On Mississippi's Blues Trail, you figure out what 'blues' means

June 18, 2015
            

The Little Zion Baptist church sits beside a cemetary where blues great Robert Johnson is believed to be buried. The church, near Greenwood, Miss., was used in filming the movie "The Help."

Most would say it’s the humidity that makes the Mississippi air feel so thick. I believe it’s the ghosts.

Ghosts haunt Mississippi with stories, lifetimes of stories — told with words, or in song over the slur of a blues guitar.

From Tupelo to Clarksdale and Vicksburg to Biloxi, the ghosts of the musicians who played the blues, who invented the blues, float above the fields, beckoning from dusty back roads and river bends. Their songs whisper around the corners of the long, low brick buildings on the main streets of small towns, reminding a patient traveler of old times, good times, hard times.

Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters. They’re all there, along with so many more.

A drive along the Mississippi Blues Trail — more of a blues blur, if you look at a map of all 186 sites — is a meandering journey into an important part of American history just beginning to be understood.

For decades, music fans have explored the history along U.S. Highway 61, the north-south artery that traverses 1,400 miles from New Orleans to Minnesota and has been called the "Blues Highway" for its path through the northwestern Mississippi region known as the Delta, where the earliest blues sounds originated. But the entire state is rich with blues history, and music buffs have long pointed one another to tucked-away grave sites, battered juke joints and long-defunct radio studios all over the Magnolia State.

In 2003, the Mississippi Blues Commission was created to promote the understanding of blues history, primarily by installing Mississippi Blues Trail markers across the state to identify significant contributions to that musical heritage. In 2006, the first handful of markers was installed. Now 186 markers dot the state, giving blues fans — or casual travelers — a scavenger hunt of music history.

The trail is self-guided and is available on an app through iTunes and Android (as well as printed maps available at Mississippi welcome centers and online at http://www.msbluestrail.org), so you can nibble at it in bits and pieces in multiple trips through Mississippi, as I’ve done over several drives between Chicago and Louisiana, or gulp it all down in one long, zig-zagging road trip through the state. The interactive app still has some kinks, but it allows users to set up custom itineraries and offers directions to markers though a mapping function.

My most recent trip through Mississippi was a fast springtime drive north on Interstate Highway 55 from New Orleans toward Jackson, a meandering tour northwest through the Delta region and then a straight shot east to Oxford.

As my partner and I turned off the interstate and entered the Delta region, we talked about B.B. King, who had just been admitted to hospice and was still one of the last living connections to the old blues tradition.

Knowing that King would pass away soon (King died at his home in Las Vegas on May 14, about two weeks after our visit to Mississippi), we wanted to pay tribute with a visit to his birthplace in Berclair, Miss.

Berclair is off Highway 82, on a small road that runs southwest through farmland along the winding Bear Creek. There is nothing there now that’s not wild, save for the metal pole that holds up the Blues Trail marker, a metal sign we could see nestled in the spring overgrowth. It says "B.B. KING BIRTHPLACE" and summarizes the story of Riley B. King, born on Sept. 16, 1925, to two sharecroppers. We turned down the road a ways to look for the actual plot of ground where King’s home might have sat, but if there was even a scrap of flooring left, it was now covered in wildflowers. It was a quiet, lush, beautiful place to be from.

When I spoke later with Jim O’Neal, the research director for the Mississippi Blues Trail and one of the historians responsible for writing most of the information on the markers, he said that the local founders of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in nearby Indianola had first suggested the statewide markers, which led to getting state funding for the Blues Trail project.

O’Neal, who was the founding editor in 1970 of Living Blues magazine in Chicago and may know as much about the history of the blues as anyone, said he keeps learning more through the ongoing Blues Trail project. The trail has been expanding over the years through a selection process that allows communities to apply for markers.

"We started with a list of the greats, but there was so much local interest," O’Neal said. "We didn’t know about a lot of the artists, all over the state. But wherever there was a black side of town, there was blues."

Following the Blues Trail can feel overwhelming, and most sites simply mark what was — a birthplace, a grave site, the place where something happened long ago.

The sites vary in intensity, from the easier-to-digest spots like radio station WROX in Clarksdale, which was noted for its blues broadcasts and black DJs, to the sites that challenge your sense of racial and economic issues. A visit to the grave site of Charley Patton, who died in 1934 and is considered by many to be the "father of the Delta blues," is to confront the reality of Mississippi’s poorest. Most historic blues musicians were born with little and, despite their fame, died with little. The Holly Ridge cemetery just west of Indianola where Patton is buried is a wreck.

Likewise, the legendary Robert Johnson, who may or may not have sold his soul to the devil, supposedly was buried in a simple cemetery north of Greenwood at the Little Zion Baptist Church, a tiny chapel that was used in the movie "The Help." It’s the most likely of three grave sites where he might be buried, but no one’s certain. The blue marker is easy to find, along Money Road. We pulled up on a hot afternoon, the only tourists as far as we could see. After a few minutes of reading headstones, we found Johnson’s, with a mostly empty whiskey bottle perched on the granite. So many ghosts.

 

 





 


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