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A road trip along Mississippi’s Blues Trail

Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale showcases regional performers like Al “Piper” Green & The Hard Times. Photo courtesy Ground Zero Blues Club

It was a rainy Thursday night at the legendary Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and the room was packed. The performer—a singer and guitarist known as Mississippi Marshall—paused to ask audience members how many were from outside the United States. Fully a fourth raised their hands, saying they’d come from as far away as Norway, the Netherlands, and Ireland.

Like those visitors, I was a pilgrim from elsewhere—the American Midwest—who had traveled to the Mississippi Delta to honor the blues legends of yesteryear and today. Music historians often credit this region—a flat-as-a-chalkboard alluvial plain between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers—as the birthplace of the Delta blues at the turn of the 20th century.

In the rural reaches of Mississippi’s northwest corner, singers strumming acoustic guitars began playing plaintive laments about their hardscrabble lives. Blues performers carried their songs from run-down wooden juke joints to places like Memphis and Chicago, where the music was transformed into the worldwide phenomenon we know today.

Back at Ground Zero, many of us were making stops at some of the roughly 200 markers on the Mississippi Blues Trail, which commemorates spots where musical history was made. And, of course, we’d come to hear the music—one of the principal destinations being the place we’d congregated that evening. Lodged inside an old cotton warehouse and partly owned by actor and Mississippi native Morgan Freeman, Ground Zero welcomes mostly regional acts.

But I had a second motivation to come to the Delta. I’m fond of Southern cooking, and I’d heard this part of Mississippi has a distinctive cuisine that both fits in and stands out from the rest of the South. I’d set out to immerse myself in the musical heritage of the trail and sample as much delicious fare as I could along the way. Here are a few discoveries I made in my meanderings across the Delta.

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Musical odyssey

Visitors looking up at a Sun Record Company sign at the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum.

Exhibits at the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum in Memphis take visitors on a musical journey from sharecroppers’ field hollers to the city’s musical heyday in the 1970s. Photo courtesy Alex Shansky/Memphis Tourism

My pilgrimage began with a brief stop in Memphis, a city with its own unique amalgamation of music: R&B, soul, and rock ’n’ roll all percolated out of this city.

At the Rock ’n’ Soul Museum (adults, $13), I discovered that the sharecroppers’ field hollers, work songs, and gospel music fused with more urban sounds as the blues evolved. I delved deeper at the Blues Hall of Fame (adults, $10), where 10 galleries showcase legendary musicians as well as instruments and other relics.

The brief Memphis leg of my journey culminated at B.B. King’s Blues Club on world-famous Beale Street with a happy evening that included eating tasty barbecue and listening to a succession of talented musicians.

From Memphis, the Mississippi Delta is just a hop, skip, and a bluesy jump on US Highway 61, also known as the Blues Highway. The 4-lane thoroughfare is not so scenic, so I followed part of the original route, now called Old Route 61. Passing by country churches and quaint towns gave me a much better feel for what the old-time Delta was like.

Crowd watching musicians performing at the Gateway to the Blues Museum.

The Gateway to the Blues museum near Tunica hosts an annual concert on its porch each fall. Photo courtesy Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau

My first stop after crossing into Mississippi was Gateway to the Blues (adults, $10), a museum near Tunica that gives an overview of how African Americans working in the Delta fields sang to give voice to their plight and, in the process, created a musical genre. I marveled at the vibrant murals of blues musicians, but being vocally challenged, I wasn’t about to perform my own blues number inside a glass-enclosed recording booth as many visitors do.

It’s wise to take a “hub-and-spoke” approach to visiting the Delta, and for me the obvious choice for a home base was Clarksdale, where live music can be heard 7 nights a week.

Besides Ground Zero, blues pilgrims visit smaller venues like Red’s Lounge, which, in its colorful chaos, resembles the tumbledown juke joints of yesteryear. Seated only a few feet from the performers, I got lost in the music. I even ran into one of the musicians—renowned bluesman Lucious Spiller—elsewhere in Clarksdale the next day, and he remembered me!

