The Blues Triangle – Part II
Happy New Year y’all! Now is the perfect time to start planning your road trip. To get you in the mood, I bring you Part II of the Blues Triangle (finally!!!).
To continue your journey down the Blues Triangle/Mississippi Blues Trail you must stop at the Tunica Visitor’s Center. It’s by far the coolest visitor’s center I’ve ever been to. An old rustic train depot, circa 1895 that doubles as a museum. Here you can pick up all things relating to the Mississippi Blues Trail, they even have travel counselors to help with hotel & dinner reservations, recommendations on places to visit, etc.
Tip: Don’t forget to pick up your free maps here! You’ll be going through very rural areas where you might not have cell service/GPS. Also, be sure and download the free Mississippi Blues Trail app for the iPhone or Droid.
Due to its rich soil the town was nicknamed ‘The Golden Buckle on the Cotton Belt” for its abundance of cotton. African-Americans were the reason for the states success and built its wealth.
Stay (really, you must): at the Shack Up Inn
When you pull up to the Shack Up Inn you are truly going back in time. Rustic signs lead you around the gravel bend to check-in. Located in the lobby is a gift shop, bar, and stage where musicians from all over the world come to play. Grab the necessary commodities, a guitar (yes they let you borrow one for the duration of your stay), a moon pie, and some beer to take with you back to your shack.
Following a hand-written map given to me at check-in, just over the railroad tracks I find the sharecropper shack I chose, the Cotton Shack. A shotgun-style house placed/moved here and kept in its original form from when it was a working plantation. Upgraded with all the modern amenities of course: WiFi, A/C, laundry, full kitchen/bath, coffeemaker. The owners Bill Talbot and Guy Malvezzi, have done a phenomenal job of keeping this place up, a truly unique and authentic place like no other. This was by far the best place I stayed on my trip.
Tip: This place sells out well in advance, be sure to have this booked prior to your visit.
More pics of the Cotton Shack because it’s so damn cute:
The Shack Up Inn Property:
The Shack Up Inn is located on the grounds of the former Hopson Plantation, where in 1935 mechanized cotton farming was introduced. Pinetop Perkins used to drive a tractor on the land harvesting cotton on thousands of acres of land. While living in Clarksdale he mentored Ike Turner on piano & Earl Hooker (John Lee Hooker’s cousin) on guitar (http://www.hopsonplantation.com/index.php/history.html)
The Stone Pony has excellent pizza, this coming from someone who lived in NYC for many years. This was one of very few restaurants open late, be sure to plan ahead. A great place for a solo diner to sit up at the bar too. I spent many a time eating solo and keeping track of my daily activities in my journal. You think you’ll remember all the details but trust me, write it all down and be descriptive!
Tip: be sure to check out calendar of events and hours of operations before visiting Clarksdale. This will help you plan the best time to visit. While they make sure there is at least one place that has live music nightly, you may want to visit on the weekend to soak up more of what this city has to offer.
The Crossroads, the intersection of Highway 61 and 49 where it’s said Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for being a legendary bluesman.
Delta blues was one of the earliest styles of blues first recorded in the early 20s, originated in the Mississippi Delta. This style of the blues can be explained as country blues with guitar (slide guitar usually played on a steel guitar) harmonica, and voice as the main instruments.
The state’s oldest music museum, est. in 1979, is filled with the history and heritage of the blues. Overflowing with memorabilia, there is information on everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the blues. Be sure to check out the Muddy Waters expansion/exhibit, a truly magnificent collection of all-things-Muddy reminiscent of the log cabin he grew up in.
Address: 1 Blues Alley, Clarksdale, MS 38614
Hours: Monday-Saturday; 9-5PM
Admission: $10, Blues Society Members: $5
***No photos or video allowed in the museum***
Owner Roger Stolle, known as “Clarksdale’s Blues Ambassador”, owns Cathead Delta Blues & Folk Art, Inc. a record store/art gallery/souvenir stand that promotes the Mississippi Blues. Be sure to stop by when you’re in town, this place is oozing with blues history and artifacts.
The owner of Cathead has also created the world’s first blues music reality show, along with Jeff Konkel called, Moonshine & Mojo Hands: The Mississippi Blues Series. They take you through the back roads of the Mississippi Delta and Hill Country region showing you where blues music is very much still alive. A local’s tour guide through the area with interviews, music, and more. A must see series for lovers of the blues!!! What in the hell is a mojo hand, anyway? It’s a “prayer in a bag”, or a spell that can be carried with or on the host’s body. Alternative American names for the mojo bag include hand, mojo hand, conjure hand, lucky hand, conjure bag, trick bag, root bag, toby, jomo, and gris-gris bag.
My visit to Clarksdale was not nearly long enough, so much more to explore in this great city!
Here are a few famous Delta blues musicians you should know about, if you don’t already. Many of them crossover to many different styles of the blues, this is a very brief overview and does not do them justice, dig deeper to learn more.
Charley/Charlie Patton: considered the “father of the blues,” this guitarist/singer is the most important American musical figure of the 20th century. He was a musical influence of every Delta bluesman. As a child he moved to a 25K acre cotton farm and sawmill, Dockery Plantation, known as the birthplace of the blues. Charlie’s musical style was developed on this plantation with influences from one of the earliest figures in the history of Delta blues; Henry Sloan. Known for his showmanship, he played the guitar on his lap, and behind his back, and when he sang his vocals were so strong he needed no amplification. He was popular around the Southern parts of the U.S. and played regularly at plantations and taverns. This photo is the only known photo of Charley, taken in 1929.
