY’S
If it’s Thursday, I head to Po Monkey’s in Merigold. Ask the folks at Cat Head for directions, because there are no signs, and it can be difficult to find, especially at night.
A popular spot since William Seaberry opened it in the early 1960’s, Po Monkey’s is on a farm in a sharecropper’s shack that looks like it’s about to fall down. It occasionally hosts live music, but most of the time it’s just open on Thursday nights with a DJ spinning blues. The place is always lively, packed with college kids, locals, and visitors. You may sit down next to someone from Boston, nearby Cleveland, or from Munich (Germany). The later it gets, the livelier it gets, and it’s a real trip when William Seaberry steps into a back room and comes back out in one of his outrageous costumes – I personally like the one with the long blonde wig and sequined dress.
GOTTA HAVE TAMALES (and Burgers)
A trip to the Delta is also an excuse to eat some of the best Tamales this side of Heaven. One of my favorite lunch spots is Hicks’ Variety Foods on State Street in Clarksdale. The Hot Tamales are made fresh every day, and usually sell out before noon. If you miss out at lunch, though, come back just before 3 p.m. and they’ll likely have another batch coming out of the steamer.
Another fabulous tamale spot is the White Front Café, also known as Joe’s Hot Tamale Place (662-759-3842), in Rosedale. You can’t miss it – look for the little white concrete block building on the main drag. It serves only tamales, hand-rolled by Barbara Pope, but that’s enough.
For a decent burger and live music, stop at Hey Joe’s Record & Café (662-843-5325) in Cleveland. Call ahead, because the performance schedule changes from week to week.
BLUES STOPS IN INDIANOLA
I like to return home via Jackson, with a stop first in Indianola, home of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. It’s one of the best museums I’ve ever seen. Nearby, The Crown Restaurant serves lunch from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday. Among the tempting dishes are Catfish Allison (poached fillet with Parmesan cheese and green onion sauce), and a bowl of chicken and sausage gumbo. For live blues, check days and times (662-887-9915) at Club Ebony.
Jackson has a number of clubs with live blues, including Queen of Hearts, on the Mississippi Blues Trail. You can often find King Edward and his band playing here. Call (601) 352-5730) for performance schedules.
One of my favorite places in Jackson is the 930 Blues Café. Last time I walked in, Norman Clark and his Smoke Stack Lightning Band sounded like they were trying to tear the place down with pure, raw sound.
Norman has been playing since he was 12 years old. That was about six decades ago, and he’s good … very good. He grew up in Massachusetts and started playing professionally when he was still a teenager. He’s performed in Africa, Australia, Japan, Morocco, Spain, and at the White House. Jackson has been his home for more than 20 years, and every Thursday night you’ll find him at the 930 Blues Café.
Miss Jackie Bell is also there on Thursday nights, as well as on Friday and Saturday. And when she takes the microphone, everything else fades into the background. She teases, she vamps, and when she steps up in a chair with her high heels on and leans waaaay back while she lets loose with her powerful voice, the house goes wild.
Live blues …..there’s nothing like it.
More information about the blues and Mississippi is available online.
Fri, July 9, 2010
by Karen Lingo, Best of the South, VisitSouth.com