Guitars inside glass cases at the Delta Blues Museum.

At the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, admire artifacts, instruments, photographs, and more that preserve the history of the blues. Photo courtesy Visit Mississippi

I also stopped at Clarksdale’s Delta Blues Museum (adults, $14), a hodgepodge of artifacts that includes the log cabin where famed guitarist and singer Muddy Waters grew up; it was moved to this site from nearby. I was delighted to learn that Waters got his unusual moniker because of his childhood predisposition to play in mud puddles. 

Robert Johnson Monument bearing a sign for "The Crossroads."

A monument at the intersection of US Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale marks where legend says Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. Photo courtesy Visit Mississippi

And, of course, I had to visit the infamous crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil for musical prowess. The spot is now the busy intersection of US Highways 61 and 49, marked by a trio of huge guitars attached to a pole.

Sharecropper shacks at Shack Up Inn.

At the Shack Up Inn, you can stay in sharecropper shacks that were moved from all over the Mississippi Delta and reassembled at this Clarksdale property. Photo courtesy Visit Mississippi

To immerse myself in history, I stayed outside Clarksdale at the Shack Up Inn, a collection of sharecropper shacks moved here from all over the Delta and reassembled. Still rustic on the outside, the buildings are comfortable inside. Rain falling on the tin roof lulled me to sleep. Even the proprietor’s dog, Pup Pup, got into the spirit of the place, howling whenever someone told him to sing the blues (rates start at $80; adults only).

Mississippi Music Bar exhibit inside the Grammy Museum.

The Grammy Museum in Cleveland explores how Mississippi performers influenced American music. Photo courtesy Grammy Museum Mississippi

From Clarksdale, I drove to the Grammy Museum (adults, $16) in nearby Cleveland, which pays homage to Mississippi’s profound influence on American music. I lingered in its Mississippi Gallery listening to such recordings as Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” and pressing icons on an interactive display to learn how Magnolia State musicians not only influenced one another but also performers like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton.

Sign marking Dockery Farms, est. 1895 by Will and Joe Rice Dockery.

A former cotton plantation, Dockery Farms is known as the "Birthplace of the Blues." Photo courtesy VisitClevelandMS

While in Cleveland, I had to check out Dockery Farms, a must-see landmark for blues pilgrims. This huge cotton plantation is known as the “Birthplace of the Blues” because early legends like Charley Patton and Howlin’ Wolf were among the thousands of sharecroppers who resided there.

Early Women of the Blues exhibit inside the B.B. King Museum.

The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center tells stories of King’s life and career, and it examines the history of the Delta. Photo courtesy Visit Mississippi

Any blues expedition should include the King of the Blues, so I visited the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center (adults, $15) in Indianola, which exhibits one of his Grammy awards and a re-creation of his home studio. The museum itself is an extension of a brick cotton gin building where King, a member of a sharecropping family, once labored. His grave is just outside.

Someone holding a guitar while standing beside Robert Johnson's headstone.

At Robert Johnson’s final resting place in a Greenwood cemetery, you’ll often see tributes like flowers and whiskey bottles. Photo courtesy Greenwood CVB

I experienced so many indelible moments as I toured the Delta, but perhaps the most poignant occurred in a country graveyard outside Greenwood. With the wind rustling in the trees, I paused to silently give regard to the final resting place of Robert Johnson. His grave was adorned with flowers and other remembrances left by visitors—including bottles of whiskey.

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Culinary traditions

Spread of food at Doe’s Eat Place including tamales, steak, spaghetti, and salad.

Located in a former grocery store, the unassuming Doe’s Eat Place is celebrated for its steaks and hot tamales. Photo courtesy Visit Mississippi

The music along the trail was epic, but just as memorable were the savory meals I experienced during my journey. I’d researched places in advance and also sought recommendations from locals. Several people told me that folks drive from as far away as the Gulf Coast for the huge butterfly shrimp served at Ramon’s in Clarksdale. When my order arrived, I could see why: They were perfectly cooked with just the right amount of batter.