Robert Johnson: the “King of the Delta blues singers” and the original master of the blues. Known first as a harmonica player, he was a gifted guitarist, singer, and songwriter. His songs romanticized the hardships of the times and reached global audiences. Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers Band, among many others, all famously recorded his tunes. The influence he had on not only blues, but rock ‘n roll, is unprecedented. In his short 27 years on this earth he recorded 29 tunes from 1936-1937. He was a “road” musician mostly playing on street corners, in juke joints, and on the Saturday night dance circuit. To please audiences he rarely played originals but rather popular tunes of the time. Robert’s early life and biography still remain somewhat of a mystery. There are only three known photographs of Robert that have been declared authentic, including the one to the left.
Son House: known for his slide guitar playing and his undeniable emotive singing, at age 25 he began playing blues music after years of being involved in the church as a pastor and choir director solely focusing on sacred music. His unique style was derived from his preaching which he incorporated into his singing and rhythmic guitar playing. His career was reignited when he was found by Dick Waterman (the photographer of this photo), along with many other bluesman, during the folk music revival.
Muddy Waters: guitarist/singer/harmonica player who started out playing Delta blues, best-known as the “father of modern Chicago blues.” Grew up on Stovall Plantation right outside of Clarksdale. By age 17 he was playing the guitar and harmonica emulating local musicians Son House and Robert Johnson. He influenced not only blues music but R&B, rock, folk, country, and jazz. It’s said that his amplification is what linked Delta blues with rock ‘n roll. Check out this great video from the Newport Jazz Fest in 1960, with James Cotton on the harp.
John Lee Hooker: the “King of the Boogie” guitarist/singer, also known for playing Detroit blues. “The Hook” was born near Clarksdale, MS to a sharecropping family, his stepfather introduced him to the guitar. In the early 40s he moved to North Detroit where he worked as a janitor at the automobile factories by day and played the house party circuit by night. His career spanned decades and as he entered his 70s he found himself in the most successful era of his career.
Jessie Mae Hemphill: one of the few female performers of country blues, Jessie Mae was a multi-instrumentalist whose musical career started in a local fife (similar to piccolo) and drum band at the age of 7. She specialized in North Mississippi Hill Country blues playing mostly at family and informal settings. She didn’t start recording until she was in her late 40s and it wasn’t until the early 80s that she gained international recognition as a vocalist and guitarist.
Skip James: a Delta blues singer, guitarist, pianist, and songwriter. His guitar style is known for its dark tone (open D-minor tuning) and intricate fingerpicking technique whose style is more in common with the Piedmont blues. In 1931 he recorded 18 tunes, most notably ‘Hard Time Killing Floor Blues’ which didn’t get the credit it deserved because of it being released during the middle of The Great Depression. He drifted off into obscurity after that record and became a choir director and minister. It wasn’t until the 1960s blues revival that he returned.
Howlin’ Wolf: a Chicago blues guitarist and harmonica player known for his undeniable booming, growling voice. Nicknamed by his grandfather who scared him as a child with tales of “howlin’ wolves” in the area that would get him if he was bad. He met Patton in the 30s and it was Charley who taught him the guitar and showmanship tricks. He was also influenced by country singer Jimmie Rodgers vocal yodels, he tried to emulate them but they came out more as a growl/howl. His harmonica style was modeled after that of Sonny Boy Williamson II who taught him how to play in 1933. Williamson later married Howlin’ Wolf’s half sister Mae.
Elmore James: known as the “King of the slide guitar” Elmore was a distinguished singer, songwriter, bandleader, and blues guitarist who began playing music at the age of 12. Strongly influenced by Robert Johnson, there is still a dispute on who wrote the tune Elmore become famous for, ‘Dust My Broom.’ His guitar sound came from the unique placement of his pickups and his hollow-bodied acoustic which sounded more like an amped up solid-body guitar. His influence on other musicians is unprecedented, most notably Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers Band, Albert King, and Stevie Ray Vaughn to name a few. This is the earliest known photo of Elmore James, taken in the late 1930s.
R.L. Burnside: guitarist/singer, played acoustic/electric North Mississippi hill country blues and Delta blues. He started playing the harmonica and guitar at the age of 16 and was taught by none other than neighbor Mississippi Fred McDowell. He played musical only part-time due to his other occupations of farming and fishing and his music didn’t take off until the last 20 years of his life. R.L. credited Muddy Waters (his cousin-in-law), Lightnin’ Hopkins, and John Lee Hooker as influences in his adult life. Members of his family continue his musical legacy, most notably his sons Duwayne and Garry and grandson, drummer Cedric Burnside.
James Cotton: harmonica player and singer/songwriter, known for his animated showmanship. “Super Harp” started out playing Delta Blues, then later in life Chicago blues. His mother would emulate the sounds of trains and chickens on the harmonica, and as a young child he became very fond of the harmonica and quickly picked it up. Later in life Sonny Boy Williamson had a huge impact on him and helped launch his career, in addition to Howlin’ Wolf. Cotton’s first experiences playing in clubs, was on the front steps of the juke joints as Sonny’s opening act, a lot of the times making more tips than him. After one gig, Sonny Boy skipped town and left the band to Cotton. By the age of 15 he had cut 4 songs on famed label, Sun Records. Cotton is most well-known for being Muddy Waters harp player for more than 12 years.
Thank you for reading!
I am in no way a historian and have tried my best to be as accurate as possible. If there are any historical inaccuracies in this information, please let me know so I can be schooled and will promptly update! References and credits can be found by following links provided.
All photo credits by Nicole Lund, except where noted.