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."
would say it’s the humidity that makes the Mississippi
air feel so thick. I believe it’s the ghosts.
haunt Mississippi with stories, lifetimes of stories —
told with words, or in song over the slur of a blues
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.
Patton, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters. They’re
all there, along with so many more.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.