Clarksdale: A Blues Hub
Eighty miles south of Memphis is Clarksdale, a central hub of blues culture since the 1920s thanks to its location on what’s known today as the Blues Highway. History buffs will read all about that at the award-winning Delta Blues Museum, located in a former train depot. Looking for live music? Head for the Arts and Culture District any night and try the Ground Zero Blues Club or Red’s Lounge, one of the last remaining true juke joints. A juke joint, if you’ve missed out, is a lively roadhouse with music, dancing and drink.
At the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, you’ll find The Crossroads, marked with a monument adorned with a trio of guitars. Legend has it that in the early 1930s, a lackluster guitarist named Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a formidable new style and a mastery of the blues. After a brief five-year career, Johnson died, leaving behind a great story and haunting songs, including “Hellhound on My Trail.”
Tutwiler: Remembering W.C. Handy
From The Crossroads, head southeast to Tutwiler, 15 miles away on Highway 49. Though it may appear to be just another small town, music history buffs know this is where W.C. Handy encountered the blues around 1903.
According to Handy, he was dozing at the railway station while waiting for a train when he was awakened by a man nearby playing slide guitar with a knife, singing “Goin’ Where the Southern Cross the Dog.” Handy said it was the weirdest music he’d ever heard, but “the tune stayed in my mind.” He later published “Yellow Dog Blues,” an adaptation of what he’d heard that night, earning him the title “Father of the Blues.”
Today, the train station is gone but visitors can sit on a bench along its old concrete pad and pay homage to Handy’s chance encounter.
Dockery: Birthplace of the Blues
Although the blues’ exact origins are lost to time, historians regard Dockery Farms, a cotton plantation founded in 1895, as its likely birthplace. Located on Highway 8, Dockery Farms is just 10 minutes east of Cleveland. From about 1910 to 1940, the large concentration of people living and working here — roughly 3,000 at one point — made it an incubator for blues pioneers such as Charly Patton (aka the “Father of the Delta Blues”), Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson.
Like them, other traveling musicians played here on Saturdays, gathering on the front porch of the commissary by day, and inside the Frolicking House — a sharecropper’s home cleared of furniture — by night. For 25 cents a head, musicians would jam all night, earning more money than they could working in the fields. Today, six buildings remain at the farm, and music playing from inside the old cotton storage shed gives the place quite a dramatic aura.