At Ground Zero Blues Club, I struck up a conversation with a woman who turned out to be a food blogger. She directed me to some unforgettable finds, like Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville where guests enter through the steamy, clamorous kitchen. Some tables are essentially in the kitchen; mine was adjacent to a refrigerator covered with family photos.

The restaurant is known for its steaks and spicy hot tamales. This regional version of Mexican tamales is ubiquitous throughout the Delta—cigar-shaped cylinders filled with corn meal and spicy beef or pork drenched in flavorful juices and wrapped in corn husks or parchment paper. They are found just about anywhere, from convenience stores to fine-dining establishments, but the version at Doe’s is especially tasty.

Not surprisingly, I learned that Southern staples like okra and slow-cooked greens are easily found throughout the region. And fried chicken is ubiquitous: The food blogger told me “gas station chicken is a thing in the Delta.” Sure enough, I found crispy chicken being sold at many stations.

Catfish dish with sides of green beans and salad at The Crown.

Among the menu options at The Crown in Indianola are a number of catfish dishes, including a po-boy, catfish cakes, and poached catfish finished with toasted Parmesan cheese and green onion sauce. Photo courtesy Visit Mississippi

Seeing the creativity many regional chefs put into even commonplace food items was a revelation—catfish being a case in point. Yes, you’ll find it fried or blackened, but you’ll also find it in the form of a smoked catfish paté appetizer or in a dish like Catfish Allison (poached catfish fillets baked au gratin with Parmesan, butter, and green onion sauce)—both of which are delicacies served at The Crown in Indianola.

Diners enjoying burgers and chili fries at Abe’s Bar-B-Q.

Abe’s Bar-B-Q in Clarksdale has been serving up succulent smoked meats for nearly 100 years. Photo courtesy Visit Mississippi

Likewise, many establishments put their own spin on good old Southern barbecue. My favorite was Abe’s Bar-B-Q in Clarksdale, soon to celebrate its centennial in 2024. The meat here is smoked and then chilled overnight before it’s chopped and reheated on the griddle with a house-made sauce.

Freshly set table inside Café Anchuca.

Enjoy an elegant dining experience at Café Anchuca, an antebellum mansion in Vicksburg that’s now a bed-and-breakfast. Photo courtesy Anchuca Historic Mansion and Inn

I loved the sheer variety of restaurants. At fine-dining places like Fan and Johnny’s in Greenwood, which is open only on weekdays, I sampled a special of toasted ravioli stuffed with crawfish. In my jeans and T-shirt, I stood out in a place where even the children were dressed to the nines.

Likewise, dining at Vicksburg’s Café Anchuca, housed in an antebellum mansion that’s now a bed-and-breakfast, is an occasion with a menu featuring filet mignon and elevated shrimp-and-grits.

But more commonly, I found rustic and modest establishments. At the funky Blue Biscuit in Indianola, mounted deer heads bedecked with Mardi Gras beads and Christmas lights adorn the walls. Mud-spattered trucks fill the parking lot at Fratesi’s Grocery & Service Station outside Leland, while the ball-capped clientele inside dine on world-class muffulettas prepared at the deli counter.

Employee holding up a meringue pie, the Crystal Grill sign in the background.

Enjoy “mile-high” meringue pies at Greenwood’s Crystal Grill, which has been recognized by the Food Network. Photo courtesy Greenwood CVB

To finish off a meal, lemon icebox pies are a local delicacy. A great place I found to try a slice is Greenwood’s Crystal Grill. The Food Network concurs, giving top marks to this dessert destination that’s famous for its “mile-high” meringue pies.

I will surely return to the region one day to sate my senses even more. I still want to try the tomato sandwiches that are a specialty in Vicksburg and to check out the Blue Front Café in Bentonia, one of the last remaining juke joints. One thing’s for certain: If I don’t get back to the Delta soon, you’ll hear me singing the blues.

Rich Warren is a freelance writer from Columbus, Ohio.

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